Fair Pay Tip Sheet

NASW Freelancers' Fair Pay Tip Sheet

Is Magazine X late in paying you again? Unsure how much to charge for Project Y? We've all been there. Below, we've collected some strategies for dealing with these situations — and preventing them in the first place. We even have some example emails you can send to editors, for different situations.

Freelancers should often earn more per hour than staffers, because freelancers must also cover the overhead costs of doing business, such as benefits, equipment, self-employment taxes, and time spent lining up the next job.

We won't go so far as to tell you never to work for free. We've all done that at some point in our careers and there can be very good reasons for doing so. But translating scientific research into clear, engaging stories is a highly valued and sought-after skill set. Don't undervalue yourself or your profession when negotiating fair compensation!

Negotiate before you start

  • Several resources can help you see what publications normally pay, and decide how much to charge for projects. There's the NASW Compensation Survey and the NASW Words' Worth database. Journalist Scott Carney has also crowd-funded a freelance rates database called WordRates.

  • Remember, even "green" or student writers can ask for the low end of the ranges in the NASW Compensation Survey, for example. When writers stick to the rates that data show are the industry standard, it helps keep the standard from deteriorating over time. It also helps you negotiate in the future, both with the publisher you're working with now, and any future clients in the same market space.

  • When considering taking on an assignment, estimate how many hours it will take and what it should pay, both by the word and by the hour. You can also do the math after an assignment, as a way to gauge whether to work for that client again.

  • Negotiate before starting an assignment if a rate an editor offers seems too low. Charge more for special requests, like rush jobs. If you realize mid-assignment that a story will take significantly more work than you and your editor initially envisioned, ask to re-negotiate your fee. If you're working with a new client you're excited about, but is offering too low a fee, consider accepting the low rate the first time, but then negotiating on future jobs if the work goes well.

Here are some examples of email language you can use for different scenarios:

If a rate is too low
That rate seems somewhat below the standard range. NASW reports that the news sections of science journals like yours usually pay $0.50-$2.00 a word. Since I've been in the business for three years now, I typically get $1.00/word for these types of assignments. Can you match that?

When a project is a rush job
I can do this quick turnaround project for you, but I'll need to be compensated for the overtime I’ll put in and the shuffling that will be required to work around my other my freelance work that I've already committed to. Is there any wiggle room to bump up the rate by an extra $500?

Re-negotiating mid-project
I know we agreed on 20 hours for this project at $100/hour, but I'm running into significant roadblocks in my reporting. The types of sources you want are difficult to track down and once I find them, it is taking significant time to convince them to speak on the record about this Controversial Story. I can stick to the original budget plan, but I might only have a source list and a rough outline of the article at that point. If you'd like a full draft, then we'll need to discuss adding more hours to this project.

Asking for a raise from a regular client
I'd like to request a raise in my rate to $500 for this story. I know you have been paying about $400 for stories like this, but now that I've written five of these, I've realized they often take a little more reporting and time, than, say, the Cute Science Briefs that I do for you. Let me know what you think.

  • Ask if you can get paid by direct deposit rather than by check. Direct deposits usually arrive faster, and there's no danger of a check getting lost in the mail.

Check your contract for clauses about pay

  • Ideally, your contract or statement of work should have a payment clause that stipulates pay "upon acceptance." Try to negotiate better terms if you see "payment upon publication" or a term longer than 30 days after publication.

  • After you get a copy of your contract from your editor for review, you can ask to add in language that stipulates exactly what "pay upon acceptance" means. It might look like this:

Compensation for the Work in the amount of $XXXX payable within thirty (30) days after Publisher’s acceptance of the Work for publication, where acceptance is defined as the point at which both Author and editor agree the manuscript can be line-edited for publication.

Or: ...where acceptance is defined as one completed round of revisions.

  • Check the kill fee portion of the contract. Kill fees should be at least 50 percent, and publishers should only use them when they think a piece is unacceptable, not because they've decided to kill the story for space or format changes—that should pay 100 percent of the fee. Make sure this is specified in the contract, which might include a paragraph like this:

In the event the Author delivers an Article on time, cooperates fully in the editing process, and used best professional practices to revise the Article in accordance with the Publisher’s instructions and the Publisher does not ultimately deem the Article acceptable for publication, the Author will be paid a kill fee equal to 50% of the agreed upon fee for the Article.

  • Also, you'll want to see a clause in your contract that says if a piece is killed, that the rights revert to you, so that you might be able to sell it elsewhere quickly. That language could look like this:

If an Article is rejected and not published, the rights assigned to the Publisher in relation to that rejected Article shall revert to the Author.

Keep track of when payments are due

  • Have a system for tracking when you send invoices and when you expect to receive payments. NASW Freelance Committee member Jeffrey Perkel shared with us his tracking system, which includes a spreadsheet that automatically adds red, bold text in certain cells when payments are past due. Perkel explained his system here. Here's a sample spreadsheet, from Perkel.

If a payment is already late

  • Don't be afraid to keep emailing editors about late payments. Set calendar reminders to do so, so you can put the problem out of your head until it comes time to send the reminder.

In your emails, you can be firm, but diplomatic, by mentioning the payment period in your contract and leaving open the possibility that the fault doesn't lie with the company not sending the check on time:

I saw our contract says TK Media pays within 30 days. It's been 45 and I haven't seen the check yet. Did something get lost in the mail? Is there anything I should do, or any other information you need?

  • If you're continuing to work with a client who has outstanding payments, note them in any new invoices you send. Here's an example invoice.

  • Some freelancers have added a modest "late fee" (usually a small percentage of the total fee) when re-sending past-due invoices. While we've yet to hear of an instance when a client has actually paid a late fee, just the mention of one can sometimes speed a check along to you!

December 8, 2015

Drexel University Online