December 4

An unfortunate series of decisions

Once upon a time I fell in love with chess. I was never very good at it—because I was too lazy to practice and didn’t have the patience to study it in any depth—but I loved the romance of it and appreciated its place in history, art and culture such that I began collecting chess sets.

On a recent visit to Singapore, I played my (then 7-year-old, now 8-year-old) niece. I hadn’t played in about 15 years and she had highly suggestive coaching from my brother (who once beat Australian grandmaster Ian Rogers in a simultaneous match when he was at high school). She won, but not before I’d made a couple of silly moves, followed by incredible solutions that turned out to be not to my advantage after all.

I was reminded of this match recently when I decided on a whim that I hated my desk. As a freelancer who spends both working and non-working hours with this piece of furniture, liking one’s desk is an integral part of both the creative process and ergonomic sanity. It had to go.

The desk in itself wasn’t offensive. It was an IKEA Micke corner workstation with a couple of small shelves, file drawers and nooks to keep business cards and the like. It was just that suddenly I noticed how my 27-inch Macbook Pro screen only barely fit in the corner and that the vertical struts of the shelves were constantly in my periphery. Once I noticed it, I couldn’t help but notice it all the time.

I was due for an update anyhow. It’d been years since I’d bought office furniture and now that I’d become a full-time freelancer it was all gloriously tax deductible. I set aside a budget of $500 for a desk and a chair but then decided I didn’t want some shitty chipboard construction of a desk. Unfortunately it turns out that the reason shitty chipboard constructions exist is because they are cheap and solid wood is, well, not.

Queen Anne folding desk
Serena—isn’t she beautiful?

Goaded by Google I stumbled into Gumtree where there were dozens of solid wood desk options well within my budget. Buoyed by this, I contacted a handful of sellers to gauge availability. I was particularly taken by two. The first was a large solidly constructed number with practical shelving and drawers. The second was a vintage folding bureau in Queen Anne style, far too small for my purposes but beautiful for writing on. They were both $100, far below my budget. And all I could think was: ¿por que no los dos?

Regrettable decision #1: buying two desks when I could only fit one in my office.

No matter, I thought. I could have the serious, practical one for the office and stash the Queen Anne one in my tea den, which would thus become my creative writing and correspondence desk on account of it being in my garage and out of wi-fi range and therefore immune from internet-fuelled distractions.

Regrettable decision #2: not having the desks delivered.

There’s a GoGet van down my street called Tanzi and I employed the services of Tanzi twice that week to pick up Emmanuel (serious desk; location: Anzac Parade, Kensington, a hella busy road) and Serena (creative desk; location: Pacific Highway, Lane Cove, a hella busy road) at a cost of something like $28 for each two-hour session + whatever the kilometre charge is for my GoGet level these days.

While $80-ish doesn’t seem like a lot to pay for picking up these bargain desks (recall I paid $100 for each of them), the opportunity cost from not working had now reached four hours, not counting the amount of time spent searching for furniture and liaising with the sellers.

I then encountered another problem: my partner and I did not have the muscle between us to carry Emmanuel (length: 130cm; approx weight: 70kg) to my office. It’s three stories up, which is six flights of stairs and five turns, plus we had to bring Micke down first. If I’d had the desks delivered instead of enthusiastically picking them up myself, I could’ve avoided this scenario.

I turned to Airtasker for help, offering two people $35 each for the task of bringing one desk down and hauling one desk up—a half-hour job, I wrote—which somehow spawned a bunch of people offering $230 for the task. Confounding.

After Airtasker failed, I started ringing around some local removalists I thought might be interested in the tiny job that could be done before or after another in the area. The best offer was $150. I then hit on one that advertised ‘no job too small’ and was quoted $60, which I took. For the record, the job took 15 minutes.

Regrettable decision #3: not measuring the right thing.

When I expressed interest in Emmanuel, I asked the seller for the dimensions of the footwell. I also took the time to measure its length to ensure he’d fit in the smaller space vacated by Micke. What I failed to measure was the height and depth of the upper shelf. In effect, it meant that either my monitor had to sit too high or too close to me. I tried working both ways and was rewarded with headaches and a sore neck.

What I needed was an underdesk keyboard drawer. Officeworks seemed to be the only major retailer selling them and it came at the lofty price of $109, internet purchase only.

(There is a minor interlude here that involves me buying the drawer on a ‘Click and Collect’ basis, dashing the 15-minute route from Chinese class at USyd [finishing time: 8:30pm] to Glebe Officeworks [closing time: 9pm] to pick it up only to find I hadn’t actually bought it.)

desk
The arrival of Emmanuel prompted a blog post and the purchase of a brand new keyboard drawer.

Regrettable decision #4: setting up the desk.

As soon as Emmanuel arrived I went about filling his drawers and arranging all my accessories on him. When I finally received the drawer (thank you Officeworks, for the next-day delivery) I realised that it was going to have to be screwed in upwards, which is to say I’d have to lie down under the desk and make sure the screws went in perfectly vertically against gravity into solid wood while also holding the keyboard in place. Now, I’m not much of a handyperson at the best of times so this to me was like being asked to paint the Sistine Chapel.

