Notes From a Hired Pen

Ask for the fee, and ask early

Earlier this week, the editor of a well known regional (but not to my region) magazine emailed me, asking if I’d be interested in writing a hotel guide for their magazine’s website.

I didn’t have high hopes. Through my writer network and the American Society of Journalists and Authors¬†marketplace database (where members anonymously submit info about what it’s like to work for specific publications), I knew that the magazine didn’t have a history of paying their writers well.

But I answered his email like I would any other: I asked for deadline, scope and fee up front.

The fee wasn’t clear in his first response, so I asked for a clarification. It ended up being far below what I would normally accept (less than $.10/word and payment net 90), so I declined.

I know freelancers who are scared to ask about the fee – even after they’ve accepted the assignment. That’s silly. First, you need to know what an assignment would pay before you can accept. How can you make a decision otherwise? Second, by asking about the fee and scope up front, you can save yourself and the editor time and frustration of going through all the nitty gritty details only for you to realize that they pay less than you feel the work is worth.

This about it this way: would a painter agree to do your living room before you discussed a fee? No. Be the painter. Ask for the fee up front.

By the way, less than $.10/word paid net 90 – which means I’d make peanuts and not see said peanuts for until THANKSGIVING – is deplorable. That’s below what I think ANY freelancer should take, regardless of experience.

The sad thing is? Someone’s going to accept this assignment.¬†Don’t let that be you. You’re better of spending time finding clients who will pay you a fair wage for your work.

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2 Responses to “Ask for the fee, and ask early”

  1. Angus says:

    Hear hear. Working for buttons – or worse, working for free, which an increasing number of outlets seem to expect freelances to do, claiming that the “visibility” and “exposure” and “profile” will be payment enough, as if we were performing seals happy to bask in the glow of applause (and forgetting that someone usually throws those seals some food) – isn’t just bad for you as an individual, it makes every freelance’s life harder, because it encourages publishers to believe that they can keep on cutting the budgets without lowering standards. It’s a hard argument to make, though, particularly for an experienced freelance to argue it with someone starting out. Their attitude (and I’ve had the conversation many times) is often along the lines of, “Well, it’s OK for you to say that, you’ve already got plenty of bylined pieces and you don’t need the experience, plus you’re earning a certain amount and I need every penny I can get.” It’s an understandable reaction but it’s deeply problematic, and mostly for the person accepting the low-paid work: how will they ever be able to convince that client to pay them more, once they’ve been happy to do good work for poor pay? And if having the byline in that title has any value, it’ll be because the freelance intends to include that piece in clippings or links they’ll send to editors at better-paying titles – who will, of course, be aware that the rate was low, and might well seek to make their own, doubtless ever-shrinking, freelance budgets go further by offering this keen newcomer a lower rate than the one they’d generally pay people, knowing that they may well accept it.

    All that said, it’s one of the worst things about journalism that the freelance doesn’t get to set their own price and charge it to any and all clients. The example of the painter is a good one, but falls down on that point – the painter wouldn’t expect to charge less to paint a room in a house belonging to a low-paid manual worker than they would to paint a room of the same dimensions in a house that belonged to a millionaire: they would have a rate that they set based on the time it took them to do the job and the materials they used in doing it. Journalism appears to be pretty much the only profession I’ve come across where the fee is set by the client, not by the supplier.



  2. says:

    Angus – You raise many good points, some of which I’ll touch on in the future (especially the do not write for free one).

    I think about discounting this way: I never ever buy anything for full price at the GAP because their stuff always goes on sale. Why would an outlet ever pay a writer full price if they know he or she is so ready to discount?

    Your last point is why this business is so hard to describe to other people, and why I do so much corporate work where I set the rates and the pay schedules.

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