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Underpaid. Overworked. In virtual slavery to a corrupt, greedy employer. Chances are, if you picture a mill or sweatshop, you’re thinking of a dingy warehouse. Maybe you see sweaty, drab women in early twentieth century clothing, squinting down at their task in poor lighting, or a huddle of scared, barely clothed children, eyeing their overseer fearfully. The products they pump out are flimsy and cheap, but they still manage to undercut the market.

You’re thinking knock-offs, cheap garments, “Made in China”–but I’m thinking about the Amazon Kindle e-bookstore. Now, scary sweatshops of the type that first comes to mind are, sadly, still a problem, especially in impoverished countries. But there’s a nefarious side of the romantica (and e-book in general) market that looks a whole lot different but behaves very similarly.

In the romantica mill, we’re also hungry and desperate. But we’re sitting at home behind a laptop, wearing our pajamas and wondering if we can scrape up enough money to buy a plain coffee and sit at Starbucks as we write. Sure, it’s very much a ‘first world’ incarnation of this problem, but it still sucks. It sucks hard–and it’s hurting you even if you aren’t caught up in it.

I started writing because I love it. When I first set pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, it was because there were characters thumping at the door of my brain, begging to get out, or a little snippet of a scene that was going to play on repeat until I set it free. But then I graduated college and discovered nobody was looking to pay my student loans, my rent, or my grocery bill for me.

I published my novella, Nothing Wagered, Nothing Gained, with the same hope that any first-time writer has. “It’s good!” I told my boyfriend. “I read some of the other stuff out there, and mine’s better–and cheaper! And I didn’t even format it in that manipulative three-part cliffhanger way.” I waited for sales to come pouring in, for grateful readers to notice I wasn’t trying to wring extra money out of them, but of course they didn’t.

Desperate to make the rent, I stumbled across a freelance website, Elance.com. I remember thinking, “People pay for freelance creative writing? For what kind of jobs?” The first posting I saw was someone seeking a ghostwriter for a romance novel. Naively, I thought I had chanced across a rare opportunity particularly suited to my skill-set. I envisioned ghostwriting as the sort of thing that happens for memoirs, where a person has a whole story they want to tell but lacks the writing skill to make it flow.

The Realities of Ghostwriting

That first listing held up. The employer sent me a detailed storyline, character names and plot included, and I polished it into a well-written short story. It felt like helping, and best of all, it paid for some groceries.

‘Invitations’ for romance and erotica ghostwriting jobs started to trickle in, but to my dismay, the market was a lot nastier than I had envisioned. These people have no creative vision. They don’t care if your writing is good, only if it’s passable. Their rates ranged from barely tolerable (around $75 for a 7,000 word story) to absurd ($10 for a novella). I quickly discovered that I wasn’t even dealing with one person, but rather, the front of some sort of ‘company’ that contracts hundreds of underpaid writers.

Listings look like this:

“We are looking for multiple ghostwriters to create three (3) short stories of around 2,000 words each. Stories DO NOT have to be related. The Works should focus on multiple scenes of strong intimacy, sexual situations, and lovemaking. They are intended for mature audiences.” Fixed price: $30 total

“I am looking for a ghostwriter who can do about 10-15k novella in the Romance niche. I am open to any suggestions, including Romance/Crime, Romance/Suspense ect. Please only native writers in the US or Canada. Ongoing if work is good.” Fixed price: $60 per story

Each of them gets between 30 and 50 applicants, normally.

The clients work as unofficial publishers, setting up a myriad of pen-names, contracting cover artists and formatters and authors and underpaying them all. They use their collected resources to market more aggressively and effectively than you or I can while we juggle writing and marketing, and they supersaturate the ebook market with their titles, knowing they only need a few sales off each listing to return a profit. (The total expenditure of my employer on Elance is around $12,000, which correlates by my estimate to somewhere around 100 short stories and novellas.) Worst of all, they give the entire marketplace a reputation for manipulative pricing and mediocrity, because they have no passion or investment in their stories.

My Walk on the Dark Side

I was hired by a woman known only to me as Ann.

She contracted me and two other writers. When I asked what storylines I had in mind, she linked me to a list of “Top Ten Female Fantasies” and told me to take my pick.  The first three stories just seemed like paying the rent, but I started to wonder what was happening to the works. Was Ann publishing them under her name? How many successful titles on Amazon were ghostwritten? Was I ghostwriting for my own competition?

I asked if she needed final edits, and was told “Our team will handle editing and formatting.” Who was “our team”? Next, she asked me to design an outline for a potential novella. My heart said no, knowing this had to be undercutting my own market, but my head told me rent was due soon and I hadn’t got any interviews from other jobs I’d applied for. I spent an hour writing up an outline and felt invested in the characters by the end.

Her response? “Let’s spice this up a little.” She went on to essentially tell me that, instead of a unique storyline with realistic characters, she was thinking something along the lines of almost the exact storyline of 50 Shades of Grey, but rapier.

At this point, my moral conscience starting protesting alongside my business-sense–but these people would give me money for my writing. The Kindle customers sure weren’t doing that, and a constant cry in the back of my head was chanting “Rent! Food! Rent! Food!”

I started writing. Mid-story, she asked if I “did rewrites?” What the hell are rewrites? I thought. “Sure,” I said. “Let me know the length and I can give you a quote.” I was picturing something with terrible grammar but a good plotline, but she sent me a fully-functional (if dull) novella.

“It can’t be recognizable, because we’ve already used this one, but I’d like the keep the same dynamic between the characters.” (A housewife and a very racist-ly depicted landscaper, if you’re interested.) My suspicions grew even stronger, and I was determined to identify the mysterious “we.”

I had a title and character names, so I set off to Google. There were not one, but two listings of the book on the Kindle ebook store. One used the title I’d been given, while the other had a different title but was identical. (It was also being sold chapter by chapter at 0.99 apiece–not a strategy I recommend.) Each listed author had published only that work. I was no closer to finding “we,” but I realized I was dead in the middle of some kind of plagiarism.

But my compunctions couldn’t matter. It was irrelevant that I was doing something I was morally opposed to, that I was draining my creative impetus dry every day doing work I didn’t care about. It didn’t matter that I was not only bored, but actively frustrated and rolling my eyes while writing scenes that were supposed to be breath-taking and erotic. I had to make rent.

Even if my own ebooks sell successfully, that income doesn’t come in a lump sum. It doesn’t have a schedule, and it doesn’t care about when rent is due or when the fridge is empty. So until those much dreamed of sales start pouring in, I’ll be sitting here eating ramen and writing crappy unoriginal smut–and I’ll be undercutting not only your sales but my own as well. I’ll also be wishing, perversely, that my writing won’t sell, because I don’t want those bastards making any profit off me.


Update: So only a few days after this, the depressing turned to the almost-hilariously-absurd. I’m midway through the fifty shades ripoff. Ann contacted me, telling me they’d “decided to change directions” and that I should “continue with the novella and current storyline, but make it shifter [aka werewolf] centered.” My creative muses are having hysterical breakdowns.