The power dynamic between freelancers and those who hire them is always going to be an imbalanced one. Clients want to pay the least possible and freelancers want to be paid the most. That’s a given. But the issue is that clients have all the power. There are thousands of freelancers to choose from for any given project, so if one doesn’t work out they could always move on to the next one.
From the freelancer’s perspective, the opposite may be true. They often need the client to accept their proposal so they can make money to support their families and pay their bills. The client needs the work done, obviously, but they have so many more options. This power dynamic is one that isn’t going to change. However, there is one thing that clients can do to make the life of a freelancer easier, make the world a more equitable place, and get them the best quality freelancer for the job.
I’m talking about rate transparency.
What that means, in essence, is clients being open about what they intend to pay for certain jobs. In some worlds, this is very common. But for many freelance jobs, especially freelance writing, it is not.
I am a journalist and a freelance writer, so the easiest way for me to explain why this is a big deal is to use an example that has happened to me far too often. I find out about a writing opportunity with an exciting publication and immediately begin researching and brainstorming the perfect pitch to send to the editor. Sometimes, this process can take hours or days. And then I wait days or weeks for the editor to sift through all of their pitches. This time, by some miracle, my pitch is chosen! I’ve won the freelance lottery and scored a big job that I think will help pay my mortgage for this month.
The editor and I agree on the story scope and the word count, and then comes the fateful email: their rate. After days or even weeks of discussions, I’m finally going to get to hear from this editor whether the job is worth doing. My heart sinks as I see that they can only offer a quarter of what I was expecting. Not only have I already agreed to do a time consuming story, I won’t be earning anywhere near what I need to make a living.
But, because I’ve spent too much time just to get chosen for the story, I feel that I must follow through with doing the story. It’s a sunk-cost fallacy, but it’s a very easy one to fall into. If I had known from the beginning, I never would have spent so much time trying to win a job that paid so little.
Show me your rates
The movement for rate transparency in the freelance writing world has been ongoing for a few years. Some prominent writers, like Wudan Yan, share their rates publicly, while others have chosen to do so anonymously.
This same phenomena has happened with increasing frequency in book publishing too, with the discrepancy between advances to authors of different backgrounds being laid bare for all the world to see. The pushes for rate transparency in both industries have come from the writers, not from the companies.
The problem with this approach is that the onus is on the writer to expose their own pay rates for others, which places them in an uncomfortable and often untenable position. A writer who shares a high rate they were paid sets themselves up to be underbid, while a writer who shares a low rate might invite scrutiny on an otherwise reliable, if low-paying, income source. The potential for burned bridges is very high.
Once again, the power structure in place puts all the pressure on the worker and not on the company that has all the money. But rate transparency isn’t just a way for writers to make more money, it’s a way to create a more equitable world.
Kristin Wong is a journalist, freelance writer, and author of Get Money: Live the Life You Want, Not Just the Life You Can Afford. She’s also cofounder of a platform called Come Write With Us. She says that rate transparency should be a goal for companies, especially those who publicly espouse ethical values.
“I think the main benefit of transparency is making sure workers are being paid fairly, and fair pay is good for everyone,” Wong says. “It's clearly good for the workers, but it's good for the company, too. It's one way to avoid systemic discrimination and bias in their pay structures, which can sometimes happen when rates are kept secret.”
Fair pay is good for everyone.
Resistance to transparency
It is obvious why some would be resistant to rate transparency, but this resistance can take many different forms. Some hide rates until the last minute, but dangle carrots like “yes, we pay” while others respond in a more hostile manner when asked about pay rates.
While there’s no perfect solution, at Indy we have addressed this situation by posting jobs with a starting rate. When we put out a call for story pitches we say that the pay “starts at $X amount and goes up based on experience.” Freelance rates almost always vary based on experience and every freelancer understands that. We’re not advocating for a set rate that everyone gets paid no matter the level of expertise. Instead, what freelancers need to know, and what clients should be able to provide without secrecy, is whether a job will pay and what the pay range will be. But for some clients, even that small ask is too much, it seems.
Journalist and freelance writer Sonia Weiser runs a newsletter called Opportunities of the Week where she finds basically every publication looking for pitches and emails the list out to her subscribers. She’s often forward with editors who ask for pitches when it comes to rates. All you have to do is search “call for pitches” on Twitter and you’ll see her responding to editors asking what their rates are. For the most part, she gets positive, if sometimes oblique responses. Other times, though, she gets the opposite.
“There are some editors who get very defensive,” Weiser says. She sent me some of these communications, which were shocking. In one, an editor personally went after her on Twitter for simply requesting that he share rates.
Despite these reactions Sonia does offer a little bit of a defense of editors who refuse to share rates publicly.
“Something I didn't realize at the beginning was that a lot of these editors aren’t allowed to share rates. It’s the higher ups who say they can’t share the rate publicly,” Weiser says. “I think a lot of our anger is directed at the wrong people. So the issue needs to be ‘why are these higher ups not doing this?’”
So maybe it’s the higher ups that we should be addressing with this issue, but no matter who needs to hear the message, it’s an important one. As an editor in the past, I have had many discussions with higher ups about the importance of rate transparency for attracting better talent. Freelancers deserve to know how much they could potentially make before they start the process of sending a pitch or a proposal.
As a freelancer, you are your own boss, but at the same time you can only be successful if you have clients who pay well. Every hour spent working on something that doesn’t yet have a contract is a risk.
It’s vital that clients do what they can to make the freelance life work. Without freelancers, clients wouldn’t be able to get their work done. Clients need freelancers and freelancers need clients. Let’s work together to make that relationship as good as possible.
While I used journalism and writing as the main examples throughout the piece, this issue persists throughout the independent-working world in many different industries. The fact is that a moderate amount of transparency, like sharing base rates or rate spreads up front, is an easy first step to take that any company can implement right away.