Mark Terry

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Freelance Writing For A Living, Part 7

February 6, 2008

Today we're talking money.

If you're writing for magazines, you're typically paid per word. Rates are all over the board. When you get started, 10 cents a word would not be unusual, but making a living at that rate might be impossible. My highest rate per word to-date has been $1 a word, which was wonderful.

These rates tend to be semi-locked-in by the magazine publisher. They might have a range and you can always ask for more (when you agree to the assignment, not at the end), but unless you get into higher-end markets, there's not a lot of flexibility there. From time-to-time I will write something these days for 25 cents a word, but really, I'm to a point in my career where the minimum needs to be around 40 cents or 50 cents and 80 or 85 cents is even better. There are some writers on the Freelance Success website that apparently write for publications that pay $3 or $4 per word. I don't know what they are, but I'm impressed.

If you find yourself writing for the higher-end consumer mags--Esquire, New Yorker, Cosmopolitan, Redbook, etc--well, congratulations. I'm envious. Here's where things get a little tricky and where my experience is basically zero. They generally offer contracts and they are offering to buy certain rights from you. You want to limit these rights... or... get a lot of money for them. For instance, you agree to $X per word to them for first American rights. That basically means the magazine can publish your magazine article once. At the end of a specific period of time, you can then turn around and sell the same magazine article to someone else, like Reader's Digest, or whoever. I haven't done this at all because the majority of the types of articles I write don't lend themselves to reprints, and the publications I typically work with don't offer contracts of that type. THEY OWN ALL RIGHTS. This is, essentially, a work-for-hire situation, which I will get to in a moment. Just so you know, if you ARE writing these types of materials, I know of at least one writer who makes about $4000 a year just from selling reprints of her articles. And the only thing she has to do for that money is shop around material she's already written.

If you're writing for newspapers, they typically work on a specific dollar amount per column inch or sometimes per word, or, to save yourself from going crazy, tell them you'll do a certain article for $150 or whatever they'll let out of their greedy little hands.

Work For Hire, as I mentioned above, is where you're hired to do a job, you do it, you get paid, you're done. Most corporate work falls into this category. I do a lot of this (work for hire, not corporate work). I have contracts, but they typically own all the rights. Sometimes I get a byline, sometimes I don't.

(And a note on bylines. I wrote about 20 articles for one of my clients last year for a newsletter, made a lot of money, but my name wasn't on anything. I don't like it, but the money was good. It's something you have to decide whether or not it's right for you. I like to make sure at least some of my work has my byline because, 1. Hey, it's my work, and 2. It makes it that much easier to build your portfolio when your damned name's on the work. You can use them as clips even if they don't have your name on them, but doesn't it make sense that the ones with your names on them make a bigger impression?)

So, how much do you make? How do you decide how much money to charge for a work-for-hire piece.

When you're new to this gig, it's hard. Let's do a little math.

Pick the amount of money you'd like to make annually. For example: $50,000.

If you were working 52 40-hour weeks a year, that's 2080 hours.

Divide $50,000/2080 = $24 per hour.

Now, because you are self-employed, have to take care of your own overhead, don't have sick days, health insurance, paid vacation and to top that off, the federal government rapes you with Social Security (usually called the Self-Employed tax, or S.E. tax, and it works like this: If you work for somebody else, you pay 7.5% SS and your employer pays 7.5% SS, but if you're self-employed, you pay 15%. Welcome to freelancing. More on this tomorrow), the rule of thumb is, triple that number. So, to make our life simpler, if you want to make $50,000 a year, charge $75 an hour.

That might seem like a lot, but you're a "contractor" now and you can get away with things that may or may not seem astronomical before. (Besides, you won't have 2080 billable hours annually. It just doesn't work that way, usually).

Except, I don't charge that much. I typically charge (when I charge per hour, more on that shortly), I typically charge $40 or $50. If I'm charging per hour. This is partly because of where I live and the type of clients I've had for hourly wages. You charge what the market will bear, and in this part of Michigan for freelance writers with my type of clientele, that's what I can charge. Now, that's because my hourly clients have been hospitals, generally; if you're dealing with technical writing for computer companies or manufacturers, or advertising copy, or, if you've got the credentials, pharmaceutical companies, you can charge a lot more. I have a friend who has a PhD in toxicology and does some freelance writing and when she charges hourly, she charges $100 an hour. And in her field, that's pretty much the starting rate.

