How Low Should You Go?

Beginning writers (and those still not up to their earning potential), this is for you.

The eternal dilemma: how little is too little payment for any job? When you’re starting out especially, the problem becomes how to build a credible list of accomplishments and make decent money. That’s how some get locked into writing for content mills (Let’s clear this up one more time – writing Web content is NOT the same as writing for content mills – your clips do indeed end up on the Web, but the difference is the content mills pay low prices for high volumes. Web content writing – articles, website copy, online brochures, advertisements, etc. – for any other client pays quite a bit more. Big difference.)

So how low is too low? That depends. I’m not saying you go into business today and start charging $100/hr. I’m saying start smart. Locate credible sources that will pay you a good starting wage. The easy way to figure this – does the amount of time you’ll put into that copy amount to a per-hour rate above minimum wage? Yes? And does that source hold weight with future clients – meaning are they going to see work that’s landed somewhere familiar or at least respectable? If yes, then go for it.

The more accurate way to gauge this is to do some math (stop groaning – that’s why calculators were invented). Get some paper, a calculator, and set aside a little time for you to consider your goals. How much money do you need to make this year in order to be profitable? Start with what you need in order to avoid driving to an office every day. Let’s say $30K.

Take that hypothetical $30K and factor in the things an employer is no longer offering you. Remember, you’re paying your own taxes and 401(k) now, and you could be paying for your own healthcare. How much per month for each of those? The IRS is ultra-helpful in helping you determine tax on your estimated amount, as are any number of tax applications.

Okay, now what about your office supplies? That ink costs you close to $100 every few months, doesn’t it? Business expense. Paper, tape recorders, phone lines, fax lines – count it all. Don’t forget any travel expenses if you expect to attend conferences or visit clients.

So how much of that $30K is left? That little, huh? Sounds like a real job, doesn’t it? But you’re not finished. Let’s put aside the expenses for a minute and go back to the original $30K.

How much per month do you need to make in order to reach that $30K? There’s your monthly goal – $2,500. Keep that number in mind. It’s how you’re going to measure each month your progress toward your own $30K annual benchmark.

Okay, now how much per hour? There’s your number. If you take less, you’ll be chasing your own tail in an attempt to reach that monthly goal. By my calculations, a $30K annual goal requires an hourly rate of no less than $15.625.

If you’re working for a content mill and cranking out four or more articles an hour, you’re probably feeling pretty smart right now because some of you may be making a bit more. However, that’s $15 and change per HOUR based on a 40-hour work week. Can you keep up that pace? Yea, no. You can’t. Try instead looking for magazines that pay you 10-50 cents a word. If you conduct two interviews per article and you can crank out that article in the same amount of time as four content mill articles, you’ll have quadrupled the rate-per-article of the higher-paying mills. And you’ll have a clip from a respected source that’s been vetted and edited.

Also, remember that your per-hour rate is going to be of the hit-and-miss variety. Precious few of us actually work a week in which we bill all 40 hours. So consider how many hours of work you’ll actually have in that week – if you’re starting out, figure about 10-15 as a high estimate. Now what’s your per-hour rate? If you work a 10-hour week, that’s about $62.50 per hour. The less you work, the more you need to charge.

But remember – you have to pay your taxes and benefits, too. Ugh.

While knowing what you need to charge is great, here’s another consideration; if you work for a client who needs website copy, etc., there’s an industry-accepted price that writers charge. If you come in somewhere around that price, you’ll have increased your income significantly. Example – I wrote website copy for a new website (the home page copy, landing pages, etc.). The client expected to pay around $2,500 for the project. I bid $2,200 and got the job. If I had bid based on the $30K expected hourly rate of $15.625, I’d have lost the bid by bidding just over $345. That would have branded me an amateur. Bid the value of the job, not the value in your head. The latter will keep you in your rut. The former will advance you beyond your target and help you set higher goals next year.

How low would you go? How far along in your career are you? And if you can share, what’s your ballpark annual goal?

About the author




  • Devon Ellington November 2, 2009 at 11:58 am

    My figurings wind up being more complicated, because of royalties. And royalties are a whole other schedule on the IRS form (but then again, they're very helpful.

    It's impossible to factor in the fiction royalties, because you can't estimate how many books you'll sell. You just work your butt off marketing and hope people are buying AND hope your publisher is being honest with you on the royalty statements. When you're getting lots of fan mail and the royalty statements don't reflect it — start asking questions.

    I just got my first royalty check from a non-fiction anthology that earned out its advance after three years. That was nice and totally unexpected.

    The plays are easier to factor in because I know how much i get paid per performance, and, since at this point, the companies that commission me book limited runs and then put it into repertory, I can figure out how much comes in during the course of a run. And anything on top of that is gravy.

    I still say, if you're starting out and want legitimate clips that will land you the well-paid work, pick a nonprofit about which you're passionate and take them on, for a limited amount of time, as a pro bono client.

    Few companies will hire someone who's worked for free (once you set up the free or cheap tag, that's it), but you can move into a paid position at another nonprofit and/or use the clips to vault yourself into well-paying, more commercial work.

    I personally prefer to work for nonprofits — I find the work more interesting. Even though the hourly is less than I get for corporate work, it's still well within my rate range (and far, far, FAR above content mills) and I find the work more interesting.

