• London Freelance Branch will be running another evening, taken by Humphrey Evans and Phil Sutcliffe, exploring how freelances can do better deals for themselves on 27 October 2004 at 7pm in Room 10, Friends House, 173 Euston Road, London NW1 (opposite Euston Station). The evening is free to all NUJ members. (Non-members who want to come along will have to pay 15 in cash on the night.) To book, contact topwrite@hotmail.com.

  • Seek a better deal

    RÔLE PLAY strikes fear into any seminar participant, but at an evening advising freelances how to seek better deals for themselves two semi-dragooned volunteers ventured into the cockpit of doom to help everybody see what might go into a negotiation. Stella took on the part of a magazine chief sub looking to hire a sub for four shifts in the following week. Roger played very nearly himself as a freelance sub eager for work.

    At first things went well. Yes, Roger was Quark XPress proficient, free for the days in question and able to get to the central London offices. Then things foundered.

    There's a natural question here - what's the rate of pay on offer. Yet Roger seemed to have no way of forcing it into the interaction. Maybe it's something to do with being British: our culture quails away from openly talking about money. Maybe it's fear that even asking about pay will result in the offer of work being withdrawn. Or maybe it's a reluctance to take responsibility for doing a deal on your own behalf.

    I've spent quite a bit of time working on various subs desks and I've often been surprised to find a new freelance turning up without knowing what they're going to be paid. They lean across and whisper to me: "What's the rate here?" I tell them what I'm being paid, but I say I know that because I've done a deal and I send them off to talk to the chief sub about what they're going to get.

    Here's the first principle in negotiation: as a freelance, it's in your interest to have a clear agreement about what the deal involves. People hiring you tend not to be forthright about the money on offer. So you have to ask them. You actually have to ask them how much they're planning to pay you. Then, of course, a second principle clicks in - you ask for more.

    These two principles have been distilled from the years of shared experience built up within the National Union of Journalists' London Freelance Branch which organised the evening - free to NUJ members. I myself, Humphrey Evans, and Phil Sutcliffe, the two people teaching the evening, are long-time freelances. We wouldn't describe ourselves as demon negotiators, able to force stony-hearted proprietors into handing over fistfuls of dosh. That's not the way it is. But we have learned to make sure that there is an agreement in place that covers the things that matter to us.

    So here's another principle - establish in your own mind what the deal you are doing has to cover. With subs it's simple, which is why we chose it for the role play, but with writers, reporters, broadcasters and photographers it can become more complicated. We suggest that freelances write out a list of things they know will figure in the kind of deals they do. It'll boil down to something like a brief for the job including a deadline, the fee, expenses and copyright.

    In each case it helps to have as much background knowledge as possible. What rates are being paid for various kinds of jobs by different publications that you might like to work for, for example? A good place to start is with the Rate for the Job website where freelances list (anonymously) fees they have actually been paid - visit www.londonfreelance.org/rates to compare what others are getting with what you are being offered.

    If you know that a particular publication has paid a contributor £400 a thousand words, for instance, it gives you a fair degree of confidence in asking for more if they offer you £300. Or take somewhere like the Guardian that has an NUJ-agreed standard minimum rate. It is a standard rate, so you may be inclined to accept it without question - but it may encourage you to ask for more if you also know that the Guardian has told the NUJ that 50 per cent of its contributors are paid more than that minimum rate.

    Confronting standard rates is always a problem. BBC radio producers, for instance, tend to assume there's not going to be any discussion about the rate. Maybe not, because you accept that it is a standard, but you can open up other areas. Those producers have a great deal of discretion over how swiftly they process the paperwork so you can ask about how quickly the payment will reach you.

    Ask about expenses. Make a rough estimate of what they are likely to be and check that they are willing to cover them. If necessary put a break into negotiation, say you'll ring back in ten minutes or so, to allow you to calculate what the work involved will cost.

    Ask about copyright. You may find yourself up against an all-rights grab, a publication that says it wants you to assign the entire copyright over to them. A useful question to ask is: "What rights do you actually need?"

    Here's another aspect of negotiation - working out what's going on in the mind of the person you're negotiating with. At the moment they're hiring you, or ringing up to commission you, or accepting an idea or a piece of work you've submitted speculatively, you can be sure they want what you're offering.

    This is the moment to do the deal, in a situation where you both know that they need something from you.

    Ask yourself how desperate they might be and how flexible in the circumstances. A publication ringing on a Friday afternoon wanting something done by Monday morning is almost signalling that it's got into difficulties and will be prepared to pay extra if you can agree to help them out.

    You may have to niggle away. If copyright is important to you, for instance, you may have to explain the ins and outs of its complexities to a commissioner who is not as aware of them as you are.

    Once you have got an acceptable deal, record the fact by putting it in writing. Some commissioners are good about sending out contracts but don't depend on it. Take control by sending them a letter, or a fax, or an e{mail setting out what you think has been agreed and telling them to query it if they think you have got it wrong.

    Of course, there may be times when you can't get an acceptable deal. If a publication insists on a clause totally indemnifying them in situations which go wrong, for instance, you may not be willing to put your home and entire financial life at risk. What negotiation does is get you to a point where you know what the deal is that's on offer and that it's the best deal you're going to get. You may still have to walk away from it.

    One further thing should give you heart, however. Whenever you negotiate a deal for yourself, and whenever you manage to improve on what was first on offer, all other freelances will be supporting you. If you can get a better deal, it sets a better baseline for others.

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