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The Myth of Freelance Pay

I am getting a bit annoyed with the Hollywood writers strike. Not at the writers but at what people are saying about them. While I do not know any details about what caused the strike, the popular perception seems to be these writers are over-paid already.

Some are obviously paid very well indeed, I expect 99% are not. People seem to take the headline figure and determine that is what each and every writer in that industry gets 365 days a year. I’m willing to bet that is not the case!

It reminds me of what people have long said about freelance programming, writing, design. “Freelancers have it so good!”. Since I have been involved with freelancers and freelancing it has always been something I have witnessed.  Yes, freelancing can be lucrative, but it isn’t necessarily so.

  1. Not all freelancers get the top pay
  2. Do not take hourly rates and assume all hours are paid at that rate
  3. Most freelancers have time when they are out of work
  4. Freelancers don’t get paid vacations or sick time
  5. It can take weeks or months for a freelancer to get paid

For every freelancer that is fully booked at their top rate, there are many who are not working at all or working at a much lower hourly rate.

Even when a freelancer does earn their top rate, those good pay days have to compensate for the hours spent doing non-billable work, such as finding the next gig, administration, yada-yada. This is why I refuse to pitch, many companies use “pitching” as a way to get freelancers to work for nothing or provide free consultancy.

One of the advantages that some freelance writers have is the potential to make residuals or royalties. This is why I am willing to get less a word on a book deal than writing a magazine article, for example. In actual fact though those percentages are dwindling or being excluded from new distribution channels, I believe (correct me if I am wrong) this is what the strike is about. Very few of us make the sort of royalties you would get from writing a Harry Potter, in fact most books are not a safe bet at all.

For an employee, it is easy to compare hourly rates and think they are getting a bad deal before they consider all the facts. If you are thinking about freelancing yourself, make sure you think it all the way through first. There are many, many great things about freelance working, but I wouldn’t put “potential to get rich” amongst them!

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Comments

  1. I think this is the same for a lot of artistic and creative industries. The top 1% is paid through the roof, while the rest is struggling with peanuts pay.

  2. I think this is the same for a lot of artistic and creative industries. The top 1% is paid through the roof, while the rest is struggling with peanuts pay.

  3. Great post! You are right to say that very few Hollywood writers will be earning the top rate, and many of those who do will only be earning for a short period each year. So, even if they seem to be well paid, they aren’t because they have to spin that money out for months, not days or weeks.

    In a way, freelancers are in a similar situation to professional footballers from the 1950s. A small number will earn huge amounts but the rest are getting peanuts, and in the long run will be worse off than people who work for an employer. Maybe we need the freelance equivalent of Jimmy Hill to demand better pay and conditions.

  4. Great post! You are right to say that very few Hollywood writers will be earning the top rate, and many of those who do will only be earning for a short period each year. So, even if they seem to be well paid, they aren’t because they have to spin that money out for months, not days or weeks.

    In a way, freelancers are in a similar situation to professional footballers from the 1950s. A small number will earn huge amounts but the rest are getting peanuts, and in the long run will be worse off than people who work for an employer. Maybe we need the freelance equivalent of Jimmy Hill to demand better pay and conditions.

  5. Excellent post, Chris. I have always had to fight this perception, even to the point of being sabotaged by jealous idiots. People don’t understand how hard it actually is to freelance (or be a consultant). I’ve often been out of work for many months.

    Also, I don’t know what it is about Canada, but I always have to fight moron headhunters about getting a rate I deserve. I’ve only worked in the states once but I had no problem getting a good rate – and apparently I asked too little as a guy with less skills was making $20/hr more than me in Atlanta. In Canada, it seems that no matter what I ask, the headhunter won’t send me in for the interview without forcing me to accept less. (It also happened for salaried work.)

    So why do I do freelance? Because of freedom of variety and especially no stagnation of role. Also, since I don’t vacation a lot, I can take some time off between gigs. Problem is, if you take too long, it can ruin your career in some niches.

  6. Excellent post, Chris. I have always had to fight this perception, even to the point of being sabotaged by jealous idiots. People don’t understand how hard it actually is to freelance (or be a consultant). I’ve often been out of work for many months.

    Also, I don’t know what it is about Canada, but I always have to fight moron headhunters about getting a rate I deserve. I’ve only worked in the states once but I had no problem getting a good rate – and apparently I asked too little as a guy with less skills was making $20/hr more than me in Atlanta. In Canada, it seems that no matter what I ask, the headhunter won’t send me in for the interview without forcing me to accept less. (It also happened for salaried work.)

