How to Negotiate Better Rates Even When You Don’t Think You Can

By Nicole Dieker November 17th, 2015

Many freelancers—whether they’re writing blog posts, personal essays, or lightly reported news articles—often feel like there’s no leverage when it comes to negotiation. They receive a terms document explaining that the client pays X rate for Y words, and that’s that.

Even after a freelancer takes on a regular contributor role, negotiation can still seem impossible. After all, you’re just one of dozens of freelancers working for the client. It makes you feel like Oliver Twist, daring to be the one freelancer who says, “Please, client, I want some more.”

We know what happened to Oliver.

But there are ways around what seem like non-negotiable rates. Katie Lane, who runs Work Made for Hire, provides workshops, consulting, and legal services to freelancers who need help advocating for their businesses. As Lane writes in her bio: “I am passionate about helping other people learn how to negotiate, because someone once told me I couldn’t do it. They were wrong.”

In other words, if anyone knows how to negotiate in this type of situation, she does, which is exactly why we spoke to her about what freelancers can do to get better rates.

Often you get this big document when you sign up for a publication, and somewhere in the publication it says, “We pay freelancers this amount.” You read that and you think, “Okay, that’s the only amount I can expect them to pay,” but that’s not the case, necessarily, right?

No, it isn’t! Setting those kinds of expectations is beneficial [for the publisher] because then publications don’t have to deal with 942 questions every time they work with a freelancer. But somebody setting expectations doesn’t mean you can’t ask questions. There’s a reason why they write their documents that way! It’s easy, and it’s going to save them money. If that’s enough to get you to not ask the question, then it’s valuable for them.

But that doesn’t mean they’re not going to have a conversation with you, even if the conversation ends up being “No, I’m sorry, we can’t do anything.”

You won’t get it if you don’t ask. It’s always worth asking.

If we’re in a situation where the terms of freelancer payment have already been set—for example, we receive a document that says a publication pays $125 for all pieces—how should we approach negotiation?

A negotiation doesn’t have to be a single conversation; it can be a cumulative one. When you do your first piece for a media site and you turn it in to the editor, mention that you enjoyed writing the piece and that you’re looking forward to doing more work for them—and that you’d like to know how they make adjustments to compensation or how they make compensation decisions.

The conversation about money doesn’t come up just at the end of the year. We’re talking about it throughout the entire relationship. Any time you have someone who likes you and the work that you do, or who values you and the work that you do, you have the ability to negotiate for more pay.

The things that you should point to are:

  • How successful your pieces have been
  • How much work you’ve done together in the past
  • The other opportunities available to you if they can’t meet your compensation requirements

If you’ve made that a normal conversation with an editor, it’s a lot easier to broach. That being said, if you’re just facing the end of the year, I think it’s perfectly valid to say, “Hey, do you have time to talk on the phone? I’d like to talk to you about expectations and scheduling work for the upcoming year.”

Don’t barrel in suggesting there is only one way. People often have different levers that they can play with. They might be able to offer you a different type of work that pays a higher rate.

Make a case for what you’ve done for them, how that’s been helpful, and mention that you’d like to keep working for them in the future because you find it to be valuable. Then you can have a conversation, based on the information they share with you, about what solution is going to be right for this particular relationship.

What if you suspect that a particular client or publication is having financial troubles?

Being intimidated to ask for what you’re worth isn’t a successful way of planning your career. It’s always important to be sensitive to the limitations of other people and to consider that when you’re approaching a conversation. There are a lot of different factors that influence revenue and how profitable a company is, and a publication paying you a slightly higher wage for the excellent work that you do isn’t going to be the thing that tanks them.

Plus, if you think about it in terms of an investment, you are a good investment for them. You produce good content that gives them the things they want and gives them access to the ability to make even more revenue. It might make perfect sense for them to pay you a little bit more if it means they get to keep you and they get to keep the benefit you are bringing to the company.

Do you have any final advice for us?

We all want to get paid for our good work because it’s good, but sometimes you have to ask and you have to remind people of just how great your work is. It doesn’t make you any less valuable because you’re the one who had to bring it up. You have to be your best advocate.

Image by Mopic
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