Ask a Freelancer

Ask a Freelancer: How Do I Negotiate Higher Rates?

By Nicole Dieker October 28th, 2014

I have been getting into the swing of pitching and writing features for paying publications. Since I’m still new to it, I’ve just been accepting whatever payment they offer me. At what point (if ever) can I begin negotiating higher rates? Any tips for when and how to do so? Thanks!

—Curious Freelancer

This question sounds like it could be easy to answer, but it’s actually much more complicated than re-watching Jerry Maguire and The Godfather with a notepad by your side.

Let me put it this way: I’ve tried to negotiate higher rates three times, and I was only successful once. The time it was successful, I got the “yes” so quickly it made me feel like I should have asked for more.

When I got turned down, the “negotiation” was resolved just as quickly. In one case, the client explained there just wasn’t enough money in the budget. In the other, the client asked if I wanted to increase my workload, and when I said I’d take on more stories if I could renegotiate my rate, my workload and pay didn’t budge.

What’s significant about all three conversations is there was never an actual negotiation like the kind you read about in freelance writer guides. I asked, got my answer, and the conversation was over.

I’m also seeing more clients and publications use online interfaces to handle payment, and you can’t negotiate with an online interface! Instead of getting an email or phone call from an editor saying, “We’d like to offer you $250 for this piece,” you get a message from an interface that reads: “We will offer you $250, click ‘Accept’ to accept.” Unfortunately, there’s no button to click if you’d like to get paid more.

However, as I’ve written before, I am always looking for ways to improve my freelancing skills, and negotiating is definitely a skill many of us can improve. So I turned to the experts for advice.

As Amber Adrian, author of The Unconventional Guide to Freelance Writing, puts it: “You can negotiate anything. Just be prepared to back up your request. For example, if a magazine or website approaches you for your expertise because they’ve read your blog or heard your praises sung across the web, you have the leverage to take their offer as a jumping off point for negotiation. Share your reasons for asking for $500 instead of $300, such as the readership you can bring by sharing the article with your network or the type of sources you know.”

John Scalzi, on his inspiring blog Whatever, writes: “So when a publisher comes to you and says, ‘We like your book, can we buy it?’ do not treat them like they are magnanimously offering you a lifetime boon, which if you refuse will never pass your way again. Treat them like what they are: A company who wants to do business with you regarding one specific project. Their job is to try to get that project on the best terms that they can. Your job is to sell it on terms that are most advantageous to you. You can do that even when you’re starting out. I did. So have many other debut authors. Because they all had something the publisher wanted: the work.”

Jane Friedman, in her “Contracts 101” piece for Scratch, reminds writers that negotiation is often about more than just payment. You can also negotiate terms for reprint rights and digital rights. For example: Do you have the right to reprint your own work in a book of essays? Does the publication have the right to reprint your work without paying you? All of these rights can be negotiated so you earn more money over time.

But when researching advice on negotiating, I felt like an important point was missing from the rates discussion: Sometimes, it’s more pragmatic to think about working your way into a better-paying market than one better-paying project.

Think of it this way: A publication that pays 10 cents per word might pay you 11 cents per word with some convincing, but they’re probably never going to pay you 25 cents per word. And the pub that pays 25 cents per word is probably never going to pay you one dollar per word.

So instead of haggling for a few extra dollars, it might make more sense to take stock of where you stand. How much are you getting paid right now? Which markets are paying more? How can you work your way into those markets (like finance and technology)?

The great thing about freelance writing is you can gradually work up the ladder and phase out the low-paying clients with a patient approach. And the clients that pay more and have larger budgets may be the ones most open to negotiating. So when you yell, “Show me the money!” someone will actually listen.

Nicole Dieker is going to make it her goal to negotiate a higher rate with at least one publication before the end of the year. In fact, she’d like to lay down a Negotiation Challenge in the hopes you’ll do the same. Send your negotiation stories—as well as your freelance advice questions—to dieker.nicole@gmail.com.

Image by Dave Rutt
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