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Negotiations and Love Songs

With a nod to Paul Simon for unknowingly lending his lyric to the title of this section, let’s talk about negotiations and setting—or raising—your fee.

No one likes talking about money—at least not most artists. Start talking about money and artists shuffle their feet and hem and haw and look at the dirt and hope the whole thing just goes away. Sometimes it’s false modesty and an effort not to appear like—forgive the crass analogy—a whore in drag as an artist. Other times it’s just that we haven’t done it much and have no idea where to begin. But we must. If we are going to make a living by fusing our craft with commerce, we must get good at speaking comfortably about money. So first things first: get over it. You can’t live on love. You have rent to pay and groceries to buy, and have you seen the price of lenses, insurance policies, and web hosting? It adds up, and when a client asks you the terrifying question, “How much?” you need to be able to look them in the eye and quote more than most of us think we have a right to without batting an eye. If you believe in your work and want nothing more than to do it sustainably, then you must get good at doing this.

Last week my financial advisor called me up and asked to buy another print. He collects my work; in fact, he is the largest collector of my work. I quoted him a price, and he agreed to pay it and put a check in the mail that day. Then he said, very seriously, “We need to talk about your prices. You aren’t charging enough.” And he gave me this formula—as a client of mine who would have to live with the actions I took based on his wisdom: he said, pick a number that makes you uncomfortable (in fact, what he said was “a number that scares the hell out of you”) and then add 20 percent.

We are terrible at talking about money and that needs to change. Yes, stay humble, approachable, and open to negotiation, but figure out your worth and then charge it. I’ll discuss this at greater length in the coming pages, but here I want to talk about negotiating.

Negotiating is the art of finding ground on which both parties can find a win-win solution. They must get what they want; so must you. Keep the following in mind when negotiating.

First, if this relationship is going to be a productive, long-term relationship you need to keep one eye on the long term. Going into a negotiation with a reluctance to compromise and seek a win-win solution may win the battle for you but lose the war. Keep it friendly and with a focus on getting the client everything she needs.

The more information you have, the more informed your negotiation will be, and the greater your ability to find a path through what may seem like conflicting needs. So listen carefully and ask as many informed questions as possible. Asking questions may also help distinguish between client needs and client wants—not always the same thing. Remember, a client hires you for your expertise, and there may be times when she assumes she needs certain things when you know from experience you can give her something more or something better.

The 80/20 rules says spend 80 percent of your time listening and 20 percent talking. It’s good advice.

Keep an ear open for the non-negotiables and discuss the big issues first. There’s no point negotiating a price if the bigger issues are deal breakers. If the client wants you to provide an elephant and dancing bears but you know it’s not possible or worth the stress, now is a good time to bow out. When you know what a client’s priorities are, you are better able to hold your ground on a quote.

Not every negotiation is about money. If there is no way the client can work within your budget, see if there’s a creative means by which they can still make it worth your while. If they can’t pay you exactly what you want but you’d like to take the gig in Bali, then consider taking a pay cut but ask them to leave you down there for an extra few days on their tab.

When the money question comes up, consider asking for some time to come up with a quote. Time gives you some objectivity. This is why I never provide pricing online or without first making sure we’ve covered every angle. Even if it’s a request that they give me from an hour to 24 hours to look at some details, it provides the time needed to do some research and come up with an intelligently considered budget. Budget is important to clients, but for most of them it’s not the only consideration. Don’t be rushed into a price.

Being accountable to a spouse or a manager also gives you some time, and an appeal to a higher authority is a time-honored negotiation gambit. Take the time to talk about the client’s needs and then let them know that you’ll run the details past your business manager or your spouse and get back to them. This tells the client that you are not the final authority and makes it easier for you when they start pushing the budget.

In the end it has to be a respectful, relational process. There is nothing wrong with saying no. I’ve advocated that you underpromise and overdeliver, but make sure you get it right because the opposite—and the risk in negotiations—is to overpromise and underdeliver.

As for the issue of pricing, the best I can tell you—given the broad markets in which photographers operate—is that it begins first with knowing your cost of doing business, listening to your clients, doing some research, and then learning by trial and error. Our approach needs to be driven by us, not the market; it’s the same with pricing, and it’s equally counterintuitive. Yes, there is a point at which one market will no longer pay your rates. But that does not mean there isn’t a similar market that will. Some photographers could get no more than $200 for a headshot session. Another one in the same area could get $800. They aren’t the same clients. To borrow a fishing analogy, you catch what you’re baiting for. A $200 photographer will attract $200 clients. An $800 photographer will attract $800 clients.

When I was still entertaining I learned a valuable lesson. I was getting busy doing $500 shows early in my career. I doubled my prices and didn’t lose half my clients. More income, less work. Newer clients came on board for whom the $1,000 price tag was more standard. The next year I raised my prices to $1,500, and again didn’t lose half my clients. I was now working about 30 percent less but making more than 100 percent what I was two years earlier. I had more time to work on my craft and pursue other clients, and I was happier and healthier. Don’t overlook the math on this kind of thing.

Pricing is a tricky game for the very reason that we often begin with the question “What will the market bear?” with no sense of the answer. For example, while some people will look at a $200 headshot photographer and think the price is just a little high, others will wonder if they’re going to get decent quality and service, and they might prefer to spend $500. Value is not in how little we spend, but in how much we get.

If you’re like me at all, this kind of thing probably makes you break out in a cold sweat. It’s not easy, I know. There will always—always—be risks in business. Finding appropriate pricing is among them. Talk to your clients, talk to peers in your city and beyond. Survey the landscape. But if you do the math and you can’t do one thousand $100 headshot sessions in a year, then you need to charge more.

There are online tools for determining pricing and license fees for various markets, so I won’t duplicate that here. The numbers change so fast that they’d be out of date too quickly anyway. But I encourage you to think about this issue often, and consider running it by someone else. A spouse might be more objective, so you might want to ask your better half to help you set a fee structure. Have a new conversation every year and discuss how much you will raise your fees. If it doesn’t scare you—and if you don’t lose at least a few of your clients, and get some push-back from others—then you haven’t raised the fees high enough.

Let me finish this section with one more thought. Like so much of what I say, it might sound crazy, but it works for me because I’m honest and have the client’s interests truly at heart in a negotiation. Many times the issue of money has come up. Most times—and remember the market I work with: international development agencies—I’ve bounced the ball back into their court with the simple question, “What’s your budget?” There’s nothing anywhere written that states they have to ask the question first. Furthermore, it’s an honest question. I’m committed to doing what I can to work with clients on this. I know what I need, but I also know there are lots of ways to make everyone happy. In many cases, the client already thinks they can’t afford me, so when I ask them what their budget is it opens a dialogue for them and makes the whole thing much easier. By being the first one to bring it up, you communicate not only concern that you can serve them, but you place the ball in their court. It’s a proactive move. But here’s the kicker: several times I’ve been paid more than I would have had the guts to ask for, and each time it confirms my value. Over time I’ve learned my value in each of the markets I’ve served, and every year I diligently raise my prices to accommodate for the growing value I offer. Asking about budget so bluntly won’t work with every client; they all work differently, and when they issue an RFP (Request for Proposal) the ball’s back in your court. But for many photographers it’s a good start because it addresses the issue of value. If they plan to spend $2,000, this is your chance to let them do that, and to give them the most bang for their buck.

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