The opening day of the Bindercon Symposium featured a thorough and thoughtfully put together presentation by writer Laura Shin. Speaking to a room spilling over with freelance writers, Shin shared proposed formulas for calculating an hourly rate as well as practical advice for efficient time-management, asking for a raise, and knowing when to say no to an assignment. So many of us writers/artists struggle with the financials of creating, and the turnout reflected a desire to not only sustain ourselves using our gifts, but assert our worth.
During the post-talk Q&A, one woman asked about how best to ask for more money. Her question brought to mind the recent piece on TheGuardian.com about Nobel Laureate Sir VS Naipaul. Reportedly, he dropped out of a literary festival appearance because his proposed fees were too low. The article suggests Naipaul had been booked to appear at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, but bowed out after his request for a $20,000 fee was refused.
Naipaul’s agent Andrew Wylie has a different story:
“VS Naipaul agreed to attend the Ubud Writers and Readers festival without honorarium, but regretfully withdrew when he discovered a conflict in his diary which could not be resolved. We have since been surprised to learn that the festival was selling tickets to any event, since the specifics of Sir Vidia’s involvement had not been agreed, and the contract had not been signed.”
Festival founder Janet DeNeefe says, “Sir VS Naipaul made an 11th-hour request for a $20,000 appearance fee that would have jeopardised the longevity of the UWRF and all of those involved”.
The actual story is their business, but what stood out in the The Guardian‘s post was this quote from Val McDermid:
“writers understandably get very angry when all the professionals–the people who do the programmes, the people who put up the marquee–get paid except the people who do the performance.’”
In other words, as Laura Shin repeated throughout her talk, knowing what to charge, negotiating a higher rate, and earning a sustainable living as a writer starts with knowing our worth ie the value of the work we are selling, and the time and skill it takes to create it.
The notes I furiously scribbled at Shin’s talk are below:
YOU KNOW YOU’RE READY TO FREELANCE FULL-TIME WHEN…
- You are good at what you do AND people in a position to hire you know you’re good. i.e. you have clips or a portfolio and relationships with editors and hiring manager who get (and like) what you do.
CREATE A BUSINESS PLAN (AND UPDATE IT ANNUALLY)
- Your business plan should include your professional goals e.g. I want to write for X number of new publications; I want to break into my dream publications; and it should include your financial goals. (How much do I currently make? How much did I make last year? Can I be more efficient? Can I raise my rates?)
BUILD A DETAILED BUDGET (KNOW YOUR “BAREBONES” NEEDS AND YOUR “DESIRED” LIFESTYLE)
- Your budget should break down roughly as follows: no more than 50% toward essentials; at least 20% toward your financial priorities e.g. savings and retirement fund; and no more than 30% for discretionary items (e.g. socializing and entertainment).
- Automate contributions to a retirement plan like a Solo 401(k), Roth, or IRA. (If you put $458/month away from age 25 to 60, you’ll have a little over $1 million to retire on.)
- Save an emergency fund of 3-6 months’ worth of essential living expenses.
- In addition to health insurance, you should have disability, renters’, and umbrella insurance.
- Consider a “paycheck” account to manage irregular paychecks (when assignments are few and far between or checks don’t come when expected).
- Your budget should factor in kill fees in case your editor decides to scrap the story you’ve worked on, as well as administrative and bookkeeping costs.
- To earn $150,000 a year, for example, you need to earn $111.60/hour.
- Set quarterly, monthly, and weekly goals to determine if you are on track to meet your annual goal; break the days of the month down and determine how much you will make that month based on assignments versus your monthly goal.
DEVELOP STRONG CLIENT RELATIONSHIPS
- Build regular clients and dependable clients–they will be your bread and butter.
- Be careful of regular clients though, they can keep your rates down. Letting go of regular clients can be scary, but can also open up your time to write for clients that pay more.
EXAMINE YOUR CONTRACT CLOSELY
- Don’t be afraid to ask for more money or negotiate more favorable terms, if the first offer (based on your budget) doesn’t make financial sense for you.
- If your contract allows it, consider re-selling work that has run elsewhere.
TIME IS YOUR CURRENCY
- Calculate the amount of time you spend on your work including bookkeeping, administration, phone calls with your editor, webinars, twitter chats, giving interviews, etc. Efficiency is key to maximizing your income.
- Track how much time you’re spending on a story versus how much you’re being paid. (Don’t think about word rates. Focus on how much time a piece will take you, then decide if it’s worth your time.)
- Don’t let someone else’s emergency be your own. If your editor/manager requires you to rewrite a piece on an impossible deadline, instead of scrambling, let them know when you can reasonably meet the deadline.
- Find a specialty. Look for high-demand, low-supply areas.