When I started doing the ‘I don’t get out of bed for less than $4 a word’ thing, people started paying me $4 a word.”
This is all Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the New York Times Magazine staff writer and freshly minted best-selling novelist, told Cosmopolitan’s Jen Ortiz. In mid-June, when the comments hit the social media terrain, it didn’t take long for writers to bitch before realizing Brodesser-Akner is an aspirational figure, not a nemesis.
Citing a brutal workload and publicity schedule, Brodesser-Akner declined to comment, though in an email she attributed the flak coming from “just a couple of people” and expressed no regret for what she said. “Honesty is still good.”
A large lesson exists inside that concise quote: Writers should always ask for more money. Should our rates start at $4 a word? Heavens no. But Brodesser-Akner first attracted attention as a first-rate freelancer for a variety of well-known publications, including penning a series of memorable profiles at GQ. She has a remarkable knack for humanizing celebrities, people whose business is distancing themselves from us mortals. Read her piece on Don Lemon, the frequently mocked CNN personality, or new Batman Robert Pattinson. She deserves to get paid well.
So do you. All you have to do is ask.
Britni de la Cretaz, a veteran freelance writer, asks for more money 95% of that time. “The rate negotiation comes when you already know the publication wants what you have,” she says. “So, at the point, the power is actually in your hands.” That’s leverage.
She gets more almost every time. Editors, de la Cretaz believes, expect a negotiation. “They’re coming in low,” she says, “and they almost always have more money.” If she’s offered $50 for a blog post, she’ll ask for $75. For larger publications offering 60 cents a word, she’ll counter with $1 a word. For 1,500-word reported pieces, she started asking for $650 instead of being satisfied with $350. And she got it.
“I was surprised at how easy it was,” says de la Cretaz, who has written for The New York Times and The Atlantic. When the rate didn’t budge, she negotiated other perks such as travel and transcription costs.
“I ultimately think the amount of money that you want is whatever it is that will make you enjoy working on the piece,” says freelance writer Elon Green, who has written for a number of publications, including Columbia Journalism Review. “That varies by writer, and what made you happy two years ago is not necessarily what’s going to make you happy today. You ask for what you need.”
What if the editor refuses to budge on the price? It’s perfectly OK to walk away. I’m sorry, but that price doesn’t work for me, but maybe we can collaborate in the future. Thank you for your consideration. As de la Cretaz noted, your pitch works. Surely another publication will provide a home for a higher price. The benefits extend beyond dollars. The higher the price, Green believes, the more time editors will spend making it better.
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Getting more money involves finesse. You can’t be offered $1,000 and ask for $5,000. That’s an invitation for professional exile. Go slightly above what will make the story worthwhile. Let’s return to reality: $1,000 is too low; you want $1,500. Ask for $1,700. You’re negotiating up; the publication will negotiate down. This gives you a better chance of meeting in your middle. Based on how the editor responds, you can accept, politely decline, or negotiate extras like transcription fees.
If you’re worried about upsetting an editor, please redirect that concern. As a full-time freelance writer, I am running a business. Gratitude does not put butter on my bread. Good editors understand the realities. “I was totally sympathetic,” says former GQ executive editor, Devin Gordon, who felt bad if he couldn’t get a writer more money. And de la Cretaz doesn’t blame editors for not-great rates but a “broken media system” where everyone is working with “much less cash flow.” Translation: publications don’t have the money they did 20 or even 10 years ago, and it’s not as if the cost of living has plateaued. The editor who stomps their feet over a polite request for a 25-cent a word increase is either a tyrant, delusional, or both. Leave them behind without regret.
A lack of aggravation is more important because top-tier freelance writers don’t make that much money compared to elite professionals in other fields, says Gordon, who edited Brodesser-Akner at GQ. A contract freelance writer, like Chris Heath, writes five 8,000-word features in a good year. That’s $160,000. Yes, it’s a wonderful haul, but a pittance for doctors, lawyers, and top executives at banks and technology firms.
That money doesn’t factor in the research and prep work that separates a great writer from a good one. And let’s not forget: that six-figure salary is before taxes.
It’s not a great system.
“Can we just say it,” Gordon says. “It sucks.”
If you’re worried about upsetting an editor, please redirect that concern. As a full-time freelance writer, I am running a business. Gratitude does not put butter on my bread.
Green, de la Cretaz, and Gordon, now a full-time freelance writer, have all written pieces where the prestige of the publication outweighed their fee. “There are also publications that I’ve written for – that I would continue to write for – at discounted rates, because writing for them gets people to talk,” Green says. “That’s sort of the bargain I made with myself.” I’ve done that too. I wrote heavily reported oral histories for the websites at Sports Illustrated and Rolling Stone. The pay stunk: I earned less than $1,000 total – for both. But the prestige – and attention – those clips generated proved invaluable. It was a great investment, more so when one piece provided contacts and material for my book.
Every piece a freelancer writes, Gordon says, is a billboard ad to get more work, but he can see a world where the compensation is on par with the exposure.
“It’s just crazy to me that we’re not psyched about someone doing well,” he says. “We need some success stories in this business. Hopefully, with the impact of Taffy and how good she is and how successful she is, editors and publishers will say, ‘I’d rather have one Taffy and pay her $5 a word than five people who are a quarter as good and pay them a quarter of the money.’”
With decent-paying writing gigs at a premium, landing one is an accomplishment because it requires your heart and soul and professionalism, that exhausting mixture of the passionate and the practical. Don’t gripe about what everyone else is making. Advocate for yourself, and get paid. You deserve it.
Veteran freelance writer Pete Croatto (Twitter: @PeteCroatto) is working on his first book for Atria Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.