Let’s Negotiate!

Matt Davis is a writer, a reporter, and a longtime friend. At the beginning of the year, we had a conversation about him writing an essay for this website. I told him I could not pay him because no money would exist with which to pay him. Talks broke down when he said, “I do not write for free,” and I said, “Um, but it’s me?,” and he said, “I do not write for free,” and I hung up.

In September, I tried again.


Will you write a thing for my website please? I have a perfect topic for you and I think it’d be fun and easy and FUN


I would gladly do it but need some payment. What can you pay me?

Let’s negotiate!


We’ve been over this . What are you asking for


What do you think such an article, written by me, would be worth?

This is how negotiation works, Logan. Of course, depending on your courage and how long this all takes, you will probably get another article out of describing our negotiation. But that would be free.

You have probably realised I am an arch negotiator.

So I am asking you to trust me and negotiate.


I take it your silence is your negotiating tactic.

It’s a shame because I’ve been getting excited about writing this article, which weakens my negotiating position slightly. Just tell me a number so I can get on with it please.


This is a tricky situation, Davis. Very tricky indeed. Of course I believe that your work is worth something. I also believe that all of the work I publish on my website is worth something. But I do not pay the writers who give me their work (as I say in my emails to them, it’s a priority, but we aren’t there yet). So deciding to value your work over the work of other writers, whose work I publish each day without payment, makes me uncomfortable.

But even if I were to pay you—how would we come up with a number? Should it be based on how much money I think I’ll make off your post? (I don’t actually know how this works, but … it cannot be much.) How much money I would be willing to personally part with for your post? (Millions, would I had them.) How much I think your time is worth? How much your time is worth according to your salary?

Is it even a question of time? If you write the thing on the back of a cocktail napkin and it’s brilliant, should you be paid the same as if you would if you worked on it for weeks?

I don’t want to offend you with a hypothetical low offer, but I fear I’m going to.

PS What is your opinion of naked pictures as payment


My opinion of naked pictures as payment is very positive and could prematurely end this email exchange were you to dispatch them. Of course, in your readers’ interests, we could prolong the email exchange if you were to mail me the pictures at 123 Happy Street UK. And I could pretend that I had never received them. Also I prefer a few tastefully discarded/pushed aside clothes in my naked pictures as opposed to full nudity unless there is also food involved. You should probably know that.

In broad answer to the questions about the payment issues you asked, my new publication—about which I will not communicate over email or any technology invented before 1900—operates a transparent pay structure. That means that every contributor’s payment, as well as supporting contributions, are listed on page 8: “accounts.” I have a Pulitzer winner writing an article for free, while a few first-time contributors are working for £50.

I trust you may have received your commissioning letter on this subject, by now? If not it should be with you very shortly.

You are right to flag the role of friendship in influencing financial interactions. I will be printing any salary I draw from the publication, too. Because it is not something I am simply starting to finance my trips to Europe. I already live in Europe.

In many ways technology has made everything more complicated but here’s a question for you: Would you pay more for an article by someone with a higher Klout score? Or would you prefer to commission an article from someone who has spent the last five years living in a cave? When it comes to writing about personal finance, I suspect that the cave-dweller’s article would probably have more value in my eyes.

All this conversation is part of my belief that we need to revolutionise the way writing is valued in 21st Century culture, which is one reason for the transparent pay structure at the new magazine I have described. It’s also why I’ve just commissioned an article for £50 by a respected writer on Ariana Huffington’s belief that modern technology and non-payment of writers are necessarily congruent phenomena. Why should one’s readers value one’s product if one can’t even summon up the means to pay for it?

Is it even, really, valuable to us at all?

But yes. Naked pictures would suffice. Let’s say five. Although one needs to be careful. As Barbara Payton said in I Am Not Ashamed, a book charting her progress from $18,000 a night high-class-hooker to $5-a-time cheap trick, “Once you’ve charged $15, you never, ever go back to charging $20.”

So is five naked pictures worth it, to you?

Or should I be over the moon with only one?

If this were a romantic interaction I’d be bound to tell you just one would suffice.

Since it’s a negotiation, I’m trying to ensure, first, that my needs are met. On the other hand perhaps that’s what has always been wrong with my romantic life—that I cave in too easily.


I’m not terribly interested in getting into this argument with you again, but basically: We disagree.  I understand your rule, and I respect your rule, I think, but I am frustrated that our friendship is not trumping your rule. Rules were made to be broken. WHY WON’T YOU BREAK YOUR RULE FOR ME?!

I have not yet received your letter—but I am intrigued by the scant details offered here. Given your characterization of it as a “commissioning letter,” I would like to offer to pay you whatever it is that you are offering to pay me. 1 nude photo = 1 nude photo. 50 GBP = 50 GBP. Undying love and affection = Undying love and affection. Please consider my offer.


