When I got my first freelance assignment over a decade ago, I was so excited that I didn’t even think about the rate or terms—I just signed that contract before the editor could change her mind.
After a while, though, I started to pay more attention to the finer details. Was the rate fair for my responsibilities? I often wanted to negotiate, but was afraid of coming off as a pain or giving my editors a reason not to work with me again.
A few weeks ago, The Freelancer covered negotiation tactics for writers, but I was curious about the other side of the process. We freelancers should learn how to make as much money as possible for our work, but no matter how skilled we are at negotiating, the editorial side always has final say.
I spoke with two experienced editors to find out how they really feel when freelancers ask for more money. And based on their insights, it’s clear we can ask for better rates, as long as we’re aware of a few important details.
Understand financial limits
What an editor is able to do for you will vary wildly depending on her role. “Right now, I’m working as an editor for a custom publisher,” said Denise Schipani, who edits Panera’s blog from her home office. “I have a small bit of say in budget. I can go a little up or down as I see fit.”
When Schipani worked for glossy magazines including Bridal Guide, Child, and American Baby as an on-side editor, her power to negotiate ranged from nonexistent to extremely flexible. The point? As much as editors may agree with the principle of asking for what you’re worth, there are limits when it comes to bettering your rate. Try to learn about those limits from fellow writers and editors so you can advocate for yourself without continuously asking for something an editor can’t give.
“Don’t ask for $1,000 if I offered $400,” Schipani advised. “Ask, ‘Is there wiggle room in that fee?’ And I may be able to find $100 or $150 leftover in the budget.”
Make your case, with grace
Sometimes, asking for more money is a dead-end; but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. “Most of my clients have a specific budget for content,” said content strategist Jessica Ashley, a former senior editor at Yahoo! Shine who now works as editor-in-chief for TapGenes.com. “I lobby hard to get writers fair compensation, but I appreciate when writers negotiate their fees. It’s just good business, and I appreciate writers standing up for what they can offer to the site.”
“I appreciate when writers negotiate their fees. It’s just good business, and I appreciate writers standing up for what they can offer to the site.”
However, standing up for fair compensation does not mean you should pretend to be a hardline agent. The way you present your request will definitely have an impact on how it’s received.
“It’s important to be both confident and kind,” Ashley said. She suggests explaining what you can offer for your proposed rate using “ands” instead of “buts.” For example begin with a direct stance: “My current rate is $200 per post, and I would be thrilled to contribute to this site because…”
It’s also worth noting that, according to Ashley, the success of any negotiation hinges a lot on what a freelancer does before asking for more money. “I am more likely to offer a higher rate during negotiations if I’ve read a writer’s work and am impressed, if they’ve been published on reputable sites and if they come with solid recommendations,” Ashley said. “I want to know that writers have a strong and experienced voice, that they are good communicators with editors, and that they are reliable. I can’t know that from their clips, but I can get that from speaking to their references. All of it has value.”
Emphasizing that value—whether sourcing photography or coming in with interviews already completed—can make the difference between accepting the rate as offered and getting a little extra.
Meet in the middle
What happens if an editor can’t budge on the fee, but you still want the assignment?
If the offer just isn’t on par with your rate, you can always walk away and try to make up the lost business elsewhere. Or you can take the assignment as offered, but wonder if your credibility has been damaged in the process.
Don’t forget the third option, though: try to meet in the middle. If the publication can’t offer more money, can they sweeten the pot with more flexibility, a looser deadline, or a different kind of assignment?
“I was thrilled when a writer I admire contacted me about a freelance opportunity,” Ashley said. “Her rate was far more than I could pay based on the site budget, but she deserves her rate. So I negotiated to have her write occasional features at a higher rate based on topics of her choice, rather than having to adhere to assignments and conduct interviews. What she knows and where she comes from in the field was far and away worth that negotiation. She’d already earned it and it was my challenge and pleasure to find a place for her on the site.”
Bottom line: Smart freelancers make an editor’s job easier. If you can clearly show how you’ll add more value to a particular project than the typical freelancer, then there’s a chance you can be paid more than the typical rate.