I once sat in on a panel discussion, listening to two magazine owners explain how they got to where they are today. One described how his magazine was failing when he took over. The previous owners were about to stop publishing the magazine entirely, and he bought it because he believed in it. He breathed passion into the project. Within six months, he said, he was able to fully cover the costs of publication.
That’s no small feat—magazines are expensive to publish. Just think of all the costs: editorial staff, sales staff, writing, photography, design, proofreading, printing, distribution…the list goes on. I was impressed to hear that he’d been able to resuscitate a failing publication at all, and especially in such a short amount of time.
Later in the panel, however, someone asked what the magazine pays for articles. That’s where I got a partial explanation as to his quick business turnaround.
Both panelists explained that when “experts” write articles, they figure the exposure is payment. This is not abnormal. We didn’t always compensate expert contributors when I was executive editor of Healthy Living Made Simple. But, then again, our experts were getting read by up to 12 million people. These publications have a pretty small circulation somewhere in the thousands.
Then, I learned what they pay professional writers. One publication pays $40 an article and one pays around 12 cents a word.
Let’s focus on the $40 figure. Let’s say the article is 450 words, which seems to be the average in these publications (I read both regularly). That’s 8 cents a word. A good 450-word magazine article will probably take a writer anywhere from two to ten hours, varying widely depending on the subject matter, depth of research, and how well the writer knows the topic. Many of the articles I’ve read in each publication involves interviews, which means they’re probably toward the four-hour end or more.
At a conservative estimate of four hours of work, that’s $10 an hour. Ten dollars an hour! I haven’t made that little since I was in my early college years. My guess is that the magazines aren’t paying their photographers much at all, either.
Here’s the thing: Not paying talent doesn’t mean you’re succeeding as a publication. It just means you’re not paying people, and you’re getting work for almost free.
I’m not trying to pick on these publications. I’m sure it’s challenging covering the costs of production, and my guess is that both editors on the panel are good people with noble goals. But I don’t think writers and other creatives need to suffer to help someone else make a profit.
Sadly, this mentality of little-to-no payment for writing work isn’t limited to local magazines. I see it happen with bigger organizations who can afford to pay reasonable fees.
Now, I will say that writers need to take opportunities to get published. I sure did. I completed a yearlong internship—one of the most important professional experiences I’ve ever had—and then later took an almost-unpaid position at a magazine just for the title. I’ve also done other projects because of the resume payoff.
Still, I think there’s something inherently wrong with the idea that writers need to do a bunch of free work. I don’t know when or if that will change. What other non-creative fields expect free labor?
The other issue is that some writers never move past portfolio building. They keep accepting a measly $40 an article—or sometimes even do it for free—because someone is willing to publish their writing.
Living the dream, right? Well, I’ll argue that writers are ruining the collective dream by continuing to be paid less than they’re worth. Here are five ways to make sure you’re not sabotaging your success as a writer.
#1 Recognize “foot in the door” opportunities
Think ahead to what a particular project might open up for you. Don’t agree to a writing project without weighing the potential benefits it will bring your career. For example, the first time I ghostwrote, I didn’t make a whole lot (although I was paid). But I was then able to label myself as a “ghostwriter,” and my experience attracted future clients who paid me what I was worth.
#2 Actually go through the door
The problem is, many people keep one foot in the door but never go all the way through. They’ll take low-paying projects that have huge portfolio potential but then fail to capitalize on the work they’ve done. They don’t know how to stop “sacrificing” and start earning.
#3 Don’t get taken advantage of
When someone doesn’t pay you for work, you’re getting taken advantage of. Guest posts, high-visibility articles, or partnership projects can be an exception. But, honestly? I think there should be a law against not paying creatives. So many publications act like they’re doing you a favor by letting you work for free. You should be getting paid something for your work. Unfortunately, payment isn’t always the norm.
#4 Raise your rates
When you start getting a consistent amount of freelance work, consider giving yourself a raise. The more in-demand you are, the more you can charge. And psychologically, what you charge has an impact on how much your clients value you. This doesn’t apply as much to magazine writing because they will have set standards to payment. But for business writing, online content, or any other type of professional writing, make sure you’re raising your rates as you become more in demand.
#5 Learn to Say No
In the beginning, I said yes to everything. Now, I’ve learned to say no. Doing so keeps my schedule freer for bigger, more exciting projects. It also encourages me to accurately and fairly bid projects at high enough fees that I don’t have to say yes to everything.
Also, go with your gut. I’ve gotten bad feelings about projects and just said no. Later, when someone else wasn’t paid or the project ended up being a bust, I was glad I’d followed my intuition and hadn’t been taken advantage of.
Monetary compensation for writing starts with writers valuing themselves. Let’s work together to change the status quo.
What tips would you add to avoid sabotaging success as a writer?