Advice - General / Negotiating rates and rights
A client will almost always have a budget for a job, but they might not always want to share with the freelance what it is. So when a client asks "What do you charge?" or simply states "We pay this rate", the freelance needs to start negotiating. The freelance needs to negotiate over the terms, too - particularly what rights they are licensing.
Advice to freelances
Rule One in negotiating is: always get the client to put their offer first. It may well be higher than what you would have asked for - but then always ask for more. If you ask for more you might get it. If you don't, you won't.
If you jump at the first sum on offer or try to guess something appropriate, you will often end up with too low a figure, thus undercutting colleagues and limiting your room for manoeuvre on the next job for that client. Little is worse than mentioning a figure and having it accepted instantly, demonstrating that more, possibly much more, was available.
(Some freelances do instead take a "rate card" approach - refusing to budge from the fees they set. If they can stick to the plan then they never do work for less than the price they need. A downside is they will never know whether they might have been offered more.)
Learn to negotiate
A minute's amiable bargaining regularly secures improvements of anything from 5 to 100 per cent of the amount you might have first thought of - and beyond. Indeed, often would-be clients who offer zero can be persuaded to pay a fair fee, which is far beyond a 100 per cent increase.
All you are doing is pushing the client to the limit of what they are prepared to pay. And why not?
You may still find that you are being offered a rate that will not be altered. In this case, if you agree to accept the work at this rate, find arguments for an increase in the future ("Now you know I do good work..."; "I've done three jobs for you..."; "You've been paying me the same rate for a year now...").
The NUJ and its London Freelance Branch (LFB) both run courses on negotiating. These are open to non-members, but much cheaper to members. For dates and booking, see the NUJ calendar and the LFB Training page, linked below.
One of the key points of these courses, which you can absorb for free right now, is this: to negotiate and negotiate hard is a sign that you are a professional. Any editors who take offence at this should be left surrounded by the amateurs they deserve.
Why freelances need to charge what they charge
As a freelance journalist you should charge fees that compensate you not only for the time you directly spend on a job but also for insecurity, lack of various employment benefits such as paid sick leave and employee pension schemes, the costs involved in working from home or renting office space, the time you will spend on routine administration and keeping necessary hardware and software up to date. Photographers' overheads can absorb 50 per cent or more of their gross income. See "What freelances need to charge and why" (linked below).
So whether you are offering work or responding to a client's request, start negotiating with a reasonable fee in mind - that is, the lowest fee for which you'll do the job. Remember that once you've named an amount, it can be difficult to move any way but down - which is why you want to leave the process open so that you can encourage and accept a better offer. You will also want to have a higher figure in mind in case the potential client refuses to name a figure
We make the above points to help new freelances know about setting minimum fees. Clients want not to hear them.
Don’t be afraid to say ‘I’ll get back to you’
If a commissioner's call catches you unprepared, or you need to think about what the job entails, you can break off negotiations so that you can work out what fee it is reasonable to accept before continuing the discussion. The skill-specific sections in this Fees Guide to provide guidance.
Remember that you can charge more - sometimes many times more - for exclusive or unusual material.
Pitch for a firm commission
If you are approaching an editor with an idea, work out the details of the commission with them first. You are probably not ready to contact the editor until you can say what the piece is about in 25 words or fewer.
You won't get a chance to expand unless you catch the editor's attention first.
Listen to the editor's suggestions for making it suit their section. Listen to their suggestions of, for example, extra people you could talk to. When the commission has shaped up: "So, what are you offering for this?"
There are rare occasions when it may be worth doing a piece without a firm commission - for example when it's the first time you've worked on the subject area in question. But, in general, working "on spec" is daft. You the work in and then you very likely won't get paid...
Be aware that many editors simply ignore work that is submitted unsolicited.
And what does this fee cover? Negotiating rights
Once you have settled on the specification and the basic fee for first use of the work in one edition, there are other questions to ask the editor:
- Is that just for use in the magazine (or whatever) then?
- If the editor says, for example, they want to run it on other websites in the same group: "And for this you are offering...?"
- When is it due?
- How should I send it to you?
- And payment will be within 30 days of my invoice, yes?
