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Why I (usually) will not lower my fees

Speaking at RED awardThis week, I’ve had NINE TEN invitations to speak at schools or conferences, either to staff, parents or teenagers. Most invitations come with the understanding from the host that I do this for a living and that I’m not a charity. This is my work, just as your work is yours. Most organisers are completely fine and respectful when I say what my fee is, even though it may be more than they wish it were! Sometimes, of course, they don’t have the budget to manage the fee. I understand that.

But here’s the thing: although it’s a problem, it can’t be mine. I need to explain this and I want to do it in a blogpost because otherwise I spend all day trying to work out how to explain politely in an email to each one.

A short answer could be: “If you would not ask a salaried person to lose their income for a couple of days, why is it OK to ask me to? Because there is really no difference.” But this is a tad abrupt, so let me explain better.

First, though, some exceptions:

  1. The School Library Association. I will usually try to do reduced-fee events for them! Even then, I increasingly just can’t.
  2. A local public library. Occasionally, and if asked in the right way… For example, Oakham library, a few miles from me, asked me to do an event for them about Reading Well. They asked what my fee would be. I offered to do it free.
  3. Occasionally, as with 2, an organisation gets under my skin, randomly. But it hugely depends what it is and how easy the event will be for me to get to. It would need to be specifically related to my work, not a “random” charity.
  4. Festivals. They have set fees and should offer everyone the same, so, if I accept a festival event I accept the fee offered. But I can only do very, very few of these, and the conditions would have to be right. I turned two down this year, not on the basis of fee but on the basis of what they were asking me to do.

I’m not cold-hearted. I’m not greedy. I give a lot of my time to help people in both their work and private lives.

So, here is my answer.

I appreciate your budgetary constraints. But I am not on a salary and you (usually) are. This means that for much of the working week, I am not being paid. At all. Including while we have the email conversation in which I explain why my fee is what it is. But I am paying for my working overheads while this is going on. For a freelance of any sort, it would simply not be possible to have paid work every day because then there would be no time for the substantial unpaid tasks which must be done. That is one of the main reasons why freelance rates are higher than employed rates – the money does not all end up in the freelancer’s pocket. I’ve blogged about this and how I set fees before.

Let’s look at it in one simple way. My working time is divided into three (unequal) parts.

  1. Writing days – for which I’m paid pitiably badly if I make the mistake of thinking how long a book takes to write and then working out an hourly rate based on my average income from a book. (Average annual writing income for writers: £11k. Often we are paid a very few pence for each sale.) Effectively, we’re not usually paid to write a book but we are paid if copies sell – which may start two years after we were doing the writing. I often write things that don’t end up being published, too, for which I obviously am not paid.
  2. Speaking days – for which I’m usually paid relatively well. My usual fees are fair recompense for the energy and expertise.
  3. Admin, business and preparation days – for which I’m not paid at all. Except see the next point.

The only way to make my career work and allow me to survive financially is to minimise the downside of 3. In other words, when I set a fee, I must try to embed into it the actual amount of time this event will take from my working week. So, if I have a ballpark figure that a day is worth, say, £350*, and if your event is going to take me three days, I have to charge you around £1000, plus expenses. Many events will take that long, because I may be away for two days and need at least another day for prep and admin.

And that’s not even beginning to think about office overheads, all the insurance, electricity, accountancy, stationery, computers etc etc.

(*Andrew Bibby’s reckoner to compare freelance with employed rates shows £346 a day as equivalent to a salary of £32,000. Forgive me if this sounds like a boast but I think my expertise and where I am in my profession put me at a much higher salary than that…)

Let me list reasons why I don’t reduce my fees:

