MY EARNINGS HISTORY as a freelance writer looks like a bell curve. When I started in journalism in 1993, writing record reviews and short news items for the SF Weekly, I got ten cents a word. By ’97 I was getting two dollars.
I can still pull that down occasionally, but more often it’s closer to the $150 I got for about 500 words for Good.is, or, worse, the sad, sad, three-cents-a-word I was getting for a weekly online column (for a nonprofit with decent traffic, but still). And the frequency of writing “for exposure” grows with your every tweet.
The weird thing is that while print has fewer pages to commission due to the decline in ad revenue that started with Web 2.0 and was accelerated by the Great Recession, online publishing still hasn’t had the ad revenue to compete with what print pays. So where is all this leftover money? Sitting in ad agencies’ bank accounts?
Surprisingly, perhaps, some of it actually seems to be going to writers. Although some freelancers report receiving five percent of the print edition’s fee for a piece under the same title that would appear only online, over at the Yahoo newsgroup Upod (an acronym for “under promise, over deliver”) they have better news: a recent poll of the 1000 mostly-freelancer members found several websites offering a dollar-a-word and up.
That was the benchmark figure when I started writing—but it’s worth about $1.47 today. So it’s still an uphill struggle to support a family in a major metro area as a freelance writer. It’s not impossible, though; I know a few personally who manage this.
Nonetheless, most would be wise to flesh out their income by writing in different media. Film and television is the most lucrative; even if your name is never on screen, if you’re both lucky and good you can pocket $30k for a pilot that takes a couple of months to write—and if you’re really lucky and really good, rewriting features can earn you as much as fifty grand a week. Proposals for books that can be completed on a part-time basis routinely earn $30k advances, according to lit agents—the eBook notwithstanding. I can personally attest that PR writing brings in $45 an hour and up (if you have experience). Speaking engagements, if you have a “brand” as a columnist, pundit, or book author, also help good writers put the icing in the gravy and bring home the bacon.
“There is more hope than you would think,” says Upod founder and moderator David Hochman (a regular contributor to O, Playboy and many others). “It’s not all ten dollars an article like the content farms are paying. There’s a lot more ways to make money now, and I feel like there’s a revival happening just in the last six months.”
Below are what Upodders reported, this fall, receiving from various online pubs. Keep in mind this is what somebody has earned, not necessarily a standard rate. Always ask for more, or, if they first offer less, politely express your wonder that you know someone who got more.
BTW, I got $50 for this (but I over-delivered).[Editor's note: to the extent we've been able to find them, links go to freelance writer guidelines or contact info. If you want the full up-to-date scoop on how to pitch these and hundreds of other pubs, consider ponying up for AvantGuild membership at mediabistro.]
UNDER A QUARTER
$150 flat fee (750 word essay; Q&A up to 3000 words)
AROUND A THIRD TO A HALF-DOLLAR A WORD
$250 flat fee (commentary)
$300 and up (reported)
“writers they like” are said to get $1/wd and up
$30 flat fee for a 200-word email newsletter
$150 flat fee for articles around 500 words
$250-$400 flat fee (750 words)
NYTimes.com (“In Transit” blog)
$50 per post
$50 per post
$700 flat fee (800-1000 words)
$75 flat fee (100 word post with picture)
$500 flat fee for a post of 250-1200 words
$250 flat fee; length ranges 350-1000 words
A BUCK A WORD AND UP
Chatterberries.com (now fashionablebride)
Momentum (Univ of Minn. eco journal)
Travel & Leisure
$1000 flat fee for a slideshow
HBR.org (Harvard Business Review)
$1.20 – $2/word
* The travel writing course from MatadorU gives you access to freelance writer leads, as well as connections to travel editors at Matador and beyond.
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Paul Tullis writes, from Los Angeles, on policy, politics, science and culture for a variety of national magazines (and websites). He blogs—for free—at huffingtonpost.com/paul-tullis.