A customer that offers ten cents a word is twice as good as one that offers five cents a word, right? Not necessarily.
You get the per-word rate only if your article is accepted. If you’ve got a 90% chance of acceptance by the five-cent customer and a 25% chance the ten-center will accept you, the odds are you’ll make more money from the nickel customer.
Think of it in terms of your expected payment. That’s the amount you’ll get, times the probability that you’ll make a sale. In the example I just gave, your expected payment is 4.5 cents a word from the five-cent customer and 2.5 cents from the ten-cent one.
The hard part, of course, is knowing what your odds are. The emphasis is on your odds. It’s not just a matter of what fraction of the slush pile they accept. True, if a publication accepts only a handful of articles from freelancers and gets lots of submissions, you’ve got an uphill battle. But it makes a huge difference how good a match your writing is, and how many potential buyers there are for your work.
I’ve tried writing science fiction. In the eighties, Analog accepted two of my stories. After that came an unbroken string of rejections. I’ve kept trying occasionally, more for the satisfaction of being a published SF writer than anything else, but I know that my expected payment is very low. Science fiction magazines don’t even pay that well when they do accept stories.
I’ve also sent non-fiction articles to the Foundation for Economic Education. They accepted nearly everything I submitted and even listed me on their rather grandly named faculty network. It was a decent source of income till FEE stopped paying freelancers for articles. The expected payment was a lot better than with the SF magazines.
You get the best results when you establish an ongoing relationship with a customer, whether they assign you topics or you figure out what kind of stuff they like. The odds of acceptance are good, and if you have a niche or a really strong reputation, you can find customers that will pay well per word. When you go exploring for new customers, there’s a lot more uncertainty. It can pay off, but it takes a while.
If you write an article on spec, be prepared to keep submitting it till you find a buyer. The history of writing is full of examples of novels that became bestsellers only after lots of rejections. Research the market, so you know all the potential buyers for your work. Keep submitting.
Writing is a business. If you’re in it for a living, then you have to do the economic calculations to figure out where you’re going to make the most money. But then, we don’t write just for the money. If you’re a real writer, you need to write. Go for the long shots now and then, as long as you aren’t counting on them to pay the mortgage.