Working With Writers: Coming Up With the Right Amount of Money

By Jack Limpert

The best move I ever made as an editor was convincing the publisher, the boss, that I could be trusted with money. When I started at the Washingtonian, I felt hemmed in by bureaucratic inertia: We paid about this much to staff and about that much to freelancers. It’s the way we do it.

The feeling I got was that the magazine’s business side didn’t trust editors with money. Give them an unlimited budget and they’ll exceed it.

I worked to convince the publisher to give me budget freedom. I came in on budget and made him comfortable that I understood that the magazine was a business. Getting that budget freedom would let me make whatever money deals with writers got the best results. Why different kinds of deals? Because all writers are different—different skills, different needs at different times.

We had a floor for what we paid freelance writers—at the start, 10 cents a word, in time, a dollar a word. In the balance of power—or needs—between editor and writer, I sometimes wanted the freelance writer more than he or she needed us and I paid what it took to get the piece.

The real key to improving editorial quality was finding writers who weren’t one-time freelancers or staff writers. Staff writers are expensive—they have to be either great reporters and/or terrific writers to be worth the cost. The middle-ground: If a writer did a really good freelance piece, and knew something about a subject the magazine wanted to write about, my goal was to come up with a deal that would get the writer to do three or four or five pieces a year at rates better than freelance but not as much as a staff writer would cost.

The flexible pay approach worked especially well with women (and a few men) who had kids. In a number of cases, the woman writer had small children and no longer wanted a full-time job but did want to continue her career. Sometimes it was X number of pieces in a year for X amount of money. She could take short leaves from our arrangement whenever it suited her. I always thought those writers gave extra effort because we appreciated that their families came first.

Another approach to get good pieces and stay within the budget was to look for good writers who were between jobs or books. We could work out a deal that produced good stories for the magazine and helped the writer financially until a new job or book deal came along. Buying an excerpt from an upcoming book also brought good writers into the magazine at a reasonable cost.

As for the money deals between editors and writers, both sides have to come through as promised. The deals didn’t always work out, but usually they did and we both were happy.
After I posted this, I talked with someone who has worked in accounting at a publisher and he admitted that he always questioned why some writers had to be paid more than others. The mindset of people on the business side tends to be that buying words is no different than buying paper or ink. Let’s just buy a good grade of product at a reasonable price.

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