Jenn is also a close friend. Some of our more enjoyable times together have been spent in her house, my feet propped up on the footstool in her office, as we alternate between working and chatting. What's impressed me for years about Jenn is her ability to organize and implement killer marketing and business plans and make it look easy. It probably has something to do with the charts she has nailed to her office wall. She juggles a lot, and the charts help her stay on track.
Jenn is also a writer who doesn't take less pay than she's worth. There's no need. As freelancing's original query-free writer, Jenn's clients come to her. Who wouldn't want to work that way?
Today, Jenn tackles a disturbing trend in publishing: the idea that writers should be "earning out" their fees by way of driving traffic to publishers' websites. Here's why Jenn thinks we freelance writers shouldn't fall for it:
Should a Publisher's Failed Business Model Influence Your Freelance Writing Rates?
by Jennifer Mattern
I stumbled across an online discussion among editors the other day, representing both print and online publications. They were discussing how much a publication should pay its freelance contributors. The insights overall were interesting. But one stood out.
Over and over again editors would bring up the issue of their publication's ad revenue. One particular commenter noted that most freelance submissions they receive never "earn out" their payments.
This idea of expecting freelancers to "earn out" their payments rubbed me the wrong way. No freelance submission has to earn out anything. And it's not a freelance writer's responsibility to directly influence a publication's earnings.
Whose responsibility is that? The publisher's.
Much of the value freelancers bring to the table comes from their ability to attract readers and build the trust and interest that keeps them coming back (just as staff writers do). It's up to the publication to convert that readership into a viable revenue model.
What You Can do if You're Asked to Write For Less
If a publication's revenue drops, their budget will likely drop with it. What can you do if your editor asks you to take a pay cut to accommodate this lower budget? You have two basic options:
- You can agree to the lower pay.
- You can replace that client with one that can afford you.
I wouldn't recommend the first option. I understand the appeal. It's the easy way out when you don't want to seek out other clients. You might have a great relationship with your editor (and the budget decision might not have been their call). You might even hope it's a temporary problem and you'll go back to your old rate eventually.
That isn't likely to happen. If a client's budget decreases, something should have to give. For example:
- They might accept fewer freelance submissions.
- They might request shorter articles from freelancers.
- They might relax some of their requirements (longer deadlines, fewer required interview sources, etc.).
- They might hire less experienced freelancers knowing that quality might suffer initially.
- They might purchase fewer rights.
That's the reality of being in business. If you cave and accept that your work is less valuable because they suddenly have less money and you don't ask for equal compromise, you're the one who loses. Once a client sees that they can get the same exact thing for less pay, they have absolutely no incentive to raise those rates again.
This is one of those situations where it helps to remember this is business and you sometimes need to keep emotions out of it. By all means, don't burn bridges. But don't let yourself be pressured into staying with a client who can't afford you.
If you haven't been actively marketing your writing to other prospects, you might be more inclined to stay on at the lower rate on a very temporary basis. I don't recommend it, but only you know your current situation. If you opt to go this route, now is the perfect time to start marketing more actively so you can leave this client as soon as you're able to.
Remember, target markets mean more than niche or industry specialties. For a client to be a member of your target market, they must actually be able to afford you. If the clients you've been targeting can no longer do that, you might need to rethink the markets you're pursuing.
Other Ways Freelance Writing is Being Devalued
Being asked to write for less is just one example of the kinds of requests I've seen recently from prospects looking to cut corners. After all, it's easier to blame advertisers for their problems and try to push more responsibility onto their freelancers than it is to fix the underlying problems with their business models.
Here are a few other examples of newer demands I've seen from clients (with no additional pay to compensate for them):
- Writers are expected to take, find, and/or license photographs for the articles they write.
- Freelance writers, especially for online publications, are expected to promote all content they write via social media, usually through their personal accounts.
- Contributors are expected to find editors to review their work in lieu of having a staff editor in charge of quality control.
- Bloggers are expected to monitor and respond to comments on their articles (sometimes indefinitely).
Are any of these things inherently wrong? Probably not (although I'm personally against any employer or client telling you how to use your personal social media accounts). The problem is that these are all add-on services. Either your base rate should be higher for content requiring these things (such as in the case of monitoring blog comments) or an additional fee should be negotiated.
Instead, what I've seen with some clients is that they want to tack extra services onto existing contracts, and they don't think they should have to pay any more for them. That's not okay.
Remember, you're a business owner. You offer something of value. And you deserve to be compensated fairly for that value you provide. It's up to you to decide what "fair compensation" means to you. It's not up to failed business decisions of prospects or even existing clients. Let them get their own acts together. There are plenty of fish in the professional sea, and you can always find new ones who value what you bring to their teams. The key is continuing to seek them out instead of getting too comfortable with your current client base.