  1. I’m extremely good at what I do. I’ve been doing this a long time; I’ve learnt and improved hugely over the years and I’ve got to the point where I’m 100% confident that you will get brilliant value. Much better value than years ago when I was charging less. Thousands of hours of work have gone into the knowledge that I can now offer. I also spend a lot of time keeping abreast of new knowledge about the brain and cognition, so that I can deliver top-grade information. I consistently get excellent feedback.
  2. I offer something no one else is offering – a wide range of topics of enormous interest to schools and other organisations, topics including the teenage brain and stress, adolescent mental health, cognitive science, the reading brain and digital distraction issues.
  3. Although I charge decent fees, I am not earning these fees every day or even every week. So, don’t think that, if I charge you £1000 for delivering your INSET day, I’m earning £1000 a day! Remember: that day takes three days, usually.
  4. If I reduce my fee for you, I don’t think it’s fair on those organisations who find the fee by doing sensible things such as charging delegates to attend. (I’m talking about conferences/INSET here, rather than normal school events.)
  5. If you’re being paid, other adults in the room are being paid, and you’re not taking a pay cut that day, I don’t see why I should reduce my income. That demeans me and undervalues me.
  6. Supply and demand: I cannot do this work every day or even every week, partly because otherwise I’d never be able to write and partly because it would simply wreck me. (It is not like teaching, which I’ve also done. It’s perhaps like being on stage, solo, for hours; or it may be something like having your first day in a new job, every day.) Therefore, I limit the number of events I do; therefore I charge more.
  7. I am not, at the end of all this, a high earner. As evidence: I’m not VAT-registered. So, when I say I can’t afford to reduce my fees, I’m being honest.
  8. I don’t need, as a few people seem to think, a higher profile… Earlier this year a large private school wanted me to do something for NO FEE, on the basis that it would “help you get your name out there”. This was an insult and meant that the person had failed to read up about me and discover that, actually, I am an international speaker and have far more invitations than I can say yes to. Again, sorry if that sounds like a boast; I’m simply trying to show you how it is and why suggesting that the event will boost my profile is not the way to get me to reduce my fee! (Occasionally, it really would boost my profile, in which case I would know that myself without you telling me. For example, if you invite me to a huge conference in New York, I might well agree to reduce my fee.)

I’m really genuinely sorry if you’d love me to speak but you can’t afford the fee. I’m particularly understanding if you’re a school and you want me to speak to pupils, because I realise the budget for this will be less than if it’s an INSET day or conference or if you can charge parents a small amount to come to an evening event. But if you are a school planning to organise a conference, for example, and you have a low budget because you’ve decided not to charge delegates, I would ask: why not? Why should the other schools all get away with sending their staff at no cost and yet the professional speakers, without whom there would be no event, need to be underpaid? Of course, some professional speakers will say yes, for many reasons. They may be salaried, for a start. Or not feel able to say no. Or need the profile… I am genuinely sorry that I can’t.

You see, I really value my work, my energy and my time. I also value the organisations who make such an effort to afford fair fees and who work really hard to make the event a success. I want to devote a ton of energy to those organisations which fight to find the fee and which make me feel valued. That way, it becomes a virtuous circle, as I feel empowered and trusted to deliver a great event. And that’s what you’re more likely to get.

So, if you ask me to reduce my fee, please be really sensitive about how you make that request. Don’t forget that I need to earn something vaguely like a living wage. Consider that I’ve spent my career building up the knowledge I have and practising my speaking technique. Realise that no one works harder than I do to make sure that you get exactly what you ask for and that my attention to the brief you give me is absolutely second to none.

I’m worth it. Really.

PS Edited to add: a school I spoke at this week has just been in touch to say they are not going to pay the amount on my invoice: they are going to pay more! And no, they hadn’t previously asked me to reduce my fee or anything like that. There is no particular reason given but I am extremely grateful and delighted. Thank you! This is what I mean by saying that most organisers really do have respect for us authors, creatives and speakers. It’s worth remembering. The ones who don’t have respect and understanding are increasingly the exceptions.

 

 

 

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28 Responses

  1. I applaud you. You explained that beautifully. I am just beginning on the long and tortuous road of a published author and I totally understand your stance. It is amazing to me that so many people do not value authors and public speakers in the same way as they would other essential services.

  2. Well said, but I despair that it was necessary to write it at all. There is no other group of people as consistently undervalued, and yet treated as if they ought to be grateful for the insult, like artists (and writers in particular). It baffles me why this should be so. Nobody would flinch at paying a sky-high fee to hear the wisdom of a leading high-tech entrepreneur, for example. I’m certain nobody would ever have the bad taste and sheer selfishness to ask them to work for free, or even a reduced rate, either. All I can say is you’ve given a great framework, here, for all creative people to stand their ground. I suspect that musicians fare even worse, regrettably. Thank you for writing it.

    1. Thanks. I’m sure you’re right about musicians and also visual artists. I guess basically all artists! (I mean including writers, poets, musicians etc etc.)