    So why do I do freelance? Because of freedom of variety and especially no stagnation of role. Also, since I don’t vacation a lot, I can take some time off between gigs. Problem is, if you take too long, it can ruin your career in some niches.

  7. You’ve hit the nail on the head there, I was freelance for 4 years and almost lost my house through it.

    I’d always heard tales of freelancers working too hard and having no work life balance, but I thought “that must just be down to choice or greed – if I was on ££s per week I’d only work half the hours I do now and live it up for the rest”.

    How wrong was I – the time I was paid for was only a fraction of my working week – there was all the admin to be done too, not to mention trying to line up the next job.

    I daren’t take holidays, I couldn’t afford to be without my income.

    Also one of my major problems was that I didn’t like to charge people for things.. I didn’t see the value of what I did, so felt cheeky asking for money for doing it.

    Ah well you live and learn though – but it can be an expensive lesson.

    Cheers Chris

  8. You’ve hit the nail on the head there, I was freelance for 4 years and almost lost my house through it.

    I’d always heard tales of freelancers working too hard and having no work life balance, but I thought “that must just be down to choice or greed – if I was on ££s per week I’d only work half the hours I do now and live it up for the rest”.

    How wrong was I – the time I was paid for was only a fraction of my working week – there was all the admin to be done too, not to mention trying to line up the next job.

    I daren’t take holidays, I couldn’t afford to be without my income.

    Also one of my major problems was that I didn’t like to charge people for things.. I didn’t see the value of what I did, so felt cheeky asking for money for doing it.

    Ah well you live and learn though – but it can be an expensive lesson.

    Cheers Chris

  9. So true, so true, particularly about taking weeks or months to get paid. Then there’s having to explain to potential clients why a deposit is required up-front, clients who expect everything for a low fee, etc.

  10. So true, so true, particularly about taking weeks or months to get paid. Then there’s having to explain to potential clients why a deposit is required up-front, clients who expect everything for a low fee, etc.

  11. @bmunch – Yeah, I agree, it is probably the same right across the board.

    @Kate – I think it is only going to get worse as from what I have seen freelancers of all types have seen fees devalued over the years. Somehow if your writing appears in print rather than on screen you can still scrape a few more pennies 🙂

    @raj – My vacations are always combined with at least some working. I haven’t had a 100% internet-free week since around 2003.

    @Dean – Yeah I don’t think people realize how stressful it can be not knowing where the next mortgage payment is going to come from. Yes you get to work in your PJs, take duvet days, and watch TV at 10:30am, but also when there is work to do you HAVE to do it otherwise you end up with a pile of bills and no way to deal with them.

    @Jeff – Heh, “I can assure you we are well known for paying on time”. Yeah, that’s what they all say. Even funnier when combined with “give us a good deal on this one and there is more work in the pipeline for you”. No, pay my full rate on time this invoice and I will see about discounting the next one 😉

  12. @bmunch – Yeah, I agree, it is probably the same right across the board.

    @Kate – I think it is only going to get worse as from what I have seen freelancers of all types have seen fees devalued over the years. Somehow if your writing appears in print rather than on screen you can still scrape a few more pennies 🙂

    @raj – My vacations are always combined with at least some working. I haven’t had a 100% internet-free week since around 2003.

    @Dean – Yeah I don’t think people realize how stressful it can be not knowing where the next mortgage payment is going to come from. Yes you get to work in your PJs, take duvet days, and watch TV at 10:30am, but also when there is work to do you HAVE to do it otherwise you end up with a pile of bills and no way to deal with them.

    @Jeff – Heh, “I can assure you we are well known for paying on time”. Yeah, that’s what they all say. Even funnier when combined with “give us a good deal on this one and there is more work in the pipeline for you”. No, pay my full rate on time this invoice and I will see about discounting the next one 😉

  13. I used to talk about freelance pay often but so many of the people working for low-paying online stuff started sending me hate mail so I stopped. Even so, you won’t find me listing $2 jobs on my blog.

    Still many freelancers aren’t paid what they’re worth. When I worked in publishing it was always the freelance writers who would get the shaft. My editor’s reasoning is that they’re happy to stay home all day and don’t have much overhead. This can’t be further from the truth – we may not have general office overhead, but we have bills to pay.

