These are really the only two skills you’ll ever need when you’re negotiating better rates.
When it comes to negotiating better rates, there’s a wide gap between the way pros handle their business and the way new writers do it.
In a nutshell, most pros I know will almost always ask for a higher number when they’re presented with a fee. Most newbie writers look at me in wonder when I tell them this and say, “You can do that?”
Yes! Not only can you negotiate, but you should. In business—which is what your writing is if you’re reading this website—you have to get the best deal for you while still making your client feel like they won. Negotiating better rates is a delicate balance. You don’t want to make the client feel cheated or that she’s lost at the negotiating table, but you also want to get as much as you can.
Theoretically, we know all this. You and I, we’re writers. We can get very creative in the ways in which we can negotiate. But when it comes to practical implementation, we sometimes fail ourselves.
So here, simply, are my two top tips on negotiation. These are really the only two skills you’ll ever need when you’re negotiating better rates.
1. Be willing to walk away
I learned this technique growing up in Delhi where every shopping excursion is a lesson in business.
“Keep your face straight,” my mum would advise when we would go out. “Don’t jump up and act like you love it. Keep your tone lukewarm as if you might want it if the price were right but are ready to walk away if it’s not.”
I remember one time when I really wanted a skirt and my mum, after having failed to negotiate the price down, started walking away from the shop. I refused to budge, but she pulled my hand anyway and I was almost ready to yell when the shopkeeper came after us. “Oh, okay!” he said. “Have it at your price.”
Now obviously, freelancing for a living is a wee bit different from haggling at the roadside market, but the principle still holds, especially if you have an exclusive story to sell. I know a freelancer who did a ton of exclusives and he’d send them to his editors and take the best deal. I also know writers who will never accept the first offer they’re given and are very happy to turn down an assignment and move on to the next one should it not meet their pay rate.
I don’t deal in exclusives anymore and I’m not rigid in terms of pay, but when possible, I ask editors if they can go higher. If I’ve been working with an editor for a while (say, a year or more) and know their budget permits it, I ask for a raise. With new clients, I’m always willing to walk away because we haven’t established a relationship yet, and if it doesn’t meet my minimum base level, then there’s no need for me to be adding them to my roster. (Note: My base level rises each year, partly to keep up with inflation and partly because I like to give myself a raise.)
If you’re willing to let go of the assignment and don’t allow yourself to have a personal stake in every opportunity that comes through the door, you’ll find that you’re not only attracting better opportunities, but making more money as a result.
2. Add 50%
This seems like a ridiculous thing to say, but it’s true.
About five years ago, I started asking new-to-me editors for at least 50% more than what they’d offered; sometimes I even asked for double. I was doing really well with my work, my time was limited, and I could only take on the best clients at the best rates, so I could afford to be picky.
I would say double the price so that editors would go, “Well, we can’t afford her,” and move on, but I was shocked when several of them came back to me and said, “It’s a bit high, but okay. Let’s do it.” I ended up getting several $1-a-word clients this way.
Let me clarify that you won’t be able to do this right away. The way to make editors give you the price you’re looking for is to be very good at what you do and to be a specialist.
If you ask for double the price for a piece on how to lose weight, well, the editor can go out and find twenty thousand freelancers who could do it for a tenth of that. But if you’re based in a foreign country, as I am, and provide something they can’t easily get elsewhere, you become someone they need. It doesn’t have to be geography—you could easily be an expert in environmental issues or technical topics that other freelancers find mind-numbing or difficult. But once you have that one thing that sets you apart—an idea, a niche, access to a hard-to-reach source—your negotiating power goes up by several factors.
Someone once told me you know you’re asking for a good price when it makes you nervous to say it.
If you can say it with ease, you’re not asking for enough.
That’s my policy when it comes to negotiating better rates, and that’s the tip I’ll leave you with today.
Natasha Khullar Relph
Founder and Editor, The Wordling
Natasha Khullar Relph is an award-winning journalist and author with bylines in The New York Times, TIME CNN, BBC, ABC News, Ms. Marie Claire, Vogue, and more.
She is the founder of The Wordling, a weekly business newsletter for journalists, authors, and content creators.
Natasha has mentored over 1,000 writers, helping them break into dream publications and build six-figure careers. She is the author of Shut Up and Write: The No-Nonsense, No B.S. Guide to Getting Words on the Page and several other books.
Sign up for The Wordling
Writing trends, advice, and industry news. Delivered with a cheeky twist to your Inbox weekly, for free.