By every outward appearance, running a magazine is about rigidity.
We operate on deadlines.
Each story has a strict word count.
There is a budget which must be followed to a "T".
It’s a tight ship.
In actuality, that’s all a façade. It’s the case where I work, at SUCCESS, and every other publication that exists in the real world. As I told you when introducing this column last month, there’s very little science to any of this.
Do I want you, a freelance writer, to turn your work in on time? Of course, but “on time” is relative – most deadlines are artificial, just in case you need an extra day, week or even longer.
Do I want you to hit your word count? Well yes, but I’ve always got a backup plan or six in case your piece runs short.
Of the most interest to you: Yes, there really is a budget, but I have wiggle room in terms of how I spend it. Not every word in the magazine is equally valuable. Sometimes I can pay more than average, sometimes I will try to pay less.
The good news is you can effectively bargain for higher payment with me and other editors. At the risk of great regret, I will tell you how. There are a handful of tried and true methods.
The good news is you can effectively bargain for higher payment with me and other editors.
Let’s start with the most basic tip of all, but one that writers often neglect; heck, it’s one that editors neglect when they’re offered a salary to take the full-time job, so don’t feel bad if you’ve been too shy in the past.
If you do not request higher payment, you will not get it. Period, end of story. The squeaky wheel gets the grease. It’s my job to put together the best magazine I can with the budget I have to work with, so if you’re willing to work for the first offer, that means I have more to play with in the budget for this issue.
Does this mean that everyone who tries to negotiate will get paid at a higher rate? No. But you can’t win if you don’t try to play. Now, on to the ways to differentiate yourself from all the others requesting a bigger piece of the pie.
Understand Your Leverage
The counterpoint to “Just Ask” is that I can and do turn down people who ask for more money. I’ll do it nicely! I’ll explain my reasons: This assignment is not that difficult because I’ve already arranged the interviews for you, or you have lots of time to complete it, or it’s just a simple, straightforward narrative.
Those all may very well be true. But there are times when they won’t be – when you’ve got a ton of work to do, not much time to do it, and/or the story is very complex. That’s when you have leverage. I’ve asked you to do this tough job because I think you’re the best person for it. Recognize that you have the upper hand and take advantage.
When you ask for a certain amount more, don't just state the number and leave it. Explain those aforementioned reasons to me, briefly lay out the time commitment or how you plan to tackle the story so I can get a fuller picture of what it will take from you to deliver the great end product I expect.
Recognize that you have the upper hand and take advantage.
Know When You’ve Earned It
My preferred method for assigning stories is to build up a strong rapport with a small handful of freelancers. The more work you do for me, the better I know what to expect from you – what stories you’ll fit for, the level of detail I need to give ahead of time, how much editing will be required of me on the back end. The more stories you write for any publication, the better you’ll understand its mission and how to best serve its readers, so I recommend that you narrow your sights as a freelancer to a handful of outlets and push to work with them as much as possible. So, sure, asking for a little bit more the first time you work with an editor isn't the worst idea, but understand that your odds of actually getting that rate increase are much better if you've proven yourself in the past.
If I keep giving you assignments, it means I like what you’re bringing to the table.
Don’t Push Your Luck
Want to know how I lose in blackjack every time? It starts with winning a couple of hands. I get overconfident, and pretty soon I’m betting more than I intended to when I start. Now $10 per hand isn’t exciting anymore; I’ll bump that up to $20, $50, $100. And it won’t be long, then, until I bust.
Here’s the lesson: Unless my offers are truly not worth your time, be careful. Like I said before, there really is a budget. On occasion, writer will keep pushing the chips in until their work is too rich for my blood.
And honestly, that's totally fine for both parties. Sometimes, client/freelancer relationships just naturally phase out because the freelancer is worth more than the client is willing to pay. That's actually a great thing for your career!
Work With Me
I may not be willing to boost your rate by an extra dollar per word, but I probably would be willing to let your story run an extra page or two. So if you need more money for your trouble, offer to go the extra mile and write a longer story or add a fascinating sidebar. Or maybe you can pitch to write a secondary story, just for the website, based on the original piece. Some writers have even had luck agreeing to the base rate this time with the understanding that I can afford to pay more next issue.
Where there is a will, there is a way. If your work is good, I will try to keep you happy.
Set a High Standard
If you’re following my previous advice to find a select few publications and write for them a lot, then you should also be narrowing that list to the outlets that can pay you more. Your work will be better because it is more focused, which will allow you to demand more money. That will allow you to create more leverage with your existing contacts and a higher starting position with anyone new who approaches you with an assignment.
In general, my advice is to have a plan about how you’ll start to make more per word, and execute that plan.
If your work is good, I will try to keep you happy.
It should go without saying, because this isn’t my money, but I wish I could pay everyone more. That’s been the case when the budget was smaller than it is now and when it was larger than it is now. But the budget is the budget. It’s business.
If I reach the limit in any given issue, I’ll fill the remaining pages of the magazine with a book excerpt, or some other free content. If it keeps happening, I’ll find some new, more affordable writers.
Is freelance work getting too complicated?
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On the flip side, there’s nothing wrong with asking for more money. You may outgrow a publication if your time becomes worth more than they can pay. That’s their problem.
You’re a professional freelancer, and you’ve got to do what’s in your best interests. It’s business.
You may outgrow a publication if your time becomes worth more than they can pay.
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