    Have you ever read the Craigslist Curmudgeon? If not you should, he offers a very funny look at the cheapskates advertising for writers.

    Great post,

    Deb

  14. I used to talk about freelance pay often but so many of the people working for low-paying online stuff started sending me hate mail so I stopped. Even so, you won’t find me listing $2 jobs on my blog.

    Still many freelancers aren’t paid what they’re worth. When I worked in publishing it was always the freelance writers who would get the shaft. My editor’s reasoning is that they’re happy to stay home all day and don’t have much overhead. This can’t be further from the truth – we may not have general office overhead, but we have bills to pay.

    Have you ever read the Craigslist Curmudgeon? If not you should, he offers a very funny look at the cheapskates advertising for writers.

    Great post,

    Deb

  15. The “no overheads” line is great isn’t it? OK, we might not have an “account handling” staff of 100 and a swanky city center loft office, but we still have bills to pay.

    Thanks for the link, great find Deb 🙂

  16. The “no overheads” line is great isn’t it? OK, we might not have an “account handling” staff of 100 and a swanky city center loft office, but we still have bills to pay.

    Thanks for the link, great find Deb 🙂

  17. Deb, I’m unfortunately one of those cheapskates, but every chance I get, I try to increase rates.

  18. Deb, I’m unfortunately one of those cheapskates, but every chance I get, I try to increase rates.

  19. Thanks for defending freelancer Chris.

    A couple of other points include freelancers having to supply their own benefits like health care and freelancers having to spend the time finding work in the first place. Not to mention all the work that goes into learning the craft.

  20. Thanks for defending freelancer Chris.

    A couple of other points include freelancers having to supply their own benefits like health care and freelancers having to spend the time finding work in the first place. Not to mention all the work that goes into learning the craft.

  21. So many freelancers especially when starting out do a lot of work for free or way below the going bid. They just want to get their foot in the door and stay on the opposite side from where all the money is!

    They lack the negotiating skills and take jobs that are at a lowball price for fear of not getting the job at all.

    You have to have a good rebuttal when a client says they can get services cheaper. That’s why I only work on projects that I would consider doing for free but explain why the price is what it is.

    Only work on projects you know you are going to absolutely love, not jobs that pay the bills that you hate.

  22. So many freelancers especially when starting out do a lot of work for free or way below the going bid. They just want to get their foot in the door and stay on the opposite side from where all the money is!

    They lack the negotiating skills and take jobs that are at a lowball price for fear of not getting the job at all.

    You have to have a good rebuttal when a client says they can get services cheaper. That’s why I only work on projects that I would consider doing for free but explain why the price is what it is.

    Only work on projects you know you are going to absolutely love, not jobs that pay the bills that you hate.

  23. Thanks for sticking up for the writers. I’ve noticed in general, during a strike, the media bias is for the rich people.

    I remember the baseball strike a few years back. The buzz was all about spoiled players making a million a day aren’t they crybabies for opposing a salary cap.

    But owners of teams don’t have a profit cap. Nobody ever called them spoiled or crybabies.

  24. Thanks for sticking up for the writers. I’ve noticed in general, during a strike, the media bias is for the rich people.

    I remember the baseball strike a few years back. The buzz was all about spoiled players making a million a day aren’t they crybabies for opposing a salary cap.

    But owners of teams don’t have a profit cap. Nobody ever called them spoiled or crybabies.

  25. You’re quite right about the writer’s strike, Chris. While the average pay is $200,000 per year, that takes into account those rare writers who make millions of dollars a year. The median is more like $40,000 to $50,000, from what I understand. Keeping in mind that most writers live in New York or LA (both places where the cost of living is VERY high), this isn’t necessarily a great income.

    And, yeah, a lot of it has to do with residuals.

  26. You’re quite right about the writer’s strike, Chris. While the average pay is $200,000 per year, that takes into account those rare writers who make millions of dollars a year. The median is more like $40,000 to $50,000, from what I understand. Keeping in mind that most writers live in New York or LA (both places where the cost of living is VERY high), this isn’t necessarily a great income.

    And, yeah, a lot of it has to do with residuals.

  27. I love freelancing, but it is definitely not for everyone, and there are a lot of challenges. I am grateful I’m not the only income earner in our household so I don’t have to depend on a client paying on time so I can pay the rent!

  28. I love freelancing, but it is definitely not for everyone, and there are a lot of challenges. I am grateful I’m not the only income earner in our household so I don’t have to depend on a client paying on time so I can pay the rent!