This is an interesting proposal. If I agree to your offer, should we coordinate the sending of the payment or will it be based on trust? What if I say I’ll send you mine once you’ve sent me yours, but then renege on the deal? Or vice versa?

Perhaps I think I’m worth more than you are.

But I don’t. It’s just that on balance I like to get paid.

How about this: I would pay you £500GBP for your article, and you would pay me £500GBP for mine. But we would actually write checks and transfer the money, including the cost of the international transfer which is about $25.

Then I could say the last article I wrote for The Billfold paid £500. And you could say the same about my publication.


“No, I can’t pay you for your work, but I can pay $25 in INTERNATIONAL BANK TRANSFER FEES so that my friend Matt Davis can MAKE A POINT.”


Matt Davis lives in London. 


Previously on The Billfold


36 Comments / Post A Comment

questingbeast (#2,409)

‘Cash? Who are you, my uncle?’

lizard (#2,615)

this is unprofessional and weird

Slutface (#53)

@lizard Yes.

highjump (#39)

@lizard Agreed. Getting paid for his writing is obviously a core value of Matt’s, and it is a fair and respectable position to take. Logan’s “but it’s me!” comes off as very unprofessional and self-centered. And printing this conversation is in effect stealing his writing! Which he clearly wants to get paid for!

Logan, I think your expectation that people/colleagues/rules/the world bend to your needs is at the core of your financial problems.

@highjump “This is how negotiation works, Logan. Of course, depending on your courage and how long this all takes, you will probably get another article out of describing our negotiation. But that would be free.”

Verbal contract.

lizard (#2,615)

@highjump imagine him trying to get paid for his profession! he has some nerve.

@lizard So it’s fine for Logan to write about her own finances but the financial affairs of the financial affairs site she writes for, which is dedicated to transparency in discussion financial affairs, is “unprofessional”?

Slutface (#53)

@lizard That’s not what makes it weird. It’s her expectations and then offering naked pictures of herself as payment even if they are friends and it was just a joke.

@lizard “I have a Pulitzer winner writing an article for free” — the nerve, indeed!

@Slutface It’s actually standard practice in the Awl-o-sphere. In some New York media circles nude photos of Choire Sicha have replaced US currency in common circulation.

sockhopbop (#764)

@highjump If I were a betting sock (AND I AM!!!), I would bet Logan checked with Matt and got his OK before printing the convo.

lizard (#2,615)

@Slutface thats what makes it weird to me too, i was just adding on to my point

highjump (#39)

@stuffisthings True, true. Matt did not forbid Logan from printing their conversation, but I took it more as an ackowledgement that such articles are a part of Logan’s writing style and it was likely to happen anyway. Though I recognize that is open for interpretation.

I really rebel against Logan deliberately playing on their friendship. He says the cause of transparent payment for writers is a part of his profession, and he says over and over that he wants to get paid and she says “but it’s me!” Which to me reads as Logan saying she is more important than his values. Not what friends are for in my book.

@highjump Maybe I’m reading a different email transcript from everyone else, or maybe the “two writers deliberately constructing a framing device” aspect is coming through more clearly to me, but I did not pick up this vibe AT ALL. (And I am an ex-freelancer who likes being paid.)

lizard (#2,615)

@stuffisthings or maybe we just have differing opinions. it happens ya know. dont be so smug

Bill Fostex (#573)

Logan pays me in candy. For my last post I got eight Tootsie Rolls, and for the one before that I got a mostly-empty tub of fruit punch Laffy Taffy. I use the empty tub as a change jar, which is a cool conversation piece (with my cat; no one ever visits me).

RosemaryF (#345)

My brother is an executive chef with a recognizable name in some (very small) circles. Do I expect him to make me dinner for free when I ask? Nope. Do I still ask? Sure. And he’ll occasionally make me dinner. But I sure as hell don’t whine “but it’s mmeeeeeeeeeeee” when he doesn’t. Because I’m a grown up who understands that asking for a favor does not give you the right to complain when rejected.

(This obviously struck a nerve.)

highjump (#39)

@RosemaryF This is exactly what I was trying to articulate upthread.

@RosemaryF Agreed. This article can be summed up with one line: “I am frustrated that our friendship is not trumping your rule.”

Yes, we ask favors of friends, but part of friendship is knowing your friends’ limits and respecting their wishes, and not taking undue advantage of that friendship.

I’m sure Logan is a lovely person and a good friend, but complaining – repeatedly – that you deserve special treatment when someone has explained to you why they don’t want to do something just reeks of self-centered entitlement.

sheistolerable (#2,382)

Disappointed that Awl sites don’t pay writers : ( I did not know that.

Mike Dang (#2)

@sheistolerable Each of the sites are their own entities, so you can’t compare us to the others. The Awl does, in fact, pay writers (they didn’t when they first launched). We’re still less than a year old, and our intention is to get to a similar place where writers can be paid, which, like anything successful, takes a bit of time.

