I’d been freelancing fulltime for more than a year before I summoned up the courage to ask for a better deal than whatever was on the table. Before then, I simply took whatever the editor offered, scampered off, and was grateful. (For example, my first article, which sold to Cosmopolitan in 1996, sold for $850… for 1,300 words. That’s what the editor said she could pay, so I took it. This was at a time when the magazine paid $1/word and up for articles. Did I ask for more? Did I even try? Of course not. I was so thrilled to finally get published I would have sold the piece for $50. Good thing I didn’t tell the editor that.)
With 13 months’ experience came some confidence, however. Also the realization that while I was working 50- to 60-hour weeks, I wasn’t making that much money. Granted, some of my work was for the local newspaper, where I was paid anywhere from $35 to $75 for a story. But another factor was that I kept saying “yes” to any work that came my way without ever asking for more. So I decided to try—and I think you should too.
Feeling nervous? That’s OK. I’m going to make it easy for you with some specific techniques you can try:
Be nice. Meaning, I don’t attack the editor for a less-than-stellar offer. Instead, I express my gratitude to her and remind her that I do want to work with her. Then I ask for more. Try something like, “Thanks so much for thinking of me for this piece—I’m looking forward to working with you on this topic. But considering the length/scope/deadline/insert-reason-hereof the piece, do you think you could do a little better money-wise?”
Give a reason. Bottom line—I want more money. I just do! But that doesn’t give my editor a reason to give it to me. That's why I give her an explanation of why I want more money—the complexity of the story, the number of sources I’ll have to interview, a tight deadline, a piece that requires some expertise in the subject matter, whatever fits. I want to give her a reason to say “yes.” Years ago, an editor I’d worked with before called to assign a 2,000-word piece on oral contraceptives that included five sidebars—and then offered $1/word for it. That’s not a terrible rate, but it wasn’t enough to justify all the time I was going to put into the story. I told her, “I really want to write this piece for you, but obviously this story is going to take me weeks of research and interviews, especially with all the sidebars. I don’t think $1/word is really fair for this particular story. Can you do better than that?” She immediately agreed to $1.50/word, which gave me an extra $1,000 just for opening my mouth. (In retrospect, I realize she agreed too quickly—she probably would have gone even higher. Oops.)
Cite your standard. If the per-word rate is much lower than what you usually get, mention that. Try, “I’d love to write for you, but for this kind of work, I usually get more per word. Is there any way you can do better?”
Prove your worth. You may be surprised to learn that I don’t try to negotiate every offer. If a new editor comes to me with an assignment at a fair rate, I take it. Then I do a great job on the piece…and ask for money the second time around. Remember that whether you’re a new or seasoned writer, the editor’s taking a chance on you—there are plenty of talented freelancers who are lazy about deadlines or turn in sloppy copy. Once I’ve proven myself, I’m in a much better position to ask for a higher per-word rate for the next story. That’s when I ask for a raise, using language like, “I’m so happy we’ll be working together again! Because you’ve worked with me before, you know I’m going to do a good job for you, and turn in the story before deadline. Considering that you know I’ll deliver for you, can we bump up my per-word rate?” (Or, “Can you do better money-wise this time around?”)
Keep the door open. I’ve asked for more money from editors and been turned down. My motto? It never hurts to ask. When an editor says, “I’m sorry, but I can’t do any better,” or “we have a set rate for writers and I can’t change it,” I don’t complain. If I want the assignment, I say yes, and say, “No problem—I understand! It never hurts to ask, right?" And if I don’t want the assignment, I just explain that I can’t take it on but that I do appreciate the editor getting in touch. I never burn a bridge…and you never know where your editor may end up!
So why not try? Yes, it’s easier (and less stressful!) to simply say “yes” or “no” to an offer than to try to negotiate with an editor, but that’s no reason not to try. Take a deep breath, summon your courage, and ask if the editor can do better. You may be surprised at the answer.
One more thing--writers often fear that if they ask for more money, they’ll lose the assignment. In more than 13 years of freelancing, that has never happened to me. The worst case scenario is that you’ll ask for more money, the editor will refuse, and you’ll have to decide whether you’re willing to take the work or not. Best case? You make more money—simply by asking for it.
Your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to ask for more money on your next freelance assignment. Let me know how it turns out. And if you have any negotiating techniques that you’ve found effective, please share them here!
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