Know your worth

Standard

Women especially have a hard time with this. In the last decade, after tons of failures and much coaching by my now-ex-boyfriend, I finally learned how to negotiate my salary in any job I had, whether it was an entry-level position or a fairly high-ranking management job. It wasn’t easy, and I daresay it’s still a work in progress, but I also found that the more often I did it, the more confident I became, which can only help you as you negotiate for what you’re worth.

In the spirit of sisterhood, I’ve also coached more than a few friends informally as they prepared for their own negotiations, and every single one of them got what they wanted. I’d like to think that my encouragement and hard-earned wisdom helped them out, but I’m realistic enough to know that just the mere fact that these women asked for what they wanted (plus a couple of men I coached as well) was sometimes enough to get them their prize. What you don’t ask for, you never get, but the reality is that women rarely get to that point. Whether it’s socialization or fear or what, women typically lowball their asking salary or allow the other person in the negotiation process to dictate the terms. We want to be liked and seem like members of the team, but at the expense of our own needs. Plus, many women are conditioned from birth to avoid confrontation, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but then we also equate negotiations with confrontation, when it’s really not.

I find that writers often have the same problem, whether they’re male or female. Whether seeking out a low-paying job despite a fat portfolio, or taking whatever fee a client offers, we’re so desperate for work that we don’t question whether or not the new assignment is worth our very valuable time. We don’t do a cost-benefit analysis and figure out if it adds value to our portfolio, or if it’s a good use of our expertise.

I made that mistake a few months ago when one of my clients referred me to a company wanting someone to revamp their advertorial copy. I wasn’t new at copywriting and had already done a couple dozen for a number of local businesses. While the particular client in question was in an industry I hadn’t worked in before, it was also one that nearly every person in America has had to deal with at one point or another in time as a customer. In other words, if this person was looking to attract more customers, then I was theoretically the ideal person to write his ad. After all, I’d used that particular service many times before as a customer, and I’ve written persuasive copy before. Win-win, right?

Well, the problem was that the original client who referred Client #2 is one of my very first copywriting clients, so I bill them far less than what I would bill new clients. Also, they throw work my way on a very regular basis, so I didn’t mind charging them less. Unfortunately, they shared with Client #2 what I charged them, so Client #2 wanted to hire me at that low rate.

No problem, right? If I were to follow my own advice, I would have politely notified Client #2 that I charge Client #1 a special rate because they’re longtime customers, but that my usual rate for the services he was asking for was such-and-such, or twice what I charge Client #1.

Well, that’s what I should have done. Instead, I anxiously checked my invoices and thought, Oh, what the hell, it’s just this one client. I could use the money.

Big mistake. Client #2 required two revisions and even then was not discreet about his dislike for my copy. He did pay me immediately, but I left that job with a bad taste in my mouth. First of all, I didn’t feel that he really valued or respected my work, and that he harbored the secret suspicion that he could’ve done it better himself. And secondly, I suspected that he wouldn’t use my copy at all.

Modesty aside, I sincerely doubt that Client #2 could have done it better himself, no matter what he believed. When I visited him in his office the first time, he handed me a draft of what he wanted the advertorial to sound like. Riddled with typos, spelling and grammar mistakes and run-on sentences, it actually came across as being very defensive of his company’s work, e.g., We do a great job, no matter what others may say about it. Seriously. I pointed that out to him several times, but he just didn’t get it.

As I mentioned before, I revised my copy twice, tweaking it each time to include customer testimonials he had provided and to emphasize the customized service that the company provides. He still didn’t like it and kept wanting to include the kind of defensive-sounding copy that I’d tried to excise in the first place. Finally, he gave up and just paid me my low fee and sent me on my way.

I learned later that he never did use any of my copy. He might in the future, but it’s been over a year since that happened and I’ve yet to hear otherwise. It did teach me a critical lesson about customer expectations, though, or at least the management thereof.

Since then I’ve never charged less than what I think the job is worth. My fees have increased since then, even for Client #1, and unless there’s something about an assignment that might convince me to lower my fees (e.g., higher volume of relatively easy work, long deadlines, etc.), I don’t budge in the negotiations. I refuse to treat my creative services like an expendable commodity and instead act and demand to be treated like a professional. People tend to treat writers as they do, say, wedding photographers, i.e., they think that because they can do it, it can’t be that hard, so why pay for it? The problem, of course, is that really good writing — like really good wedding photography — is hard and is a specialized skill that takes years to master. I’m certainly not at the point where I can charge six-figures, but I think I can hold my own against the best of the them, and I won’t take on a client who doesn’t recognize my value.

