The essential and fundamental truth you must accept and fully understand about our business is this: There is nothing, not negative margins at the end of the fiscal year and not the pre-fall-of-Rome state of the government and not their parents being eaten by cancer, there is NOTHING the people who employ writers hate more than writers.
The more their market or company or project utterly depends on writing, the more and more fervent their noxiously unctuous contempt is for you, the writer. Movie studios, of whose products screenwriters are the architects and *only* indispensable project personnel (never, EVER forget that. You are the ONLY originator. Everyone else is an adaptor of YOUR work, including and ESPECIALLY the director. FUCK that chimp with their camera. They are a waiter taking YOUR order. And no, they aren’t even chefs. Those are the editors), would chain writers together three abreast at the bottom of a 17th century French galley and swap out their oars for MacBooks if they could get away with it. Online markets, who are utterly and solely dependent on constant 24/7 content written and edited and curated and posted by writers like you, will employ five people who couldn’t themselves fill a single hour of that desperately needed content just so that market can claim they pay writers while they chew bloggers and freelancers through their meat grinder teeth by the thousands and spit them all out broke and uncredited and forgotten. Publishing is a business in which the world’s largest publishers clear billion-dollar profits yearly and in which the majority of people who create the only product those publishers sell can’t make minimum wage creating that product.
They need you and they know it. They are respirator-dependent upon you and they know it. They cannot exist without you and they know it. You should and could have all the power in this process so they designed a system in which you have absolutely none, and under whose authority you not only accept that you have no power, you remain grateful to them for taking it away from you in exchange for simply allowing you to practice a craft that fills their pockets and larders and egos while offering you the slimmest validation possible that you lap up like a starving, repeatedly kicked dog.
You are a professional writer and you are universally loathed by everyone.
Now we can move on.
Ideally, we should eliminate the middle people in these industries and control everything ourselves, especially the profits. That’s another post for another time. Right now we’re talking about dealing with the existing industries, which is what most of you will or are doing, especially when you just begin trying to sell whatever writing you’re trying to sell.
When you venture out into the marketplace to hawk your wares as a writer, be they nonfiction articles or short stories or screenplays or whatever, you will invariably discover two things: 1) Everyone wants you to work for free. 2) Everyone who doesn’t want you to work for free wants to pay you shit, or as little as possible.
They will offer you myriad universes of reasons and excuses and assurances and promises WHY this is all perfectly normal and acceptable and standard. They are lies. Do you hear me? Whatever steaming horse hockey they hand you about working for free or for pennies, they are all lies told by lying liars who are fucking lying to you. Period. There are four lights. Never forget that.
And here’s the truly screwed up part. You’ll probably accept their offer. Because writers, like most artists, are generally terrible businesspeople and negotiators. You will be intimidated and overwhelmed and afraid and eager and anxious and you will find yourself believing anything they tell you as long as the carrot of hope that is acknowledgement and advancement as a professional writer is dangling just out of reach. You will accept their shitty terms and their lies and you will perpetuate the system that retains writers at a notch above chattel.
You must understand that when you do this you are not only letting yourself down, you are fucking me over. Do you get that? You are fucking me and every single other professional writer where we breathe. You are a de facto scab. You are an unwitting traitor to your professional and artistic species. You are a collaborator. You are enabling this century-old machine built to oppress freelance writers by greasing its shitlordy wheels.
You are going to do better, and I am going to help you.
If you’ve ever worked in telemarketing, you may have been issued what is known as a rebuttal guide. There is no harder-nosed form of negotiation than cold calling complete strangers and attempting to wrangle money from them, usually for a worthless product or service. Telemarketers receive every imaginable abuse and excuse under the sun for why a person cannot and will not acquiesce to their terms (and they should, because they’re bilking honest people, but you’re not a telemarketer). A rebuttal guide is a tool used by telemarketers to counter excuses. It offers an easily referred to index of conceivable excuses and with that excuse, the rebuttal to employ. Again, they’re usually doing a shitty thing, but the strategy is sound.
So, that’s what I’ve written for you, the freelance writer negotiating terms for their work. I’ve written you a rebuttal guide. Below you’ll find the things you are most likely to hear from editors and other assorted folk who will want you to work for free or offer you unfair compensation for your work. I have myself been told a version of every single one of these things, or heard them verbatim, I promise you. These apply to fiction and non-fiction writers in pretty much every medium. These also really apply to any type of freelance creator, whether you write or graphic design or draw or play the fucking tuba, whatever, it all pretty much applies. So share it with your freelance friends who do things besides writing.
