I often advise new students to start modestly with local papers, local magazines and other niche or humble titles. It helps build up confidence, gets you into the habit of writing regularly, boosts your research skills… and so on. You’ll also probably get useful feedback from editors with whom you’re working.
Often, small publications may offer nothing more than a free copy of the issue in which your work appears, and the pleasure of seeing your name and work in print. “We have no budget, I’m afraid,” the editor may solemnly tell you.
What they probably mean is they have no allocated budget for freelance writers. Perhaps most of their material is produced in-house. Perhaps their local celebrity columnist is charging them too much.
Or perhaps they’re just saying that to see whether you’ll agree to donate your work for free. I don’t want to make you distrustful of editors, or paint them all as unscrupulous, but some editors, seeing you as a new writer, may tell you they can’t pay you when, actually, they could. And in their defence, it’s merely a business move. If there’s a chance they can get something good for free, why fork out for it? There’s always something else on which to spend the budget.
Because there is a budget, mark my words. No publication has no budget. It may be a shoestring budget. It may only be a tin of petty cash. But there’s always something in the kitty. Staff wages, printers, postage, stationery, utility bills – all these have to be paid for. And there is income to pay for it all, obviously – advertising revenue, mainly. So, unless all concerned are working generously for some charitable cause, money is changing hands. Can you get your paws on some of it?
I am not saying never work for nothing. Sometimes, to get clippings, you might need to. I’m not suggesting you imply the editor is lying. Sometimes, an editor really has been given no money to spend by his bosses at all, and it’s difficult to know when this may be the case.
What I am saying is that if you’ve done several pieces of work for a client for free, then it’s time to ask for a fee and time consider moving on if you get a “We have no budget”. In this situation, it may be a good tactic to call that possible bluff. I’ve heard a number of stories of writers giving notice of their services, and a little money – even if only £50 – being suddenly and miraculously found. Don’t be afraid to try it.
And if you’ve got a strong one-off feature idea, and you’re in a strong position to write it, then you’re in a strong position to negotiate a price for it. If you get a “We have no budget” in such an instance – I’d advise you to try elsewhere.