Whether you’re just starting out as a freelance writer or are well into your career, I’d bet my last pen you still have questions about one thing: money.
So much mystery surrounds the subject of writing and money: How much should you charge? Should you ever write for free? Is it possible to be an artist and a breadwinner?
Manjula Martin’s been discussing this topic for years, first at a now-shuttered magazine called Scratch, and then on Who Pays Writers, an incredibly useful site that reveals pay rates at different outlets.
She continues the conversation in her new book “Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living,” an engaging collection of essays and interviews featuring writers like Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen and Roxane Gay.
Divided into three sections — “Early Days,” “The Daily Grind” and “Someday” — it discusses money at every stage of a writer’s career.
I hopped on the phone with Martin to chat about the complex intersection of art and money: how to get started as a writer, what to charge and how we can help one another (and our industry) move forward.
Here’s our conversation, edited for brevity and clarity:
What’s the Deal With Writers Not Getting Paid Enough?
I think, as with most complicated questions, there are a few different things working against each other at the same time.
One of them is that we live in a culture that doesn’t necessarily value creative work monetarily in the same way it values other work — or it does, maybe, for a very small percentage of creative workers. That’s just the reality of the economy and the culture we live in, but it makes it complicated if you are a person who does that kind of work, even if you are a person who excels at that kind of work.
There’s also a perception that there are many different ways to be a writer — like, when someone says, “I’m a writer,” that could mean a variety of things. I think some people have a perception that if your work is something creative or something you may also enjoy, perhaps it’s something you shouldn’t be getting paid for.
I, personally, disagree with that. I don’t think everyone should get paid to write every single thing ever — but if you’re working, you’re working, and you should be paid. If you’re a writer and you’re writing a piece for hire, that’s the same as being any other kind of professional and doing any other kind of job for pay.
The third part of that equation is the economic condition of the publishing and journalism industries.
I do think these industries are struggling to sustain themselves — and at the same time, there’s a demand for more and more content, particularly on the internet. Those factors combine in interesting ways to really drive down the value of writers’ work.
Do You Think That Will Ever Change? How Can Writers Help Themselves Get Better Pay?
The responsibility doesn’t lie entirely on writers; it lies on the larger system and the people who are at the top of larger systems.
But those people aren’t going to make any changes unless writers ask them. That old thought, “Information is power,” is true.
You Mean, Writers Asking for Higher Pay and Then Sharing Rates?
It’s sharing information; it’s asking for what you perceive to be the true value of your work. It’s doing things like letting go of the perception that if you’re a person who works with words, you maybe aren’t good with numbers.
(It’s) educating ourselves about personal finance, as well as the financial part of our industry, reading our contracts, asking for contracts in the first place and really working together to use our community of writers as a source of empowerment, rather than a way to feel more inadequate.
I think a lot of writers are under the perception there’s a lot of competition — and you tend to devalue your work if you feel like there are others who might do it just as well as you. Part of the conversation is viewing the writer community not as a competition but as people you can rely on — which is hard when there’s no workplace.
Do You Think People Who Are Writing for Free — or Very Low Wages — Are a Detriment to the Profession?
Here’s what I think about writing for free: I’ve certainly done it. I don’t know any writers who haven’t. When making the decision whether or not to write for free, I’d just encourage writers to understand two things.
The main thing is if an editor or a publisher can get away with not paying you, they’re going to keep trying to not pay people.
There’s a writer coming behind you who’s also going to be expected to work for free. It’s a psychological shift, because normally people think, “There’s someone standing in line behind me who’s going to do this job for free, so I should take this job so they don’t get it.”
But it’s also true that the person behind you will be in a similar hard space unless someone ends that cycle.
My rule of thumb is: If it feels like work, one should be getting paid, whatever that means to you.
If you’re a person who has other sources of income, if you’re working for a nonprofit or for a friend, if you’re getting true exposure — which doesn’t necessarily mean a couple tweets — meaning your work is going to be put in front of someone who’s very influential and will get you work, great.
But be aware you’re holding up this expectation that all writers write for free when you do it.
Yes, Those Are All Great Points.
There’s an essay in the book by Colin Dickey about the first Greek poet who asked to be paid.
