I want to get this out up front, because I think it’s one of the most problematic parts of being a writer. Payment isn’t optional, it’s not a bonus, it’s your living wage. YOU MUST GET PAID. Fuckers who tell you that you’re going to get good exposure or whatever are either deluding themselves or trying to screw you. There aren’t two ways about it.
I was contacted a few years ago by a web-based start-up that wanted me to write some pieces for them about modern culture or something, I don’t even remember now, but when I asked (as I do) about payment, the answer was a cryptic, “You’ll get a byline.” I pondered this particular statement before I replied, because I didn’t want to be a jackass and send a knee-jerk reaction out into space. When I did reply, it was to inquire further about the price and informing said publication of my going rates.
Now, I realize that I’m up there — I’m not cheap — but you get what you pay for. You want it tomorrow with no errors and all the Is dotted and the Ts crossed? Fine. I’ll give up sleep, let my family eat donuts for dinner, whatever it takes to get it done. It’ll be flawless, you’ll be happy, I’ll rest when I’m dead. That’s me. I grew up on a farm, then worked at a daily newspaper when I was still young and impressionable — I can work like a beast when I must.
But, anyway, the young punk who responded to my inquiry about this byline stuff was somewhat stiff, repeating how much exposure and whatnot I was going to receive from their magazine with a circulation of zero. I would get to “put myself out there.” Oh.
This time I couldn’t control my rather violent nature and shot back at him with one of my favorite phrases: “I can’t eat bylines.” There were some other colorful phrases, too, but that’s the one that I’m going to share. I didn’t get another reply, oddly enough.
What I did get, a few days later, was a contract to write a book about a book — and it DID pay. Go figure. Anyway, the point of all of that was this: YOU MUST GET PAID! Now, let me qualify that a little. I worked for free for six months to get some experience, but trust me, once you’re beyond that greenhorn stage and you know your shit, someone will pay you. If they don’t, or worse, they try to tempt you with “revenue share” (code for “we’re going to pretend we intend to pay you, but we won’t actually pay you”), tell them where they can stick it.
Too many “writers” are willing to give their work up for nothing. You’d never in a million years expect a baker, a dentist, a mechanic or a teacher to work for free, so why would you think a writer would? It’s a job, guys. I know you want it to be sexy and fancy and special, but you’re not a precious little snowflake. What you are is an expert in written communications, maybe several forms, and you deserve to get paid for your skill. You write because A) you’re good at it, B) you’re too lazy to get a real job or C) you’re too drunk to get to work on time. So for fuck’s sake, be thankful and treat it like a job.
Pricing is a place where writers get hung up, and the market changes all the time. Here I can’t give you the kind of specific direction I’d prefer, but I can suggest you join some freelance writer groups and ask. Some people will be forthcoming, some people will tell you to stop prying into their personal lives. That second group is still probably working for free, so ignore them.
I started out with the attitude that as long as I was making more than I would flipping burgers, I was doing OK. That’s a bad attitude. If you’re truly good at what you do, if you’ve built a reputation for excellence, you deserve to make as much as other highly-paid, highly-educated professionals. People come to me with emergencies, with pieces that just won’t come together, and I save them every day. I also get every nickle I deserve.
There’s no glory in being broke just because the myths of your profession say it should be so. It’s not a necessary — most of us talk about our low-earning periods as “The Days” because they’re the only ones we can still remember.