Freelance Writers: Better Pay or Better Bylines?

As a freelance writer, do you care more about being paid well for your work or about seeing your name in print (or online)? The two often don't go hand-in-hand.

Personally I put pay first (but hold gigs to strict ethical standards -- I don't simply take any well-paid gig that comes along). After all, I'm running a business. I'm not in this for vanity. But of course I'd pursue work if a bylined piece paid as well as the typical lower-key and ghostwritten projects I take on -- anything from press releases to white papers. If I were to pursue a byline just for the sake of having it, it would have to come out of my scheduled marketing time rather than compete with better projects for my billable hours.

What matters more to you -- having your name in print (or online) with certain publications or being paid well for your writing? If you had to choose between the two, which type of gig would come first? And how do you feel about the trend of respectable (or perhaps formerly-respectable) publications expecting writers to work for free, for very little pay, or for revenue share all under the assumption that we should be grateful for the "exposure?"


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Jennifer Mattern is a professional blogger, freelance business writer, consultant, and indie author. She runs numerous websites & blogs including All Freelance Writing, Freelance Writing Pros, NakedPR, and Kiss My Biz.

Jenn has 25 years' experience as a professional writer and editor and over 20 years' experience in marketing and PR (working heavily in digital PR, online marketing, social media, SEO, new media, and thought leadership publication). She also has 19 years' professional blogging and web publishing experience (including web development) and around 18 years of experience as an indie author / publisher.

Jenn also writes fiction under multiple pen names and is an Active member of the Horror Writers Association.

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13 thoughts on “Freelance Writers: Better Pay or Better Bylines?”

  1. How are you Wendy? Long time. 🙂

    I think some of these places seem to believe that we’re starving for published clips. We’re not. We would be starving, however, if we accepted bylines as payment. Maybe they’re feeding off the insecurities of those who don’t have clips or those who are dreaming of being writers. It doesn’t apply to those of us who are writing for a living, no matter what pay scale we’re at. Working writers can’t afford to give it away, period.

  2. I don’t really understand the writers who focus on bylines so much that they screw themselves over when it comes to earning a living. They’re the ones some of these big publications are hoping to bring on for little or no pay — the “will work for exposure” crowd. Unfortunately, those bylines don’t guarantee better-paying gigs later, and I think that’s where some of the problem lies — that’s an expectation some of those writers have. But in reality all they do is show publications that can afford to pay for professionals that they don’t have to. Keep that trend up and there won’t be many paying pubs left to move on to. If you want people to respect you as a professional and value your work enough to pay for it, show that you respect yourself enough to charge for it.

    It’s not a problem to want the bylines. I just think more new writers need to focus on figuring out how to earn a living instead of hoping a bunch of free work is going to pay off someday. There are far better options. When you’re paying the bills and you’ve honed your skills more, sure, spend time pursuing your dream publications. Or devote a little bit of time to it from the start. I just wouldn’t let that dominate my efforts early on.

    The only way I think I’d pursue things solely for bylines is as a challenge for myself. So there you go. Maybe when I finish up the current blog challenge and move onto the next challenge I have lined up, I’ll consider doing that just to see what I can accomplish in a limited amount of time. If I do, you better believe I’ll be calling on you to meet up for some strategy sessions.

  3. I used to care about where my byline showed up. Now, it’s about the money.

    Yes, it’s wonderful to say you’ve worked for this magazine or that website. For me, this is a business, so that’s secondary to all I do. I have to earn a living — I don’t care about accolades other than those my clients give me for a job well done.

    As for those pubs that have decided not to pay, screw them. I remember seeing an Atlantic writer explaining online why his company can’t pay its writers. Never mind the woe-is-me sob story he told — bottom line is his company may one day decide he is too expensive. Who’s going to defend that kind of cutback, I wonder? Not the slews of writers he just insulted by backing a lousy deal.

  4. Hi Lori and Jen:

    I agree with both of you. Back in the day when I wrote for magazines, I actually got offended when editors would have the audacity to offer to pay me per byline. I don’t think so. For me, this is a business. I need to work, I need the income, and I’d be darn if I’m going to be paid in bylines. I know that my mortgage company, electric company, and the grocery store expect me to pay in US dollars–not my byline when the bills are due. Bylines are great if you’re writing for a hobby–I just wish there was a way to weed out the pay by byline bunch from those of us who are serious writers in business.

  5. Unfortunately there’s a lot of overlap these days. For example, you’ll have major print publications that also run blog networks. They often don’t pay anything for blog posts, sometimes they pay revenue share, and sometimes the blog posts aren’t even written directly on their sites (they syndicate pre-approved blogs). But you’ll still see those writers claim the byline without being honest about how they got it. They treat it as if it makes them the equivalent of one of the magazine’s print contributors, and clients and newer writers (if the original writer is selling something to them) often don’t know any better. Now, if they were both held to the same standards and both paid as professionals, that’s fine. But in far too many situations, that’s not the case.

  6. I’m fine, Lori. I hope all is well with you too! 🙂 Yes, I agree. I, too, believe that some pubs are feeding off of newbie writers’ insecurities. But it does leave an impression for others who think about hiring writers. I had to laugh, the other day a prospective client balked at my prices (and my prices are very reasonable), and my attitude (and I did this nicely and professionally) was “take it or leave it.” He did sign on, though, and paid me at the price that I quoted to him because he saw the value that I could give his business.

    I guess my confidence as a writer is increasing, and because I know how hard I’ve worked to get to where I’m at, that I don’t get heart palpitations anymore when I quote my content prices. And I laugh to myself whenever someone wants something for free or for pennies. I’m not running a charity or a 501 (c) non-profit here. I figure that if this person won’t pay, someone else will—especially once they see the positive results that they get because of my writing expertise (and I’m not trying to brag)!

    I just wish there was a way to weed out the professionals from the newbies. I’m not trying to condescend here. I was a newbie once myself. But my goal has always been to be paid for my writing services; I wanted to make this a career from the get go. I believe that a lot of newbies have wishful thinking, such as they’ll the next ones to write the Great American novel and live off their royalties (including royalties from all of the movies that will be made from their novel) for the rest of time. I think some of these newbies are writer wannabes and aren’t really investing in taking their career beyond the newbie fantasy point. Just my opinion, though. It just grates on my nerves when I hear, “I’m a gifted writer,” but that person hasn’t done a single thing to get beyond the dream. And I’ve met some of those in my time.

    Now, I’m whining. Sorry, I’m going to get off of this post before I start a pity party for myself!

  7. A bit late to the game but definitely show me the money. I was somewhat surprised in the beginning how little a byline meant to me when I started ghostwriting. Seeing my words in print, even under another person’s byline, still gives me a kick.

  8. It’s all about the money – half of my work is ghostwriting, anyway. I feel satisfaction when I see my name in print/online, but it’s not enough of a draw to make me take a huge pay cut.

  9. Here’s another angle to consider:

    Do you think Google Authorship will affect you moving forward on this front? Will you pursue more bylines as Google gives preferential treatment to certain publications, and it essentially starts to hurt us to ghostwrite? Will your work’s ability to boost your future “author rank” play a bigger role? And do you think that’s going to affect pay at all (given that more and more big publications are expecting writers to work for little, nothing, or revenue share schemes these days, yet they’re the kind of publications Google is likely to rank well)?

  10. Good questions, Jenn. Since I’ve always done a mix, I haven’t been worried, personally. I’ve actually noticed that a few more clients want bylined work so they can benefit from authorship. Still a shifting space, though, so I don’t know what will happen in a few months.


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