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What's more important: the money or the byline?
Some of the best bylines come with the worst fees. What should you do about it?
After we shared some of our professional insecurities last week, lots of you got in touch to share your own. It seems lots of us have been hiding behind our emails and Twitter handles pretending everything is fine, when really we are pretty scared. When so many responded to last week’s email, we realised one thing: we might do well with a little group therapy.
To that end, we’re going to set up a Zoom call for as many of you who want to join this Friday (2pm, 9th April). We’ll do a short introduction, then split the call into breakout rooms so we can discuss various issues us travel writers are facing. It will be an open, honest and safe space for us to talk about how we go forward post-lockdown. Sign up via this form and we’ll send the invite out later this week.
Lottie would also love to remind you that her “Breaking into travel writing” course is running via Journalism.co.uk again and will begin on 13th April. For anyone seeking a quick-start guide to getting into the industry, it will be hugely helpful. Past students have since had commissions from Nat Geo Traveller, The Sun and TripSavvy. More detail here.
Anyway, on with the newsletter… Happy New Financial Year! Or is it? Well, it can be. That’s why this month we’re talking about money. In the upcoming newsletters for paying subscribers, we’re going to be exploring how to negotiate more money, which publications offer the best rates and how to manage your time better to boost your income. Plus, we’ll talk about the USA and examine why publications across the pond seem to have more budget.
First up, though, here’s Lottie on one of her worst-paid commissions and why it might one day pay off…
Is it OK to work for low fees if the byline looks sweet?
I’ve just finished working on the longest story I’ve ever written. At my last submission, it sat at 2,800 words and I had spent a grand total of seven full working days squirrelling away at it — researching, interviewing, writing, rewriting, researching, rewriting some more… It has been quite the journey. I’d love to be able to say I’m pleased with it, and that when it’s published I will be proud. But I just don’t know anymore. It has been back and forth between me and my editor numerous times. It has morphed from the story I pitched into a far more complex and challenging piece to construct. And, frankly, I’m tired.
For the seven working days and 2,800 publishable words (and thousands more words that were cut or rewritten), I am being paid a measly US$400. And that’s before I deduct the expenses I incurred for hiring a translator at £60 per hour. In the end, for the time I spent on it, I’ll have made less than £40 a day. While I was working on it, I kept myself going with the “but think of the byline!” frame of mind. I was excited to have my name associated with such a well regarded publication. But now I’m out the other side of the editorial process, I feel like no byline is worth such meagre pay. Or is it?
We all know (hopefully) that it’s not OK to work for free. Working for no pay devalues our craft and encourages organisations to take advantage. The old “exposure doesn’t pay the bills” trope is pretty on the money (pun absolutely intended, thank you very much) and often working for free can even damage your reputation rather than bolster your profile. So surely the same can be said for working for a low fee?
Yes, to an extent. But sometimes — only some times — it’s not the end of the world, and there’s a few reasons I think this. Firstly, who’s to say what a “low” fee really is? Is £0.15 per word too little when the piece you’re writing only takes a couple of hours to complete? The only person who can make that call is you. The cold hard cash is the same to everyone, but its value is relative. For some, £100 is enough. For others, it feels like an insult. Money is personal.
The second reason is this: sometimes you do just want that byline. If I told you National Geographic Traveller pays just £0.10 per word (they don’t, by the way) but they really want you to write their next cover story, would you do it? Heck, I probably would. Of course I want my name to appear inside the the warm embrace of that iconic yellow border. If it were some unknown website with little editorial clout or reputation though, they could absolutely jog on.
Fortunately, Nat Geo offers a slightly healthier per word rate of £0.22 for print, so you don’t need to worry there. But my point here does come with a caveat. You have to make it sustainable.
In January we wrote a series on making travel writing a financially viable business, and this doesn’t go against that advice. Ultimately, you have to balance out those low-fee features with the well paid work. One day you might earn £250 in a few hours, the next you might earn £40 in a day — like I did. You have to decide if you’re comfortable with £0.10 per word and figure out if you can make that work financially for you.
I can already hear the cries of other writers saying “but working for low fees also encourages publications to take advantage!” And they’re right. It can encourage some publications to keep those lower rates because they know they can attract writers thanks to their good reputation and the promise of an “impressive” byline. But that’s why, when faced with low fees, your first response should always be to ask for more money. I did just that recently with a well-known media company and the editor came back with a yes: they will match my preferred rate. Don’t ask, don’t get. But if they can’t extend their budget, you can still negotiate on other things like word count, number of edit rounds or even expenses.
I’m a bit of a hypocrite, of course, because this is all stuff I didn’t do before I embarked on this drawn out editorial process that began in September last year. So how do I reconcile my £40-per-day piece that’s coming out later this month? Well, it’s a very different story — literally. I’ve never written anything like this before and it really showcases a different side to my writing skillset. I have invested an awful lot of my time in the article and while it wasn’t a financially savvy decision, I think that this addition to my portfolio will show that I can be a more “serious” writer at times and that it will help me get interesting commissions in the future. I won’t necessarily be able to track the return on my investment, but I see that as a risk worth taking.
Five of the best-paying publications
Let’s stop talking about the badly paid work and talk about the best paid work! Here are five publications that actually pay well, according to our network of excellent travel writers:
BBC Travel — circa US$0.50 per word
The Financial Times — circa £0.40 per word
The Telegraph — circa £0.35 per word
The Times — circa £0.30 per word
Conde Nast Traveller — circa £0.35 per word
There’ll be a more detailed list of well-paying publications in an upcoming subscriber-only newsletter. Become a paying subscriber for just £5 per month to get access to that and our entire archive.
Tweet of the week
This one is a brilliant bit of advice from a Nat Geo Traveller editor:
Who to follow
Cathy Adams has returned from mat leave to her role as editor of the Independent’s travel section and is a delightfully down-to-earth tweeter and occasionally puts shout outs for writers with specialisms. Also important editorial notes like this one:
We were hoping to be able to link some sort of travel roadmap this morning, as last week the British PM said there would be an update on international travel, vaccine passports and a traffic light system. Unfortunately, he’s still a bumbling fool and didn’t say a word, so we’re all still waiting.
In the meantime, this piece on foreignpolicy.com surmises that travel writing is dead. We don’t entirely agree, and there are some interesting points made by clever, excellent writers in this thread on Twitter. Have a read and let us know what you think.
There’s some good news here from Julia Buckley at CNN: Venice has finally banned cruise ships from its lagoon. And a few interesting thoughts here on travel one year on from lockdown from the Guardian’s Kevin Rushby.