Shy about money (Mistake #27)

“Money’s such a sensitive issue to broach with an editor,” a rather talented student told me today.

No, it is not.

Publishing is a business. Writing articles is work. People get paid for their work.

The typical exchange goes like this:

Student: “Hi Alex! Just got an acceptance from an editor!”
Me: “Great! What fee have they offered?”
Student: “Er, haven’t asked.”
Me: “Ask!”
Student: “How? I don’t know how to phrase it!”

And it’s always the good writers too, who fret about how to word their query! It makes me smile. Try:

“Thanks very much. Delighted you like the piece. What’s the fee you’re offering for it, please?”

And sign off.

Do not:

a/ Ask “Is there a fee?” – which merely tells an editor you’re a new writer who may be prepared to receive nothing but a published clipping, and invites an easy “No”;
b/ Say “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but…” – which is pussyfooting around an editor; he will not bite; he deals with money issues daily;
c/ Say “Please can you pay me something because I worked really hard on this?” – which is amateurish and begging.

Be polite, firm, unapologetic, brief and professional.

He may say no, there’s no budget, I’m sorry, take it or leave it, albeit politely. You may like to refer to Mistake No. 7 in that case.

He may make an offer which is a bit crap. You could negotiate. (Some would argue that you should always try to enter negotiations, but for new writers, I tend to advise accepting a reasonable offer at first.) Again, use a similar straightforward approach.

“Thanks, but that seems a little low. How about £x?”
“Could you make it £y? The interviews took a lot of work.”

He may agree, or meet you half-way, or he may go “I really can’t, sorry”. I would probably advise to accept it, in that case, unless you really feel you can get a stronger offer elsewhere. (I have known a few to venture “I’ll get back to you in a few days” to give the impression to the editor that they’re going to try for more at a competing title. This bluff could work, once at most, but tread carefully as you could get a reputation for slightly dodgy dealing.)

He may make you a decent offer up front. All good.

What he will not – ever – say is this: “How dare you ask about fees, you mercenary swine! Never darken my door again, you greedy money-grabber! And you can keep your rotten article too!”

You have nothing to lose.

Comments 16

  • And if you're helping the editor out of a fix, you can sometimes ask for more. Today, an editor emailed me about an idea I'd pitched last April. Suddenly an article he was planning for next month's issue has fallen through. Could I help him out by doing my pitch, but in 24 hours. He offered a fee, I asked for a bit more because of having to rearrange my work load. He agreed.

    As you say – nothing to lose and everything to gain!

  • Great advice, as always.

    I remember my first ever acceptance (non-fiction). No fee was mentioned. I struggled and sweated and started an email at least 59 times before coming up with almost precisely what you suggest in this post.

    The editor replied something like – oh sorry, forgot to say, we'll pay you £100, hope that's acceptable.

    It was more than acceptable for my first publication – I was grinning like a cat for days and bought myself a very nice piece of jewellery when the cheque arrived.

  • Simon – yep, I'd certainly ask for a bit more in such a case. Anything when the editor is asking for a bit over the usual call of duty justifies a request for a fee hike, I'd say.

    Womag – nice anecdote. My first acceptance was £100 too. I still have the letter…

  • Great post – what many new writers need is the wording and you gave them just the right words.

    When I ask for writers'guidelines I also always ask what their fee is.
    If you provide photographs as well then it never hurts to ask what they pay for photos. Often they have no extra budget for photos but I have sometimes received extra especially for travel articles which depend on good photos.

  • Thanks, Ann. I think it's worth remembering that if you do ask for fees before working for an editor, he's likely to quote minimum rates. Always bear in mind that you may be able to negotiate more. I certainly think photographs should be paid for too – but maybe Simon will have further thoughts on that if he returns…

  • Really helpful post, Alex. I used to sweat figuring out the wording in my I-need-to-be-paid mails as well, but have now become much better at it, thanks to an assertiveness lesson I picked up from my corporate job days.

    Assuming I'm sending out an outline, I usually quote my fee for the full article if I know the editor, or state a range within which I'd be willing to produce the article. The drawback to this is that I may end up quoting much lesser (or much more) than I should be getting, thus revealing my ignorance and sometimes risking not getting published. Usually though, it sends out a clear message that this is work for me and have no problem asking to be paid for it.

  • Hi Shefali, that's an interesting tactic. Not sure I've come across it before, and don't think I've ever tried it. Do you gradually try to edge your fee upwards over time? Has anyone else tried this?

  • No, I haven't hiked my fees yet; it's almost always in the same range. I haven't been a published writer for long enough; as much as I detest admitting it, sometimes, desperation to just see my name in print does overcome other factors! So I usually quote a fee that has been acceptable to other editors, even if it means the fee is sometimes lesser than the 'standard.' Also, I have only worked with Indian editors so far. I'd like to know if others think this would work with international markets.

  • Alex
    I wonder if you can help with this one? A few months back I sent an article 'on spec' for the Guardian's 'What I'm Really Thinking' piece. They liked it, asked me to make a few changes, which I duly did – and then I heard no more. I've just noticed that they have subsequently published it (recently). Can I assume that I will/won't be paid for this – or should I ask?? Or is it too late?! Doh! I feel a bit stupid but surely a national broadsheet would pay for contributions?! thanks Helen

  • Unsure, but I've always suspected that slot to be a reader's slot (bit like the letters' page) and therefore non-paying. Did you submit as a 'reader' or make it clear you were a writer?

    Tough to advise. It's not too late, but you'll hate me for saying you should've asked when they asked you for revisions.

    You could just try the brazen approach and ask who/how much to invoice.

    I'll ask about and Tweet it and see whether others have alternative suggestions or insights.

  • Alex, thanks. No, I probably didn't make it clear that I'm a 'writer' (this was a few months ago – I like to think I'm a bit more 'savvy' now!). Yes, you are right, I should have asked at the revision stage but I had stars in my eyes at the thought of being published in The Guardian!!! I will wait and see what your Tweets come back with. But I can always put it down to experience…!

  • You still have that published clipping. But I would not just leave it. See last two paras of my post…

  • Alex, thanks. Yes, I've taken your advice and emailed them to ask about the fee. I'll let you know what response I get! Helen

  • Yes, please do. Will be useful to know.

  • Alex, just to let you know, I did get an answer from the 'What I'm Really Thinking' people at the Guardian, as follows: "I'm afraid we don't have a budget for this page, as the column is submitted by readers – and often done by interview over the phone." (Mine wasn't done by interview – I wrote it all myself but there we go! At least we know now). Helen

  • Thanks for letting us know, Helen.

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