Sure, you can write--but can you negotiate?
Published: September 14, 2010
The look on the young woman’s face could best be described as pained. “They came so close,” she said. “But they’re still short of the money I expected.” She was asking me for advice about a new job, and she had overlooked a very important fact. The company had recruited her—she wasn’t looking for a job because she liked the job she had.
Kay B. Day
“What do I do?” she asked. She explained that despite coming up short on her expectations, the job still paid more than the job she had and the hours would probably be more family-friendly as well.
“Negotiate.” As soon as I said it, I realized the thought hadn’t entered her mind.
It’s sort of like entering a contest. You can’t win if you don’t enter.
I suggested she phone her potential employer and thank them for the offer. “Make brief small talk,” I said. And then I told her to gently move on to asking whether they could bring that offer up to meet her expectations. “They recruited you,” I said. “That makes a big difference.”
A day or so after that conversation I got a call from a very excited young woman. “They gave me the salary I wanted!” Aside from the extra pay, she learned a valuable lesson. Always ask for what you want. Otherwise there’s no way you will get it.
You may be the best writer on the planet, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re a good negotiator. Based on numerous conversations I’ve had with writers, especially females, I’ve come to the conclusion negotiation is a skill we have to teach ourselves.
First it’s good to know what you have for leverage. If you’re a newbie freelancer, your leverage might be having access to information no one else has. You may also have unique personal insight about a topic, or you may live in an area where there’s an expert you can interview in person. Ask yourself what you are bringing to the job that no other writer has. Whatever you do, don’t just write for credit.
Stephen Morrill, web editor for The American Society of Journalists and Authors and director of WritersCollege.com, doesn’t mince words about giving your work away. He said, “I take issue with what appears to be the common excuse for writing for free. A novice writer will say, ‘Well, I did that for free because I needed the clip,’ or ‘I have to work for free because I am starting out.’ This is absolute nonsense and the first very long step down the slippery slope of inferiority complex writing.”
Once you have publishing clips, it gets easier. You learn, for instance, what the market will bear.
If you’re negotiating with a national publication, you know there’s more leeway. If you’re negotiating a contract, that’s a bit different. I tend to accept lower per piece rates if I know that publication will make a commitment to me for multiple stories or for an extended length of time. However, those rates must be predicated on what you will have to invest in the project.
Will there be travel? Are you also required to provide photographs? Will your editor accept interviews by e-mail or by phone? How much time will you invest in going from the query to the finished piece?
Sometimes it is smart to accept an hourly rate. I’ve done this at times for large complex jobs and I have been glad every time I did it that way. For instance, I took on a project editing and preparing for publication numerous research pieces by experts. There was no way to gauge the job based on a flat fee—each expert had his own way of preparing the research. Costing that job on a per hour basis saved me time and money because it put the information providers in a position to be mindful of the time they expected me to invest.
Always go into a meeting with questions in hand. In order to provide a client the best service, you have to know when the work will be due, whether there’s a possibility of a rewrite or whether new information might need to be added. Issues like length, any preferred style guide and the number of sources needed to verify facts are also important.
I’ve bid on jobs that ranged from hundreds of pages to hundreds of words. I always approached the project with fairness in mind—after all, I wanted the editor to buy from me again. It’s far easier to sell an existing client than to seek a new one.
Questions are always a writer’s best friend. Many of us learned that as children, because those of us who grew up to be writers usually peppered adults with questions due to an innate curiosity that could only be satisfied by the resolution of a question mark.
You will develop your own style of negotiating and with time, you’ll get better and better at it.
But you have to be willing, like the young woman I advised, to ask for what you want. The client can tell you ‘no,’ but that’s the worst that can happen. And it's been my experience most of the time that if I’ve made my case well, the client will say, “OK. How soon can you get started?”
Florida journalist Kay B. Day has won awards for poetry, nonfiction and fiction. The author of two books, she has written for
The Christian Science Monitor, United Press International,
The Florida Times-Union and Sky News. To learn more about Kay Day, see www.kayday.com. To read Kay's other Web Savvy columns about writing for the Web, click here.