The Problem with Fixed Per Word Rates
Given how many times I re-watch the series, I consider buying the Sex and the City series and two films on Amazon a good investment. I remember watching the episode when Carrie told Charlotte about negotiating $3.50 per word at Vogue—a victory during a time when web journalism in its infancy. I also remember my jaw dropping as my eyes scanned the page in Sex in the City and Us’ disclosure that Candace Bushnell made $1,000 per column, compared to $750 that other columnists earned per column. How nice it would be in order to make that now? It’s possible to do, but it’s a lot harder.
While the internet has opened up plenty of journalism opportunities, the upheaval of the traditional journalism business model has resulted in mass layoffs and lower earnings for staffers and freelancers—although the current business situation has worked out quite well for Google. As a result of cutbacks, it’s difficult for freelancers to make $1 or more per word for their reporting.
The belt tightening efforts have taken an uncomfortable turn. In an effort to control their budget, I’ve seen editors undercut their per word rates through scope creep i.e. not paying for all of the work that goes into a given piece. Writers who have a pitched magazines may have experienced this first hand.
It goes something like this. Say you pitch an idea and you anticipate that it will be 1,500 words, but your editor says we will pay you a dollar per word for 800 words. After a while, writers will have a sense of how long an article needs to be, but as a freelancer you might not feel as emboldened to push back against editors’ suggestions. So you turn in an 800 word article, but over the course of an editing process, the article balloons to more than 2000 words. And in the end, the writer walks away with $800.
Is that fair? I don’t think so. However, I’m seeing more publications impose this kind of limit on how much they’re willing to pay for the extra work. I recently saw a women’s magazine that has a similar policy of only paying per word for the original word count, not the published word count, which gives publications the freedom to ask whatever they want of writers without having to compensate them for additional reporting.
The last time I felt grossly underpaid due to the scope creep of feature article edits I asked for a higher fee twice during the editing process. But even after the article came out, I wasn’t satisfied with the rate given the work I put in. Going forward, I’ll be accounting more for scope creep when negotiating my rates.
Oddly enough, the discussion of rates came up again this week due to Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s revelation that she at one point began commanding at least $4 per word for her articles. While the disclosure opened up a debate among freelancers, I found it to be a much-needed push to ask for more as I begin pitching more ambitious projects in the future. Unlike Akner, I did not start freelancing to support my family. However, I have dreams. I have goals. I spend a considerable amount of time thinking of how to make my career sustainable. For now, the first steps will be to continue building my portfolio, determine my worth and stick to it.
How have you addressed scope creep when negotiating per word rate? How did it go? Tell me in the comments or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org