From festival appearances to funeral poems, writers get asked to work unpaid all the time — and if you think that plumbers never work unpaid, just ask their neighbours, friends and family. And, as in all industries, there's all sorts of unpaid work which just makes sense, whether it's promote your product or service, to compete with your competitors, to keep the goodwill of customers, or simply to avoid spending £20 in office costs to garner £5 of payment.
But taking ourselves more seriously as paid professionals means learning to ask for money without apology or embarrassment from events organisers, broadcasters, schools, magazines, alumni organisations and anyone else including friends and family. The Society of Authors publishes observed rates for fees, which gives you an idea of where to start, but we also need firm boundaries about when we're willing to do without payment.
As I suggested in Being Published Part 5: Publicity, when I receive such requests I put it through my personal algorithm, which takes account of the kind of organisation, whether it will cost me more than time, how much I want the gig, and the ethics of supporting the literary ecosystem vs solidarity with authors who couldn't afford to do this gig.
The next problem is that those approaching you often don't say at the outset if it's paid or not. It may simply be their good business practice of not committing to a fee if they can get something for less - and we are in business too, so we can't really complain about that. Or, particularly in academic contexts, everyone else involved is salaried, however miserably, and they may just forget you aren't.
Assuming you're not willing to spend time and money on this gig unpaid, it's then a matter of getting over the mental humps: the social, "It's embarrassing to talk about money" and the professional "I don't want to lose this chance", both of which are really about, "I must be helpful and nice, or they'll chase me out of the tribe".
So here are lots of ways to start the conversation. Note that if you're willing to negotiate – which may be your only chance of getting a gig you really want – you will want to build in a signal to that effect. Just make sure you never forget the question of expenses, and you have a bottom-line amount in mind below which it's all off.
Thanks so much for getting in touch. I'd be delighted to [help you / speak at your event / write for your website / take part in this conference]:
- I'm afraid I don't take on unpaid projects.
- Unfortunately I'm not taking on unpaid projects at the moment.
- I charge a flat fee for this kind of advice: more details at this link:
- I'm attaching further details of my fees and how I work.
- Can you confirm what fee you're offering, and whether you pay expenses?
- If you had a talk of 𝑥 minutes with 𝑦 time for questions in mind, I would normally charge £𝑧, plus expenses. How does that sound?
- I won't be able to write a story for the magazine, but I would be happy to give an interview by Zoom or email.
- I can't offer that length of article, but I would be delighted to write 500 words for £𝑥. Would that suit you?
- I do have a 50 minute workshop on A ready-prepared, which I would be happy to give for the fee you suggest.
- I know times are tough for everyone, and am happy to offer an 𝑥% discount.
- I do understand why you are not able to pay a fee, and am happy to take part if you can cover my expenses.
Itchy Bitesized is a series of short posts about all sorts of writing issues, from inspiration and process to craft, technique and the realities of the writing life. Many include links to fuller discussions of the topic elsewhere on the Itch. Click through here for an up-to-date listing of The Itchy Bitesized series.