A to the Q is an ongoing series of posts in which I answer questions I've received from blog readers, workshop students, and others about writing and navigating the waters of children's publishing. My aim is to share what I know and spark your search for even more information.
Q: I've heard it's a good idea to pursue some of the low-paying projects I see advertised to get my feet wet and build my children's writing credentials. Do you agree?
A: As you've found, pay ranges for children's writing projects run the gamut. Of course everyone has to start somewhere, and of course you'll want to move up the pay scale from your starting point. But I'm assuming that you're talking about working for peanuts — and that's something I simply never advocate.
Listen, there are some low, low, LOW fees out there. I've seen fees as low as a dismal $0.05/word, or maybe $100 for a week's worth of work. (Take a sec to do that math. Can you live on that? Can anyone?) Some writing-advice gurus advise newbie or wannabe writers to go after such "jobs." They'll even tell people to work for free to pad their writing credits. (Volunteer-type writing, such as when you're contributing content to an organization or cause that matters to you is a different matter entirely.) But I rarely hear of writers having a good experience working on pay-nothing projects, and I've never witnessed anyone parlaying such work into high fees or credibility/career viability.
Maybe you will get better projects after writing for next to nothing, but in most cases that will only happen because you move on and look for something better, not because you got great exposure or paid some nonexistent dues writing for publishers who want cheap content to feed to . . . uh, who is their audience, exactly?
Think of it this way: If you take on unreasonably low-paying work, you may miss out on decent-paying work. And worse, you'll set a precedent for your low worth as a writer. That, in turn, effectively contributes to your low-paying publisher's low opinion of writers' contributions to its revenue. If you feed that cycle, it will continue.
I realize that the issue of needing experience/specific writing credits to score assignments is a valid concern (and true in any field). As I said, you need to start somewhere, and very few people get to start at the top of a profession's fee scale. I would just hate to see you waste valuable time chasing gigs that treat the writing — your work — as something you should feel privileged to produce and give away.
Established publishers who pay fair rates know that they need to occasionally hire first-time writers to keep the pool fresh — and many are willing to take a chance on an unknown candidate who exhibits professionalism, talent, and perseverance. No reason why that candidate can't be you!