So before you enter into any relationship with a new client, ask yourself the following:

  • Is this assignment going to add value to my portfolio? In that experience with Client #2, the answer would have been yes had the client used my copy, as it would have demonstrated further to future business clients that I knew my way around an advertorial and could deliver high-quality, persuasive copy. Still, had I dozens of similar work in my portfolio, I might have turned it down, as I wouldn’t have needed any more low-paying gigs to boost my clip file.
  • Is this assignment worth my time? Consider how many revisions the client says he expects. If you offer two revisions, think about how long they’ll take. (Don’t forget to include additional phone calls and meetings in between revisions.) If you’re charging $200 for the project, and it ends up costing you six hours of your time, you’re looking at about $33/hour. That’s not bad for a beginning copywriter, but lousy for an experienced freelancer. Think about the higher-paying jobs you’re missing because you couldn’t pass this one up.
  • Is this assignment going to lead to more work? In the case of Client #2, that was a one-shot deal. In hindsight if I had walked away from it, I would have lost nothing but that single clip of copy. It was obvious that he wasn’t interested in hiring me for future work, and I had the sense that he wasn’t about to make any referrals, either. If the pay isn’t that great but you stand a good chance of getting lots more work in the future — either from the same client or through referrals — it might be worth the discount rate. Otherwise, you might not want to bother.
  • Is this person someone I want to work with? Client #2 was actually a decent guy, and I didn’t mind working with him if we were to just go with personality alone. However, I knew that he didn’t respect my work or the efforts I’d put into the assignment. I had a feeling that that was going to happen the moment I walked in the door for the first time, but I suppressed that intuition for the sake of just doing the job. If I had to do it again, though, I would have declined the assignment. My work and my skills are far too valuable to waste on someone who isn’t going to appreciate them. I can bring a lot to the table and can really help a businessperson transform their communication and marketing plans, but I need to know that I’m being brought in as a partner whose work will be seriously considered, not as a hack whose output isn’t worth the paper on which it’s written.

Piracy is sooo not funny, nor is it a "mild threat"

Standard

I heard this report on NPR this morning, and honestly, no matter how hard I try to empathize with the individuals interviewed, I can’t help but feel frustration and anger at their callousness about intellectual copyright.

The report basically explores the on-the-ground experience behind the huge piracy problems in China. Apparently, despite “official” statements condemning intellectual copyright theft, pirated DVD’s and CD’s continue to be sold at markets and street stalls throughout the country. Even worse, though, is the fact that American TV shows quickly make their way to pirated download sites on the Internet literally within minutes of their original broadcast in the States. One of the persons interviewed in the report is a “volunteer translator” who creates subtitles for these TV shows (including “Lost,” “Survivor,” “Heroes,” and “Battlestar Galactica”) by locating closed-caption transcript for the shows and beefing them up for the local market. He proudly considers himself a kind of cultural exchange coordinator, sharing American culture with his Chinese peers.

Okay, full disclosure here: I’m not exactly an innocent party. I used to rent videos of obviously pirated American films when I was growing up in the Philippines — it’s a wild, thriving industry over there. And yeah, I probably have a few bootleg DVD’s floating around in my collection. Most likely.

Still, I fully recognize the illegality of the practice and am not proud of it. My (admittedly weak) defense is that I legitimately paid for the use of these DVD’s, and I’m simply creating copies of them for my own personal use. It would be disingenuous of me, to say the least, to call myself a cultural ambassador. At best I’m committing a felony and a crime against international law.

As a writer, though, it’s more than just law-breaking on the part of the Chinese that I worry about. The reporter mentions towards the end of her segment that the next part in the series focuses on musicians who have given up on selling their work on the Internet because of rampant piracy and are now using other means to market themselves. I worry about a future in which artists and other creative professionals can no longer make a living out of their work because others feel that art — while necessary for their own enrichment — should be free. Never mind that artists find it difficult to create their best work when faced with juggling the demands of a full-time job unrelated to their craft. These people seem to think that artists have an obligation to create art but they themselves are unwilling to invest their own money in ensuring that it gets made.

Grrrr. I imagine a future where the only art available is crude, rudimentary, shallow, and commercial. The creative class no longer has the incentive to try and evolve as artists and are reduced to considering them as mere hobbies. Sure, there will be artists who will continue to make art for art’s sake, in the tradition of van Gogh, who never really held a full-time job and was able to devote himself to his art. Still, even he had to be supported by someone — in his case, Theo — and even then he suffered from terrible illnesses and mental problems that may or may not have crippled his gifts. Trust me, people, hunger and desperation don’t necessary make for great art.