This is, first of all, not a new problem. It’s newly being aired, perhaps, but it’s not a new issue, and he talks about something I think is really true — which is writers do have a responsibility to themselves for the value of their work and to their peers, because then they own the true value of their work.
If there’s any shame in that equation, the shame is actually on the people asking you to write for free — not on the people who are being asked.
What Would You Suggest to a New Freelance Writer Eager to Find Gigs That Pay?
And pitch like crazy. I think there’s actually an element of gender that comes into it. I talk to a lot of women who feel less secure in asking for more money or in offering their services unrequested.
So to women writers, I’d say pitch like a guy. Men pitch more, men pitch more frequently, men pitch stuff that is less refined. They’ll pitch an idea rather than a more completed thing.
I’d encourage all writers to do that. Editors want to find good pieces; you just need to let them know you have good pieces. A rejection doesn’t necessarily mean you should then run away and never talk to that person. On the contrary, I think you should pitch again.
Alright, Let’s Talk Money. What’s Your Basic Advice?
Know your situation. Understand your finances and the types of resources you have. Figure out a business plan, and figure out how much money you need to be making.
It’s amazing the amount of people I talk to who have started freelancing without any goals or any understanding that it may take a few months to get your paycheck after you finish a piece.
Do You Have Any Suggestions for Calculating Reasonable Rates?
A good rule of thumb is to figure out your hourly rate. (I’m talking more about journalism than about novels.)
Really do that math and think about how much time it’s going to take you to produce a piece of writing. If someone’s offering you $200 for a blog post, how many days is that going to take you? How many emails? How much overhead?
Obviously, it’ll be a guesstimate, but I think it’ll help you get some sense of your rate of return.
You Also Advocate Always Asking for More. Can You Tell Me About That?
Yes: Always ask for more. If you’re offered nothing, ask for something. If you’re offered a little something, ask for a little something more. This is just a basic negotiation tactic.
The theory being that no one is going to suggest they offer you more money than they’ve already suggested, but if you suggest it, they might say yes. If you don’t suggest it, it’s never going to happen.
For writers, it’s important to remember when you’re in a pitch situation: Someone’s not going to change their mind and decline your pitch because you’ve asked for a little bit more money. They might say, “No, we can’t pay you more money,” and then you can decide whether or not to take the job.
No one’s going to walk away or shut down — and if they do, it’s probably not a job you wanted in the first place.
What About Souring a Relationship With an Editor?
Yeah, I think that’s a legitimate fear. Editors can be just as squeamish as writers when talking about money. I think we should just get over it. You can figure out a way to phrase your request that isn’t offensive.
You could even just say, “This is awkward, and I’m not sure how to bring it up, but let’s talk about the money.”
It’s perfectly OK to acknowledge there’s no standard in the assignment process for when and how you talk about money. Acknowledge that, be polite, and you should be fine.
Any Last Pieces of Money Wisdom for Those Just Starting Out in the Writing World?
Learn how advertising works — so you’re not operating from an informational void and upholding some romantic ideal of what it means to be a writer and make a living from writing. You actually understand the economics of how the money is getting to you.
There’s an essay in the book by Choire Sicha — who founded the Awl Network, which includes The Billfold and The Hairpin — where he actually, literally, breaks down how online advertising works. It’s amazing that most folks, including myself before I read the essay, don’t really know this.
If you understand how a publication is getting its money, you’ll have a better reference point for negotiating your own pay.
The other general thing I’ll say is it’s OK to have issues about money. Money is a funny thing, and it has power over us in weird ways.
I have plenty of issues about money. I’ve struggled financially in the past a lot. Something that’s helped me is just learning to acknowledge where my weak points are and admit it, then educate myself about those weak points.
When I was struggling, I realized money would continue to dictate my actions — mostly through fear and denial — unless I learned to have power over it, which requires dealing with it.
As an artist, understand that talking about and acknowledging the financial aspect of your work doesn’t cheapen or dirty your work itself.
A huge thanks to Martin for talking with me about this ever-complicated and important topic. If you’d like to read more, check out her book “Scratch”!
Your Turn: What’s your advice for getting paid what you’re worth?
Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.
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