      I remember a friend who’s a potter telling me that someone once asked another potter “how long does it take to create a bowl like that?” “35 years,” was the answer, a neat way of reminding the questioner that the expertise takes so many years to build up. And that’s partly what you have to pay for.

  3. Nice. I’ve thought about blogging something similar as a professional photographer but I dislike having to explain something as basic as this in detail. You’ve put in so much effort. I hope it helps.

    1. I think it’s important to explain it because if we don’t, people can’t know. I fully admit that I’m ignorant about the working lives and irritations of loads of professions and I’m always interested to know what the issues are for each one. So, DO speak out about the situation for photographers! I can imagine how frustrating it must be when people ask you to do that for little/no fee, too, because they think it’s easy for you, or that somehow you earn a living through the magic salary fairy

  4. This is a wonderful post and as a freelancer I completely understand the idea of knowing your worth, and t’s sad that very few people feel comfortable letting others know (including myself).

  5. Thank you for articulating this. I’m freelance in education . Quite rightly, new clients query my expertise and I send them info about me and my fees. Some go away to find the same service more cheaply but come back and many are positively surprised when they receive one of my reports that what I do (assessment and tuition for Dyslexia) is quite skilled and complex. Having said this I’d rather be freelance than employed in education right now ( I was in Further Education for 30 years and escaped alive).

  6. Thanks for writing this Nicola. After 7 years of part-time, seasonal, low-paid work, I am almost ready (exams!) to embark upon a guiding career. In the short term, I will be trying to balance retaining some part-time work and getting started, but your statement on time resourcing assures me that I am not alone, and your success encourages me. All the very best to you.

  7. This made me leap for joy. Explained perfectly. I am an animal assisted therapy practitioner (and also a writer) known worldwide as a pioneer in my field and you have hit the nail on the head. I am often asked to work for free on the premise “it will get my name out there”. When you then explain, you come across as boastful and its hard to know exactly what to say, so this will help enormously. Thankyou. I have my first high profile speaking engagement at the National Conference for Autism in London – its unpaid, and I guess this is where I undervalued myself, as I am the only person in the UK who could possibly deliver a talk with the content they required. I accepted without thought as it felt like such an honour to be invited to speak. Next time I will be armed with your blog. Thanks again

  8. Thankyou for this absolutely wonderful piece which explains in a very humble way how much we freelancers are worth. I am a violinist and this speaks to me very powerfully. I am constantly being asked to do something for nothing. This is my life, I am good at it and I have spent 38 years working at it (from the age of 5). Thankyou for reminding us that we should not be ashamed about our fees!

  9. Thank you for your courage and clarity! While employed for many years it never occurred to me to consider why freelancer fees were what they were though, I suspect I’d have concluded they were what the market would bear.
    Now, as a freelancer I know how much time goes into preparing for an event. I have been investing in my own professional development for decades, paying tens of thousands of my own money for that training and I synthesise that varied knowledge and experience into my content.
    Each one day workshop I create may take weeks of intensive work to prepare. Sometimes I may deliver that same workshop several times. Often that one workshop will be delivered only once. The “day rate” I charge doesn’t come anywhere near reflecting the “cost” of acquiring the knowledge or the time taken to create an event.
    Let’s walk forward, proudly, together!

  10. I, like you, do not lower my fees as I am engaged in professional work. I am curious about your view of vanity payments. 9 months after I started promoting my work ( more a range of merchandise / a brand really) I had a meeting with a publisher who had been told about my work. We naturally moved to discuss payment. The publishers offer amounted to having my picture stuck on the back of their proposed book. I turned that offer down as it was a crazy given my investment of time, creative ideas and money. The question is, would you agree to such a mug shot payment offer for 9 months work?

    1. Of course not. I’m a professional author, as you know. I can only be paid in money because that’s how the world works. 🙂 I thought you’d already published your book? If that was successful, you could do it again.

  11. This was very enlightening and so true of my experiences, especially when it comes to promoting environmental education/sustainability training and workshops in schools. Some schools assume that because I care so much about the environment, then I am likely to do it for free!! I also find that schools don’t always appreciate all the time that is spent in preparation for organising and running events.

    1. Oh yes. And teachers care so much about their pupils that they would be happy to teach for free…! And yes, preparation is quite unseen and far more time-consuming than people think. If I’m in a festival, for example, I’ll do blog post about it and promote the festival on social media and that takes a lot of time.

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