Seeing Dan Kois’s (of Slate) wonderfully frank discussion of how he decides what to pay freelancers, in which he says that one factor in how much he pays is “whether the writer has friends [Kois has] also assigned pieces to who might tell how much [Kois has] paid them” makes me want to share with you my favorite story of negotiating my own freelance rate:
A little while back, I was contributing a piece to a publication that I was thrilled to be writing for: high prestige, high visibility, great roster of fellow contributors. I was honored to be asked. And when the editor mentioned my fee, I was initially eager to say yes. But something told me to hold back (for once—I am usually a very poor negotiator). I thought about who else was contributing, what demands they or their agents might have made, the fact that there’s probably always wiggle room ... and I typed this into an e-mail: “I'll do it for whatever you pay Sam Lipsyte.”
And the editor wrote back promptly to say that sure, yes, that was fine—and he doubled his offer.
The Lipsyte choice, you should know, was not entirely arbitrary on my part. He’s not a superstar in the Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell sense; it would be arrogant for me to think I can demand what such best-selling authors, true celebrities, can demand. But he is high-prestige, a writer’s writer, the kind of person who adds luster to a table of contents (he also happens to be very good; I’m really enjoying his new book of short stories). He’s not the kind of writer a New York editor would want to lowball. What’s more, he has a full-time job teaching at Columbia, and probably is plenty busy, so he wouldn’t say yes to a trivial fee. I figured he commanded more than editors were offering me—but not stratospherically more. As it turned out, I was right.
By the way, although I don’t advertise to the whole world what I make, I always tell friends and close colleagues, if they ask, what a given editor has paid me. I see it as a basic courtesy and act of solidarity among fellow free lances. (I have withheld figures in the anecdote above so as not to out Sam Lipsyte’s rate. Let’s say he or I could take a couple friends to Per Se on what we made, and order wine with dinner.)