I’ve read plenty of poor, sloppy writing in various publications who refuse to pay their writers despite big advertising rates and subscription numbers. The belief appears to be, Hey, there are plenty of writers out there who would kill to be published, so why not take advantage of that and make them think it’s a privilege to write for us? And it’s true, there are lots and lots of would-be writers who are so anxious to see their name in print that they’d submit to anyone, anywhere, regardless of the quality of the publication, just to be able to say they’ve been published. In the meantime the number of truly gifted, committed writers who have something genuinely important to say continues to dwindle, as the chance to make a living off of one’s art diminishes.

Imagine: a world without great art. A world where otherwise talented writers must surrender their dream in order to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Sure, they might scribble in the wee hours of the morning or the dark of night, but to what end? Just about every writer longs to be able to devote her life, her energies to creating great literature, but when it’s no longer possible because of the masses’ devaluation of art, what’s the point in continuing?

Piracy is sooo not funny, nor is it a "mild threat"

Standard

I heard this report on NPR this morning, and honestly, no matter how hard I try to empathize with the individuals interviewed, I can’t help but feel frustration and anger at their callousness about intellectual copyright.

The report basically explores the on-the-ground experience behind the huge piracy problems in China. Apparently, despite “official” statements condemning intellectual copyright theft, pirated DVD’s and CD’s continue to be sold at markets and street stalls throughout the country. Even worse, though, is the fact that American TV shows quickly make their way to pirated download sites on the Internet literally within minutes of their original broadcast in the States. One of the persons interviewed in the report is a “volunteer translator” who creates subtitles for these TV shows (including “Lost,” “Survivor,” “Heroes,” and “Battlestar Galactica”) by locating closed-caption transcript for the shows and beefing them up for the local market. He proudly considers himself a kind of cultural exchange coordinator, sharing American culture with his Chinese peers.

Okay, full disclosure here: I’m not exactly an innocent party. I used to rent videos of obviously pirated American films when I was growing up in the Philippines — it’s a wild, thriving industry over there. And yeah, I probably have a few bootleg DVD’s floating around in my collection. Most likely.

Still, I fully recognize the illegality of the practice and am not proud of it. My (admittedly weak) defense is that I legitimately paid for the use of these DVD’s, and I’m simply creating copies of them for my own personal use. It would be disingenuous of me, to say the least, to call myself a cultural ambassador. At best I’m committing a felony and a crime against international law.

As a writer, though, it’s more than just law-breaking on the part of the Chinese that I worry about. The reporter mentions towards the end of her segment that the next part in the series focuses on musicians who have given up on selling their work on the Internet because of rampant piracy and are now using other means to market themselves. I worry about a future in which artists and other creative professionals can no longer make a living out of their work because others feel that art — while necessary for their own enrichment — should be free. Never mind that artists find it difficult to create their best work when faced with juggling the demands of a full-time job unrelated to their craft. These people seem to think that artists have an obligation to create art but they themselves are unwilling to invest their own money in ensuring that it gets made.

Grrrr. I imagine a future where the only art available is crude, rudimentary, shallow, and commercial. The creative class no longer has the incentive to try and evolve as artists and are reduced to considering them as mere hobbies. Sure, there will be artists who will continue to make art for art’s sake, in the tradition of van Gogh, who never really held a full-time job and was able to devote himself to his art. Still, even he had to be supported by someone — in his case, Theo — and even then he suffered from terrible illnesses and mental problems that may or may not have crippled his gifts. Trust me, people, hunger and desperation don’t necessary make for great art.

I’ve read plenty of poor, sloppy writing in various publications who refuse to pay their writers despite big advertising rates and subscription numbers. The belief appears to be, Hey, there are plenty of writers out there who would kill to be published, so why not take advantage of that and make them think it’s a privilege to write for us? And it’s true, there are lots and lots of would-be writers who are so anxious to see their name in print that they’d submit to anyone, anywhere, regardless of the quality of the publication, just to be able to say they’ve been published. In the meantime the number of truly gifted, committed writers who have something genuinely important to say continues to dwindle, as the chance to make a living off of one’s art diminishes.

Imagine: a world without great art. A world where otherwise talented writers must surrender their dream in order to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads. Sure, they might scribble in the wee hours of the morning or the dark of night, but to what end? Just about every writer longs to be able to devote her life, her energies to creating great literature, but when it’s no longer possible because of the masses’ devaluation of art, what’s the point in continuing?