All of this would have been avoided had I not set up the desk. If he’d been naked, I could’ve flipped him upside down and finished the task the easy way and we’d all be happy.

During these two days, I got sick and weak. I was too lazy to unpack Emmanuel (and clear a space in my office behind him big enough to accommodate flippage) and whenever I lay down under the desk, I began to wane.

Eventually, brushing aside pride and several decades of feminism, I employed my partner to do this task for me. His method involved screwing things out of order and using a drill to make guiding holes, two things I would never have thought to do having too much faith in the technical copywriter of the instruction manual and too little in my ability to avoid drilling a hole right through the desk.

So now Emmanuel is complete.

Cost of my folly

Emmanuel = $100

Serena = $100

GoGet fees = $79

Removalist fees = $60

Keyboard drawer = $109

(+10 working hours lost, unaccountable)

TOTAL = $448

Only $188 of which is tax deductible. And I still have to buy a chair.

(P.S: Does anyone want a free Micke workstation?)

Lessons learnt

I don’t employ strategic thinking for small things in my life and I rarely employ it for big things either. Somehow, though, fortune smiles down on me. What I lost when my niece beat me at chess, I won back in spades in bonding with her. Accordingly, whatever I lost in time and money on this stupid deskapade, I still ended up with two beautiful, functional pieces of furniture I’ll treasure for a while yet.

So there are no lessons learnt, really, I’m incorrigible like that. Except for an iteration of a lesson I forget sometimes, that things will work often out in the end.

Category: Work | LEAVE A COMMENT
February 7

PayDay #3: Asking for payment

So you want to be a writer. A professional, paid writer. Assuming you know roughly what you want to be paid, the next step is actually asking for money. In a world where $0 for words appears to be the default rate, this is no easy task. Tiered systems, where more experienced or prestigious writers command a different rate, complicate things further.

Your first step should be to find out if the publication (or organisation) pays at all. Publications will generally state on their website whether they pay and how much they pay. If they don’t, basic research skills (ie a decent search engine) and some careful questions sent through your network should tell you. There are also some great resources such as the Emerging Writers’ Festival and Hey Pay Up that can give you an indication of whether a publication pays and if so, how much (or the range).

The rest of this post will cover:

  1. How to ask for payment
  2. Rejecting unpaid work
  3. Upping your rate

asking for money

Asking for it

I once went to a talk featuring journalist Wendy Bacon who says she always has the money conversation as early as possible, which generally meant at the pitching stage. I personally don’t think this is necessary if you know that the publication does pay in the range you’re happy with and prefer to bring up rates once the editor has accepted the pitch.

Most publications will have a commission document that contains the brief, deadline, copyright stuff and payment details (including the rate and perhaps how to invoice). If not, I will usually send a reply email that confirms the scope of the work and the deadline and then throw in something along the lines of: “Would you mind confirming the rate?”

If you know what they pay, you can write something like: “I understand you pay ##c/word, can you confirm this is the rate?”

Not sure whether the publication pays? It may be wise to take Bacon’s lead and pitch your idea with all the charm you need to get the editor interested, then mention money in the same correspondence. Bring in your research at this point just to make them understand that they’re not dealing with a chump. A line like: “I’ve had a look at your submission criteria but it doesn’t mention your rates, do you mind letting me know how much you pay?” could work here.

Rejecting unpaid work

Say the editor comes back with “actually we don’t pay”; if you feel you can get paid elsewhere, gracefully withdraw your pitch and pitch elsewhere. “Thanks for considering this article, unfortunately I’m going to need to withdraw my pitch.” You can soften and personalise the withdrawal any way you like; trust me, most editors wish they could pay/pay more and they understand you need to make a living. Don’t be nasty, though, because one day they may receive a budget or edit another publication that does pay so it’s not a good idea to get into the bad books.

If you are approached to write something for a publication and it turns out they meant ‘be a word slave’, allow yourself to be flattered for a moment (after all, they chose you over all those other potential word slaves) and then work out if you want to do it for free or not.

Not? Don’t feel bad about being direct. Freelancer Benjamin Law once recalled being approached to emcee an association awards night pro bono. He wrote back something like: “Thank you for thinking of me. Unfortunately I need to prioritise paid work at this time so am unable to accept your invitation.” The funny part was the association came back and then offered to pay him. So sometimes editors or organisations may just be fishing for free content but may be willing to pay the right person.

Getting a pay rise

Of all the money conversations, I have the most difficulty with the one asking for a pay rise ie upping my rate.

With freelance budgets getting tighter and publications turning to pulp left, right and centre, you’re never going to be offered a higher word rate without asking. In many cases you get what you’re given and there’s no room for movement. Still, even though things are pretty cutthroat out there, it’s sometimes worth asking the question, particularly if you have a good relationship with your editor and if you know there’s a rate range and you haven’t yet reached the upper tier.

