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Sell Less for More: Tips for Negotiating with Magazine Editors
by Kelly James-Enger

Your phone rings. Good news—it’s a magazine editor who’s intrigued by your recent query and wants to assign the story. The two of you discuss word count, deadline, angle, and possible sources. Then she offers you $1/word—for all rights to the piece.

What do you do? You can either accept the assignment, turn it down because she’s asking for all rights, or try to negotiate a better deal. While the last option is often the wisest one, I’ve found that many writers are either afraid to negotiate with editors—or they’d like to, but don’t know how to broach the subject.

When I started freelancing fulltime ten years ago, I accepted whatever editors offered me and signed work-for-hire and all-rights contracts without complaint. (With a work-for-hire agreement, the publisher owns the copyright to the story; with an all-rights agreement, you own the copyright to the story but transfer all rights to the publisher.) I soon realized, though, that every time I did so, I was also giving up any possibility of making more money from that particular story by reprinting it. I started asking for better rates and more writer-friendly contracts instead of automatically agreeing to the editor’s offer, and my strategy has paid off. I’ve made more money on individual stories, and today reprints comprise nearly 10% of my income.

Still, negotiating can be stressful, especially when you don’t know where to begin. Read on for some strategies that can help boost your bottom line—without turning off editors:

Set your Standards

You can’t effectively negotiate until you know what you want, what you’re willing to concede on, and what your absolute bottom line or “walk away position” is. When I started freelancing, I took on every assignment regardless of pay. I focused on developing relationships with editors, building my portfolio, and improving my writing abilities. Today, however, I usually don’t write for less than $1/word, and I strive for more. (Sometimes it is worth it to me to accept less. For example, as a contributing editor at a bridal magazine, I’m paid less than that but have the benefit of being listed on the masthead as a regular contributor and doing travel stories for my editor as well. And if an editor will pay, say, $500 for a 1,000-word piece that will only require a few hours to write, I’ll take the assignment.) Usually, though, if an editor offers me a story at a lower rate, I say something like, “you know, I’d like to work for you, but I usually get $1/word and up for most articles. Can you match that?”

Prove your Worth

If the offer is decent, I usually don’t ask for more money the first time I work with an editor. I figure even if you have hundreds of clips to your name, she’s taking a chance on you—there are plenty of talented writers who are lazy about deadlines or turn in sloppy copy. After you’ve done a great job on your first piece, you’re in a better position to ask for a higher per-word rate for the next story.

I’ll often ask for a “raise” on my second or third assignment, using language like, “you’ve worked with me before, so you know I’ll do a good job, meet my deadline, and that the story will fact-check out OK. Considering that, can we bump my rate up?” I used this approach on my third story for a fitness magazine, and my editor raised my rate by 25 cents/word—not bad for a five-minute phone call.

Make your Case

Being assigned a straightforward story that will require minimal research is one thing. If, however, you’re asked to write a piece with a tight deadline or one that will entail significant legwork and time, use this fact as a bargaining point. Several years ago, an editor I’d worked with before called to assign a 2,000-word piece on oral contraceptives that included five sidebars—and then offered $1/word. I said something like, “I really want to write this piece, but obviously this story is going to take me weeks of research and interviews, especially with all the sidebars. I don’t think $1/word is really fair for this particular story. Can you do better than that?” She agreed that the story would require extensive research and bumped the rate to $1.50/word.

Back it Up

Rather than just turning down an all-rights contract, explain why you don’t want to sign it. In one case, an editor and I had agreed on the basics of a story—a rate of $1/word, sources and format. Then came the killer—the magazine’s all-rights contract. I said, “I’m really excited about this story and I want to work with you, but I usually don’t sign all-rights contracts because I make a significant amount of income from reprint rights. How about if we agree that you can have all rights to the piece for a certain period of time which they will revert back to me?” She agreed to this compromise and we used the same contract language for future stories as well.

Offer an Alternative

If the contract asks for more rights than you want to sell, suggest a compromise. Early in my freelance career, I was assigned a story about how to determine your “exercise personality” for a fitness magazine. The editor sent me a work-for-hire contract, but I knew the story had definite reprint possibilities. I called my editor and suggested that I sell first North American serial rights with the provision that I wouldn’t write about the same subject for a competing magazine for six months after which the piece was published. The editor accepted that language, and I’ve reprinted that story four times since it first ran.

Ask for More Money

In rare occasions, I will sign a work-for-hire contract—if certain circumstances are met. I consider how much time the piece will take, whether it’s unlikely to be reprinted, and how much money the editor is offering. For example, I recently wrote a short piece on new birth control developments for a magazine that requires writers to sign work-for-hire agreements. However, the story would only take a few hours to research and write because it was a subject I was familiar with. Because of the nature of the piece, it would immediately be outdated and reprinting it wasn’t likely. And the editor was offering $1.50/word, not a bad rate. Even then, I explained why I usually don’t do work-for-hire stories, and asked the editor if she could boost her usual rate. She offered an additional 50 cents/word for the story, and I took it.

Know When to Walk Away

Of course not every negotiation will go the way you want it to. In some instances, an editor may refuse to offer better terms and/or the money you were hoping for. At that point, you must decide whether the money and clip are worth it to you. Take the time when an editor offered me $800 for a 1,500-word story that would require a lot of research—and then insisted on an all-rights contract. In that case, I had no qualms about turning down the work. If he had offered $3000 for the same piece, my decision would have been more difficult.

Sure, it’s easier to simply say “yes” or “no” to an offer than to try to negotiate with an editor—but that’s no reason not to try. Take a deep breath, summon your courage and ask if the editor can do better. You can usually find a compromise that will make both you of happy—and pay off in the long run as well.

© Copyright 2007, Kelly James-Enger

Kelly James-Enger has authored more than a dozen books, including Writer for Hire: 101 Secrets to Freelance Success (Writers Digest, 2012) and Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks: The Writers Guide to Making Money Ghostwriting and Coauthoring Books (CreateSpace, 2010). Check out her blog, Dollars and Deadlines, for practical advice about how you can make more money in less time as a nonfiction freelance writer.

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