One of the most frequently asked questions I receive from freelancers or those new to freelancing is, “What should I charge?” or “What should I be paid?”
The short answer to this question is, “It depends.”
I’m not being flippant. There are so many things that determine the type of payment you can expect from freelancing — assignment, publication, geographic market, level of experience, specific expertise. Quite frankly, that’s what keeps most of us on our toes. We expect to get paid fairly (and timely, which is a whole other column), but we often have no idea what that means.
While I don’t have the golden answers you seek, I will attempt to provide some loose guidelines on how pay is determined.
The first is that in many cases pay is not determined by you; rather, it is set by the publication for which you are writing. For example, many newspapers and magazines will say they pay a flat $500 for a 1,000-word feature. Some magazines will say that cover stories, regardless of length, are $1,500. However, if you’ve been writing for a certain editor and publication for a while and consistently deliver quality material on time, it is not unreasonable to ask for a bit more in pay. If the editor values your work –and if the financial picture is not bleak — they will honor your request.
Newspapers often pay less than magazines, perhaps $350 for a 600-word feature. But there are tradeoffs in freelancing just as there are in life.
When you accept an assignment for a 600-word feature story for $350 in a big-city newspaper, you have to remember the audience. Many metropolitan dailies have circulation in the six figures. Think about it: That’s a lot of people seeing your work.
And it can lead to more (and better-paying) work. In my own experience, exposure in the daily newspaper has been a good way for others to see the range of my work. That’s worth a lot as I try to build my portfolio toward national markets.
There may be some projects you accept not for the money, but simply because the subject matter moves you. However, you’ll need to temper those assignments with more lucrative work.
I spent a good deal of time on a piece for an online community news site, following the story of a Muslim mother of three who was being deported, leaving behind her three American-born children. I wasn’t getting paid much for the story, but I didn’t really mind. It was one of the most compelling pieces I’ve ever worked on. To his credit, the editor recognized the time and work I spent on the piece and paid me slightly more than our agreed-upon fee. I hadn’t asked for the money, but the fact that he appreciated the time I spent, and offered the compensation, has solidified our working relationship.
One of the things I’ve always wanted to do was write book reviews. (Could there be anything better than reading good books and getting paid for it?) I met the book editor at my town’s daily newspaper at a writer’s conference this past spring and had a nice conversation with her about what she needs in reviews.
Here’s an important lesson: No amount of e-mails and phone calls can substitute for the impact of meeting with editors face to face. We were chatting, and I mentioned that I was working on a profile of an author who had Cleveland ties. She expressed interest in the story, and by the next week I had an assignment. I spent a lot of time getting the article in top shape and also got photos for the editor (since the author now lives in Florida).
It was an important lesson in becoming a problem-solver for editors. We have what they need — story ideas, contacts, access to photos, etc. — and our job is to make their lives easier by providing good quality stories without hassling them. That will pay off for you in terms of more assignments and possibly larger fees.
The story ran, and not two weeks later, the editor sent me an e-mail asking if I would be interested in reviewing self-help books for the lifestyles editor. So now I review a book a week, getting paid a flat rate each month. The reviews are short, only 275 words, but I’ve found it’s a good exercise in concise writing. And I’m having fun!
Many magazines, particularly those with a national circulation, will pay by the word. If you’re getting paid $1 per word, that’s a very good fee. There are those who pay more, but many smaller markets will pay half that or less. You have to determine how much you’re willing to accept. There are other factors to consider.
One writer of a dad’s column for a local parenting magazine spends a lot of time on his piece for little money, but I also know that he’s trying to syndicate the column to other parenting magazines. It’s worth his time because of the future payoff.
So how do you know what magazines are paying? I’d recommend you subscribe to Writer’s Market Online (www.writersmarket.com). This tool is the best way to determine who’s buying what, who’s paying what, and how they accept queries and submissions, which is a big sticking point for magazine editors.
There’s a published version of Writer’s Market, but I wouldn’t spend the money on the book. For $29.99 a year, the online version gives you the latest contacts and information and even provides a tool for tracking your submissions. There are other online market tools, such as Absolute Write (www.absolutewrite.com), which seem to cater more toward fiction and other creative forms. However, I’ve found Writer’s Market to be the best of the bunch.
There are all manner of projects that simply don’t fit the “per story” or “per word” fees described above. Some are projects that charge an hourly or day rate. Hourly rates can range from $25 per hour to $125 per hour and up, depending on experience, geography and project (for profit or nonprofit). Do some research in your market before setting an hourly rate. Talk to other writers and find out what they charge, what their level of experience is and whether or not they are getting work at that rate.
Many freelancers I know, myself included, don’t refer to themselves as freelancers or freelance journalists, but simply as writers and/or editors. The very definition of a freelancer is a person who works without a long-term commitment to an employer.
That’s a very narrow view in my mind. We have a long-term commitment to ourselves as employer — and to be able to pay our mortgages along the way.
Wendy Hoke is a Cleveland-based writer/editor covering business, education, lifestyle and personality profiles. She is immediate past president of the SPJ Cleveland Professional Chapter and writes about the creative life at www.creativeink.blogspot.com. Reach her at email@example.com.
Tagged under: Freelancing