  29. I agree about the writers. In this day of so much money being made in so many media versions; ie. television, radio, and especially online; these writers need to have a more piece of the pie. What do the actors say about what makes their shows the best? Thay almost always say the writing! Pay them Hollywood! No hit shows means no revenue! Get the picture.

  30. I agree about the writers. In this day of so much money being made in so many media versions; ie. television, radio, and especially online; these writers need to have a more piece of the pie. What do the actors say about what makes their shows the best? Thay almost always say the writing! Pay them Hollywood! No hit shows means no revenue! Get the picture.

  31. While I don’t think people should say nasty things about the writers, I personally don’t agree with the writers’ strike.

    Every writer has the ability to negotiate above and beyond the WGA minimum. But all of these writers accepted the jobs, and probably very gladly. There are tons of other people wanting to work on these shows.

    Additionally, they are not year-round gigs. If someone wants to be a TV or film writer, you have to realize the risk going in.

    It would be crazy of me to ask my clients for a percentage of every sale of every page I write web content for. I accept my salary and I do my work. I don’t walk off my job because I’m not getting residuals. If I did, not so many people would be hurt. But this strike is hurting Production Assistants, makeup and hair artists, set designers, and camera people. What about their families?

    It’s America, and so writers can strike if they want to. But they are threatening the very existence of the Guild that got them into a strike in the first place.

    My husband and I purposefully have chosen the path of independent filmmaking so we have complete control of creative, story, marketing, production, distribution and yes, revenue.

  32. While I don’t think people should say nasty things about the writers, I personally don’t agree with the writers’ strike.

    Every writer has the ability to negotiate above and beyond the WGA minimum. But all of these writers accepted the jobs, and probably very gladly. There are tons of other people wanting to work on these shows.

    Additionally, they are not year-round gigs. If someone wants to be a TV or film writer, you have to realize the risk going in.

    It would be crazy of me to ask my clients for a percentage of every sale of every page I write web content for. I accept my salary and I do my work. I don’t walk off my job because I’m not getting residuals. If I did, not so many people would be hurt. But this strike is hurting Production Assistants, makeup and hair artists, set designers, and camera people. What about their families?

    It’s America, and so writers can strike if they want to. But they are threatening the very existence of the Guild that got them into a strike in the first place.

    My husband and I purposefully have chosen the path of independent filmmaking so we have complete control of creative, story, marketing, production, distribution and yes, revenue.

  33. You have just burst so many peoples bubble Chris, shame on you 😆

  34. You have just burst so many peoples bubble Chris, shame on you 😆

  35. Hmmm… hadn’t thought to compare Hollywood writers desire for a percentage to my situation… web and ghostwriting… I do get some residuals from the web writing thru adsense etc. and I get clients but no residuals from them… apples and oranges? Or just my failure to see an opportunity? Not sure.

    But I find many writers get exactly what they think they’re worth… and the range of that view is huge.

    A

  36. Hmmm… hadn’t thought to compare Hollywood writers desire for a percentage to my situation… web and ghostwriting… I do get some residuals from the web writing thru adsense etc. and I get clients but no residuals from them… apples and oranges? Or just my failure to see an opportunity? Not sure.

    But I find many writers get exactly what they think they’re worth… and the range of that view is huge.

    A

  37. One fact that tends to get lost in the discussion of screenwriters is it takes a lot of time to get a writing deal. And before anyone says fabulous forced vacation, you have to consider the unbelievable amount of meetings, events and general schmoozing that you have to pursue to get your next deal. Spec scripts are rarely purchased (scripts written for free in the hopes of getting purchased).

    Book deals have a lot of the same bizarre down time. Last year I was approached to write a book about advertising photography. There was no question the publisher wanted me to write the book and no question that I wanted to write the book. It still took four months for my agent and the publisher to work out the details of the contract. (Word of advice to new writers – no matter how grateful you are to get a book deal, never, ever, sign the first contract the publisher hands you.) That only left six months to write the book. True I could have started while the negotiations were occurring, but if the deal went bad, I would have been screwed.

    Residuals are how we survive in between gigs. Or while lengthy negotiations happen. Deals in Hollywood and publishing move about as fast as molasses in winter. Mortgage payments and other bills don’t. The monthly residual checks keep us all afloat. They take the place of working at restaurant or cafe after you get going as a writer.

