How Much Should a Freelancer Charge?
by Moira Allen
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One question I often receive goes something like this: "I am just starting out as a magazine freelancer, and would like to know how much to charge."
The short answer to this question is "It's not your choice." While most forms of self-employment enable an individual to set his/her own rates (within certain limitations defined by the type of business, region, etc.), freelance writing is the exception. In this business, rates are determined by the market, and freelancers have very little control over what they are paid. In addition, most markets are notoriously inflexible; if a magazine pays 10c/word, don't expect to persuade it to give you 25¢/word.
There are other ways, however, to determine your "preferred" rate of pay, even if you can't convince editors to loosen their purse-strings.
By the Word vs. By the Hour
If you've come to freelancing from a "normal" job, you're probably used to a paycheck that was based on an hourly rate. Converting to an accounting system that is based on the word or the project can be confusing.
As you choose and plan your projects, however, it's a good idea to keep that hourly rate concept in mind. By determining the hourly rate you would prefer to receive, you can determine what publications to approach, what projects to accept, and how much time to invest in each project.
Determining that rate is a highly individual decision. If you're trying to support yourself entirely through freelancing, you'll need to set it fairly high (especially as you must take into account the number of hours spent on nonpaying projects, such as queries, researching markets, basic accounting and administrative tasks, etc.). On the other hand, if you're just trying to "break in" and don't need to earn a living wage, you can set a lower rate.
The next step is to determine how long a particular project is likely to take. In the beginning, this may not be easy; tasks such as interviewing, research, and revision may take longer than you expect. As you become more experienced, however, you'll be able to estimate a project's requirements fairly accurately. Then, "setting your rate" becomes a simple matter of dividing a magazine's fee by the estimated number of hours to see if it meets your hourly requirement.
Suppose, for example, that a magazine offers $100 per feature article, and you've decided that you want to earn no less than $20 per hour. In that case, you'd only pitch an article idea to this magazine if you were certain you could complete the entire piece in five hours or less. On the other hand, if a magazine offers $1000 per feature, you'll be willing to invest considerably more time and effort into that market. Similarly, you'll soon realize that a single $1000-article actually "pays" considerably more than ten $100-articles, given the same rate of effort per article.
Another way to look at your rate is by averaging it across assignments. Suppose you accept a $100 assignment, but spend ten hours completing the project. You've earned only $10 per hour, or half your goal. On the other hand, another article may bring you $600 for ten hours' work, giving you a total of $60 per hour. On the average, you're now earning $35 per hour, which exceeds your goal (and also helps compensate for all those hours when you aren't earning a penny). Often, "averaging" is a more accurate method of determining how much your time is actually worth.
When Time Isn't the Only Factor
Money is nice, but it may not be the only consideration when choosing whether to seek or accept a particular assignment. Some factors may be worth more than cash, including:
Credentials. If you're just starting out, your first goal may be to build a portfolio of clips. In the early stages of freelancing, "getting published" is often more important than "getting highly paid." In the beginning, a track record of success and acceptance can be more important than the actual fee.
- Practice. Some writers believe that every word they write makes them a better writer -- and is therefore worth the effort. Writing for lower-paying markets can provide an opportunity to build and hone your skills, and prepare you for the demands of the "big time."
- Reputation. Some markets pay little, but offer extra rewards in terms of recognition and reputation. This is especially true online, where your work may be viewed by readers from around the world. Writing for a low-paying publication that will put your name in front of thousands of readers (and quite possibly a number of editors) can be worth more than the higher paychecks offered by comparable print publications, and lead to bigger and better markets down the line.
- Love. Sometimes you may choose to write about a particular subject, or for a particular publication, simply because it's what you want to do. In many cases, passion counts for more than cash. Many writers (myself included) would rather get paid a little for writing about what they love, than get paid big bucks for writing material of no personal interest.
Conversely, you may also discover that some projects aren't worth doing, no matter how much they pay. Some factors outweigh the potential financial benefits of a piece, including:
- Difficult editors. Some editors provide unclear guidelines, then expect the author to keep revising a piece until it seems "right." Some are impossible to please, even when you've provided exactly what was asked for. Some drag out the process by constantly asking for one more thing -- more information, another interview, another sidebar, another revision, etc. Others won't answer your questions, provide clarification, or even return your calls or e-mail. Whatever the problem, a difficult editor can outweigh the benefit of a check.
- Unacceptable alterations. Few things are as frustrating as to write an article, and then find that the published piece bears little or no resemblance to your work. Perhaps it was edited by someone with no concept of basic grammar, resulting in a piece that you'd be ashamed to send out as a clip. Perhaps it was cut to half its length, wasting your work. Or perhaps material has been added -- not only material that wasn't your work, but worse, material that actually contradicts the point of your article. If this happens, it's wise to avoid that market in the future, unless you really don't care what appears under your byline!
- Unfair terms. Only you can decide what terms you're willing to accept when negotiating a contract. Keep in mind, however, that even a high rate of pay may not fully compensate for the loss of your rights. Be very sure, when giving up all rights or signing a work-for-hire contract, that you have absolutely no chance of selling that material elsewhere. (Watch out, as well, for "indemnity" clauses that make you liable for any conflict or complaint resulting from your article.)
- Damage to your reputation. Will an article make you look good -- or bad? Sometimes the very context in which an article appears may damage your reputation in a particular field. If the publication itself is not reputable within a field in which you hope to sell more work, then selling to that publication could damage your career. It's also important to avoid assignments that might cast you in a negative light -- e.g., that present an argument you don't actually agree with. What you say in print will be taken as representing your point of view, even if it doesn't. To paraphrase Othello (or more accurately, Iago), your good name is worth more than any paycheck, and losing it can make you "poor indeed."
The bottom line is that "the bottom line" for a writer can be influenced by a number of factors, of which money is only one. By considering those factors carefully, you can set the rates you desire -- rates that not only improve your bank account but contribute to your ongoing career goals.
Find Out More...
- Setting Your Freelance Rates - Dawn Copeman
- The Worth of a Freelancer's Work - Donald Denier
Copyright © 2001 Moira Allen
- Hugh's Mortgage and Financial Calculators
A collection of financial tools that can be useful in financial
research (or in figuring out how much you're getting paid).
- Putting a Price on Your Capabilities: How to Set Your Fees
as a Freelance Writer
A complex examination of how to figure your fees, based on your
expenses, cost of living, etc.
Find out how much you should be earning, based on your job title/description
and region. The Salary Wizard is a bit complicated to use. First,
you need to select your location (e.g., zip code), then select
a job category. You probably won't find something specific, so
just click on "Printing and Publishing." It will offer
you a small selection of job titles; click on the "Advanced
job title search" link below the list. You'll be asked to
type in a specific job title (such as "writer" or "editor").
Typing in "writer" will produce a list of more than
80 different categories, including web writers, copy writers,
grant writers, etc.; select the title that best applies to you.
(You can also click on the title to produce a job description.)
Similarly, typing in "editor" produces nearly 50 titles.
- What to Pay a Writer
- A good overview of freelance fees and rates for such jobs as advertising,
business writing, editing, ghostwriting, magazine writing, technical
writing, translation, and more. Though the rates are listed in
Canadian dollars (this page is from the Periodical Writers Association
of Canada), the same numbers are applicable to U.S. writers.
This article may be reprinted provided that the author's byline, bio, and copyright notice are retained in their entirety. For complete details on reprinting articles by Moira Allen, please click HERE.|
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.
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