Definition and Example of a Kill Fee for Writers

You may get paid even if your work doesn't publish

A writer working remotely typing on a laptop computer at his dining table.
••• lechatnoir / Getty Images

Freelancing can be a little like walking a tightrope. Sales of your work are not guaranteed, and your fortunes may ebb and flow due to things beyond your control. All the same, there are few things more gratifying than writing and getting paid for it, so many will wade in where others fear to tread. 

It's one thing to produce an awesome piece of work that you just can't find a buyer for. It's something else entirely to think you have a buyer – a magazine or newspaper has committed to accepting your work – only to have the publisher pull the plug.

You may already have budgeted for that money. But then again, you might have negotiated a kill fee. 

What Is a Kill Fee?

A kill fee is a payment on a magazine or newspaper article makes to the freelancer when their assigned article is "killed" or canceled. It is generally expressed as a percentage of the total payment, and it's used to afford the freelancer with a certain sense of confidence. Otherwise, how motivated would you be to put time and effort into an assignment that might not make it into the final magazine edition? 

Why Does It Happen?

Sometimes, a requested copy can be killed in the case of space issues or if other plans change. You may have written a great human interest feature about a war vet who is returning to his hometown, then something particularly newsworthy happens the day before it's scheduled to publish. Or maybe the vet is charged with an unsavory criminal offense the day before, so he no longer makes for a sympathetic human-interest story.

Either way, the paper doesn't want to run your story now. It wants to dedicate the space to the big news instead, or it decides that there's no way to save the copy in light of what the vet has done. 

So it doesn't run your story, but you still get paid, at least a little. Kill fees average about 25% of what you would have been paid had your article been published. There are no hard-and-fast rules, and the exact percentage can depend upon publication. National magazines tend to pay more than local weekly newspapers, but the fee is often negotiable. 

A Kill Fee Protects the Publisher, Too 

You might not think that money out of pocket in exchange for no product protects the publisher, but this is often the case. It provides the company with an easy out when it's contracted to purchase and publish your finished product, but it doesn't want to—better to part with a mere percentage than the full agreed-upon amount. It might happen if you don't quite deliver the quality that the editor was anticipating. It doesn't run the piece, but it spends only a fraction of the cost. 

A word of warning, however: Some publishers include escape clauses in contracts or agreements that allow them to dodge a kill fee if you produce substandard work.

It, of course, can create a hotbed of dispute. Who's to say it was substandard? You think it's great. Maybe the publisher just preferred to run something else, so it said your work was substandard to save a few dollars. Read the fine print of your contract. Make sure you understand exactly when and under what circumstances you're entitled to a kill fee.

You Still Own the Rights 

The good news is that if your article is killed, you get the fee and you might still receive full payment for your work as well. You retain the rights to it so you can turn right around and sell it to someone else.