Friday, January 23, 2015

On Being Paid Fairly as a Freelancer

Now we come to the pink elephant in the room for many writers and freelancers:


People ask me frequently, "How much do you charge? How do you know how much to charge? Would you take work from someone who only provides a byline and no pay? Would you take work from someone whose 'payment' is copies of the magazine where my article appears?"

Before we dive in, if you want to skip past all of my rhetoric to the bottom line, the bottom line is this:

Join the National Writers' Union, and you'll get great guidance on the fair amount of money to charge, as well as the heads-up on any unscrupulous publisher, editor, publication or Web site of which to steer clear. The NWU's dues are on a sliding scale, depending on your tax returns as a writer from the previous year. So if you're new to this game, you're looking at a nominal fee for their help, and if you're not new to this game, let me assure you that they're worth every red cent.

Now if you want my personal take (why I charge what I charge, and why I think it's important to charge for your work) ... keep reading.

Let's start with the obvious ... the question of publications that are "doing you a favor" by "giving you a byline" in their publication "with thousands of readers" and "the recognition you need for your resume" and "the public spotlight on your name."

Payment of a "byline," or payment by sending you copies of the magazine in which your article is printed is not payment. It's slave labor. And if you work for one of these whorehouses, you are selling the rest of us down the river (those of us who are professional writers and depend on our craft to pay the bills). If you'd like a list of these places to avoid, just join NWU.

The same goes for publications that offer you any less than 30 cents per word for your work.

Here's why:

Do you realize that not everyone can put two words together on paper? Do you realize that most people make so many grammatical errors, that even my 6th grader can eyeball them on the Internet? I had one client who sent me her "notes" for ghost writing under her name, and they were nothing but scattered thoughts ... usually incomplete sentences .... and always riddled with grammatical errors .... FROM HER CELL PHONE, sometimes in a short text. This person could not even find time to sit down at a computer and write an email. I had to assemble her thoughts by talking to her on the phone, because there were no "notes" to be had with which to construct her book.

Do you also realize that most people diminish your value as a writer by thinking they can do what you can do? They assume that they can pay you a pittance, because you really aren't worth that much. You will be satisfied with your "name in lights," as it were. And they think they can pull off what you can pull off. But because they "don't have the time," they ask you to do their work for them. The truth is that they have no idea how to put together meaningful prose that will interest a wide readership.

OK, still not convinced? Let's take a couple of examples from other professions. I'm not claiming that my work is as important as these people's work, but you'll see where I'm going. Just stick with me.


You wake up with a high fever, shortness of breath and a gouging pain in your right side that's so bad that you start praying for death. You pass out and wake up again, and now you're on the floor next to your bed, and your dog is standing over you licking your face.

So now. Choose one. You:

1. Call your best friend on the phone and ask them what they think it is.

2. Try to solve the problem by swigging down some Mylanta and Tylenol.

3. Call 911 and get yourself to the nearest hospital.

I'm wagering it's number 3. You're going to go to the place that has the people who have been trained to solve the problem. You want a surgeon, not a physician's assistant, and not even a registered nurse. You're not going to gamble your life with someone who says they've been reading up on and think that you might have the latest flu bug, are you?

Let's take another situation.


You're falsely accused of a serious crime and are looking at prison time, maybe more than a couple of decades. Choose one. You:

1. Call your cousin who is a paralegal and ask him if he thinks this is something you can beat with a public defender.

2. Represent yourself.

3. Cash out your retirement accounts to hire the best lawyer you can afford.

My guess is .... #3.

Now let's look at the lowly writer. Heck, let's just use me for an example. And this situation happens to me all of the time ... An editor will call and say, "Can you do a last-minute assignment? I just had somebody drop out." (Translation: "I hired somebody who had less experience than you do so that I wouldn't have to pay more than 50 cents a word, and they flaked out, and now I have space to fill in my magazine. Oh. And my deadline was yesterday.")

Why do they call me? At the risk of sounding like I'm bragging, let's run through the reasons:

1. They know I can turn around accurate copy, and I can do it quickly. I have 25 years of experience under my belt, 12 of which were in the mainstream newsrooms, and five of which were with The Associated Press. I am accustomed to dealing with deadlines that were "five minutes ago." I have a wide network of news sources and a wider network of PR people who can connect me with sources. I can do the reporting on a story within 1 day and, if I have to, write it that same day. (That's rare now that I no longer work for daily publications, but it's definitely a skill in my toolbox.)

2. They know I have experience unearthing unusual details to give the story edginess. I know how to ask questions. I know how to interview people to get to the heart of the issue. I know how to find the hard-to-uncover truths, because, again, I have experience.

3. They know my copy will be clean. Unless we have a miscommunication about the editor's desired angle, there is a rarely a time when I have to do any rewrites. Editors can take my raw copy and pretty much print it, verbatim. Fact checks come back clean, and if there are discrepancies, it's because the source usually has second thoughts about their quote once they see it in black and white.

4. They know I'm honest. I don't make things up. I don't take people out of context. I don't rush a job. I don't turn in substandard copy to make a quick buck. I am available day and night, for any question, any edit.

5. They know that if I have an emergency, I'll still get the work done. Remember the story earlier about waking up with a gouging pain in your right side? OK, well that happened to me in September 2013, and I had to have emergency surgery. AND, I had a story that was due in four days. I spent the day at the hospital, went under the knife and was released at 11:30 p.m. The next morning, I called my editors and explained what had happened. They told me I could have extra time to finish the story. But you know what I did? I rested for 24 hours, and then the NEXT morning, I wrote that sucker from bed while my mother brought me mugs of tea and chicken soup.

Sorry if I sound like a street-wise teenager, but I don't mess around when it comes to my deadlines. And the editors know that.

Now I don't have any qualms charging what I charge. I am very confident in my work, and I am not shy about letting a client go if that client 1) acts like my work is substandard (because it isn't) and 2) acts like I'm not worth what they're paying me and 3) gives me all kinds of reasons why their pay scale is so low.

If you are working for someone who is short-changing you on payment, they are probably treating you very badly. Anyone for whom I ever worked who paid me on the low side of the scale ALSO was very manipulative, very unappreciative, very demanding, very difficult to please, very full of their own opinion of their own ability to "write."

Conversely, people who have paid me well treat me well and love my work.

It's not worth it for you to spend time with the bloodsuckers. Cut yourself a break and cut them loose. Work for people who will pay you what you're worth and treat you with the professionalism that you deserve.

Now what if you're really a "physician's assistant" and not a "surgeon?" What I mean is, what if you're fresh out of school, jumping into writing from another profession, etc.?

You still have the right to expect fair payment for your work.

Do a personal assessment. How much would you pay you?

How much do you really think you bring to the table? Get a number in your head and then inflate that by another 30 cents per word. That's how much you should be charging. The reason I can assert this is that it goes back to the original issue: Most people can't write. Most people are paying you to do what THEY CAN'T DO. Don't let those people -- those who would underpay you or not pay you enough -- treat you like they're doing you any favors.

You're doing them a favor by giving them the words they don't have.

Do yourself a favor and demand that they treat you fairly.