In the crystal ball gazing that inevitably takes up many end of the year publishing round ups, I have yet to see any that have referenced the impact of the proposed merger between oDesk and Elance.
These major online hubs for freelance talent represent all the speed, disruption, value and scalability associated with other VC darlings of the last few years. Between them oDesk and Elance have raised well over $100 million in investment. Both sites emphasise quick access to hundreds of thousands of suppliers, either freelancers or moonlighters. And both emphasise the word 'quality'. Now, the two are looking to create one mega-marketplace; a supertanker of freelance services.
On the face of it, the stats are eye watering. 10 million workers across 180 countries with combined billings of $750 million this year alone. And in amongst all the inevitable talk of synergies and brand equity, there are some ambitious aspirations. The new company aims to be 'the workplace for the world'. By combining their resources, they believe they have a shot at 'building a business on the scale of Amazon or Linkedin or iTunes'. It will mean more data and faster matches. It will mean significant accelerated growth and real head to head competition with Freelancer.com and larger global agencies.
Why is this relevant to UK publishing? Because in 2014, the only thing that is certain is that there will be more uncertainty as old models and structures shift and mutate into viable ways of doing business, whether you are a traditional publisher, retailer, literary agent, published or unpublished writer. And with that uncertainty comes a recognition that there will have to be a greater emphasis on contracting directly with external suppliers, on outsourcing. For some, this is about variable costs versus fixed costs. For others it is about taking greater control or accessing new skill sets for an evolving industry. For everyone, it is about getting something actually done without having another body on the payroll. Meanwhile, the ranks of freelancing publishing specialists will continue to be swelled by those who've been deemed surplus to requirements, the experienced professionals who discover there are precious few permanent salaried opportunities that represent an equivalent to their old status.
So here is where it gets interesting. Because from our perspective (admittedly that of a UK-centric, much smaller freelance curated marketplace) the real tension in the coming years is not between the new and old models, but between different versions of the new model. That there will be a greater migration to transactional online service platforms seems inevitable, whatever the industry. But how do you guarantee a quality service and the scale required by investors? Back to those stats mentioned earlier. By any estimation, there will be an awful lot of people earning nothing or only tiny amounts who have signed up and posted their details looking for work. And how do you know whether you should be paying someone $3.00 or $20.00 an hour? Moreover, say you are looking for a book editor. Begin your search now and see how quickly you are pointed in the direction of translators and web designers; all possibly wonderful, talented people. But not book editors.
In our experience, more and more creative people are choosing a way of working which affords them variety, flexibility and the sort of stimulation large corporate machines find it hard to deliver. But good creative people also know their own worth. And there remains a value in understanding who are the right people for the right job.
In the mean time, we will watch out for how many million hours have been billed on the biggest global sites. Which just makes me think of those McDonald's drive-thrus that say '99 Billion Served', even when they have sold many more, but where they only had space on the sign for two digits.
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