Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Negotiation Part One

Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Negotiation Part One

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I had this topic on my list ever since I wrote the money sections of the Guide. When I do the full book-length copy of the Guide, that’s where this section will go. Because, as my ex-husband used to say, all of life is negotiable.

That attitude fascinated me and repelled me at the same time. I loved the way he could get bargains, and I loved the way he refused to hear the word no. But I was raised by people who didn’t negotiate. For all I know, my parents spent full list price on their cars.

The price was the price, my upbringing said. When someone told you the rules, you followed them. You didn’t negotiate them. You didn’t ask for the price to come down. You didn’t try to get something special for yourself.

Who did you think you were, any way? Someone special? Someone to whom the rules did not apply?

My husband, Dean Wesley Smith, also loves to negotiate. He hates to spend full price for anything. Early in our relationship, I argued with him as he tried to negotiate the price of a television set in a Fred Meyer store. Fred Meyer, for those of you who don’t live near one, was once considered a lower level department store. Now it’s mid-level. It sells everything from food to electronics to clothes to furniture, but not as cheaply as Wal-Mart or Target nor as expensively as Macy’s. What Fred Meyer shares with those places is this: the listed price is the price. If they want to discount the item, they put it on sale.

Dean never believed that. He knew that the salesperson on the floor couldn’t negotiate, but the manager could. So he’d see the last television set or the single remaining display model or a huge number of televisions, none of which were moving, and he’d ask for the manager. Then Dean would offer to pay half price and take it away immediately—no box, no nothing. Just cash.

Nine times out of ten, the manager took him up on the offer. Or she’d negotiate in return. I can’t sell you that television at half price, but I can sell you this one for even less.

Some places—like car dealerships—expect you to negotiate. When I lived in Madison, Wisconsin, there was an appliance and electronics store called American Furniture and Appliances, run by a guy named Lenny. Everyone in town called the place Crazy TV Lenny’s because that was the moniker that he gave himself on his wild TV ads (for an idea what this guy was like, see the Ted Danson character in Made in America).

My ex and I often shopped there, and I let my ex handle the negotiations. His mother gave us $200 every Christmas, and we managed to stretch it a long way—often through my ex’s negotiating skill at Crazy TV Lenny’s.

Even there, I had trouble listening to the negotiation. But I knew it was appropriate.

It wasn’t appropriate (or so I believed) at Fred Meyer. So on that night more than twenty years ago, as Dean started into his negotiations, I hissed at him: “They don’t negotiate here.”

He waved me off.

“Seriously,” I said. “They won’t let you do that here.”

Finally, he turned to me and snapped, “Kindly shut up.”

Which I did, surprisingly enough.

And we walked out with a much-needed $500 television that we only paid $200 for.

You can negotiate anywhere. The worst thing they can say to you is no.

Back then, my problem with face-to-face negotiation was a case of terminal embarrassment. I didn’t want to call attention to myself in public in anyway. Some of this came from my shyness, but some of it came from my upbringing. My mother worried constantly about what other people thought, and it rubbed off on me. It still takes a conscious effort for me not to worry about what other people think.

And if it’s bad form to negotiate, then people would remember, and ostracize me.

Only no one has ever remembered Dean badly for negotiation. In fact, the places he’s negotiated things have remembered him, and have often offered him other deals. They respect him, which was quite a lesson for me.

The other lesson about face-to-face negotiation that I learned from both men is that both of them negotiated with a smile and a shrug. They charmed the salesperson, making the salesperson feel as good about the sale as they did.

Now, no one has ever called me charming. Strong, opinionated, blunt, difficult, smart, and truthful, yes, but charming—never. And honestly, while I care what people think as a default mode, I mostly don’t care if they like me. I am what I am: take it or leave it.

The charmer makes each person feel special. And the charmer can be a chameleon, becoming all things to all people.

Sadly, I don’t have the patience for that. A charmer can negotiate face-to-face from a position of weakness.

I can’t—at least not face-to-face. I can negotiate from a position of weakness in writing or through an intermediary. More on that later.

I can, however, negotiate face-to-face if I believe it’s a matter of fairness. Which was why I had no trouble as a sixteen-year-old asking for payment for my high school newspaper column. It seemed logical to me that if everyone else at the paper got paid for their work, I should as well. I presented it that way to my teacher, who presented to the paper. I didn’t try to charm anyone.

I’ve done that many times over the years. I do it from an informed perspective. I find out what others get paid for the same work and ask for that rate for myself. Or ask for an increase based on past performance.

I have no trouble doing that. It’s based on rules, you see, and I can do rules face-to-face.

But things like negotiating at a car dealership or in a store have no rules, so I’m at a loss. I don’t do it, but these days, I’m happy when Dean does—and occasionally I suggest it to him. Then I leave the vicinity. Because I can’t stay calm while he does it. I panic or get embarrassed, even now.

Which is why I put off writing about negotiation. I don’t do it well face-to-face. I think of Dean or my ex-husband. I think of all those other people I’ve known who are experts at getting the best price for the best product, and I know I’m not like them.

However, if you were to ask anyone who does business with me, they’d call me a skilled negotiator. In fact, I’ve had a number of people tell me I’m such a good negotiator, I should do it for a living—as a book agent, for example. (Which means they aren’t thinking things through. Why should I make 15% off someone else’s work, when I can make 85 to 100% off my own?)

How can I be known as such a skilled negotiator when I can’t dicker with a car dealer?

Simple: I know my strengths and weaknesses. I also know what I want.