    Thanks to Chris for the post, and great to see all the comments.

    Lou

  38. One fact that tends to get lost in the discussion of screenwriters is it takes a lot of time to get a writing deal. And before anyone says fabulous forced vacation, you have to consider the unbelievable amount of meetings, events and general schmoozing that you have to pursue to get your next deal. Spec scripts are rarely purchased (scripts written for free in the hopes of getting purchased).

    Book deals have a lot of the same bizarre down time. Last year I was approached to write a book about advertising photography. There was no question the publisher wanted me to write the book and no question that I wanted to write the book. It still took four months for my agent and the publisher to work out the details of the contract. (Word of advice to new writers – no matter how grateful you are to get a book deal, never, ever, sign the first contract the publisher hands you.) That only left six months to write the book. True I could have started while the negotiations were occurring, but if the deal went bad, I would have been screwed.

    Residuals are how we survive in between gigs. Or while lengthy negotiations happen. Deals in Hollywood and publishing move about as fast as molasses in winter. Mortgage payments and other bills don’t. The monthly residual checks keep us all afloat. They take the place of working at restaurant or cafe after you get going as a writer.

    Thanks to Chris for the post, and great to see all the comments.

    Lou

  39. @raj – It all works out, sometimes we are the payer other times the payee 😉

    @Steven – Good point. The other day I was watching Ice Road Truckers, have you seen that? It is so dangerous they make a years salary in two months, in theory. One young guy basically had his bank account wiped out by a medical bill so pretty much had to start over. So the headline billing looks great until you realize what they are risking.

    @Jordan – The best is when you get paid well for doing what you love 😉

    @Advice Network – Yeah, the media know who pays their wages and don’t want to bite the hands that feed them 😉

    @Adam – Good point about living expenses. My brother is a session musician but has to live in London, his rent for an apartment is double our mortgage for a house.

    @Randa – I do but I am grateful my clients are usually excellent at paying on time 🙂

    @charlie – It seems a mess the whole situation but at least they keep trying to talk I guess.

    @Nathania – Yes they could negotiate but very very few will feel they have the bargaining power. As you say, there are thousands ready and willing to take their place for whatever is on offer.

    @Jermayn – Heh, well I hope I haven’t gotten too many people down 🙂

    @Anne – Oh yeah, people get what they are willing to accept. You should be able to get residuals from ghost writing books, plus there are ways to get a kind of residual from web writing, such as profit share, commissions or traffic bonuses, etc.

    @Lou – Absolutely. Without getting too specific I can wholeheartedly agree with what you say about book deals taking longer than you would expect! 🙂

  40. @raj – It all works out, sometimes we are the payer other times the payee 😉

    @Steven – Good point. The other day I was watching Ice Road Truckers, have you seen that? It is so dangerous they make a years salary in two months, in theory. One young guy basically had his bank account wiped out by a medical bill so pretty much had to start over. So the headline billing looks great until you realize what they are risking.

    @Jordan – The best is when you get paid well for doing what you love 😉

    @Advice Network – Yeah, the media know who pays their wages and don’t want to bite the hands that feed them 😉

    @Adam – Good point about living expenses. My brother is a session musician but has to live in London, his rent for an apartment is double our mortgage for a house.

    @Randa – I do but I am grateful my clients are usually excellent at paying on time 🙂

    @charlie – It seems a mess the whole situation but at least they keep trying to talk I guess.

    @Nathania – Yes they could negotiate but very very few will feel they have the bargaining power. As you say, there are thousands ready and willing to take their place for whatever is on offer.

    @Jermayn – Heh, well I hope I haven’t gotten too many people down 🙂

    @Anne – Oh yeah, people get what they are willing to accept. You should be able to get residuals from ghost writing books, plus there are ways to get a kind of residual from web writing, such as profit share, commissions or traffic bonuses, etc.

    @Lou – Absolutely. Without getting too specific I can wholeheartedly agree with what you say about book deals taking longer than you would expect! 🙂

  41. Make sure they pay you. The best thing to do is get an account with freelancepay.com, there you can have money escrowed and if they don’t pay you, you can file a claim and usually get your payment. It’s a safe site to find people looking for freelancers also. Good Luck. 🙂

  42. Make sure they pay you. The best thing to do is get an account with freelancepay.com, there you can have money escrowed and if they don’t pay you, you can file a claim and usually get your payment. It’s a safe site to find people looking for freelancers also. Good Luck. 🙂