Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Devyani Borade
How many times have you wished that you were being paid just a little bit more? How many times have you wondered whether it was "good form" to ask for just a bit more pay? How many times have you actually done so?
If a magazine has shown interest in your article or story, chances are they are inclined towards publishing you. In such a situation, a little bit of negotiation might just bring you extra benefits. No magazine minds some amount of haggling over price. In fact, a few may even expect it and advertise their pay scales accordingly. As long as you are not too pushy and know when to back down, you should try to negotiate rates whenever you can.
Negotiation is an art that few are born with. It can be acquired, learnt and gradually developed over time. As with any art, practice makes perfect.
Like any good strategy, you need to prepare and arm yourself with the right tools -- in this case, information -- before you actually set out to negotiate.
1. Assess yourself
Are you a novice writer or a veteran? Are you a household name or a relative nobody? Your personal situation is the first thing that decides your place in the negotiation. That is not to say that if you're just starting out, your status is just above the level of dirt. Many magazines welcome new writers for the fresh approaches and styles they breathe into the article. Such magazines are aware that novice writers may well deliver the same quality with a smaller price tag and virtually no "ego" baggage as compared to more experienced writers. However, many other magazines prefer to work only with established writers because of the know-how and professionalism they bring to the table.
If you've already done a fair amount of writing -- you are the author of five books and are often called upon for consultation by your contemporaries -- you know exactly what you can command. For the majority of us, however, keeping our pay expectations towards the middle of the scale and then gradually raising them in small increments is generally reasonable.
A step further from this is to know why you are the best person for the job. Everyone wants to know, 'What's in it for me?' Your editors and publishers do, too. Have you identified a gap in the market that your particular skills could fill? Or do you cater to a specialized market that is always looking for more content? Know what makes your proposal beneficial to the magazine and be prepared to point out the advantages to both parties during the negotiation in order to persuade and convince.
2. Assess the market
Your client's ability to pay is the next thing that you should consider before starting the negotiation process. Try to find out what the magazine's budgets are and where they get their funding. Check out how big their subscriber base is. Study their advertising rates. You can ask a higher price for an article for a corporate publication that is privately owned but catering to a small niche section of society, than for a story that will appear in a Literature department journal run by college students.
An offshoot of the above is also to identify any potential weaknesses in your market. Is it a niche area that doesn't find many takers, and could therefore be susceptible to buying articles with a little 'marketing' push? Does the editor want to meet a deadline and might therefore happily pay a little extra for a quick turn-around on an assignment? This strategy helps you to capitalise on the publication's constraints and better set up a middle ground.
3. Keep your finger on the pulse
Be aware of the current going rates in the market for similar types of articles. Seek out four or five different writers whose work you like and is aligned to your own, and inquire about their asking prices. This is where having contacts or being part of a regular writers' network helps. If you belong to a writers' group, consult them. There may be organisations in your local area that help freelancers with writing and selling.
Another approach is to find out about the editor's preferences. Websites like Duotrope's Digest provide handy interviews of editors of numerous magazines. Read up on these and focus your energy on stressing aspects of your story that you know will appeal to that particular editor. Align it as much as possible with the style and theme of the magazine. The less work the editor has to do to improve your story, the more favourable they will be towards you. This gives you a stronger bargaining position.
4. Have a holistic view
Other factors, like location and general economic climate, play a big role in going rates, but are outside your control. A magazine based in New York might pay twice as much as one that is based out of Midwest. Similarly, a magazine that would have happily parted with $1000 five years ago may, in these days of recession, be reluctant to part even with $500.
5. Keep an eye on your budget
What have you had to do to write and complete the article or story? What are your normal writing-related expenditures? Do you spend money on advertising, writing materials, a home office with a broadband connection, a library membership, a subscription to a writers' forum? Your asking rate should depend on how much you can get away with, by taking into account the need to earn a reasonable profit after factoring in the deductions from your income.
Keep in mind that payment method have their own hidden costs. If you live outside the US and are submitting an article to a US magazine, work out what the fees will be for a PayPal transaction, a foreign cheque collection, demand draft or direct electronic funds transfer. Then include this in your asking price or ensure that the payment covers a percentage of it.
6. Consider the complexity
What type of article or story have you written? Research-related articles require investment of time and energy from writers. Coordinating photography or imagery to go along with your article, collecting external links and references, writing sidebars, arranging interviews or getting quotes from famous people in the line, multiple draft revisions -- all this requires extra effort. On the other hand, writing personal experience stories may not be quite so taxing. Decide what level of commitment is justified for the story and negotiate accordingly.
7. Learn the legalese
Understand what rights you are giving away. "All rights" is a big deal. "One time non-exclusive electronic rights" is not. Don't waste time moving heaven and earth to get a slightly higher pay rate for the latter. But do raise a stink if someone demands the former and is willing to pay only $20 for the lot. Know what you're getting into and gauge whether it is worth it.
8. Be principled
Principles are any guiding rules that we live by. Every person has different ideas about what is important to them and there is no one-size-fits-all. For example, when it comes to writing, I have a principle that I don't write for free and don't submit to non-paying markets. Identify your goals and objectives. Be clear about what you want and what you are willing to forgo. Then stick to your principles, no matter what the temptation.
9. When to compromise
Obviously if your financial situation is in dire straits and you're a starving artiste, you will take every opportunity you get. Once in a while, you may come across an offer to write something outside your normal repertoire. The subject matter may be varied, exotic or wildly out of your line. If you find yourself interested nonetheless, consider foregoing a little bit in monetary terms to the benefit of adding an unusual dimension to your writing portfolio. It may open up an entirely new vista of work in the future.
Once you've done your homework, it's time to roll out that silver tongue. Here are a few tips to ensure that you get their money's worth!
