“Excuse me, may I please see your rate sheet?”

Skyler White (Anna Gunn) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad - Season 5, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Lewis Jacobs/AMC

You’re a writer. You like getting paid fairly for your work. But what does that really mean?  Does fair mean calculating the effort that it takes to research and write a story? Or is value related to what your work sells for on the market? In my experience, writers mostly think of their work in terms of effort, but that is not what market value really is.

Here’s the truth, and it starts with thinking about the guy who works his fingers to the bone in a Chinese iPhone sweatshop. The iPhone might sell for $700 in the US, but he barely sees a dime of that. You, my writer friend, are sort of like that Chinese sweatshop worker. This is because the amount of work that you put into your writing has no intrinsic value. The first step to getting paid for the full value of your words is figuring out how much the publications you work for mark up your work when they sell it to advertisers.

And this is why the most important phrase that you will learn today is “Excuse me, may I please see your rate sheet?”

Contrary to what it might sound like, a rate sheet isn’t a sliding scale where publications list different pay rates that they offer writers. No, it’s a document that they bury in their media kits that determines what rate they charge advertisers for space in the magazine.  Every publication has a rate sheet. Most publications post their rate sheets on their websites.

Here is what the rate sheet for Vanity Fair looks like:

Screen Shot 2015-10-21 at 8.03.29 AM

Notice that a single page of advertising sells for anywhere between $199,344 – $277,535 depending on how much space it takes up on a page and how close it is to the front or back cover. Of course, magazines almost never make that much money on a sale. Rather, the number listed on a rate sheet is more like an opening bid at a used car dealership. Actual sale prices could be as much as 1/3 lower than the list price.

Still, from a writer’s perspective, that’s a whole lot of money. According to calculations that I’ve made in the past, even after discounts, major magazines typically spend just 1%-2% of their ad revenues on writing.

As you’ve probably noticed, WordRates is collecting advertising rates in the “publication details” tab of every magazine profile. This is so that writers can have at least an idea of what the magazine tells its advertisers what it thinks their stable of writers are really worth. In just about every media kit, magazines highlight the number of awards they have won, the intrepid nature of their reporters, and the engrossing narratives that keep reader eyeballs near advertisements. This knowledge is power, and you should keep this in mind when you negotiate your contracts.

Here’s an example of how magazines actually negotiate with advertisers. While working on the database this morning I was trying to update the profile for Texas Monthly, and I noticed that their media kit did not have a link to a rate sheet. But they did have an email to a sales rep who could provide me with one. So I emailed them and asked. They responded with a more extensive media kit and a message that said:

We have a tiered rate card system based on size and locations of your business.  I will need to know more about your company before I can send you rates.

Like any smart business, Texas Monthly wants to know more about its potential customers before it makes an initial offer.  If I were, say, an oil company or an auto-manufacturer it might bid several hundred thousand dollars; if I were Greenpeace or a craft brewery, it would bid lower so as to not scare me away. Once they set a baseline rate, magazines begin to haggle back and forth until both parties agree on a reasonable rate and money actually changes hands.

There’s no reason that writers can’t use this same strategy.  What would happen if once you’ve landed a green light on an idea, but before you actually signed a contract, you asked to see their circulation numbers and media kit? Admittedly, this is not something that happens a lot in the industry right now. Writers generally ask the magazine to make an opening bid on their work, and negotiate little.

No magazine I’ve come across ever opens more than $5/word, even if they literally sell the story to their own customers for a 1,000% mark-up.

I wonder what would happen if all writers to land an idea at Wired, GQ, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair and National Geographic started the negotiation with a copy of the ad rate sheet in their hands?

I guess we’re going to find out.

6 thoughts on ““Excuse me, may I please see your rate sheet?”

  1. This is exactly right:
    “In just about every media kit, magazines highlight the number of awards they have won, the intrepid nature of their reporters, and the engrossing narratives that keep reader eyeballs near advertisements. This knowledge is power, and you should keep this in mind when you negotiate your contracts.”

    We writers need to talk rates and fees up front. We pay the plumber, the IT person, the hairdresser and why not the writer?
    Looking forward to this website Scott. Thank you.

  2. This is a tremendous misunderstanding and misapplication of a magazine’s ad rates.

    For starters, Vanity Fair — the magazine in this example — is not selling any writer’s story to its advertisers for the $200,000 full-page rate, a 1000% markup or any other exorbitant figure. What they’re selling for $200,000 is exposure to the magazine’s audience. In this specific case, Vanity Fair’s “rate base” of 1.175 million readers and its total audience of 6.8 million.

    Readers are the ones who directly pay to get access to a magazine’s content. In Vanity Fair’s case, they pay $5.99 per copy at the newsstand, or as little as 83 cents a copy in some promo subscription offers.

    Of course writers need to talk rates up front. And of course a prospective writer should know a magazine’s circulation numbers and ad costs. Writers need to know as much as they can about the magazines and readers they intend to write for.

    But just like the author of this piece, I can’t offer any formula for how a writer is supposed to turn a magazine’s rate base, page rate or cost-per-thousand into a per-word writing fee — because there is none.

    1. What they’re selling for $200,000 is exposure to the magazine’s audience. In this specific case, Vanity Fair’s “rate base” of 1.175 million readers and its total audience of 6.8 million.

      This is exactly what I’m pointing out. Vanity Fair is selling exposure to its audience to advertisers. But the audience is only there because of the articles. I don’t think it’s a “tremendous misunderstanding” that writers make up a fair percentage of reader-value when they pick up a magazine. It certainly is not crazy to say that writing should account for 10% of the expenditures of a magazine considering that is why they are able to attract advertising in the first place. After all, what would Vanity Fair look like without writers?

  3. Very insightful debate on this groundbreaking website. Iam made aware of issues that have never crossed my mind before as a writer. Keep it up.

    Ray Mwareya, South Africa

  4. I’ve often wondered about this discrepancy myself. The ad rates do usually include postage and printing, though often there are printing charges, in addition, depending on color use, type of paper, etc.

    Magazines that pay the highest usually have the largest subscription base and advertising revenue. Is it conceivable that better writing increases subscription renewals and ad revenue?

    The current rates paid to writers are often, probably, less than minimum wage, especially if costs are included. The work of the WGA in screenwriting should be reviewed. They have negotiated minimum payments for each step of writing. They also have standard contracts that address residual rights and secondary rights. WGA also decides who gets credit for work that often goes through multiple writers-that is not usually a problem for print publications.

    Development of a standard contract by one or both of these organizations would be a valuable service. The next step would be to have some of the more highly sought-after writers become members and require use of the contracts.

    Minimum payment scales is another need. These scales might vary according to the level of proven expertise of the writer. I think the WGA has a point system that depends on how many films and what level of involvement the writer had. In print, you might have publication of a feature article in a journal with more than a circulation of 1 million as getting 20 points per major article, 15 for minor article. Then the pay scale could vary according to the size of the publication and the experience of the writer.

    All of this depends, of course, on having enough excellent writers involved.

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