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Advice - General / Negotiating fees

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.

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 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. 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 runs courses on negotiating, entitled "Winning and Negotiating". These are open to non-members, but much cheaper to members. For dates and booking, see the NUJ Training Department website, 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 you charge what you charge

Your fees should 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 (while, as above, leaving the process open so that you can encourage and accept a better offer).

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 booklet are designed 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 make that call until you can say what the piece is about in 25 words or fewer.

Listen to their 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.

Be aware that many editors simply ignore work that is submitted unsolicited.

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 may 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.

It is usually down to the freelance to do the thinking for the editor: "OK, what do you need? The weekly edition - and use on the web for a year - how about 30% 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 (available at www.‌londonfreelance.‌org/forms) 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.


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 expenses "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. Far better to persuade your client to pay them outright!

Suggested rates

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 at 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.

More advice and links...
* NUJ training - including courses on negotiating
* Negotiating rates and rights specifically for photographers
* Playing a win-win game old but sound article
* On negotiating from the Rate for the Job
* Rates for the Job good, bad and ugly
* Join the NUJ to get individual advice & representation

Text © Mike Holderness & previous contributors; Moral rights asserted. The collection (database right) © National Union of Journalists. Comments to 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.