Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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The freelancer’s guide to negotiating pay rates

July 9, 2019

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Maximize your freelance earnings by negotiating like a pro. (Photo by Alexander Mils via Unsplash)

So, you pitched a killer story idea and an editor wants to assign it.

Time to get to cracking, right?

Not so fast. Before you start writing your magnum opus, you’ll want to confirm the pay rate. In my 11+ years of full-time freelancing, I’ve had some editors who included this information in their assignment letter and others who waited for me to ask about pay. If you’re dealing with the latter kind of editor, don’t be shy about asking. And if you’re underwhelmed by the answer, definitely try to negotiate.

Here are the strategies I’ve used to negotiate pay rates.

Do Your Research

Before pitching a website or magazine, get a feel for whether the pay rates are even worth your time. Does this website pay in “exposure” (translation: you’re writing for free) or does it have a robust freelance budget? Resources like Who Pays Writers?, Freelance Success, the Contently Rates Database, or ASJA‘s Paycheck (accessible to members) can be helpful or if you know someone who’s a contributor, they may be able to give you some intel.

This is also helpful information if you sense an editor is low-balling you. But if you out your source by saying “So-and-So told me you pay them $2/word!” you may lose the assignment and the trust of your colleagues, so keep that information close to your chest.

Try the TEA Method

Author and freelance Kelly James shares a smart negotiation strategy on her blog: thank, explain, ask (TEA for short). Thank the editor for the assignment, explain why you’re asking for more money, then make the ask. For instance, “I’m so glad you liked my pitch about Medicare fraud. This is a complex topic that will require a lot of reporting time, so is there any room in the budget for a higher fee to reflect that?”

Negotiate Other Aspects of the Assignment

Editors don’t always control the purse strings, so sometimes they can’t offer more money. But there are non-monetary things you can negotiate, too. Consider including some of these in your negotiation.

Length

Maybe the editor wants to assign a 2,000-word feature but their budget doesn’t reflect that length. Might an 800-word piece for the same fee be more realistic? Just make be sure to discuss the scope of the piece so the editor doesn’t expect the substance of a 2,000-word feature crammed into 800 words.

Scope

Some publications require freelancers to collect and edit photos, write captions and social media posts, or perform other tangential tasks. If the editor is willing to remove those tasks from your plate and reassign them to an intern or editorial assistant, the assignment might be more worthwhile for you, because you’re spending fewer hours on it.

Timeline

Maybe the editor’s proposed deadline will require you to turn down higher-paying work. If that’s the case, see if you can finagle an extra week rather than more money so you can juggle multiple projects more easily.

Rights

Some freelance contracts can be very grabby about rights, and if the pay doesn’t justify signing away rights to the piece, see if you can amend the contract to retain the right to reprint the story elsewhere or remove any restrictions on covering that topic for competing publications.

As long as you’re respectful and professional, it’s unlikely that the editor will rescind the offer, even if they can’t give you more money. In cases where the editor won’t budge, I have walked away from assignments, only to have them email me later that week offering the fee I’d requested. You never know until you ask.

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