Negotiation Tips for Writers

by Dan Brotzel

Many writers find it difficult to talk about money, especially if it means asking for more and potentially risking turning down an offer of publication. But writing is a business as well as a passion, and the more cash you can secure for it, the more time you’ll be able to devote to your craft. Here are a few pointers on how to approach the dark art of negotiation…

Start high (Do the dance)
Negotiation is a dance. Your partner in the dance will have a number in mind they can live with, but they won’t start with that number. They won’t expect you to accept their first number, or for your first number to be your best offer either. So don’t start with the lowest number you can possibly accept, otherwise where do you have to go when they turn it down?

Think partnership, not confrontation
It’s tempting to think of negotiation as an adversarial exchange, but bear in mind that the two of you share common goals – to see your work reach readers, for example – and that you may well be working together once this money conversation has been concluded.

So try to see the conversation as a collaborative exercise, not a confrontation. Try to extend the conversation beyond money to discuss your shared goals, and try to walk in their shoes and understand the pressures and priorities they’re dealing with. Talk ‘we’, not ‘I’. And even if you can’t come to an agreement, always stay cordial and professional – you never know when your paths might cross again.

Make sure you’re talking to the right person
When negotiating your fee, it’s vital to make sure that the person you’re dealing with actually has the authority to sign off on an agreed amount. Sometimes you can find yourself negotiating what you think is a great rate with a sympathetic person… only to discover that they weren’t able to get the deal you thought you’d agreed signed off, and you are now back to square one.

Let them speak first
‘Speaking second’ is one of the basic principles of all sales training. Holding your nerve and staying silent at a pivotal point in the conversation can be a powerful trick: the person who speaks first is often the one to bend first. You may have an amount in mind or a concession you’re happy to make, say, but if you say your thing first you’ll never know if the other party had a higher fee in mind or if there was actually no need for you to make that concession (and they’ll never tell you, of course).

This is also the reason why seasoned negotiators often never seem to be in a hurry to get to the point in a money conversation. They want to build rapport, of course, but they also know that the first person to cut through the smalltalk and bring up the money is the one that’s more likely to give something away.

Understand the balance of power
In most negotiations, there is an inevitable balance of power: one party is more worried about the agreement not happening at all than the other. If you are in a position where you could walk away from the deal if you really had to – because, say, you know you could get your piece published somewhere else, albeit for a lower fee – then you have to be prepared to call the bluff.

On the other hand, you may be the party that doesn’t have another option. If I’m desperate for you, my dream journal, to publish my story – and would frankly pay you to do so – ultimately I need to make my peace with that. But that doesn’t mean I’m totally powerless in a deal…

Give to get
A classic principle of selling – and one you can use to good effect where you basically have little option but to accept the deal that’s been offered you – is that you never agree to anything without getting something back in return.

So maybe you can’t haggle a better advance on your first book or a better payment for your short story, but maybe you can ask for something else in return for your consent instead: payment up front (hurrah!), some extra time to complete your draft (always very useful), retention of certain publishing rights, an agreement that they will cover the cost of a proofreader, additional promotional effort etc. Think of something that will make your life easier and support your goals, perhaps by freeing up more writing time or helping your work get marketed.

Don’t concede against future promises
A classic negotiating ploy to watch out for is where the commissioning party offers a price that’s too low, but promises to look at it again next time if your work does well for them. Trust me, this never happens. If they paid price X this time, they will be looking to pay no-more-than-X next time. Unless of course you are successful enough to have people negotiating on your behalf (in which case you won’t be needing this article).

This point is especially important if you’re negotiating on any sort of work with a serial, repeat element to it. The things you secure or concede at this point will massively set the tone for how you are rewarded for future work, so it’s vital to get off on the right foot.

Don’t give a range (unless it’s deliberate)
If you say to a potential employer, ‘my day rate is $250-$300’, all that person will hear is: ‘so their day rate is $250’. The only way this might work for you is if you’d be really happy with a day rate of $150.

Negotiation can feel like a bit of a dirty business, but it’s really an essential mechanism to help establish price and value. The more you do it, the easier it gets — and the more you’ll be fired up to argue for what your work is really worth.


Dan Brotzel is author of a short story collection, Hotel du Jack, and co-author of a new comic novel, Kitten on a Fatberg. As a reader of this blog, you can get 10% off Kitten on a Fatberg – quote KITTEN10