By Jack Ballard
A Montana ranch was my boyhood home, but we weren’t much of a cowboy family, though life necessitated a basic proficiency with some of the cowhand’s skills. Occasionally, a calf needed to be roped from a pen of restless bovines. My dad generally undertook the task, first shaking out his lariat and making a loop. Then my siblings and I would nudge the calves past a strategic position Dad had staked out near the corral fence. When the marked critter came by he’d cast his rope, or better still, just drop it over the unsuspecting beast’s head if he could creep close enough. Though his roping technique was less than dramatic, it was always well-planned and very effective.
If you’re serious about making all or a significant portion of your living from freelance writing and/or photography, it’s necessary to squeeze every dollar from an assignment. Aiming for higher-paying publications is one route to making a better living; capturing higher rates from the publications you already work for is another. While some writers and photographers assume the payment rates indicated in a publication’s guidelines are nonnegotiable, that’s usually not the case. Editors typically have a yearly budget for articles and photos. If you’re worth it, they’re often willing to cut you a larger piece of the pie. But like roping a calf, a successful pitch for better pay depends on your skill and preparation. Here are the essential elements of roping a raise.
1. Aim for excellence. Quality writing gets attention from both editors and readers. Not long ago, I asked an editor of a fishing magazine to increase what he was paying me for article/photo packages. In his reply to my request he boosted my pay by 17 percent and also commented, “There are only a handful of writers and photographers that we use (you are one of them) that are truly good at their craft, and are dependable.” No matter if it’s photography or writing, constantly attempt to polish your wares and deliver outstanding work with every assignment.
2. Dependability dividends. The editor’s statement in the above paragraph points to excellence, but he also mentions dependability. Not long before I approached him for a raise, he called me in a panic. Another writer had bailed on two assignments at the last minute, leaving a huge hole in the magazine’s next issue. Needless to say, that writer won’t be getting a raise – or any more assignments. As you develop relationships with editors you’ll find some are flexible with deadlines. However, submit your work on time. If you’re going to be late, inform the editor as soon as possible.
3. Curry favor as a firefighter. With two blown assignments, my fishing editor was scrambling to fill holes. Could I pitch in with an article that wasn’t due for four months? Was there any way I could get it done in a week? Despite an already hectic schedule I said “yes.” Then I worked extra evenings and finished the project in five days. Recently I encountered a similar situation with another publication. When I came through with that assignment in two days, the editor sent me a one-sentence e-mail. “You’re my hero.” Putting out an editor’s fires makes you more valuable to the publication and puts you in a better position to rope a raise.
4. Establish a record. You may be able to negotiate higher rates for your work from the outset if you’re firmly established in the business, but demonstrating your additional value to a publication usually takes time. After a number of impeccably delivered assignments over a period of a year or more, an editor will probably begin to rely on you as a regular contributor. Once that happens, you’re positioned to request additional payment for your work.
5. The photo finagle. Photos are necessary ingredients of magazine articles. If you’re a competent photographer, leverage your photos in two ways. First, even though an editor may not have the budget to pay you more for an article, the photo budget might be separate. See if you can up your pay with the sale of photos. When magazines only pay for article/photo packages, note how many photos they typically use and what percentage aren’t produced by authors. For example, if a magazine commonly runs six photos with a story and two of those usually carry the credit line of someone other than the author, the magazine has an additional expense to purchase reproduction rights to those photos. If your articles seldom need additional photo support, try to negotiate higher rates for your article/photo packages based on those savings.
6. Request, don’t demand. I have never gone to an editor demanding more payment. There are a number of lower-paying publications that I no longer write for, yet I haven’t burned bridges with any of them. If a publication no longer meets your expectations, politely request a raise. If the editor refuses, you can either continue to work with the publication while you wait for a better opportunity, or graciously decline future assignments. As an aside, editors who have calloused their own backsides in a freelancer’s chair are usually the most sympathetic and willing to grant your request if it’s within their power to do so.
7. Offer a rationale. “I’d like more money” probably captures your basic motivation for requesting a raise, but you’ll get further if you offer tangible reasons. When gasoline prices began to spike a couple of years ago, the additional expense was a legitimate reason to ask editors for more compensation for assignments that required travel. Staying up to date with computers, software, upgrading cameras, increasing health insurance costs and other expenses are factors to point out when seeking a raise.
8. Help your colleagues. Every time you aim for higher compensation for your work, you’re helping to establish industry expectations. Publications must pay more for paper, postage and other expenses as those items increase. Although they sometimes use other overhead as a rationale for keeping freelance pay rates low, if enough communicators indicate they need more for their work, publications take notice. Once, after asking for a raise from a national hunting magazine, the editor not only increased my pay 25 percent but commented that he’d recently fielded similar requests from a couple of other writers. “Maybe it’s time we raise our rates in general,” he told me.
Difficult economic times make it a tougher to successfully negotiate higher pay for your work. However, if you establish your value as a communicator and plan your pitch, it’s still possible to rope a raise.
Jack Ballard, of Billings, Mont., is a freelance writer and photographer with credits in more than 25 regional and national magazines, and is the author of two books. He joined OWAA in 1998.
By Jack Ballard