When it comes to rates, how low is too low?
When you become a freelancer, three things are very important to you: the work you produce, the rate you’re paid and how soon you’re going to get paid. What your hourly, per-word or per-project rate will vary greatly from publication to publication and from project to project, which is why I shy away from certain, blanket advice about how freelancers should set their rates.
I do think it’s good to sit down and map out a financial plan for yourself as a freelancer. The Freelancers Union has some helpful guides on how to determine your rate, but every industry has their own quirks when it comes to calculating rates, meaning the more technical skills (coding, designing, etc.) you have the better pay you can negotiate.
I’ve been freelancing for more than two years. Over the course of my brief, part-time freelance career, my reporting has appeared in The New York Times, Vice, Pacific Standard, Atlas Obscura, DNAInfo Chicago, Crain’s Chicago Business, and several other national and local publications. I say all that to say that each publication has its own payment and editorial systems. Some pay via direct deposit or electronic transfer while most pay via a paycheck in the snail mail.
So not is it only important to properly manage cash flow, freelancers also need to know when to walk away from a bad deal. But what is a bad deal? How low is too low?
That depends. On a happy note, I’ve seen rates for magazine pieces starting at $2 per word. Unfortunately, I’ve also seen rates as low as $30 for a post or 10 cents per word for a blog post. In my experience, the long-standing publications, usually with print editions, tend to pay better than younger, primarily digital outlets. But of course, there are some online-only outlets who pay better than their peers. Once you’ve determined several outlets who may accept your story pitch, take a look at sites like Who Pays Writers or Contently to see which outlets pay better than others and how long you can expect to be paid.
If there isn’t a base rate available there or on the publication’s website, use your base rate as a guide toward getting an acceptable rate. I’ve talked before about knowing your worth before, and it bears mentioning again. While some media companies genuinely don’t have the cash to pay writers more than they can afford, there are publications looking to take advantage of aspiring writers by offering too little pay (if any at all) and the promise of exposure. Know your bottom line and don’t be afraid to negotiate or walk away if a gig falls short of what you need to make a living.