The rules for negotiation are pretty easy:

1. Know What You Want: That sounds elementary, but most people don’t know what they want before they enter into negotiation. In the TV example above, Dean and I were broke, with only about $250 to our name. Our television had died a spectacular death (involving sparks and explosions), and we needed a new one. We wanted the best set we could get for our money. Me, I would have just looked at $200 TVs. Dean looked at all the TVs to see which he could bargain down to $200. He got us the better deal. But we knew our limits. We couldn’t spend more than $200 and still get groceries. I’m sure the store manager had some kind of limitation on his end as well—probably the cost of the item versus the cost of the space it took on his shelf.

2. Ask. You won’t get what you want if you don’t ask, so what’s the risk? The worst thing the other party can do is say no.

3. Be Prepared To Walk Away. You won’t always get what you want. But you should never settle for less than what you need. So many people get caught up in the negotiation they forget that they can simply say no and leave. You can always try another day.

4. Stay Calm. Negotiations are for rational people, making business decisions. The moment you feel yourself getting angry or panicked or embarrassed, end the negotiation. Calm down. You have to be able to think clearly, and you won’t be able to do that if you’re emotional in any way.

5. Never Reveal Your Entire Hand. Even if you’re desperate—especially if you’re desperate—don’t admit it. Don’t tell the salesperson that you only have $200. Don’t say you’ll do anything to be published or start your business or go on TV. The moment you reveal your deepest needs, you give the other party a hook that will guarantee that they’ll triumph in the negotiation. Make sure that you keep your reasons for making the deal—whatever it is—completely to yourself.

6. Don’t Flip-Flop. If you say you’ll walk before you spend $250, then walk. Make promises and keep them. Or you lose your standing in the negotiation, and your word means nothing.

All of this is deliberately vague, because negotiation happens in a variety of circumstances. You negotiate salary when you get a job, as does your future boss. You negotiate when you propose marriage to someone—you are making an alliance, after all, and you discuss what that alliance entails. You negotiate when you rent an apartment or buy a house. You negotiate when you order in large quantities from a supplier. Most of us even negotiate traffic tickets (“Honest, officer, I didn’t see the speed limit sign. It’s hidden behind a bush.”)

Each of those negotiations takes different skills.

So for the sake of the Guide, I’ll examine the most common types of negotiation you’ll do when you’re in business. These include—but are not limited to—contracts and financial dealings. I’ll also discuss negotiations with potential clients and with potential employees.

All of these take different approaches. For example, fiduciary negotiations might be short-term, like my high school column for the local paper. But contracts exist for the length of that contract—anywhere from six months to ten years or more. You need to think about all aspects of that as you negotiate, not just your short-term goal.

Then there are different methods of negotiation. Many of us hire a negotiator—be that an agent or an attorney or a publicist—to do the actual talking for us. But a negotiator needs guidance, and ultimately, they’re following your wishes. So I’ll discuss when you need one and when you don’t. And, when you do need one, what kind should you hire? A charmer, a shark, or a combination of both?

Negotiation is a deep topic, and as usual, I won’t be able to go into all of it. But the first thing you need to do as we delve into it is figure out how good you are at negotiating. Can you negotiate face-to-face? Is it easy for you to ask for what you want? When you do ask, do you get it nine out of ten times or do you alienate the people you talk to?

All of those are valid questions you should know the answer to before next week, when we’ll look at negotiation, part two.

“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Negotiation Part One” copyright 2009 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.

You can now order either an e-book copy of the Guide or a trade paper copy of the Guide. It’s in slightly different format and has been organized, so that related topics are in an easily accessible place.

You can get the print version here.

For those of you who’d like to buy an ebook, here’s the Amazon link as well as the Barnes & Noble link. The e-book will also be available on all the other e-book sites. If you want it in your favorite format, and the book hasn’t yet been uploaded to your favorite site, try Smashwords. You’ll be able to download in a variety of e-book formats.


3 thoughts on “Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Negotiation Part One

  1. I hate negotiating, too, for pretty much the same reasons you describe, Kris. It’s not what my family did, my parents are hugely concerned with what other people think of them, and although I’m not nearly as shy as I used to be, I have one other big problem: I hate conflict. (Also familial–we don’t argue much in our family.)

    Of course, this is one of the things that also makes writing difficult for me. I don’t want my characters to be in conflict. I want them to be nice to each other and talk things out. 🙂

    From the writing side of things, I’ve known lots of authors who don’t want to negotiate because they want editors/agents/whomever to like them. “If I piss them off, they won’t buy my stuff” is a strong myth to crush for some people. But it also comes from new-writer insecurity: “My stuff isn’t good enough–if they don’t like me, they’ll just buy somebody else’s stuff.”

    Oh, the ways we find to sabotage ourselves! 🙂

  2. Well, on the topic of hiring someone to negotiate, a news anchor I know hired an agent to negotiate her next contract. Her agent took such a hard line that management called her bluff and she ended up out of work. She had absolutely no desire to leave but apparently didn’t convey that well enough to her agent.

    On the other side I was trying to hire an anchor once and the agent was so incredibly obnoxious I moved on to someone else. I was trying to negotiate and meet the guy in the middle but he wanted to play hardball.

    What surprised me about these instances is that both anchors were extremely likable people, yet hired agents who were so difficult to deal with. And, as you pointed out so well Kris, anyone who negotiates for you needs to know exactly how you feel.

    Sharks may be good for divorce court, but I’m not so sure they’re a great idea in a creative business.

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