Freelancing doesn’t mean working for free. Of course, there are times when doing work for free can be justified, especially if you have a personal attachment to the project (designer Jessica Hische advises you always do work for your mother), or if you really do believe it’s the best way to gain exposure that could lead to paying work later. But for the most part, if you’re a freelancer and you’re pitching your work to outlets and organizations, you’re doing it because you need to be paid, and you need to be paid an amount that actually covers the cost of your time.
Any freelancer will tell you, though, that there are plenty of places who expect either free or very, very inexpensive work. And for a long time, there was no way to know which clients those were. Freelancers, though, are working to change that.
Traditionally, most clients have kept their rates under wraps, only telling freelancers how much they pay after the work has already been done, or at least, after it’s been conceptualized. As a result, people who work for themselves have a hard time gauging which outlets are worth pitching to at all, and outlets (particularly those with prestige, wherein a byline is considered payment enough) can get away with charging surprisingly low rates.
As Noah Davis points out on the Awl, that’s because there’s not always that much financial value to small amounts of freelance work.
“It’s not news that making a living by writing on the Internet is a tough business. Freelancing for websites is nearly unsustainable, especially in the one-off pitch, write and edit sense. But here’s the thing: It rarely makes financial sense for the website, either,” he explains, noting that most web content doesn’t make a lot of money for the sites.
But what about larger clients, like advertisers, who absolutely do make money from the work of writers, photographers, and designers? Shouldn’t those clients be ponying up more than $25 per photo or article?
Enter websites like Who Pays Photographers? and Scratch Mag’s Who Pays Writers?, both of which work to create a database of clients and their rates, to help freelancers navigate the financial offerings of various outlets and advertisers. Lists include big companies, like Urban Outfitters, who reportedly pay $250 for a half-day shoot, and keep all the rights to your images, or the New York Times Sunday Review, who, according to a report from Scratch, don’t offer a kill-fee (a smaller amount of money than previously agreed-upon in the event that an article doesn’t make it to press), and thus, may not pay writers at all.
These websites also indicate other potential pitfalls for freelancers — like straight-up not getting paid, or checks taking a very long time to be delivered, which can help photographers and writers decide who they want to work with.
The subject of non-payment has been a long-standing one in the freelance community. In 2012, the Freelancers Union created the World’s Longest Invoice, wherein individuals who had done work were encouraged to share which clients had failed to pay them. The idea was to not only out clients who didn’t pay for work, but also to “allow [workers] to come together and show the world the scope and reach of this challenge – and help solve it,” according to Dan Lavoie from the Union. The amount owed at present? $15,997,477.00.
To make a living as a freelancer — whether you’re a photographer, a writer, a developer, or some other kind of creative person — you have to have a steady stable of clients who reliably pay enough to cover all of your bases, and then some. And while it might be hard to discern from clients themselves how much they pay (or if they pay at all), the community of freelancers seems to have taken it upon themselves to share their insight at take some of the mystery out of the money side of things.