So you want to be a writer. A professional, paid writer. Assuming you know roughly what you want to be paid, the next step is actually asking for money. In a world where $0 for words appears to be the default rate, this is no easy task. Tiered systems, where more experienced or prestigious writers command a different rate, complicate things further.
Your first step should be to find out if the publication (or organisation) pays at all. Publications will generally state on their website whether they pay and how much they pay. If they don’t, basic research skills (ie a decent search engine) and some careful questions sent through your network should tell you. There are also some great resources such as the Emerging Writers’ Festival and Hey Pay Up that can give you an indication of whether a publication pays and if so, how much (or the range).
The rest of this post will cover:
- How to ask for payment
- Rejecting unpaid work
- Upping your rate
Asking for it
I once went to a talk featuring journalist Wendy Bacon who says she always has the money conversation as early as possible, which generally meant at the pitching stage. I personally don’t think this is necessary if you know that the publication does pay in the range you’re happy with and prefer to bring up rates once the editor has accepted the pitch.
Most publications will have a commission document that contains the brief, deadline, copyright stuff and payment details (including the rate and perhaps how to invoice). If not, I will usually send a reply email that confirms the scope of the work and the deadline and then throw in something along the lines of: “Would you mind confirming the rate?”
If you know what they pay, you can write something like: “I understand you pay ##c/word, can you confirm this is the rate?”
Not sure whether the publication pays? It may be wise to take Bacon’s lead and pitch your idea with all the charm you need to get the editor interested, then mention money in the same correspondence. Bring in your research at this point just to make them understand that they’re not dealing with a chump. A line like: “I’ve had a look at your submission criteria but it doesn’t mention your rates, do you mind letting me know how much you pay?” could work here.
Rejecting unpaid work
Say the editor comes back with “actually we don’t pay”; if you feel you can get paid elsewhere, gracefully withdraw your pitch and pitch elsewhere. “Thanks for considering this article, unfortunately I’m going to need to withdraw my pitch.” You can soften and personalise the withdrawal any way you like; trust me, most editors wish they could pay/pay more and they understand you need to make a living. Don’t be nasty, though, because one day they may receive a budget or edit another publication that does pay so it’s not a good idea to get into the bad books.
If you are approached to write something for a publication and it turns out they meant ‘be a word slave’, allow yourself to be flattered for a moment (after all, they chose you over all those other potential word slaves) and then work out if you want to do it for free or not.
Not? Don’t feel bad about being direct. Freelancer Benjamin Law once recalled being approached to emcee an association awards night pro bono. He wrote back something like: “Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately I need to prioritise paid work at this time so am unable to accept your invitation.” The funny part was the association came back and then offered to pay him. So sometimes editors or organisations may just be fishing for free content but may be willing to pay the right person.
Getting a pay rise
Of all the money conversations, I have the most difficulty with the one asking for a pay rise ie upping my rate.
With freelance budgets getting tighter and publications turning to pulp left, right and centre, you’re never going to be offered a higher word rate without asking. In many cases you get what you’re given and there’s no room for movement. Still, even though things are pretty cutthroat out there, it’s sometimes worth asking the question, particularly if you have a good relationship with your editor and if you know there’s a rate range and you haven’t yet reached the upper tier.
As with any pay rise negotiation, know what your value is to the organisation. Do you turn around a story quickly? Do you have expert contacts that no one else does? Is your copy so squeaky clean editors save time on the proofing stage? Build a case and find out whether a raise is possible. If yes, keep in mind two figures: what you want and what you’re prepared to accept (which may be what you’re already getting).
Also consider other non-monetary perks you might be able to angle for in lieu of a raise if there’s no budget to meet your asking price: do you want first dibs at certain stories? Can you renegotiate resell rights? Does the editor have contacts s/he can introduce you to where you might get more or more lucrative work?
Remember: If the publication can pay, it should pay. Never ever do the work or invoice an editor without discussing money and rates first. Good luck.