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Setting Fees

As the market shifts and publications die, freelancers need to know how to set competitive fees.

Ahh, the halcyon days of the late '90s. Venture capitalists and advertisers were funding online and traditional publications with such fervor that freelance rates rocketed.

Good freelancers hardly had to negotiate. Calls and gigs came in over the transom, copy and invoices flowed outward, and checks streamed in. Then, the market tanked.

Welcome to the return to reality, and the world of negotiating fees. When the economy was strong, writers benefited. Today, some writers find themselves being offered less money for the same type of work they performed just a year ago.

In its July 2001 "Report on Pay Rates for Freelance Journalists," the National Writers Union noted that to earn what the average college graduate earns, freelancers would have to earn $1.25 to $1.60 a word (

As the report noted, "In real dollars, freelance rates have declined by more than 50 percent since the 1960s."

Be reasonable
For many writers, a plethora of assignments and high fees are so 20th century. With the slowing economy, times tightened. So, too, then did individual writer's business practices. For many, 2001 was a time to reassess each client relationship—or at least those that remained—and make some hard decisions on fees, and what the writer was willing to accept.

To be sure, some writers were hit with the lamentable and detestable "Times are tough so we're cutting our writers' fees" argument. The appropriate response would seem to be, "Have you said that to other vendors, like your printer or landlord?"

If you're steadfast in your desire to never take a pay cut—and can afford to walk away in the face of one—then that's a decision you have to make.

The ability to negotiate is central to getting what you deserve. Know your own min-max, or the amount you want (your "max") and the lowest figure you'll accept (your "min").

Look for the common ground. Where can you add value—without selling your soul and selling out for subpar rates? Can you deliver value-added efforts that can make your work more attractive—and essentially upsell your client to more money? Maybe cover a local or regional conference or event, conduct interviews locally, or otherwise take advantage of your local market positioning to make yourself more valuable to the client.

It comes down to being prepared to sell yourself. Whether a strong or soft economy, having your papers in order can help you sell yourself in a moment's notice. An editor whom I was pitching recently asked for a resume. I haven't presented, written or even updated my resume in more than two years. I assumed my Web site bio, clips and links were sufficient professional marketing devices.

In this case, I was wrong. I immediately set out to correct that. As I updated my resume, I considered and included all the accolades, awards, columns and other achievements I've gained in the past few years. Whether it was an award from the Small Business Administration, or posts as contributing editor at national publications, both of these instruments worked in concert to present an attractive resume—and a formidable argument as to why I should be paid more than a less experienced freelance writer.

Now, as I talk fees with editors, I include mention of those significant achievements. If you don't sell yourself in every available medium, you're not going to grow your stature and get your financial due.

Getting your due
How do you know what to demand—or expect? Discussing fees among friends to get a feeling for what a market, industry or publication is paying can help you set a reasonable expectation.

I have a network of freelance writers with whom I discuss issues of the day. Invariably, we'll chat about some of the publications we write for, and what the industry buzz may be. Such a networking exercise can keep us grounded and informed about industry trends and news.

Also, turn to publications, books, e-zines and Web sites for information. One resource that is particularly useful is Writer's Market (WD Books), and its expanded online version ( Both can help establish some baseline numbers for writing.

The NWU's Media Rates Database is another helpful resource that provides NWU members with the rates of publications. This is a good way to hold an editor's feet to the fire; if he or she quotes a figure, the member-writer can log on to see what's been noted in the database in the past.

Remember: Between knowing what you want, knowledge of existing rates, and being strong in your negotiating skills, you can improve your financial lot as a writer. All too often, writers are willing to take on face value, and agree on first blush, the offerings of an assigning editor.

Also remember this is business. Hard-played negotiations done wisely deliver one of three results:

1. You get what you want.
2. You get to some spot lower than what you wanted, but higher than what the editor was initially offering.
3. The editor stonewalls, and you are forced to cave or walk.

While negotiation skills are important, so, too, is the realization that times are tough all over. Still, some writers have ridden past success to currently strong—and fee-rich—assignments. And the most successful writers, at least from a financial standpoint, know how to play experience, credentials and chutzpah.

Jeffery D. Zbar is the U.S. Small Business Administration's 2001 Small Business Journalist of the Year, and is the author of Safe@Home: Seven Keys to Home Office Security (FirstPublish, 2001). He can be reached via e-mail at

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