How To Ask To Be Paid: Part 3 In The "Is Working For _______ Ever Worth It" Series

I didn't intend for this to be a trilogy. My initial plan was to talk about the pros and cons of accepting unpaid work, then move on to something else. But then you guys started having a lot of [sometimes heated] discussions about it - not just with me, but amongst yourselves too. In the midst of that conversation, a colleague asked me to address the working for exposure problem, which is often part of working for free. So I wrote about that, and again, many of you responded. 

Then I had a discussion that opened my eyes in a big way. 

See, this blog is largely aimed at creative people who are just getting started because I presumed established artists knew this stuff already and have mastered the business part of their work (or have hired someone to master it for them). But last week I spoke to a very successful and accomplished artist who asked me point blank how to ask to be paid for a project, and I realized that even professionals can find the monetization topic hard to discuss. 

So let's talk about how to ask to be paid for your work. And since I'm a lawyer and I like to break things down to their constituent parts, I'm going to do the same here. Asking for pay can be divided into two main components: the logistical and the philosophical. 

Logistical

This is the easiest piece. How do you ask to be paid for your work? By asking to be paid for your work! You can phrase it however you like, but something along the lines of "I'd like to be paid for my work now, please" will get the message across just fine. Here are some other logistics you should be cognizant of:

  1. When you ask, do it early in the negotiation process. In fact, it should be the second thing you talk about (the first, of course, being the what the project is).  
  2. You should rarely, if ever, begin working without resolving the money question. 
  3. When you do resolve it, you should ABSOLUTELY POSITIVELY WITHOUT FAIL GET IT IN WRITING
  4. Give them a quote you're comfortable with and be willing to negotiate on your rate. Know what your drop-dead minimum cost of doing business is and be willing to walk away if their response dips below that.

As we lawyers like to say, bill early and often. And let's be honest, if you're dealing with a legitimate client, they're expecting to have this talk with you anyway, so just be direct, clear, and up front about it. Any client who bristles at this discussion is probably one you don't want to be working with anyway, right?

Philosophical

This is the tricky part because it doesn't deal with the phrasing or timing of your request. Those things can be taught. This is about internalizing the necessity of making the request in the first place. And that all starts with the way you value yourself and your work, and probably has a lot to do with your personality. Based on my experience as an artist and working with artists, this is a common problem.

Here's a true confession: I hate asking to be paid. If my livelihood didn't depend on it I would offer my services for free just to avoid the conversation. But my livelihood does depend on it. For me it's actually a life or death issue and it probably is for many of you as well.  My personality is that of a people pleaser [regardless of what my wife or friends may tell you], so I don't want to ruffle feathers. What it means for me is that I'm constantly forcing myself to confront the discomfort of making that request. And whenever the topic comes up with prospective clients, my blood pressure increases exponentially and my internal monologue revs up, sounding something like this:

"You're losing them. They won't want to hire you now. Your rates are too expensive. They probably can't afford you anyway. You had to bring up money, didn't you?"

So how do I overcome this? I have to:

  1. Acknowledge that my time and work are valuable and worthy of being financially rewarded;
  2. Remind myself that the discussion is a crucial one, not just for me but for my clients as well;
  3. Understand that this is part of a discussion with another human being who is dealing with their own shit. By the time a prospective client approaches me, they are often in the midst of a crisis. So being up front and direct isn't just good for me, but it's actually doing them a favor;
  4. Accept that I am just going to be uncomfortable with this aspect of the job and forgive myself for that;
  5. Recognize that dealing with the discomfort will probably be a long process.

Artists are doers. They like to focus on the work, sometimes at the exclusion of other important issues. I get that; it's nothing to be ashamed about.  But it is something many of us have to work on, even if we're professionals who've been doing this work for years.

Getting paid for your work is a right. I don't think anyone actually believes otherwise, even the people who try to lure you in with promises of exposure and experience in lieu of money. But the quicker you learn to be up front about your financial needs, the more likely you'll be able to sustain art as your primary business for years and decades to come.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA