What Is a Kill Fee?

Definition & Examples of a Kill Fee

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

A kill fee is a payment on a magazine or newspaper article that a publisher makes to a freelance writer when their assigned article is "killed," or canceled.

Learn more about kill fees and when they're used.

What Is a Kill Fee?

For various reasons, some writing assignments don't make it into the final edition of a publication. When this happens, the publisher usually issues a kill fee to the writer. This fee is most often expressed as a percentage of the total payment, although some publishers prefer flat amounts.

How a Kill Fee Works

Publishers may decide to kill assignments if they have space issues or if plans change. For example, you may have written a great human-interest feature about a war vet who is returning to his hometown. Something particularly newsworthy happens the day before it's scheduled to publish, and they need to make room in the paper for it. 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 publisher isn't going to run your story. But if you've got a kill fee in your contract, you'll still get paid for it—at least a little.

This fee is usually a percentage of what you would have been paid had your article been published. There are no hard-and-fast rules around kill fees, so the exact percentage always depends upon the publisher's policies. National publishers may pay higher kill fees than local weekly newspapers, for example. 

You won't receive a kill fee for an article that isn't published unless it's specified in your contract. Some publishers choose not to pay kill fees at all.

Be sure to read the fine print of your contract and make sure you understand exactly when and under what circumstances you're entitled to a kill fee. It's possible to discuss and negotiate the amount of each kill fee, the timing of it, and the acceptable reasons for withholding it with the publisher before you sign.

Some publishers include escape clauses in contracts or agreements that allow them to dodge a kill fee if you produce substandard work—which is at their discretion.

Advantages of Kill Fees

Kill fees can help provide freelance writers with some protection in the fast-paced world of publishing, where plans for publication can change quickly for various reasons. They can at least ensure that they get paid something for their work, even if it's never used by the publisher—which is better than putting the work in and getting nothing in return.

Often, writers also retain the rights to pieces that are killed. That means if your article is killed, you can turn right around and sell it to another publisher. That could result in getting paid more than you were originally going to be paid for your work. Of course, being able to sell it to another publication is not guaranteed, but if you can do it, then it's a big win.

Kill fees also benefit publishers, as well. They get an easy out when they're contracted to purchase and publish your finished product, but they don't want to or can't. It's less expensive for them to part with a percentage than the full agreed-upon amount. And it's much less expensive than having to deal with any legal action resulting in a breach of contract for a piece that they decided not to publish.

Key Takeaways

  • A kill fee is an amount of money a publisher agrees to pay a freelance writer when they decide not to publish their work.
  • The fee is usually a percentage of what you would have been paid had your article been published.
  • A kill fee must be specified in your freelancer contract for you to receive one.
  • You can negotiate the amount of a kill fee and the circumstances surrounding it before you sign your contract.
  • You may be able to sell a story that was killed to another publisher, as long as you retain the rights.