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Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Money Test: Say Yes--or Not?

When I started freelancing 14+ years ago, I said "yes, please!" (think Austin Powers) to any paying work that came my way. I was trying to make money. My financial goal my first year was to make...wait for it...$10,000. I have no idea why I chose that number, other than it was a nice, neat one and seemed realistic for someone launching a freelance business with no connections, no experience, and no clue.

However, having a financial goal (even a small one) made me focused on money and it meant that every assignment I took that first year had to pay something--even if it was just $25 or $35 for a short piece for the local paper. Even the "small stuff" did move me toward making my income goal that first year. and I actually made more than $17,000 my first year of freelancing.

Today I can't say yes to everything, or even most things. And over time, I've developed a four-part test I use when I decide whether to take on work:

1. How much money does it pay? (If you're freelancing to make a living, or at least make some green, this is obvious.)

2. Less obvious--how much time will it take? I've found that the work I've done for national magazines takes far more time (including the pitching and follow-ups) than the work I do for smaller publications. Yes, the big magazines pay more, but I'm always looking at my hourly rate, not just the size of the check. And sometimes the magazines that pay less per word, actually pay more per hour.)

3. What's the PIA factor? My regular readers know that PIA is my shorthand for "Pain In the..." Some clients and editors are just...annoying. I'm thinking of an editor I work with who takes forever to respond to queries, then assigns stuff with ridiculously tight deadlines. I love her, but there's definintely a PIA factor to working with her. And if that PIA factor on a particular project is high, I'm either going to get more money...or I might even walk away.

4. Will this work further my career--and if so, how? So, for example, when I wrote my first book, Ready, Aim, Specialize, I received an advance of $2,500. And I interviewed 56 people for it! Looking at my hourly rate, I made more as a teenaged lifeguard. But I wanted to start writing books, and I had to begin somewhere. So I said yes to the book, added "author" to my CV, and even made royalties from it. My first book led to many others, which made the first deal worth it.

What about you? How do you decide to take on work? Is it just about the money or do you consider other factors as well?


  1. Wow, Kelly, this post came at just the right time! I am currently trying to decide whether the exposure is worth it to accept a non-paying writing position for a local business magazine. I have been building up a portfolio, and although most of the pay has been quite modest, I have never written for free before. I am gathering from this blog post that you would not advocate accepting a non-paying position even if the exposure might be good. Thanks!

  2. Here's my thought, much are you losing in terms of opportunity cost? The work you do for free takes time away from work you could be doing for paying clients...and I think that working for free devalues your work to your clients, too. So, I would advocate against it. Sounds like you're already leaning in that direction. (As I've heard other writers say, "Why write for exposure? People *die* from exposure!")

  3. A timely post, as I consider these questions yet again. #4 made a lot of sense to me and may be the reason I move ahead with a certain project.

  4. Just this week, I told one editor she needed to commit to publishing my piece before I'd show her a "draft" (which was pretty nice of me, I thought, considering how insulting she sounded) and told another editor who suddenly experienced a budget cut that I'd love to continue to write for them—only when there was money again. The second one caused me more pause than the first because I'd just done my first piece for them (which will of course be paid) and want to keep a relationship. But, doing that work for free in the future would devalue me and frankly, that's not time well spent for me, exposure or not.

    Kelly, not to tell you what to write, but here's a question from someone less experienced who really likes your approach to these things: I've written for a couple of fairly reputable political magazines and wanted to keep building that relationship. A one-off piece is fine; I can say I wrote for them and use it to get in the door bigger and better places. But perhaps obviously, I'd like to keep doors of opportunity open for the future. Thing is, two of them were lousy about paying. One took nearly a year to cut a check for less than $200! I haven't bothered approaching them again again but I somehow wonder: does this reflect poorly on me, not being published multiple times by the same magazine? I'd go crawling back except my pride and my bank account won't let me. Is that silly? Feel free to say yes :)

  5. Hey, Jennifer, glad it was perfect timing! Drop me an email if you want and let me know more. :)

  6. Brittany, thanks for your comment, and don't worry about writing for a magazine only once or twice before you move on. Here's the thing--some markets are great to write for and pay promptly. Some don't. Do you really want to waste your time (see my above comment on opportunity cost) writing for markets where you have to chase down money?

    Yes, it's great to write for markets regularly, but only if they're worth the effort. Look at it like dating--you may have to go on some lame first dates (your first assignments) before you find a good guy to go "steady" (do regular assignments) for. Make sense? :)

  7. Yup. I just wanted the cute boy to like me, you know? :)

    Thanks Kelly!

  8. Fantastic article, Kelly! I really appreciate your "cost-benefit analysis" approach to decision-making. After all, freelancing is a business!

    I'm going to Tweet it up right now. Looking forward to reading more, Marla

  9. Thanks, Marla! I appreciate it! :)