10. Be polite and respectful
Depending on the medium of negotiation -- face to face, over telephone or via e-mail/post -- the communication style differs slightly. However, it is of paramount importance that both parties remain on impersonal, neutral and entirely professional grounds. As the seller, you must always be courteous, no matter how aggravating the circumstances. Regardless of whether it's the spoken or written word, a smile on your face will always shine through to the other side. It also helps to develop an outlook of being able to take things lightly when the occasion demands it. At best, most of your negotiations will be carried out amicably. No one goes out looking for unpleasantness. At worst, if you have the misfortunate of dealing with a short-tempered editor, ignoring their barbs is often the best policy.
The best type of negotiation is a win-win situation for both parties and allows some measure of satisfaction to both. You want the editor to feel that they have got a good deal while ensuring that you don't get the raw end of it. Never embarrass or try one-upmanship. In the unlikely event that the editors find themselves in a spot, for example by having promised you something and then backing out because the decision was superseded by a more senior executive, always allow them to save face. Be gracious. Who knows, the next time it might be you stuck in a similar situation.
11. Be forthright
When you are offered a rate and you'd like a bit more, always put your request in the form of a polite open-ended question like, "Do you think your budget would allow for a little more?" and then in a few succinct words explain your USP (unique selling point) -- why you believe you should be paid more -- to back your request. If you're absolutely certain about what you want for your article or story, mention it. If not, don't mention any figures at all. Let the editor consider the situation and come back to you with a revised figure. If the editor is not in a position to raise the fee, they will let you know at this point. Make it clear that your intention is to sell at the right price. Be ready to walk away from the deal if both your expectations don't match. But never be rude or worse, threatening, while parting ways. Never demand, shout, argue, be sarcastic or humiliating. Your words may come back to haunt you.
12. Be alert and read the signs
During face-to-face communication, body language such as nodding the head, direct eye contact, folding the arms across the chest, etc., all give signals of how your proposal is being received. Over the telephone, pauses in conversation and lightning-quick responses can give away vital clues about what the editor is thinking. In writing, words play the same role. Words such as 'can', 'would', 'possible', 'perhaps', 'maybe', 'anxiously awaiting', 'eagerly awaiting', 'looking forward to' or 'concern' will reveal the editor's state of mind and feelings and are indicators of which way the deal is likely to swing.
13. Be persuasive, not defensive
Here's where all your preparation comes into play. Apply the knowledge you have gained as leverage for the right price. Cite verifiable examples of other magazines or writers. If possible, reveal your sources as well.
Convince the editor of your qualifications and why you are the best person for the job, by providing them with clips of previously published credits, preferably those that are relevant to the current work. The editor of Ancestors magazine is not likely to be impressed by a publication in Asimov's Science Fiction. Give them an undeniable reason to want to publish your article. Even they may have to answer to somebody else.
14. Silence is golden
After making your bid, give the editor a little time to think things over. The editor may not be the one who holds the purse-strings and may have to consult with a higher authority. They will get back to you when they are good and ready. Bombarding them with incessant follow ups will make you appear either too pushy or too desperate, neither of which is an image you want to portray. Patience is a virtue.
However, don't get too lackadaisical either. If you haven't heard after a reasonable amount of time has passed -- a week is usually a safe assumption, but this varies on a case-to-case basis -- nudge with a gentle reminder like, "I was wondering if you've had any further thoughts on this?"
15. Don't overdo it
Again, like any good strategist, learn when to withdraw. Over time, you'll develop the knack of reading the signs and signals that an editor is giving out, and be able to tell when they have reached the limit of how far they are prepared to go to pay you. Replies may get shorter or curter. Responses will take longer. The editor may start hinting about their inability to continue with the conversation along the same lines. They may bring up the topic of their financial status or their publication's status in the market. This usually means you should feel privileged to appear within their pages, but don't let any editor browbeat you into accepting what you don't want. Writing is a mutual business - magazines need writers just like writers need magazines. It is generally acceptable to bargain twice and then settle at the best case scenario.
If you feel that the current time is not the best time to undergo negotiations, take a break and arrange to carry on the process later. You will come across as a person who sincerely believes that a deal can be worked out and that you are willing to invest time and effort to make that happen. While waiting for the next opportunity, mentally review what happened during the previous exercise (did the editor seem pre-occupied or did they imply that other factors may have an impact?) and make a note of it for the next occasion.
Most importantly, develop the attitude of never regretting your decisions. Remember that everything appears easy in hindsight, but what matters is what you were able to do with the information you had at that moment in time.
16. Payment in kind
Everyone likes money. But cash is not the only reward for having an article published. You may be equally well off negotiating for other things that may be important to you – reprint rights, instant payments, deadline flexibility, promotion of your latest book or website, etc.
Sometimes, saying that you are happy to waive the "kill fees" is also an attractive option for the editor of a magazine whose schedule changes frequently and cannot guarantee publication of an accepted story.
Once you have settled the deal, honour the terms. Magazines are often openly vocal about threatening to check whether your submission is original or not, if they purchase only first rights to a story. While you may wonder, given the vast number of magazines and virtually limitless stories out there, exactly how they intend to accomplish a feat like that, don't be the one to find out. Reneging on a contract can be expensive both in terms of money as well as reputation. Be honest and uphold your integrity. It may pay off later when you least expect it.
While these negotiation tips may not land you an assignment big enough to quit your day job over, they may well be able to give you just that little bit more. And as the good folk at Tesco say, "Every little helps!"
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.
Devyani Borade writes for magazines across the world. She has successfully negotiated higher payment rates for the majority of her articles and stories, and survived to continue writing. Visit her website Verbolatry at http://devyaniborade.blogspot.com to contact her and read some of her other work.