When I edited a small regional magazine, I once asked a writer who had contributed articles to numerous national slicks if she would be interested in writing for me. I stammered out a figure that nearly choked in my throat because it was so low – $250 for a 2,000-word article. “Is that okay?” I asked.
Picking up on my discomfort, the writer replied: “That’s fine. Frankly, I’m more interested in getting good clips than in payment.”
Can you guess the first thought that flickered in my mind?
a) Delight that I secured the services of a first-rate writer.
b) Relief that she accepted the rate of pay so easily.
c) Excitement over a story idea I could assign to this person.
None of the above. My first thought was: This person is a grade-A snook.
She already had enough clips to compile a small library. What’s more, she was in a tremendous negotiating position: I was new to the area and needed writers. I’d approached her, demonstrating appreciation for her work. And I’d indicated that I thought the rate I was offering was too low. Granted, I didn’t have a whole lot of negotiating room, but I’d expected her to balk at the initial offer. I purposely quoted a figure at the bottom of the range with the idea that I would increase another $100.
Writers like to complain that they aren’t paid enough for their work. But they can’t blame editors and publishers for paying tiny fees if writers don’t adequately value their own labor.
To varying degrees, editors have discretion in payment and will negotiate depending on how much they like or need your work. The shrewd freelancer pays as much attention to getting the best rates for his work as he does to providing his best work. Here are my rules of thumb for maximizing profits:
* Like any other vendor providing a good or service, decide what your work is worth and, within the bounds of common business sense, stick to that figure. A key element in any kind of negotiation is the ability to walk away from the deal. Sure, you might lose some sales, but you’ll come out ahead in the long run. If you’re not willing to make a firm stand on your rates, don’t complain about being underpaid.
* After you’ve written several articles for a particular magazine, ask for a raise. If you’re a consistent performer, you deserve one.
* If you send a completed article to an editor and he calls with an offer to buy it, remain cool. Express gratitude, say how much you enjoyed writing it, compliment his magazine, and ask for a fee (at least) 25% above what he offered. It’s likely the first figure is at the bottom of his pay scale.
* Don’t be overly grateful. Let’s say on your initial dealing with a magazine, an editor offers a sum for an article that strikes you as exorbitant. Rather than a glass-shattering hoot, the first words from your mouth should be: “That’s a little lower than I’d like, but since I like your magazine and am excited by the prospect of working with you, I think I can work within your range.”
* Listen for key negotiating words. An editor might say, “$400 – is that enough?” or “all I can afford to pay for this is . . .” That’s your tip that the editor realizes his payment is on the low side and you might be able to get higher fee.
* Let’s say an editor responds to a query with an assignment that quotes a fee. Don’t be afraid to call the editor and ask for more than the letter offers. Do this before you work on the piece, not after. You’re a writer – understand the psychology of the written word: If a figure is on paper, people tend to think it’s set in stone. Nonsense. After all, if you approach the subject diplomatically, you can always take the initial offer. The editor won’t withdraw it because you ask for more, especially since you have the letter, which is a legal contract.
* Increase your pay after you’ve finished the assignment. You’ll usually have some material left over that’s interesting but didn’t fit in the main body of the article. Pitch the information to the editor as a sidebar. But don’t use phrases like “left over material” or “I can just dash this off,” as this may discourage the editor from offering additional payment.
Suggest a fee for your sidebar proportional to your payment for the main article: “I’ll check into the sidebar and get it off to you in a few days. Let’s see, I received 25[cents] a word for the article, so I assume you’ll pay $125 for the sidebar.” The editor might reply with a lower rate but he’ll be on notice you don’t give your work away.