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Negotiation Tips for Writers
Pia Owens on how to do it and why it's not just for loud men in business suits
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This month I talked with, an experienced negotiator who writes the Negotiation for the Rest of Us Substack.
Over the years I have negotiated things like pay and contract clauses and then very recently also started asking publications to add a bio line linking to my website or book in freelance pieces that didn’t include them. This led to the revelation that most places say sure, no problem if you just ask. I definitely should have been asking for this earlier in my career.
Negotiation can sometimes be tricky for writers, so I appreciated the tips Pia offers here.
First, can you talk about yourself and your experience with negotiation?
Growing up as a socially anxious, neurodivergent kid before those words existed, in a family that strongly discouraged asking for anything, I felt incapable of handling any kind of conflict or self-advocacy.
When I took my first negotiation class in law school, at 28, a lightbulb turned on. Negotiation was a learnable skill! And not just for loud men in business suits. For me, even.
Now that I’ve practiced law and negotiation for over a decade, I appreciate and even encourage conflict. Not needless, destructive conflict. The useful kind that surfaces real problems, allowing people to work through them together. And that’s the negotiation style I teach—negotiation as group problem-solving, rather than argument.
I have negotiated hundreds of business deals over the years, and have coached all kinds of people through difficult professional conversations. And I never get tired of that moment at the end when the other person says, “I didn’t expect it to be that easy.” What they really mean is that they anticipated a painful experience, and instead, we worked together constructively to reach a mutually acceptable outcome. Which is not easy, but it’s satisfying and worthwhile. Sometimes even fun.
I think writers should potentially negotiate things like contract terms and rates, but I also think a lot of writers don’t do it. Can you talk a little about why it might be difficult for writers to negotiate and how to potentially manage the tendency to not do it?
It’s difficult for everybody to negotiate, not just writers! There are so many individual reasons. Three of the most common:
No obvious opening to negotiate. You get an email that says, “The rate is X” or “Sign this contract,” and you may wonder, did I miss the window to negotiate? In fact, that is the opening. When you’re told, “Here, agree to this,” that is when you say, “Great, here are my requests.” (See answer to next question about how to phrase this.)
You’re worried you will anger the person you’re negotiating with – perhaps by breaching etiquette or having unreasonable expectations. This is often your own perception, rather than reality. Counteract this tendency by checking with a trusted friend or resource. Ask questions like: Does this seem reasonable? What would you ask for? (Hint, if it’s money, then it is 100% fine to request in exchange for labor.)
You feel like you should take what you can get, especially if you’re at the beginning of your career. Don’t underestimate the value of your work! The person you’re negotiating with sees value in your work. You should see it too.
Since a lot of negotiation for writers happens over email, can you give some guidance on how to phrase things? I often see writers in writing groups wanting to negotiate but feeling unsure about how exactly to phrase things.
Be clear and straightforward. Find phrases that work for you and feel comfortable to use, and then rely on them every time.
If you have a single issue to discuss, you can say something like, “Could we extend the deadline to October first?” or “Would it be possible to increase the fee to $1,000?” If you want more money and you’re not sure how much to ask for, the magic word is “flexibility,” as in: “Is there any flexibility on the amount?”
If you have multiple issues, say something like, “I’d like to request three changes before signing.” Follow that with a numbered or bulleted list. Each item should be a brief one-sentence summary of what you are asking for and, if not obvious, the reason for your request.
And you can close with a brief, friendly note, like: “Thanks so much, I look forward to hearing from you.”
What other tips do you have for writers wanting to negotiate something relating to their writing?
Think about the entire universe of things you want as a writer, not just the transaction at hand. You probably want money and publication, but what else do you value? Community, connections, resources, creative control, time, additional opportunities? These are all things you can ask for.
Talk to your friends and your writing community. So many people need information but feel it’s improper to ask. I encourage you to start conversations about money and negotiation terms and see who’s willing to share information. Transparency is gold.
And finally, don’t talk yourself out of negotiating. Remember, you and your work have value!
Pia Owens is a tech lawyer, and ombudsperson for the Periplus Collective for BIPOC writers. In past lives, she has also served as a certified mediator, facilitator, nonprofit board president, and software engineer. An alumna of Harvard Law School and the Harvard Program on Negotiation, Pia regularly teaches and writes about her collaborative, mutually respectful, and still highly effective approach to negotiation. Learn more at piaowens.com or subscribe to her "Negotiation for the Rest of Us" newsletter at piaowens.substack.com.
Thanks for these tips, Pia!
Do you have other writer negotiation tips or success stories? Feel free to share them in the comments.
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