The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was an essay I wrote for the fourth issue of Kill Your Darlings journal. I remember vividly the moment I received the email that the work was accepted, and when they told me what I would be paid. I cherished that money because it was, in many ways, a validation — what I love doing is worth something to people. Perhaps only in a small way, compared to what I could earn working a Sunday shift in my retail job, but it was worth something.

The pay, it turned out, was a very reasonable rate for a literary journal, but before I submitted the essay I had no idea what I would be paid, and I never asked.

In The Emerging Writer, Bhakthi Puvanenthiran has an essay titled The Awkward Silence. It’s a great piece on the silence that exists between writers and the people who commission their work on the dollar value they will receive for their writing. She argues that a public conversation about payment in our industry is long overdue and that we need to break this “awkward silence” before we’ve written a word.

“You’re drafting one last email to the editor. Your copy is self-proofed and the final version attached … You know it would be easier to attach an invoice with this final missive, but neither you nor the editor have discussed a dollar value yet. Why don’t you know what you’ll get paid?”

That final sentence stood out to me: why didn’t I know?

This experience is, I think, how it begins for many freelance writers (and I distinguish here from freelance journalists, who are perhaps better educated about the word rates they could expect to receive — Margaret Simons conducted an investigation for Crikey in 2010). We write our works, feel thrilled that they’re accepted, wonder vaguely to ourselves what we might receive — maybe we’ll ask some friends who may have written for that publication before. But then that’s it, until the editor brings it up — if indeed they do at all. Why don’t we know? Or, perhaps more importantly, why don’t we ask?

As a way around this awkward silence, the Emerging Writers’ Festival has begun compiling a comprehensive list of payment rates from Australian publications, everything from magazines, street press, literary journals, online opinion, and websites — requesting information from the publications directly. The results will be available soon as a searchable database, but you can view their current tabulated results here.

At the top end, writers can expect to be paid 70 cents to $1. Many pay nothing, or about 10-20 cents per word. The average is roughly 20-40 cents per word, based on these tables, but more fall at the lower end of that scale. The best payers are those you would expect: The MonthlyAustralian Book ReviewMeanjin.

But even from these initial results it is clear how difficult it is to make a living as a freelancer. As Elmo Keep humorously put it at the Emerging Writers’ Festival event Get Money, Get Paid last week: “If you define yourself as a writer only if you earn your living from writing, then — are you an idiot?”

Most have to supplement their income with copywriting, advertising, postgraduate scholarships, grants — anything that pays well and leaves sufficient time for other writing on the side. The most successful freelancers, according to Keep, work seven days per week and earn, on average for their writing, $35,000 per year. Freelancers have no safety net, and, like small business owners, the quote they give is supposed to cover superannuation, overheads, petrol, tax. But of course, if such costs were truly factored into every single piece, the price might be closer to $3 per word — a rather unrealistic goal for most writers, especially those at the beginning of their careers.

At the Q&A part of the event, an audience member asked: “Why do writers work for free?” To me, it seemed like a naive question — but for anyone working in any other industry it might indeed seem baffling. As director Lisa Dempster wrote of her reasoning for the initiative,

“There is a lack of understanding among new writers about how much they could or should expect to get paid for their work. To assist in bridging this knowledge gap, we are undergoing a documentation process to collate freelance submission rates for writers. Our goal is to inform emerging writers about pay rates and hopefully assist in connecting good writers with publication opportunities. Knowledge is, after all, power.”