The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was an essay I wrote for the fourth issue of Kill Your Darlings journal. I remember vividly the moment I received the email that the work was accepted, and when they told me what I would be paid. I cherished that money because it was, in many ways, a validation – what I love doing is worth something to people. Perhaps only in a small way, compared to what I could earn working a Sunday shift in my retail job, but it was worth something. The pay, it turned out, was a very reasonable rate for a literary journal, but before I submitted the essay I had no idea what I would be paid, and I never asked.

In The Emerging Writer, Bhakthi Puvanenthiran has an essay titled ‘The Awkward Silence.’ It’s a great piece on the silence that exists between writers and the people who commission their work on the dollar value they will receive for their writing. She argues that a public conversation about payment in our industry is long overdue and that we need to break this ‘awkward silence’ before we’ve written a word.

You’re drafting one last email to the editor. Your copy is self-proofed and the final version attached…You know it would be easier to attach an invoice with this final missive, but neither you nor the editor have discussed a dollar value yet. Why don’t you know what you’ll get paid?

That final sentence stood out to me: Why didn’t I know?

This experience is, I think, how it begins for many freelance writers (and I distinguish here from freelance journalists, who are perhaps better educated about the word rates they could expect to receive – you can read a great investigation Margaret Simons conducted for Crikey a few years ago here). We write our works, feel thrilled that they’re accepted, wonder vaguely to ourselves what we might receive – maybe we’ll ask some friends who may have written for that publication before. But then that’s it, until the editor brings it up – if indeed they do at all. Why don’t we know? Or, perhaps more importantly, why don’t we ask?

As a way around this awkward silence, the Emerging Writers’ Festival has begun compiling a comprehensive list of payment rates from Australian publications, everything from magazines, street press, literary journals, online opinion, and websites – requesting information from the publications directly. The results will be available soon as a searchable database, but you can view their current tabulated results here. At the top end, writers can expect to be paid 70 cents to $1. Many pay nothing, or around 10-20 cents per word. The average is roughly 20-40 cents per word, based on these tables, but more fall at the lower end of that scale. The best payers are those you would expect: The Monthly, Australian Book Review, Meanjin.

But even from these initial results it is clear how difficult it is to make a living as a freelancer. As Elmo Keep humorously put it at the Emerging Writers’ Festival event Get Money, Get Paid last week: ‘If you define yourself as a writer only if you earn your living from writing, then – are you an idiot?’ Most have to supplement their income with copywriting, advertising, postgraduate scholarships, grants – anything that pays well and leaves sufficient time for other writing on the side. The most successful freelancers, according to Keep, work seven days per week and earn, on average for their writing, $35,000 per year. Freelancers have no safety net, and, like small business owners, the quote they give is supposed to cover superannuation, overheads, petrol, tax. But of course, if such costs were truly factored into every single piece, the price might be closer to $3 per word – a rather unrealistic goal for most writers, especially those at the beginning of their careers.

At the q&a part of the event, an audience member asked, ‘Why do writers work for free?’ To me, it seemed like a naive question – but for anyone working in any other industry it might indeed seem baffling. As Director Lisa Dempster wrote of her reasoning for the initiative,

There is a lack of understanding among new writers about how much they could or should expect to get paid for their work. To assist in bridging this knowledge gap, we are undergoing a documentation process to collate freelance submission rates for writers. Our goal is to inform emerging writers about pay rates and hopefully assist in connecting good writers with publication opportunities. Knowledge is, after all, power.

Certainly, for most emerging writers it is about the lack of power – being published is more important than getting paid, so they won’t push the issue. Or the websites and journals they are able to be published in simply don’t have a budget to pay their writers.

