Improving your “paydar” – How to tell if a publication pays freelance writers

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This is a question that we get asked a lot from freelance writers who may be looking at new publications to submit pitches for their stories. How do you to tell if a publication pays their writers?

There are many reputable publications that pay decent money to writers. But it’s becoming easier for anyone to create an “online magazine”. Which means an increasing number of “publications” are looking for unpaid submissions to fill their pages. While this can be a great way to get a few pieces under your belt, the ultimate goal is to be paid for your stories. So how do you develop an accurate “paydar” so that you don’t waste time on the publications who want your work for free. Well, there are a few clues to look out for.

The number of ads
We’re talking about a magazine typically here, and in this world, advertising is an essential part of keeping a publication afloat. If it’s filled with very few ads, it can be a tell tale sign that there is very little revenue coming in, and there is likely to be very little budget for paying freelancers.

The quality of the advertisers should also be noted. If the publication is filled with 50 tiny ads of questionable lineage, then again, it’s unlikely that a lot of cash is coming in for those. Along with the general “vibe” and layout of the publication, you’ll be able to get a good idea of your chances.

The byline
Seeing your name in print is a real buzz as a writer. However, seeing a name alongside LinkedIn details and website contacts and phone numbers and more could suggest that this is a “thought leadership” piece and has not been paid for. The writer in question is likely to have been a leader in their field and has done the gig for industry credibility – to increase their profile and get some content out there.

The contributors’ page
Many clues can be obtained from the publication’s “fine print” page – listing the credits of who works there, the editor, sales team and writers. Some publications may list freelance writers and it’s here that you’ll also get a good idea of whether it’s part of a larger parent company. This is the kind of research you should be doing anyway, simply as routine when studying a new publication. And again, the more names here may mean the greater chance of there being a payroll for freelance writers.

Having said that, see the section on “The byline” above… contributors might be writing for the magazine for exposure!

Shouldn’t you just ask them?
When you’re starting out and trying to get those first stories out of the gate, it’s not a great idea to front up with zero experience and “do you pay?” being your first question. That’s why it’s always a good idea to study the publication first and get a feel for it. Your “paydar” will get better and better the more publications you study.

Of course, once you have experience under your belt, you can totally clarify payment in the initial pitching process. The language you use here should not be ambiguous in any way. Let the editor know that you expect to be paid for this story through clear language such as “if you’re interested, please get in touch confirming deadline and your editorial rate”.

Never assume that you’ll get paid if nothing has been discussed. Some publications have a mix of paid and unpaid content, so it’s important to know where you stand before you commit to writing the story. After all, calling yourself a “starving writer” is only fun for a while…


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