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 BioPerform.com (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.