Now, let’s get totally serious here for a second. I employed a lot of ranting and hyperbole above (that’s a lie, as I meant every damn word). This rebuttal guide is NOT written in that style. I could have done that version, and maybe I will do it just for fun or as advanced guide one day, but you simply can’t go around cursing and chewing people out and badmouthing their business when you want to work for them, especially when you’re first building a reputation as a professional. This guide is written in a wholly professional voice, with a kill-’em-with-kindness tone. In most circumstances it is much more effective to be unshakably, unflappably, and persistently polite and rational than it is to scream and yell. If they can’t rattle you, you will inevitably rattle them.
There is a time and a place for screaming and yelling in our business, but we’re starting with the basics here.
This is a real thing. I encourage you to learn these excuses and learn these rebuttals well. Learn how to string them together. There’s lots of room for improvisation and employing your own words, mixing and matching, as long as you retain the fundamental point. I encourage you to practice your rebuttals, either in a mirror or with another person. I know it can sound silly when people tell you to do a thing like that, but it’s important and it actually works. I encourage you to practice them on the phone and/or over Skype-like video chat, as this is where your negotiations will usually live outside of email, and the phone/Skype is especially difficult for a lot of people. If anxiety or some clinical condition precludes you adapting to the phone, I encourage you to request to handle negotiations via email. There’s always a workaround. You can copy and paste these rebuttals in your email for all I give a fuck, just so long as you’re negotiating for better terms.
Here’s the tragic fact of the situation. Every generation of freelance writers before you fucked you over. I’m sorry, but it’s true. They fucked you over because they didn’t fix anything. All the guilds and associations and the few actual unions, they’ve done nothing to increase writers’ collective bargaining power. It was all the largest of them could do to simply keep getting writers paid. It’s up to you. We spent a century giving each other awards and pep talks while the industries around us built higher and higher walls between us and the money and covered those walls in razor wire and poison dart frogs. That sucks, but it’s wholly up to you to do better for yourself and at least try to leave a better, fairer industry for the writers that come later.
This rebuttal guide is just a tool, and a small one. The important part, the part that affects actual change, is you altering your thinking about writing as a business and your place in it as a writer, acting accordingly, advocating and encouraging others to do the same.
I want to thank freelance writing badass Mikki Kendall, who gave me her eyes and thoughts on this. I absolutely encourage you to follow Mikki on Twitter and take her writing classes. She’s the kind of freelancer you want to be.
And, of course, this is all stuff I repeatedly talk about and elaborate on when I do Ditch Diggers, the Hugo-nominated writing-as-a-job podcast I co-host with Mur Lafferty. Please do listen to that and consider subscribing and supporting our Patreon.
So, yeah. Do better. Demand more. You deserve it.
I wish you steady nerves and good fortune.
Matt Wallace (Los Angeles, 2017)
THE FREELANCE WRITER’S REBUTTAL GUIDE (a Matt Wallace Technology)
Writing for us will be GREAT exposure for you.
Rebuttal: I appreciate that, but I’ve developed/am developing my own online platforms for purposes of exposing myself and my work. My goal with all my freelance writing is to generate real income, not exposure. And considering you need my content to make your platform valuable to advertisers and consumers, I feel it’s worth more than exposure.
Let’s consider this first piece an audition, and we’ll go from there.
Rebuttal: I’m afraid I can’t do that, but I do have plenty of samples available I can show you that demonstrate my ability to write this kind of content and the quality of my work in general. That should be more than enough of an audition.
There’s no money up front, but we do offer royalties/ad share revenue/other compensation down the line.
Rebuttal: That’s a great feature, but I also need to be compensated for the time and energy I’m expending now. I have to keep the lights on and myself fed while I’m writing this piece for you, after all. I’m sure you understand that.
We’re just starting out so we can’t really afford to pay writers right now.
Rebuttal: I understand it’s tough launching this kind of market, but I think you’ll agree it’s equally important establishing your reputation as a professional market that fairly compensates its writers from day one. Not to mention there’s no better investment than quality in a new venture like this, and quality is something you have to pay for. That’s true in any field or industry.
Look, WE aren’t even getting paid right now.
Rebuttal: I hear you, and I understand it’s worth all the uncompensated time and effort you’re putting into the site/zine now as the owner/editor, but you also have to understand I don’t have any equity in your venture. So unless you’re offering to mitigate my risk in the same way by offering me some form of equity I have to assume whatever money I get now will be the only money I ever see.