- And you will cover what expenses?
See "Commissions and contracts" (linked below) for a more extensive checklist.
Talking about extra uses
You should consider talking now about extra fees for any extra uses the client wants to make of your work. Apart from anything else, this provides an opportunity to reopen the question of the total fee, even after a blanket refusal to pay more for First British Serial rights and even though it is increasingly common that the fee for use in a magazine (for example) includes that magazine's online archive.
See "Rights and why they are important", linked below, for more reasons why it is important to negotiate what usage rights you are licensing.
Less-experienced editors may be startled at the talk taking this turn. Some believe that they are buying an article in the same way they would buy a kilo of carrots - gaining outright ownership. In fact, as the authors of their work, journalists own the copyright in the work they produce, unless or until agreed otherwise. Freelances will want to issue licences to clients to reproduce their work as mutually agreed, and only thus.
It is usually down to the freelance to do the thinking for the editor about this: "OK, what do you need? The weekly edition - and use on the web for a year - how about 30 per cent extra? Do you have editions in other countries?"
Editors are trying to think about the content and want not to think about copyright at the same time, so you do it.
In any case, getting it clear now precisely what uses you are licensing makes things simpler in the event that there are other uses later (see "Syndication and spin-off rights", linked below).
The Confirmation of Commission form (linked below) lists a range of rights you might license to a client. Ticking the appropriate boxes on the form will make it clear to you and your client just what you have agreed.
Better contracts may be available
Large companies that have self-contained legal departments can be the hardest to negotiate with. They may issue commissioning editors with set schedules of rates and will have set contracts in which they try to get a licence allowing the widest possible use of the work for that price.
They are, however, more likely also to have pre-packaged "fall-back" contracts. We know of several companies that have at least one separate contract intended for writers who have literary agents, for example - and these offer much better terms. Editors may be under instructions not to reveal that these exist... but they do.
Even those companies that insist they have immovable standard rates are likely also to have another set of rates for special contributors.
Do raise the issue of expenses with the commissioner and agree what items or what amount will be covered. Travel? Phone-calls? What else?
If they expect you to cover your expenses within an all-in fee, this may substantially reduce its net value to you and alter your view of whether it's enough for you to go ahead with the job.
Yes, you can claim many kinds of expense "against tax" - which means that for every £100 of expenses you declare in your tax return you probably pay £20 less income tax, because they are not actual income. It's far better to persuade your client to agree to pay 100 per cent of your expenses!
More to watch out for
Clients with large legal departments usually "offer" laundry-list contracts in which their lawyers try to wring out everything they can. Smaller clients often give the appearance of plagiarising these contracts - but that would be too ironic to be true, surely?
Of particular concern, beyond attempts to gain rights to use the freelance's work in universes yet to be invented, are attempts to transfer legal liability to the freelance. See the sections of this Fees Guide on "Commissions and contracts" and "Indemnities - challenge them and get insurance", linked below.
This guide suggests minimum rates for a range of skills used throughout the media industry. Examples of rates actually paid are reported in the "Rate for the Job" section of the Freelance and on this London Freelance Branch website - see the link below. But beware - some rates reported there are lower than the NUJ or members consider acceptable: do pay attention to the "XXX" tags. Some, too, were achieved by a "name" and/or an able negotiator.
Union freelance agreements
The NUJ has some agreements with media companies on minimum rates for freelances. In the after-coronavirus time, the union's Freelance Industrial Council will revise model claims for a range of media. Where there is an NUJ agreement, do not accept less than any minimum it sets out - but negotiate more if you can.
The NUJ has several template contracts that it can offer to members who need to present a draft in negotiation. Contact the Freelance Office describing the purposes for which you need to draft a contract.
Text © Mike Holderness & previous contributors; Moral rights asserted. The collection (database right) © National Union of Journalists. Comments to email@example.com please. You may find the glossary helpful.
The National Union of Journalists must not, can not and would not wish to dictate rates or terms of engagement to members or to editors. The information presented here is for guidance and as an aid to equitable negotiation only.
Suggestions apply to contracts governed by UK law only. In any event, nothing here should be construed as legal advice.