Negotiation. What (and who) is it good for?

Much as I’d like to write a post about my October holiday which kept me away from the blog last month, I think something more work-related might be in order. But let me just recommend South Africa as a great place to visit if you like food, drink, being outdoors and wildlife. I’ll settle for using a photo that might just look like it fits the topic and move swiftly on.

Repacking my suitcase, I headed to Munich last weekend with my ELT Teacher 2 Writer colleagues for the IATEFL BESIG conference (for teachers in the business English teaching community), where I met up with my co-committee members from MaWSIG (the IATEFL special interest group for materials writers). I’ve always got my White Ink hat on as well, of course. I love this kind of event where teachers, writers, editors and publishers come together and have an opportunity to learn from each other. This year MaWSIG was co-hosting the conference with BESIG for the first time, so there was a strand of talks with materials writing at their heart running throughout the weekend. Talks ranged from experienced authors offering practical tips for writers, whether they’re writing materials for their own class or for wider publication, to first-time writers sharing their experiences of the writing-editing-publication process.

I listened to all the talks in the MaWSIG strand and noticed a common theme emerging. Negotiation.

In their talk, Mandy Welfare and Dale Coulter offered a selection of tips for new writers, and participants were asked to stick stickers on the pieces of advice they agreed with most. At the end of the session, the advice with the most stickers was the one advising writers [working for a publisher] to negotiate on fees if they seem low. One participant voiced surprise about the fact that any negotiation was possible. The immediate response from the rest of the room was ‘you at least have to ask’.

Andy Johnson, who has worked as a teacher, materials writer and materials editor at The London School of English, offered insights into his experiences in both authoring and editing roles. Negotiating featured in several of his tips for both sides. Remember that the brief is dynamic and open to negotiation. In a context where materials are being written for a specific course at one school, there is likely to be more flexibility than if you are writing for a publisher. And, if elements of the brief are causing difficulty, the writer can ask the editor if anything can change – some things may be ‘must haves’, others might be ‘nice to haves’. Andy also talked about the importance of dates and fees being open to negotiation. An interesting way his school has worked with writers is by thinking more creatively than just in terms of fees or hourly rates. Negotiations have been done over teaching hours, shared copyright arrangements and royalties.

The BESIG conference took place shortly after I’d had a conversation with another freelance editor about a fixed fee job that was turning out to need a lot more work than the fee was reasonable for, and we discussed how to negotiate a fairer deal that all parties felt happy with.

15049957_10155285148344041_795375708_nAs Andy Johnson said in his session in Munich, ELT editors and authors tend not to be experienced negotiators. Yet it’s a skill that is becoming increasingly important for us all – in-house staff as well as freelancers; authors, editors and publishers – so we can all feel we are being paid fairly for work done and time invested, whilst bearing the other party’s interests in mind.

Helen (Holwill, my friend and collaborator at ELT Freelancers) and I recognized this as we started to plan the 2017 ELT Freelancers’ Awayday. We’ll be aiming to address the issue head-on in our panel discussion on negotiation before Penny Hands talks about the author-editor relationship – I’m pretty sure that session will also feature the N-word.

So, if we all need to brush up our negotiating skills, where should we start? Here are three tips to bear in mind next time you have to discuss terms and conditions …

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want. Do this in an assertive manner rather than an aggressive one. If you think you will need 50 hours to meet a brief, rather than the 30 covered by a fee, say so. But do prepare your case and be able to say why you will need the extra time. Is a lot of background research needed? Is some rewriting needed rather than (or in addition to) a straightforward copy edit?
  2. Listen to what the other party wants. Do they need a job doing quickly, at short notice or over a weekend? Show them how you can meet their needs.
  3. Be willing to walk away. If you enter a negotiation without this option, you will be limiting yourself to the final decision of the other party, whether that’s satisfactory to you or not. Of course we don’t like to do this for fear of damaging our reputation or not being offered further work, but sometimes it is for the best.

Have you had to negotiate over a project recently? How did it go? Do you have any tips to share in a Comment?

4 thoughts on “Negotiation. What (and who) is it good for?

  1. Thanks for this Karen, so helpful. Earlier in the year I agreed to write a series of worksheets for one publisher, and was very much involved in the ‘development’ phase, meaning that the fee for my first of these quickly became disproportionately low relative to the time I invested. I did politely challenge this, but was turned down.Although of course I was disappointed, I decided to accept the decision as I felt that doing the work would be an interesting opportunity for my own CPD. However I still feel a little ‘dis-chuffed’, and if the series gets recommissioned later next year I might try to dig my heels in a little more!


    1. I love ‘dis-chuffed’!
      Sorry to hear that your ‘polite challenge’ didn’t work this time, but next time you would be in a strong position to remind them that you have the knowledge of the series, etc, that should make you a lot more valuable. This is a great example of exactly the kind of thing freelancers need to feel empowered to handle confidently. Thanks for sharing your experience.


  2. Great post, Karen, and I think an increasingly important topic as publishers are being forced to try and get more for less.
    I’d just add a comment about the importance of ‘renegotiation’ – just because you agreed something at the beginning of a project, even if it was written into a contract, you shouldn’t be afraid to say something if the goalposts are moving. Over the years, I’ve frequently realized partway through a project that I’m doing more than in the original brief so have gone back to ask for more money, more time or to lessen my workload. As you say, Karen, in this situation it’s really importantly to set out clearly what you’re doing that wasn’t in the original brief.
    Reactions have varied – sometimes I’ve just been offered a token extra fee which doesn’t really cover the extra work and sometimes I’ve been offered considerably more. I’ve also, on a couple of very extreme occasions, actually just walked away when we couldn’t reach agreement. It’s very tough to leave a project you’ve invested a lot of work and effort into, but if you really feel like you’re being taken advantage of, sometimes it’s the only option.


    1. Thanks for commenting, Julie. I totally agree about renegotiation. You at least have to ask. Sometimes it will pay off, sometimes it won’t, but if you have the option of walking away and you feel you’ve reached that point, sometimes that’s the right thing to do.


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