I’m struggling to understand how much I’m worth per word. I know how much I get per hour on copy projects for marketing companies, but I have an opportunity to renegotiate, and I don’t want to go in blind. I found a PDF on Writer’s Digest’s site on how much I’m worth, but I think that guide may be geared towards writers of fiction. —Olga Kwak
In almost any creative industry, it’s tough to figure out how much you’re worth. Start by asking your professional contacts and mentors how they set their rates and how much they were getting when they were at your same career stage.
But no one’s personal network holds all the answers, which makes an anonymous, crowdsourced new Tumblr about pay rates a game changer. Called Who Pays Writers?, the site has you covered in the nonfiction department. Writer Manjula Martin is compiling reports from writers about how much they’ve received for their words. More than 200 people have submitted so far. Transparency about money is basically the definition of #realtalk, so I emailed Martin to thank her and ask her to tell more more about the response she’s getting.
“Overall,” Martin wrote, “I’ve been consistently surprised by how few web publications pay at all. Of all the publications we’ve had reports on that do pay their writers, the few traditional print outlets that are still around generally pay better than online outlets. More established publications often still use a per-word rate, while newer and online pubs tend to offer a flat rate for pieces, which might be $50 regardless of the piece.”
Further, Martin continues, you’re correct to assume your rates might be different than another writer’s, even when you’re doing similar work for the same outlet. “A lot can depend on the writer, her experience and clout, whether or not she negotiates, the editor, and which section of a publication a piece appears in,” she wrote. So develop your personal brand, always ask for more money, and cultivate personal relationships with editors.
Oh, and get comfortable with harassing the billing department for your check. Martin adds, “writers are reporting late/slow payment or nonpayment across the board.” The rule of thumb is to assume at least three months from the day of publication until you can start looking for a check in your mailbox. (Yeah, in my experience most publications still cut paper checks. It’s baffling.) But you should start asking about it earlier. You can also ask your assigning editor how long it usually takes to get a check. I’ve had many editors offer to expedite the process when I asked about it up front.
“If you look at some of these rates, and you do the math for how much a writer would have to be pitching and working in order to make even a modest living, it just doesn’t add up,” Martin says. More #realtalk: it can add up. But you have to scramble. I pay my rent through freelance writing, and in the past month and a half, I’ve written for CJR (weekly), NYmag.com (weekly), ELLE, The Atlantic, Refinery29, TNR.com, Marie Claire, The Baffler, Time Out Chicago, and The Hairpin. I’ve submitted chapters for two different anthologies, done some freelance editing, and maintained my personal blog. I’ve also laid the groundwork for future assignments, making time to send pitches, check in with editors, and develop sources.
“I gotta say,” says Martin, a freelance writer who pays the bills with nonprofit consulting gigs, “y’all got some serious hustle.”