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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Freelance Toolbox

A simple way to boost your pay: Ask

By David Volk

I know a simple four-word phrase that has helped me earn thousands of additional dollars, and I use it almost every time an editor calls.

“Is that rate negotiable?”

That question may sound like a strange one, especially to newer freelancers. Maybe you think it will turn off an editor, or that a hungrier writer will underbid you.

I disagree.

I believe negotiating shows an editor you value your work, you’re someone to be taken seriously.

Use reason, of course. If it’s your first time out and you’re writing for a neighborhood weekly or hyperlocal blog that pays $15 a shot, most editors will laugh you out of their office. If you’ve been working for a while and have established a track record as a writer who produces clean copy and meets deadlines, it’s worth a shot.

Don’t get me wrong. It isn’t easy to find the nerve. I kept promising myself I would ask a long-time client, a magazine editor. I put it off and put it off and then I blurted the question out when she called with another assignment.

Silence followed, and I immediately regretted asking. I was preparing to justify my request when she said, “The budget is tight right now, but I’ll see what I can do for you.”

The $50 increase wasn’t much, but it was $50 I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t asked. I was so inspired that I even tried to negotiate when I got assignments from magazines I’d never worked with before.

In the years since, the request has yielded increases ranging from $25 to several hundred dollars.

The key to the negotiation is knowing what you want going in. I usually have a figure in mind, but I let the editor name the price. If I like it, I won’t quibble. If not, I’m prepared to make a counter offer.

The real challenge comes when an editor says no.

Earlier this year an editor asked me to write a multi-source, 1,500-word story and sidebar for $800, far below my standard rate. When she told me there was no wiggle room, I had to determine if it was worth my while to do the story. The subject was interesting, it was in a niche I’ve been trying to move toward and I didn’t have any upcoming assignments, but it seemed like too much work for too little return until I asked if it would be possible to reduce the word count.

Done.

It wasn’t a perfect solution, but it brought the per word rate close enough to my standard rate that it was worth my while.

When I tried to repurpose another story for a different magazine, however, I wasn’t as successful. Although I was willing to write a new story on the same subject, I couldn’t get the editor to move from a rate that turned out to be less than 25 cents a word. I asked how freelance photographers were paid. The editor said they swapped for ad space.

“I might be willing to do the same,” I said.

“Why? What would you advertise?” he asked, warily. Oh, I don’t know. Perhaps my services AS A WRITER?

Sometimes it’s best to just walk away.

Fortunately, such exchanges have been rare. My feeling is, if you do your job well and develop a reputation for delivering crisp, clean copy on deadline, editors who are worth their salt will be willing to work with you. You may not always get what you want, but you’ll never know until you ask.

David Volk is a Seattle-based freelancer who specializes in business, travel and food. He’s the author of “The Cheap Bastard’s Guide to Seattle” and “The Tribe Has Spoken: Life Lessons From Reality TV.” He used negotiation skills when it came time to sign both book contracts.

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