Life as a freelance writer, as all self-employed creative professionals know, is a hustle. Countless unpaid hours of marketing, promotion, professional development, training, networking, pitching and negotiating go into each and every contract, no matter how big or small, whether won or lost. Of all these necessary "sacrifices" of time and energy, the one thing that has more impact than anything else, yet is perhaps the least considered and honed skill of all, is the art of negotiation.
Artists and creative professionals all, in my experience, suffer a similar fate: the distressing inability to negotiate a fair wage or price for their work, due to the feeling of scarcity caused by a hand-to-mouth existence. Artists are also often more passionate than pragmatic (that's why we love them) and are stereotypically easygoing rather than intimidating business people.
Yes, this is a stereotype (because it's not always true), but more importantly, business acumen and creative talent are not diametrically opposed. The artist hoping to live off their work needs to understand that the business of art is roughly 80 per cent business and 20 per cent art, and therefore must embrace the art of negotiation.
"Holding onto low-paying contracts won't feed you in the long run, but only keep you trapped." - Nancy Trites-Botkin, Think8
A huge source of motivational energy gets lost when artists fail to negotiate successfully. They end up being underpaid for their work, and in so, undervalued for their skills. This ripples into a tidal wave of poor-paying clients as the freelance artist slowly drowns in a low-income bracket.
This is an all-too-common scenario. The burnt out artists starts to believe that they are trapped in underpaid work, perhaps blaming the degradation of their industry on internship and Internet culture. They become drained and depleted of their time, their confidence and self-esteem as a result if internalizing the devaluation of their work and talent. The end result is too often a disillusionment in their career choice and eventually finding employment elsewhere.
Nancy Trites-Botkin, co-founder and CEO of Think8, an international arts and business consultancy company, calls this common fate the "monkey trap": "In many parts of Asia, they trap monkeys by putting a bit of food in a narrow-necked jar -- the monkey reaches his hand in and grabs the food, but can't pull it out while holding the treat. This happens all the time for self-employed professionals. Holding onto low-paying contracts won't feed you in the long run, but only keep you trapped."
The good news is that freelance artists don't have to be monkeys. Nor do we have to turn into wolves of Wall Street to be strong and successful negotiators: we can get what we need and want while maintaining our authentic character and integrity. Negotiation is the linchpin regarding earning, because after all the web design, and Facebook campaigns, networking and pitching, this is where you actually establish the bread and butter of what your work is worth: how much you will get paid.
Successful negotiation means being willing to let go of poor-paying clients, and that is scary. In my own experience, as soon as I let go of the proverbial treat in the trap, it created time and space for new opportunities to come to me that aligned with a better sense of my own value and the worth of my work -- but it wasn't easy.
Focusing your time and energy on developing strong negotiation skills will pay off in the end and get you earning what you need and deserve, to establish a successful life as a freelance artist. Here are Nancy's four essential steps to successful negotiation for all self-employed artists and creative professionals:
Be willing to negotiate.
Drop the fear of asking for more and embrace the fact that negotiating is essential for success.
Determine your ASK and your WALK AWAY.
What do you need to earn and do some research to determine that it's realistic. At what point must you walk away from this opportunity so as not to put yourself in the monkey trap?
Take a value-based approach
A contract is a mutually beneficial relationship: what value do you bring to your client, (tangible and non) and what value do they bring you? These are your key negotiating points.
Practice, practice, practice.
Rehearse your upcoming negotiation with a friend and have them challenge you before you step into the arena -- that way you are less likely to be caught off-guard.
The key, says Nancy, is to negotiate with compassionate cunning and personal power from a value-based perspective. Negotiation is about moving up, around, over and under obstacles between you and what you need and want. Don't be a bully or a smooth-talker, use your creativity, wit, planning, practice and patience to establish the right business maneuvers and it will pay off in the end.
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