When the Writer Asks “How Much Do You Pay?”

By Jack Limpert

In a first post about editors and writers, I said the best question an editor could ask a writer was “What do you like to read?”

In a second post, I said my next favorite conversation was trying to find out if the writer knew a lot about something.

A third post: Let’s see what you’ve written.

And then there’s the question the writer always asks: How much do you pay?

As an editor, I mentally divided publishable stories into good, very good, and great. At the Washingtonian, we had a normal rate we paid for stories—when I started, it was 10 cents a word, when I retired it was a dollar a word. The good stories filled lots of pages and we expected those stories to be well-reported, clearly written, and on time. Writers got the normal rate because there was no shortage of writers willing and able to do those stories.

Stories that were very good, that had a little wow, were the result of a writer doing more thinking, working harder, being more creative. Many weren’t big stories but they were important and we often were willing to pay above the normal rate, especially for regular contributors.

The wow stories were what made the editorial package something special, something people would talk about and come back to. When dealing with writers who could do those pieces, the editor’s job is to make the writer say yes. There were no rules on what we’d spend, and the challenge was then to work with the writer to make the high-dollar gamble pay off.

Those stories might mean dealing with the writer’s agent. At the Washingtonian I usually dealt with agents only three or four times a year—it complicated things and increased costs to cover both the agent’s fee and the writer’s payment. But to get a great story, we gladly did it.

I also found book excerpts to be a way to get great editorial at a more reasonable cost. That usually meant dealing with the publisher to buy first serial rights, and those deals almost always were good for the publisher, the author, and the editor doing the buying.
My goal as an editor was to pay fairly. It’s a big plus for an editor to have writers want to come back and do more stories. Working with repeat writers saves money in the long run, makes everyone’s job easier, and usually results in better editorial.

The other side of that coin: Editors don’t have unlimited budgets. I always wanted enough money to go after great stories and that meant not overspending on other stories. Lots of writers had to work at our rates—sorry, that’s the most we can pay. We paid kill fees when necessary but I always saw them as wasted money and we tried hard to make stories work to everyone’s satisfaction. Having repeat writers meant fewer surprises and also helped minimize kill fees.

The editor-writer relationship didn’t always go smoothly. A few writers had delusions of grandeur, sometimes a story unraveled because of events. But there were very few bad endings. A lot of money changed hands, a lot of good, very good, and great stories were written.
My perspective on all this is as a print editor—that’s where the money has been. At the Washingtonian, the going rate for some online posts is $25. Nobody is making much of a living doing that kind of journalism.

And then there’s the coming of the robots. Here’s how the Daily Show had fun with how they might change how we work.

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