As with any pay rise negotiation, know what your value is to the organisation. Do you turn around a story quickly? Do you have expert contacts that no one else does? Is your copy so squeaky clean editors save time on the proofing stage? Build a case and find out whether a raise is possible. If yes, keep in mind two figures: what you want and what you’re prepared to accept (which may be what you’re already getting).

Also consider other non-monetary perks you might be able to angle for in lieu of a raise if there’s no budget to meet your asking price: do you want first dibs at certain stories? Can you renegotiate resell rights? Does the editor have contacts s/he can introduce you to where you might get more or more lucrative work?

Remember: If the publication can pay, it should pay. Never ever do the work or invoice an editor without discussing money and rates first. Good luck.

PayDay Series

  1. Should I write for free? 
  2. What should I charge?
  3. Asking for payment [you are here]
Category: Work, Write | LEAVE A COMMENT
December 16

PayDay #2: What should I charge for my writing?

Having established that you don’t want to write for free, you need to figure out what you should charge (or accept, if you are not in the fairly privileged position of setting a rate).

I highly recommend Anthony Caruana’s posts on his blog Totally Freelance, particularly these three:

  1. Setting a pay rate
  2. There is no correct rate
  3. The Balancing Act of Setting a Rate

There are really three ways of looking at setting a rate:

  • What you need to earn
  • What you want to earn
  • What everyone else is getting

It very much depends on what kind of person you are as to which method you’ll find more appealing.

smart money frustration
Be smart about what you charge

Cost plus

This is easy if your life is fairly stable and you’re thinking of switching from an existing job to freelancing, or you have a part-time job you want to supplement with side work.

Tally up all your expenses (and I mean all your expenses, from rent/mortgage repayments and food and bills to discretionary shopping, travel and entertainment) from the last year. Add the tax that you paid. This is your base figure.

Now, add the amount on top of that that you would like to earn in the coming year; say last year you went to Queensland for your holiday (nothing wrong with Queensland… don’t snigger) but this year you want to go to Iceland. That’s eleventy-bajillion dollars more (trust me, Iceland is expensive, and that’s coming from someone who lives in Sydney).

Base figure + eleventy-bajillion = cost plus figure

Divide your cost plus figure by the number of hours you think you’ll be working this year (don’t forget to give yourself a few sick leave days and holidays!). Boom! There’s your hourly rate. Adjust for word rate if required.

Because this method is based on expenses, you can make gains or losses by shifts in your spending, whether involuntary (‘oh yay, a new tax’) or voluntary (‘I’m going to buy fewer Faberge eggs this year’). If you were pretty spendthrift last year but this year you’re planning an austerity budget, your cost plus figure might actually be a little inflated. But that’s okay, it’s a guide.

Pro: Gives you a hard minimum and a solid incentive to earn money.
Con: Dependent on spending habits/discipline.

Target salary

This is basically you saying ‘I want to earn a six-figure salary’ and then crunching the numbers until you get an hourly rate. Say you want to earn $100,000 and you plan to work 200 days per year. This means your target day rate is $500 and your target hourly rate is $62.50 (based on an 8-hour day).

Don’t forget that tax comes out of this and remember to account for the fact that there will be some hours of work where you won’t earn any money (doing admin etc).

Pro: Great if you’re an ambitious, goal-setting kind of person.
Con: May not be realistic.

External

Organisations such as the Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance and the Australian Society of Authors have a rate sheet you can use as a guide, though you need to check if the rates they propose work for you.

Information provided to writers’ resources like Rachel’s List, the Emerging Writers’ Festival and this anonymous Tumblr can also give you an idea of what other people are being paid and you can set your rate accordingly and/or slam your head into your hands and cry for all those starving writers.

Pro: Allows you to set a rate aligned with the market.
Con: Market could be (is) totally screwed and you won’t be able to pay your bills.

And another thing…

Some of the variables you might want to consider are:

  • Experience: Those new to writing (or new to a subject) may feel more comfortable asking for a lower rate to cover possible deficiencies in their knowledge/experience. Conversely, those who are highly experienced may simply be quicker at writing on a particular topic and therefore need a higher rate to compensate.
  • Expense of time: A fraction of your earnings should also cover your ancillary costs (administration, pitching, liaison, invoicing, chasing up invoices etc). Being more efficient at this is obviously good, but you can also add a little to your rate to compensate.
  • Time cost of money: Money that you have now is worth more than money you’ll get later. Remember this if you have a few slow payers on your books (for example. a quarterly magazine that pays 30 days after publication but requires copy 30 days before publication). Assess whether the wait is worth the rate.
  • Easy/painful client or topic: Ah, where would we be without pain pay? If it’s a topic you can cover but you find boring, perhaps push for a little more to make up for the unchallenging work. On the flipside, you might find a client who is a dream to work with, briefs well and pays on time and you may want to reward them.

What do you use to calculate your ideal rate?

PayDay Series

1: Should I write for free? 
2: What should I charge? [You are here]
3: Asking for payment

Category: Work, Write | LEAVE A COMMENT