how much are freelancers paid?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

A friend recently asked me what the going rate is for a freelance article. Specifically, she said, "I have no idea how writers are paid or what I should look for."

And the more I thought about her question, the more my own sweeping ignorance became apparent. I've been in this business quite a while, but there's no way in Hell you could give me a summary of your article and whom you're submitting it to, and expect me to estimate how much they'd be willing to pay.

But I kinda feel like I should...

Anyway, it's a really good question, and while I can't give a ironclad answer, there are a few things I do know...

First off, there's not really a set rate that everyone in the publishing industry agrees upon; payment depends on the publication.

However, most publications (at least in my experience) base their payments on a few things:

1) Circulation, circulation, circulation. If the pub has a large circulation, you should expect more; a nationwide magazine obviously is going to pay more than a local newsletter. The more people read the magazine, the more money the magazine has to spend on writers. To give you an idea, one of our magazines has a subscribership of 30,000+; for a 2,000-word article, we'd pay around $400--that's a pretty good deal.

2) Length of article. Most articles don't run more than 2,500 words; if they do, they're probably a feature (though not all features have to be that long), which usually pays more. Low-end pay for a 2,500 article is $100--and that's very, very low end. I doubt they want more than 2,500, but if you're not getting at least $100 for it--regardless of their readership--I suggest you don't do it.

3) Freelance versus staff. Staff writers are generally paid more--with our magazines it's usually $50-$150 more per article, so it's nothing ungodly--conversely, the grand-daddy of all writing gigs--working for The New Yorker--netted author Dan Baum $90,000 a year for 30,000 words--I understand that's their standard.

I can't speak for everyone, but with our magazines, we pay more to staff because we can count on them to consistently deliver content. That's a big plus. In fact, about 90% of our content is provided by on-staff writers. That's not to say we don't take many freelance submissions, because we do, but you can't always rely on freelancers to meet deadlines as much as you can staff. That's also why a lot of magazines will publish articles by the same freelancers--even if they're not as good as your article--we've worked with them before, and we can trust them.

Likewise, some staffed writers are contracted to write exclusively for one publication. Obviously, if you don't want them writing for anyone else, you have to sweeten the pot--quite a bit. But exclusivity clauses are generally not the case with most publications--usually just big-name magazines. Newspapers, I don't know.

4) Nature of the article. Technical writers are usually paid more than generalized writers--so if you're doing research for your piece or writing from a specialized field (such as giving medical, financial, legal advice), you'll likely be paid more than the opinion columnist. That's not set in stone, and the difference may be negligible, but it's worth mentioning.

5) Print versus web-based. Print pays much more. At least for now. The reason is a lot of publishers are still tinkering around with sustainable Web-based income. With print magazines (hard-copies), you pretty much have two revenue streams: subscriptions and advertisements. We make our money from subscriptions--though that's not the case with a lot of magazines.

For one, a one-year subscription pretty much guarantees us a specific amount of money for a specific period of time. Knowing that makes it much, much easier for the accountants and gives us a concrete circulation number we can then present to a potential advertiser.

Other magazines, especially ones with outrageous circulations like People make their money from advertisements. They can do it because they have a circulation of around 3.75 million, their paper quality is low, they're a weekly periodical, and, last I checked, the going rate for a 4-color full-page ad is about a quarter million. That said, pick up any copy of People and about thirty Subscribe Now! fliers will fall out.

They're already making a killing on ads, why would they want you to subscribe? Probably for the same reasons I listed above, but I suspect they also don't want you reading anything else: You only have so much time in the day to sit down and read something, and when you're a subscriber you feel a bit obligated to use that time reading the thing you subscribed to. So I think it's a way of keeping the competition down. Granted I don't have any evidence for that, but it seems right.

Now, the income from Web-based publications is mostly (if not totally) based on ads. When the Web was young, a lot of publishers tried to go with a subscription model and very soon found themselves out of business. If you do a Google search for...anything, you'll see why: There's a lot more competition, and most of it you can get for free. Not only that, but a lot of the competition is from blogs, whose posts tend to be much shorter than a full- or even medium-length article.

That puts Web-based freelancers and publishers in a Catch-22--the publisher's not going to pay 100 or so dollars for a freelancer to write a few sentences, and the readers are less likely to spend time going over an entire article when they can get the main idea from a few short blog posts.

Long story short, publishers don't make much from Web-based articles, so don't expect to be paid much for them.