Writing for Dollars: 4 Tiers of Freelance Payment

Getting published usually means getting paid for your work. Getting paid is a good thing, even if you’re “not doing it for the money.” At the very least, it’s some validation your writing is actually worth something. To further illustrate my feelings on the subject, I’ll quote one of my favorite authors again:

 “If you wrote something for which someone sent you a check, if you cashed the check and it didn’t bounce, and if you then paid the light bill with the money, I consider you talented.”

— Stephen King

Note, all the info I’m going to present in this post is based on my experience publishing short stories in the genre market. It may not apply to the literary or the non-fiction markets, so if you write in either of those, this post may be of dubious value to you. Just saying.

How much you get paid when publishing short stories in the genre fiction market depends, of course, on where you publish. Some publishers pay nothing, some pay a little, and some pay all the way up to 10 cents per word and more. As you can imagine, it’s tougher to get published by the guys paying 10 cents per word.

From my experience, there are four basic tiers of payment in the genre market: exposure only, token, semi-pro, and professional. Only the first and last are clearly defined. The two in the middle are a bit of a mixed bag.

  • Exposure Only: These publications pay nothing. Some might send you a print or digital contributor copy, but many don’t, so it really is nada. The vast majority of small online fiction zines fall into this category, and a quick search at Duotrope reveals that nearly 50% of the markets that publish short horror fiction, for example, are exposure-only markets.
  • Token Payment: Just like it sounds, these markets pay a very small amount. In my experience, this is often not a per-word rate; it’s a flat fee somewhere between five and fifteen bucks. It’s important to note that fifteen bucks for a 1,000-word flash story works out to about 1.5 cents per word, which is semi-pro payment. In other words, some of these token markets technically pay semi-pro rates if the story is short enough.
  • Semi-Pro Payment: Okay, now we’re starting to hit the money, relatively speaking. The definitions I’ve seen usually define semi-pro payment at 1 cent per word to 5 cents per word. There are quite a few semi-pro markets that pay toward the lower end of that scale, usually 1 cent per word. Pro-paying markets might also pay semi-pro rates for reprints, which is something I’ve seen from time to time.
  • Pro Payment: Now we’re in the big time. This category is probably the best defined because well-respected professional writer organizations, like the SFWA (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America), have set a minimum amount a publication must pay to be considered a qualifying professional market, meaning if you get published there it counts a qualifying publication for membership in the SFWA. Anyway, that minimum payment is 6 cents per word, and as you can guess, there aren’t many markets that pay that much, and those that do are tough to crack. Two pro markets I’ve been trying to break through with for some time are Daily Science Fiction and Clarkesworld, which pay 8 cents and 10 cents per word, respectively.

Now that we’ve talked about what you might get paid, let’s talk about how you might get paid. Many semi-pro and pro markets are quite happy to send you a check, but nearly all the token markets and quite a few of the semi-pro markets prefer PayPal. In fact, some will only pay you through PayPal. So, if you don’t have a PayPal account, get one. It’s free, it’s not difficult to set up, and you can often use PayPal funds like a debit card or simply transfer the money into your bank account (though it takes like five business days).

You should also keep track of how much you’re getting paid, via a spreadsheet or accounting software. If you make over $400.00 in a year as a freelance writer, you have to claim that on your taxes, so you should definitely keep track. I’m not a CPA, so you shouldn’t take anything I say about taxes as gospel (I could easily be wrong). Susan Lee, EA, CFP, on the other hand, is someone you can and should listen to. She offers a ton of useful advice for freelancers of all types on her site FreelanceTaxation.com.

Got more info on reaping the vast riches from a freelance writing career? Did I post something factually inaccurate? Tell me about either in the comments.

14 thoughts on “Writing for Dollars: 4 Tiers of Freelance Payment

    • Most of my writing income currently comes from novel advances, but there is money to be made with shorts if you can publish consistently with the larger markets, which, of course, is no easy task.

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      • Doubtful. Actually, I’m not sure if the $400 limit is state-specific. Here in NC you don’t have to claim income unless it’s more than $600, and in fact most employers in my state won’t issue a 10-99 for taxes at all unless you hit over $600 from their business in particular, not $600 total. Might be worth dropping in on an H&R Block or such to check out.

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      • Absolutely. As I said, I’m no CPA, so the threshold could be different from state to state. Definitely one of those things to talk to your accountant about.

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  1. Anthologies vary in how they pay.

    Anthologies from major publishers (and some smaller publishers) pay an advance against royalties. Because the anthologies may not earn out the advance, no additional payment may ever arrive.

    Some anthologies, usually from mid-level publishers, pay a flat fee as a one-time payment.

    Some anthologies, usually from small presses, pay royalties-only, and some minimum amount must be earned before they’ll bother cutting a check. With these you may or may not ever see any money at all.

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