A couple of years ago I was approached by a woman who was looking for freelancers for a new magazine. We talked at length about the magazine’s target reader and the tone it was going to take. I even ventured a couple of story ideas, which she liked. Then we finally got around to talking about money. She told me what she was paying and asked me if that was in my ballpark.
I was so surprised that I blurted out: “Not only is that not in my ballpark, it’s not even in my state!”
Needless to say, she never called again.
I’ve learned to broach the subject of fees a lot earlier in discussions with potential clients, to avoid wasting my time and theirs. This has become even more important with the proliferation of websites that pay would-be writers nil or pennies per hit just to blather on about a given topic. This has given some inexperienced publishers the impression that writers are, quite literally, a dime a dozen. Would-be, novice writers are. Professional journalists are not.
Freelance pay rates have always been a tricky equation for both editor and writer. I know because I’ve spent more than half of my career as an editor. I know how hard it is to find and hire good, reliable writers but stay within a limited (and these days continually shrinking) budget. I also know how valuable a good freelancer can be.
Most editors need freelancers who can do more than just write well, although that’s the first prerequisite. Writers must be able to follow specific directions. They also need to be able to do the opposite: work with vague, general assignments from editors who either don’t know what they want or are not very good at communicating it. Freelancers need the background and experience to know how to report a story and to be able to shift gears (in consultation with the editor, of course) if the information doesn’t fit with the original notion (if there was one). Finally, freelance writers must be able to meet deadlines, take criticism (constructive or not) and be willing to revise a story if it doesn’t hit the mark.
Editors that try to get by with paying the lowest fees won’t get all, or any, of the above. They will typically spend so much time trying to manage the writer and then editing, revising and even rewriting the article that it costs them twice what it would have if they paid a good writer a fair wage. Most editors, including myself, know this. And that’s why good writers, including myself, will want to know upfront if the assignment is going to pay enough to be worth their time.