You know, when I started out I was an unpaid newsroom intern working 29 hours a day with no car and five kids to feed and I was GRATEFUL for the opportunity.
Rebuttal: Wow, I’m so sorry to hear you were exploited like that. That’s really awful. It was patently wrong of them to take advantage of you at that early stage of your career in the way they obviously did. I’m sure you don’t want to perpetuate that kind of exploitation in our field, right? Isn’t it up to all of us to create better, fairer markets for the next generation of writers and editors?
Listen, my dog just died and I’ve been diagnosed with a rare disease and I just wrecked my car and they’re repossessing my house and I stubbed my big toe this morning, and I’m just trying to keep this thing afloat. Can you do me a solid on this one?
Rebuttal: I’m genuinely sorry to hear that and I really hope the situation improves for you, but I’m not in a position that allows me to risk my family’s/my own solvency by working for free/a reduced rate. What I can offer you is my best work at a fair rate, and I truly believe if you invest in quality your market will grow and that growth will hopefully help solve your issues.
There are plenty of other writers who’d kill to accept the terms we’re offering, just to work for us.
Rebuttal: I’m sure there are, unfortunately you get what you pay for, and in that case it will undoubtedly be inexperience and a lack of professionalism and quality that shows through in the work. Isn’t it smarter to invest in professional writers with more ability and experience whose work can enhance your market?
Listen, this is just the way the market is. You’re not going to find a place that offers better terms than us.
Rebuttal: I have to respectfully question your market research here. I happen to know [other comparable markets you’ve researched] pay [this/these rates].
Why don’t you go write for those other markets if they pay so much?
Rebuttal: I’m exploring all of my options. I really think, respectfully, the question is why wouldn’t you want to mirror the professional conduct of comparable markets that are obviously successful doing what you want to do? Isn’t it to your benefit to do so?
Listen, you won’t go broke doing this ONE for free, right?
Rebuttal: No, but I absolutely will go broke establishing a pattern of working for free or being under-compensated, and it’s simply not a precedent I’m willing to set, not for any market, not even one time.
[Such-and-Such Famous/Well Known Writer] worked for us under these terms.
Rebuttal: I didn’t know that, but if it was at the beginning of their career I’d be very interested to know how they feel now about having behaved so unprofessionally and against their own interests. If it was recently then I can certainly understand why they don’t feel they need the money at this stage in their career. Unfortunately this is still how I make my living and I don’t have the same luxury they do. I need to be fairly compensated for my work.
It’s just a bad time for freelance writers. No one’s making any money.
Rebuttal: I’d argue it’s far less ‘the times’ and far more the market’s attitude towards writers and their acceptance of it. I happen to know [these writers I know/follow/researched/talked to] do very well writing for comparable markets. If one of us can make money then all of us can, especially with the sheer volume of markets out there now, all in need of new content 24/7.
You’re just not worth that much.
Rebuttal: We wouldn’t be having this conversation if you didn’t think my work and I have value. This is the price tag I place on that value, and I believe it’s both fair and reasonable for the quality of writing I produce and the time I invest in producing it.
You’re not a well known writer. Your name doesn’t have any value.
Rebuttal: I’m not asking for a star’s wage. I’m simply asking for what’s fair and reasonable for both the market and the content I’m providing. I’m not charging you for my name. I’m charging you for my work and my time. And your market depends on a steady stream of content to make it valuable to advertisers and consumers, and in that way all content has value to you.
You’re being greedy.
Rebuttal: I don’t think that’s a fair categorization. If I were a plumber applying for a job at a plumbing company no one would accuse me of being ‘greedy’ for requesting a fair wage in exchange for my skill set.
Are you only in this for the money? Don’t you care about your art?
Rebuttal: I care very much about my art, but this conversation isn’t about art, it’s about money. I assume you either draw a salary from this market or intend to do so down the line. It’s unfair to apply a higher standard to me when we’re both attempting to be professionals making money from our craft
Demanding money like this is going to give you a bad reputation and no one will want to hire you.
Rebuttal: I’m more than willing to stand by a reputation of expecting fair compensation for my work.
Well, whatever argument you make, I can’t pay you that much money.
Rebuttal: Then I’m afraid I can’t work for you at this time. I hope we can do business down the line when your market is stronger and generating real revenue. Good luck with it!