Ultimately, as was mentioned by the EWF panelists, it comes down to a question of value versus profit. (Sam Van Zweden has an interesting post on this also.) At the early stage of their careers, having a strong folio of published work, building up a profile, creating contacts is often more important to writers than money. Cold pitching, no matter how brilliant a writer you are, no matter how wonderful your ideas and prose, is very difficult to do with the larger (usually higher paying) organisations. They often have their pet writers and are reluctant to commission anyone else. So building up your profile is the best way into writing for these publications. The unfortunate paradox of freelancing is that you usually need to work for free in order to put yourself in a position to get paid.

In discussions such as these I think it’s also important also to warn against the sort of ‘me-ism’ that can come from an obsessive focus on pitching – where it’s all about simply ‘getting your name out there,’ with little regard for which publication you appear in, or indeed, what you want to say. I’m wary of writers who are more concerned with having an extensive bio that says they have been published in x, y and z. The idea and the writing should be the first consideration, then the publication that is best suited to it. The danger with tables such as these is that it becomes a shopping list for the best price, rather than picking a publication most appropriate to the work you have written. It also tends to disadvantage smaller journals who perhaps don’t pay as well but might have a team who can provide wonderful editorial support, and who need strong writers to stay alive.

These are the conflicting considerations we must weigh.

Writing, as many of us joke to ourselves, is not something you get into for the money. But it is, certainly, possible to earn a living from. However, the outdated view that writing for money is vulgar, crass, and somehow devaluing the art, is something we should work against — by asking those awkward questions and by educating ourselves.

— Image source

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8 thoughts on “Why don’t you know what you’ll get paid?

  1. Adam Meyers

    Very clever outlook. As a publisher I try to be straight up with contributors to my site but I feel less confident asking other editors when submitting my own work.

  2. Ebony McKenna

    Great article.
    I agree, knowledge is power.

  3. Secomb Michael

    Writers are mugs to work for 20-40 cents a word on average. Get a real job. I did.

  4. Julie Morgan King

    I decided to go for broke (excuse the pun) and write solely for publication last year: short fiction, op eds and nonfiction. The good news is that I had about 16 pieces published online and in mags and newspapers. The bad news I was paid $10 for one online piece.
    Now I’m in a write-the-novel course. I figured if I pump out a book, it would help me establish literary cred, so editors would commission my work rather than have me spend 80% of my time trying to have work accepted. That book remains a long, long way from completion. I’m stumped.

  5. Sir Ian Chegsworth III

    I wrote an opinion piece for the age a while back and had that awkward silence thing. I eventually was asked to invoice for about 35c a word. I don’t really need the money but gotta say I was stunned that it was so poorly paid. This is opinion in the age for god’s sake not a live review in Beat (of which I did countless starting out) Anyway I went back to my silly but 10 times better paid prof writing work. I don’t for papers etc for a living anymore as I need to live. With two kids, mortgage etc it is truly young man’s gig.

    BTW tracking pay rates is a cracking idea and hats off gerl! Knowledge is power.

  6. Benjamin Solah

    I always want to pick where I submit based on what I write and what that journal is about, and what kind of readers are likely to see it. But I see a bunch of suitable publications there that pay a bit more than I’m used to and I guess I see getting into those publications as an added achievement. Often pay rates are an indicator of circulation as well, which is something I’d like to see more figures on.

  7. Andrew McMillen

    Great read, Bethanie. Thanks.

  8. Angela Meyer

    Great piece, Beth. I always ask now. Just to factor it into my decision before I write or give away the piece. But some of my favourite experiences with editors have been for pieces I was paid little or nothing for, so I enjoyed your final points there. It’s a process of weighing up what you most enjoy doing and whether it’s worth (in your mind) the time it will take and the effort you’ll have to put in. I do a lot less for free than I did when I was starting out. As I do have that choice now. I’m also lucky enough to currently have a scholarship, so paid freelance gigs are supplementary (financially speaking). When the scholarship runs out, perhaps my priorities will change and $ will draw me more to some publications than others (or will encourage me to pitch to certain pubs more often). It’s a constant process of assessing and reassessing your priorities, I guess.

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