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As an editor who had to acquire freelancer signatures on contracts, and who supervised other editors doing the same, it didn't bother us that a writer questioned certain clauses and wanted further information. Matter of fact, we had more respect for those who did and especially for those who knew how to ask for certain changes in the boilerplate contract. Knowing how to ask and what to ask make the difference between an amateur and a pro when it comes to contract negotiations.
Another secret: An editor will almost never offer you what she or he can actually afford to pay you. It's called low-balling and editors play such games as well as rug salesmen. After all, this is business: The editor's goal is to get the best writing and most rights at the lowest cost possible. Your goal is to sell the fewest rights at the highest cost. Meeting somewhere in the middle is called negotiation. Some tips on doing it:
Tip #1: You got to believe.
You've got to believe that you are worth what you're asking. That belief should be based on an up-to-date knowledge of the marketplace and what other freelancers of your experience and reputation are receiving for similar work. Find out what the going rates are. Establish your own rates. Ask for them.
Tip #2: You got to talk the talk.
Editors and publishers deal with contracts everyday. Their companies probably provide seminars on contracts and negotiations. What about you? You've got to understand the terms and clauses in a contract at least as well as the person you're dealing with. Check guides such as jobs for writers. Once you hit the bottom line, you're looking at a decision to walk or to work for less than is normally acceptable to you.
Tip #3: You got to know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em.
One of your most important tasks is to determine the lowest fee you will accept, the point beyond which you will not go. That point will change during your career. First starting out, you'll be willing to take less and give more in order to get the byline. Along the way, your goal is to raise that line. Above the line is your comfort zone where things are negotiable.
Tip #4: You got to get ready.
While it's not essential to write out a script to follow before negotiating with an editor or publisher, at least jot down on the contract the points you wish to make and the order in which you wish to make them. Negotiations require as much care in word choice and tone as any situation when delicate subjects are at issue.
Don't say: "That's not enough money for my work."
Please say: "At first glance, I have to tell you, that seems just a bit on the low side to me."
And what if:
Editor says, "Sorry, that's the best I can do."
Don't say: "To make it worth my time, I must have . . . "
Please say: "I understand totally. You've got a budget to work with and I appreciate that. But what I had in mind was . . . "
The point is not just that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar, although you certainly do. Such verbal gymnastics signal that you are reasonable and flexible, that you are unemotional about this issue, that you understand the importance of money and the delicate nature of talking about it.
Such language also invites further conversation about the subject instead of putting the other person on the defensive. One of the first things you learn in marriage counseling, oops, I mean in basic psychology class, is that if someone perceives they are being attacked, the natural and nearly unavoidable reaction for them is to become defensive and to fight back. Use language that allows you to avoid confrontation, not instigate it.
And what if after such politeness, the editor once again refuses to budge? Now load up the detail and put it on your side:
Editor says: "Sorry. That's all we're offering for this type of article."
Don't say: "I don't understand why you expect to pay so little for so much."
Please say: "Right, and I remember reading that exact figure in your writer's guidelines. That's perfectly understandable. But remember, I had to do some special digging at the mayor's office for that data you wanted on the homeless numbers in Allentown, which added a lot to the article and was a good call on your part. And there was the quote you wanted me to get from the shelter volunteer. So, I just think, considering the extra time and research put into this, that we should agree on something like 10 percent more. What do you think? That's doable, isn't it?"
And never let 'em see you sweat.