    I also learned more working in the development departments of a couple of museums that I was apply to other jobs moving forward than I learned anywhere else.

  • Eileen November 2, 2009 at 1:46 pm

    Lori, these six words are gold. All of us would do well to engrave these on the inside of our eyelids:

    Bid the value of the job

    This will protect you from wasting your time, because anyone with half a brain should recognize that a 500 word article is worth more than $2 But even more importantly, as you progress in your career, it will keep you from leaving money on the table – assuming, of course, that you operate your business on the premise that you will only work with clients who value what a good writer brings to the table.

  • Paula November 2, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    Leave it to content mills to make a paltry 10-cents a word look like big bucks.

    Good timing on this post Lori. This morning I heard back from the place I mentioned in the assessments thread – the job ad that seemed ideal for me. Their senior editor sent me an e-mail outlining the types of things they need, and some seemingly low prices. But I say "seemingly" since she didn't mention word counts. These are blog posts for a major portal (and by major I mean household name). If they want 200 word posts, the pay is adequate. If they want 500+ words, it's squat.

    Before I checked your blog this morning, I knew I needed to have a rock bottom number in mind before I contact the editor, and was already pondering most of the things you mentioned. Frequency of work will come into play for me, as well. I can't let low-to-adequate rates interfere with my ability to work for my regular clients. But these could be nice filler work for those occasional lulls (like a temporary one I'm in now while waiting for one of my regular editors to assign for the February issue). Yes, having a few hundred extra dollars a month sounds nice, but I need to figure the real cost of that before I make a decision.

  • Wendy November 2, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    How low I would go would definitely depend on a lot of factors. If I wanted to get into writing fundraising copy with no experience, but I thought I had enough skills to do it; I would certainly go for pro bono work as Devon mentioned. There would be some value there by gaining some experience, a testimonial and maybe even a long-term job.

    If I was asked to write a couple of articles in the financial field where I didn't have experience and don't have enough skills to do a good job, then it would be a whole different story. For me, there would be no value in going too low. It would take me twice as long to write something like that.

    The thought of writing 2-3 articles an hour for a 40 hour week, makes me gag. There's no way I could do it. Actually, I could, but 99% of them would be pure crap. Imagine using those as clips for a higher paying client.

  • Lori November 2, 2009 at 7:26 pm

    Devon, absolutely true. Nonprofit work for a respectable charity of your choice is a great way to earn experience in an area while giving back. Why "give back" to someone who's given you nothing except low-ball offers? And I'm still waiting for royalties. That means I have to finish this fiction, which is my top priority. 🙂

    Eileen, it's true. The value of the job HAS to be considered or you're going to under-bid and look like an amateur. Obviously this isn't going to apply to content mills because the low-ball bid is money in their pockets, but in business writing, you have to compete with other professional writers and you'd better be close to the average bid rate. Unfortunately, there are people under-bidding in an attempt to win the job. I stick with my pre-recession quote. I can easily justify why I quote higher because dammit, I don't discount out of fear.

    Paula, I know. Ten cents a word – who'd have thought it was ever acceptable? But if you're starting out, you have to start somewhere. I'd rather writers went for a lower-paying magazine job than an ongoing gig that locks you into the mindset of quantity over quality. More on that tomorrow…

    For blogs, the price right now seems all over the map, but I'd quote a per-post rate and stick to it. If they want you, they'll pay it.

    Wendy, I couldn't have said it better. Exactly the point. Pro-bono work for charities. Actual decent pay from everyone else.

  • Kimberly Ben November 2, 2009 at 9:44 pm

    Awesome article, Lori. This is a goldmine of knowledge for anyone just starting out. I've only been at this for two years, and I'll admit it – I've lowered my rates out of fear, but honestly it would turn into a much bigger headache than anticipated. I felt as though I was working my tail off and LOSING money!

    When you know the worth of a project and charge clients accordingly, they really do respect what you do.

  • Paula November 2, 2009 at 11:18 pm

    Well, Lori, I spoke with the editor and checked their site. They seem to have flat rates for various types of posts – news items, popular topics, interviews/features. The short news items are $50 per post, but are often under 200 words, with no interviews. The popular topics pay $75 and length varies a lot. The interviews/short features only pay $100. Sadly, those are the things I'd enjoy most.

    So I was upfront and said while I do celebrity interviews all the time, the work involved – scheduling the call, doing the interview, transcribing the interview, and then writing the article – would take far more work than $100 will cover.

    I said if I have time, I would be open to some shorter things, and she mentioned that it sounded as if the rates might be an issue for me….so perhaps there is some wriggle room??? I don't know. We'll see. It could be some nice fill-in work – but as I told her, my higher-paying jobs will have to remain my priority.

    We'll see what, if anything, happens. If it's meant to be, we'll work something out. Otherwise, it wasn't meant to be.

  • Lori November 3, 2009 at 1:29 pm

    I think you handled it beautifully, Paula! $50 for a blog post is what I would consider decent. And I think you're right – there'd be too much time involved in the others to justify the low pay.

    Kimberly, it's ironic that I, a total math klutz, would be advocating calculations. ;)) But it's helped me stay on track, which has helped me increase my revenue over the years.