The Business Skill I Wish I Could Grant to All Writers

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Photo by Sora Shimazaki

Is it querying? No.

Networking? No.

Marketing? No.

Of course such skills are terrific assets, but if I could wave a magic wand, I’d grant all writers the skill of negotiation. By and large, writers don’t even consider trying to negotiate; they just accept the terms/contract/pay that is initially offered.

This is partly a quirk of an industry where writers regularly get stepped on and asked to work for free in exchange for exposure. Writers might see themselves as without power or agency, which is not unfounded, but it can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. You can’t wait for permission or the “right time” to negotiate a better deal for yourself. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.

Here are common barriers when you’re negotiating for yourself.

Fear that you’ll lose the opportunity

You’ve spent years trying to secure an agent or publisher, then the contract arrives from the other party. You may be tempted to quickly accept and sign. Because if you make a “fuss,” you’ll look ungrateful, right? If you ask questions, you’ll be a nuisance, a problem person. Maybe the other party will be offended if you ask for a better arrangement, or even retract the offer.

If you’re dealing with someone who works in the business, such as an agent or publisher, they will not be offended by questions or an attempt to negotiate. Just about every arrangement is negotiable on some level (with exceptions for blanket terms of service agreements from tech companies, among others). But few writing contracts or agreements are “take it or leave it”; those that are deserve to be questioned. Many “take it or leave it” situations arise, in fact, from either inexperience or fear. “My lawyer told me not to change the contract” is a familiar line from small publishers operated by people who may not understand the contract they’re sending you.

So what happens if you do encounter someone angry or offended by your attempt to negotiate? First, examine your approach. Is it respectful and in good faith? If you negotiate by saying, “How dare you insult me with this offer! Are you a second-rate operation? Don’t you know who I am!” then you might find the other side less cooperative. But if your approach isn’t combative, and the other side is resistant to answering questions or having a conversation, you have to ask yourself if that’s a business partner you want to move forward with. Your difficulties are likely to compound after signing with a partner that’s non-communicative.

When I negotiated contracts at a mid-size traditional publisher, most authors did not attempt to change the boilerplate contract. Nor did they ask any questions about it. Usually, when they did push, it was for a bigger advance. But they could’ve asked for something much more valuable in the long run: better royalty rates and escalators (increased royalties when certain sales thresholds are met).

But more surprising? Not even the majority of agents negotiated the contract as well as they should have, because they were so advance focused. I wish I could say that your agent will definitely negotiate all the finer deal points, but that’s not the case in my experience. So even if you do have an agent, you should be asking them questions, too.

You don’t know what’s negotiable or what’s reasonable to ask for

One of the big problems in publishing is the lack of transparency around earnings and what other people are getting paid. While there have been community efforts to dismantle this cloak of secrecy, there’s an additional challenge: so many scenarios and terms are unique to each publisher, agent, author, and book. And this is why agents can be so invaluable: they have experience that helps them know where and when to push on behalf of their clients (despite what I mentioned above). So what can you do when working on your own?

Aside from educating yourself by reading model contracts from the Authors Guild, Writer Beware, and other advocacy groups (as well as asking around privately), research your potential business partners to the best of your ability and ask a lot of questions about the agreement or terms, like “Is this typically what you offer?” or “Where is there flexibility in this deal?” You’ll be surprised at how willingly people offer up this information.

You don’t know what you’re worth

This issue is closely related to the above, especially when you’re new to the industry. I find writers struggle with this particularly when it comes to speaking and events, freelance gigs, consulting and editing, and side gigs. Mostly, writers undercharge because there is a culture of doing things for “exposure.” Sometimes the author who’s directing that big writing event does it for free or cheap, and they rely on volunteers, and perhaps the whole team works for exposure or platform building. Then you layer on the nonprofit status of so many writing organizations (and schools or libraries), plus the idea of “giving back” to the community, and you end up with authors who have a lot of anxiety surrounding a request for what, in the end, is fair compensation.

I myself spoke for free for way too long and continually underpriced myself. But when I started asking for meaningful pay, I was rarely turned down. Of course, I have accrued leverage over the years, and not everyone can successfully make the same asks that I can. You should try anyway and test the limits. Also think creatively about other ways you can make the situation beneficial for you. If you can’t get the compensation you want, is a trade or barter possible? Can you figure out a revenue share model? Can you get a bonus based on performance? Better escalators? Etc.

Parting thoughts

I still fail to negotiate well, and sometimes regret agreeing to terms I know aren’t great. (Sometimes you just get tired and agree so you can move on with your life.) But I have never regretted asking for more or seeking a better deal. The worst that can happen is you get a “no.” Funny enough, I’ve worked with organizations who say “yes” one year and “no” the next—to the exact same terms. You won’t always be successful in getting what you want. But you do have the power to walk away from a deal that’s not serving you well. There will be other offers and opportunities, I promise.

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