I have been terrible at negotiating rates. I haven’t been great at asking for raises. For years I made $10/hour as a pseudo-manager at my retail job, and found out much later that everybody in the same position was making at least three dollars more than me. Even now, when asked how much my rates are as a writer, I’m tempted to lowball myself, convinced I’ll come across as greedy or unappreciative if I toss out an amount that seems too high.
And yet, if you ask me how much you should charge for something, I’ll tell you to ask for as much as you really want. Why? Because the worst that can happen is a lower counter-offer. Also, because your work — and you — should be valued.
Growing up, I was raised to be grateful to even have a job, so I spent about 90% of my working life settling for the first dollar amount that came my way. I never thought to ask for more money in my ten years of customer service (see: fear of being fired), so by the time I started writing, I was settling for $2 or $5 per essay, convinced that if I asked for more I’d never write again. (Actually.)
Which was obviously never the case because that’s not how businesses work. Unless you live in a Dickens novel, asking for a pay increase — or even setting minimum rates when asked what you charge — won’t jeopardize your future or get you fired. You may be denied (and boy have I), but no reasonable employer will be aghast at your gall to better your financial situation. I mean, no: do not march into an office or rattle off an email with a sense of entitlement and/or “fuck you” rhetoric, but to simply ask for more? Why wouldn’t you?
Still, it’s easier for me to say that than to actually do it. In fact, it was only within the last year that I started to decline work based on how much someone was willing to pay for the amount of writing that was required. And even then, I still felt the echoes of my early working life when I believed I should be grateful to even be asked. And that’s a confining way to live, especially since, if you’re a self-employed person, you’re your only advocate. In short, you’re the only person who’s going to stand up for you and make sure that you’re being treated fairly. You’re the only person who’s going to make sure that you’re being compensated in a way that allows you to survive. And if you’re too scared, you’re going to get screwed.
You’re the only person who’s going to stand up for you and make sure that you’re being treated fairly.
It took a friend of mine framing it that way to make me understand. As a writer herself, she told me that she asked for double the minimum she’d typically accept because the worst thing that could possibly happen would be to earn a rate she already felt comfortable with. And I was in awe. First, because I’d been too scared to say to my own editors, “I’ve been writing for you for a few years, so can I have more money?” and second, because she was so fearless. Or more specifically, she showed me there was nothing to be afraid of — particularly while reminding me that if an editor (or any employer) is going to get so angry at your request for more money that they fire you, they aren’t people you want to work for anyway.
But that fear still exists, especially if you need the money. When I got a writing job earning $10/piece, I couldn’t believe it would only take ten essays to earn a whole $100. And because I was so afraid writing would be taken away from me (the first job I actually loved), I accepted the lowest of low and figured it was on me to turn out freakish amounts of content to make sure I could pay my bills. I still couldn’t. And while there were a few extenuating circumstances that added to my financial issues, I now realize I could’ve also asked to make more for what I was putting out.
And that takes some getting used to — the idea you’re actually worth something. Especially if you’re working in an industry that’s undergoing its own transformation, or in an economy where work can feel like a privilege. So I started small. Where I’d been waiting to turn work in before asking what I’d be paid for it (I know), I began asking in the introductory emails what a publication’s going rates were. Then, if they were reasonable, I’d run with an idea. Or if they were low, I’d look at my schedule and any upcoming projects before deciding whether or not this extra assignment would add to my life or make me feel stressed.
Of course, I’d have to actively remind myself that I was worth being paid fairly for my work — and also that no one worth writing for would blacklist me for asking for a fair wage. Which I also learned easily: upon asking an editor for a rate increase, she was honest and told me rates were fixed but we could talk about different types of work for more money. In short, everybody survived. And nobody lost their shit over me being greedy or unappreciative — because again, that’s not how (good) businesses work.
Plus, you’ve got to look out for you. And if you’re telling yourself that you’re not worth as much as everybody else, you’re giving the people you work for the opportunity to say the same. So get paid. Get money. And while it may take a while to feel confident executing that, remember how confident you are in your work and how you deserve to be valued. At least that’s what I keep telling myself.
Anne T. Donahue writes for MTV News, Refinery29, The Guardian and other outlets. She is in a loving and committed relationship with Leonardo DiCaprio.
Photo by Jonathan Klok