Art and Commerce

Standard

This article articulates well my ambiguous creative ambitions. Part of me understands and can even embrace the sacrifices often required to pursue one’s art, but another, equally compelling part of me is tired of the starving-artist syndrome and wonders why one can’t pursue art and commerce at the same time. When you’re 21 and just entering this brave new world of careers and professions and workplaces and titles and Brooks Brothers suits, it can be so easy to just turn one’s back on all of that and just devote oneself wholly to one’s art, but when you’re in your 30’s or 40’s, that whole scene just gets old. I like having health insurance — in my colitis-addled case, it’s a necessity — and I love to travel. Travel informs my work, it’s one of the most inspiring things about my life. I know people — heck, I’m related to a few — who are content with once-yearly trips to San Francisco or Las Vegas, but my wanderlust demands more. And living on $30k a year kinda precludes all of that.

Still, like I said, I understand the allure. More power to these artists who can find happiness in a glimpse of blue sky between brownstone buildings. I envy their embrace of the simple, frugal life. Maybe one day I can be one of them. For now, though, I really like my daily cafe au lait and my yearly trips to Anywhere But Here In the US.

Tax Time

Standard

Finished my taxes this weekend! I’d always dreaded it when I was younger (in fact, I had my mom do it every year, even when I only had to fill out an EZ), but since I got married I’ve been on the bloody ball. It helps when I know that I’ll probably have a refund, and quite frankly, I was tired of the frantic calculations as I counted down the minutes to midnight, April 15th, every year. This way is so much better.

Since my freelance income has increased each year the last few years, I’ve had to really be more careful with my tax forms, organizing my paperwork, keeping track of receipts, etc. Last year was a minor disaster, as I kept almost no receipts from any of my expenses and of course forgot to track my mileage. HOWEVER. This year, I’ve already put together an OpenOffice Calc spreadsheet with invoices and queries, and I’ve also put a notebook and pencil in the car dedicated solely for mileage notes. So far, I’ve been doing pretty well. I expect to make at least five times what I made last year (which wasn’t much anyway), so I’ll definitely need the deductions. Also, with my going into freelancing full-time, there’s really no excuse for me to be dickering around anymore with the business end of the, well, business.

If you haven’t done your taxes yet, you should definitely consider getting Turbo Tax if you don’t already. I got the Home & Business package, which is a little pricey at $75, but if you’re like me and don’t have the luxury of spending hours and hours wading through lots of paperwork and Schedule this and that, you’ll find the $75 to be money well spent. Since I started using it three years ago, I’ve averaged about 1 hour doing my taxes, not including gathering the paperwork (which is really just pulling out the folder marked 200x Taxes from the filing cabinet). I also pay the $30 extra for the State package. Considering that my average refund the last couple of years has been about $3,000, I’d say that $100 is a pretty good bargain to get it all done in an hour, with the refund in my bank within 2 weeks.

If you’re just starting to organize for the 2008 tax year, here’s some handy tips I’ve found to be of great help:

  1. Make a manila folder titled 2008 Taxes. Put a big mailing envelope in it, and whenever you generate a receipt for a purchase related to your business, stick it in there. Take 2 seconds to write down the purpose of the receipt so that you don’t have to rack your brain a year later trying to remember what that $12.95 charge was for at K-Mart. Putting it in a mailing envelope helps to keep receipts from falling out of a loose folder.
  2. Clean out your wallet/purse/pocket at the end of every day and remove all receipts, both personal and business-related. File the business-related ones in the above envelope. Once you have your system in place, it’ll take no more than a few minutes at the end of each day to organize everything.
  3. Whenever you get any kind of correspondence related to your taxes (quarterly statements, W-2’s, 1099’s, etc.), stick it in the folder. When you get ready to do your taxes, you’ll have everything in one place.
  4. Keep a small notebook and pencil in the car to track your mileage.
  5. Keep a spreadsheet in your laptop/PC listing all your invoices, listed in chronological or invoice # order. That’ll help you keep track of which invoices you still need to send out. Mine is combined with my assignment spreadsheet so that I know exactly what’s still pending and how much I’m due. If you don’t have Microsoft Office, check out OpenOffice.org’s full suite of office applications, including a spreadsheet app that I swear is more stable and as easy to use (if not easier) than MS Excel. Plus, best of all, it’s FREE.

That’s it! It should be super easy to do your taxes next year, now that you have a basic system to capture all of those financial bits and pieces required by the IRS. Obviously, as your needs change, your income grows, and your business expands, you’ll want to revisit your accounting needs and may need to consider hiring a professional to do your taxes. If you’re like me, however, and have pretty straightforward income from freelancing with the usual deductions, Turbo Tax’s Home & Business package should work well for you.