More often, though, I'm paid per project. My client says, "We want you to do this research report. How much do you charge?"

I'm going to hem and haw a bit, usually. I want to turn this back on them, with, "What's your budget for the writer?" or "What range were you thinking about?" Then they hem and haw and eventually we settle for something. When you're first starting out, unless you're a natural haggler, this is a bitch. I've worked just enough to know how much I want to make off a certain project, based on how much work and time I think it's going to be, to have a pretty good idea how much I want to make.

So, let's say somebody asks you how much you want to do some project, whether it's an ad campaign, a company's annual report, a white paper or whatever. Here's where experience helps you. You have your hoped-for hourly rate in mind. You think through the project and say to yourself, "I think this project will take 100 hours. At $50 an hour, that's $5000." So to your client you say, "Mmmm, I'm thinking a range of $5000 to $7000." With any luck you'll get in the middle or the high end, but if you get the low end, you go away happy. I also suggest, because this has been my experience, that you can safely do your basic math, i.e., come up with $5000, then add 10% to it because, frankly, it's almost impossible to estimate the time involved and almost all projects, especially large projects, go to hell at some point and require more time and effort than you wanted them to.

As you gain experience and grow your client list and get busy, you might consider a PITA fee. PITA, in this case, stands for Pain In The Ass. Because, boys and girls, some clients are Pains In The Ass. But they might pay really well. So if you're going to do work that annoys you, make sure you at least get paid decently for it, otherwise you might as well go and get a day-job. (When you're starting out, building a portfolio, this is a luxury you can't afford. Take the work, shut up, and know that someday you'll be able to pick and choose).

If you're doing a really big job, like some of these business reports I do, or ghost writing or whatever, ask for an advance. Sometimes I get 50% upfront and 50% at completion. Sometimes it's broken into thirds. I'm working on one now where I got about a third upfront, will get another third after I produce a workable outline (or whatever it is I decide to get to them, which may be a partial rough draft plus outline) and the remainder when I complete the project.

The most important thing as you move along is to have confidence and to value your own work and skill. Particularly in writing, a lot of people have the attitude, "Well, I would do it myself, but I just don't have the time." But the truth is, YOU'RE THE PROFESSIONAL. You can do it better than they can. So charge accordingly.

Also, when you're evaluating your rates, you really need to consider whether you're a fast writer or a slow writer, how many interviews or type of research is required. Do you have to spend time at the company you're working for? Things that I consider are: do I have to travel to do the article? When I was writing for a newspaper, I hated to go out and get the interviews, because they were only paying $150 or less for the article. So, for instance, if I had to drive 45 to 60 minutes to the site of Camp Bow-Wow (yes, I did this), and spend an hour interviewing the people there, then drive back, and then spend 1 or 2 hours writing the article, I've just spent 4 hours on the piece. If it's a $100 article, that's only $25 an hour. (Which it was, but it was kind of fun). But I was also doing short articles for a publication called (no longer in business), and they were typically 400 words long, based on a single interview, and they paid a flat fee of $100. I did a 15-20 minute phone interview, transcribed the interview, wrote the piece in an hour, and was making $50 an hour.

This is something of an unending topic and I'd love to hear what other freelancer's opinions are.

I'm wrapping this series up on Friday. Tomorrow I will write about miscellaneous business concerns and on Friday I'll write about the kind of mindset I think you need to make this work.

Mark Terry


Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Ghosting almost always has a built-in PITA rate. :-)

And oddly enough, I have found if I don't haggle, but really stand firm . . . and say, "I charge X"--I get the job more often than haggling. Psychologically, people (particularly big businesses) like to feel like they are getting the best. Low-balling just undermines that feeling. So . . . I don't know, I tend to go in the $75-$125 per hour range, depending on what it is, and stick with it. Once in a while, I lose one . . . and I figure it's meant to be for PITA reasons.

I definitely feel you have to "own" your "greatness." Practice saying with confidence what you charge until you can say it without blinking. In business, he who blinks first loses.


9:07 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I think so, too. I haven't done anything on an hourly rate lately. It's almost always per project and I'm getting enough experience to stand firm on, shall we say, this-is-what-I'm-gonna-charge-and-if-you-don't-like-it-go-find-someone-else-to-do-it-for-you. It takes a while to get to that point.

I think confidence is the key. (And if you can fake it, you've got it made). One reason I can now stand firm on my fees is because I know I can do the projects, I know how much work they are, and I know what I'm worth.

9:51 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Mary and I have managed recently to keep enough in the bank that I can work for months on a project and only need to send an invoice at the end. If you can do that, a lot of clients like it. Makes it simpler for them. I used to know legal writers who were so perpetually hard up the first thing they'd ask was when they got paid. Could they submit every week and get paid every week etc? Anything like that, which makes things more complicated for the client is bad.

I tend to be paid by the project so I'm constantly monitering how long it takes me to do projects, to keep track of how much per hour I'm making. It can be difficult balancing the need to have as few gaps as possible in the work, and to maintain a number of cients just in case, against the necessity of being paid a living wage for one's efforts. At some point, the pay is so low that it's not appreciably better than doing nothing -- or writing a novel instead!

I don't think that anyone can make a living writing for small magazines which pay $100 or $200. These publications typically have rather high standards. They want their articles well written and adequately researched but the compensation just doesn't cover the time involved so you can use them as learning experiences and the first rung up the ladder but that's about it.

12:20 PM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Ditto on the magazine rates. I'm always a little floored (or maybe the word is "disgusted") when I read or talk to a magazine publisher that wants some hard-hitting, experienced, high-quality writer, blah, blah, blah, and they're going to pay a magnanimous 10 cents a word or $10 an hour. My first year fulltiming a woman was trying to get a mag going and she could only pay 10 cents a word, but she insisted that all her editorial consultants at Newsweek were convinced it would take off, and when it did the pay rate would get better (I noted they weren't volunteering to freelance for her).

I politely declined and refrained from suggesting she contact me when her pay rate did get better.

As for the advance thing, well, let's put it this way. I'm doing a project (for the second time) this year that pays $20,000. They're offering half up front and that's the way I want it (which reminds me, it should have come in January and hasn't come yet).

The $7000 project I'm doing we broke into 3 parts. I would have preferred 2. If the client had insisted on holding back until the end, I might have gone along with it, but I asked for the advance and got it. I like to think it's a show of good faith on the part of the client, since I have, once or twice, been stiffed by clients (typically startup magazines) who hired me to write an article, then went out of business before they could publish or pay for it. (Actually, that's happened to me with a book publisher or two as well, which sucks even worse).

My push for the advance is based a lot on how long the project is going to take (months) and how much money is involved. In case of the $20,000 project, the deadline isn't until November, so it's expected to take all year. I would have to insist on some of that money upfront. A project that will take a month or two, hmmm... depends.

2:33 PM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Eric, Mark . . .

I'm with Mark on this one. I ALWAYS get money up front, and it has nothing to do with cash flow. In the end, what you are turning in is subjective. Someone who wakes up in a pissy mood can suddenly reenvision the creative work. It's not like an accountant who turns in a filled-out tax return and here's your bill. By nature, someone is signing off on a creative venture. I want to be safeguarded against whims, against a room full of lawyers deciding they want to go in a "different direction" when I've already turned in the work. Thus a third, a third, a third.


3:58 PM  
Blogger Aimless Writer said...

I hate math. As a newbie who's trying to build a clip list I'd guess its best to take those little jobs to start?
I was offered a ghost writing much do I charge for that? Its a how to book.

4:36 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

When you're starting out, you work with the work that comes to you.

As for the ghost-writing gig, use the formula I gave you. Give yourself some hourly rate, look at the job and estimate how many hours it'll take you (then add about 10% because it'll take longer).

Also, Erica might be able to give you a better idea. I've never done any ghost writing. If you check both the Freelance Success site and the Writers Market, there are general pay scales. That might help.

I would be very leery of the "I don't have any money, but we can split the royalties" offer, if there is one.

5:51 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

At the high end, $100 a double-spaced page. I would NEVER, even starting out, do a royalty split. Ever. Unless the author had an advance in hand and was going to give me half or more.

Starting out, Mark's right . . . if you're building credits . . . I would think around $40/hour and try to ballpark it.


6:50 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Thanks. I wouldn't have thought of a per-manuscript-page rate. I'll keep that in mind should any ghostwriting comes my way.

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