@Mike Dang @sheistolerable As the writer quoted for free in the post above, I’d like to weigh in here. Not wishing to sound like a bitch, but The Awl doesn’t exactly pay Conde Nast rates, either! I flew to San Francisco on my own dime and wrote this story for Choire:


He liked it, I think. But I got less than $100 if my memory serves correctly, which didn’t even pay my rental car. Choire and I were supposed to connect later to talk about other things I could do for the site but my attention wandered elsewhere. I must reconnect with him. On the other hand, I’m hardly eargerly incentivized to do so, knowing how limited y’all’s budget seems to be over there at Dang/Sicha Towers.

That said, I’m honored to write for people who are willing to have a public conversation about paying their writers. It’s more than Ariana Huffington can say, for example. And I’m really glad that you and Logan have the courage to discuss fair pay for writers here on the blog. I just hope I don’t get blacklisted for raising the issue!

I do think that you open yourselves to considerable criticism, though, if you don’t pay contributors at some point. I know you’re both being paid. What’s wrong with paying writers a dollar, for example, per contribution, and printing how much each writer was paid for each piece, so that you can at least show how much the posts are worth? What’s wrong with printing yours and Logan’s salaries, and your ad revenue, so that people know how much it costs to keep a website going, these days?

I think TheAwl is in a great position to spearhead an industry-wide conversation about how much freelancers get paid and whether the internet is a sustainable source of income for journalists and bloggers in 2012. I’d be happy to spearhead that conversation further, elsewhere, of course. Somewhere that pays. But you know.

If you pay peanuts, you get monkeys. That’s my motto. Not that monkeys can’t write. Give ’em enough typewriters. I’m all for the democratisation of communication through technology but I’m also concerned that the fact that anybody can blog these days means professional writers find their skills undervalued in the marketplace.

It cost me enormously to get where I am. Both personally and professionally. I’m not saying I’m special. We’re all professional at something. But professionals do expect to be paid.


Mike Dang (#2)

@Matthew Charles Davis@facebook Thank you for the thorough response. Yes, it’s our intention to get to a point to where we can pay every writer, and I do stand by that. We probably won’t be able to pay Conde Nast rates either, but I don’t think anyone coming to this blog would expect that we can pay the rates of the big glossies, either. As mentioned in the previous post, we pay our writers who work on sponsored posts, and the rate we pay appears to be competitive with what The Atlantic pays for online stories, which is a start (and we’d like to increase that rate as we grow as well).

If we were not part of this network, and if we had not already made an agreement with The Awl not to divulge all of our proprietary information, I would be happy to share our financials with you. I will say that I’ve made far, far less (far, far less than half) of what I earned last year at the job I quit to start this website, and that it does not pay my bills and other obligations, and that I have to work another job and have other things going on so that I can stay afloat.

I’m not sure how your conversation with Choire went at the get-go, but we are always completely upfront with writers about whether or not we can pay the moment we get a pitch from them. This gives them the option of taking their pitch elsewhere if they want. Sometimes, writers will say they are not in a position to write for no payment, and (unlike your conversation with Logan above) I simply thank them and tell them I understand and that I hope I can work with them in the future. More often than not, writers will tell us they want to write for us anyway because they enjoy the site, or want the experience, or for whatever individual reasons they have. This is their choice—I have never approached a writer and asked him or her to write a piece for me for free. When I approach someone, it’ll be because I’ll have money to offer.

As writers ourselves, we understand where people are coming from. Before we started this site, we both wrote pieces for The Awl for free, as well. Personally, I did it because I loved the website, and because it gave me the creative freedom to work on something I wanted. It’s not always about the money. In the previous post, Sam and Mallory both mentioned that writing for The Awl helped them land the jobs they have now at other outlets (and they are certainly not monkeys with typewriters!). And Matt, correct me if I’m wrong, but I know that you are friends with Cheryl Strayed, and were possibly going to travel to her coming out party regardless of whether or not you were going to write about it. Perhaps this also gave you the opportunity to do a published interview? My point is that writers should already know about the financial situation before working on a story because we’re always up front about it—there is no trickery going on. In any case, I want this site to be successful, and I understand that the success can only be sustainable if we’re paying people for their work.

lemons! (#384)

Matt Davis is a good writer and makes some good points. I think as an editor you should have some fighting negotiations points in your back pocket, especially since you’re not paying money. He just did you so many favors. Right now you have the Awl network cache and good will to barter for words? That’s not nothing! Our networks of friends & acquaintances are so valuable. It IS however entirely fair for a writer to chose to devote their time to something that pays actual money when they’re trying to make a living. Tough call. Please do negotiations Part 2.

I was really into this until it took the naked pictures weird turn. I think it’s fine for Logan to ask a friend for a favor, but when he said that he insists on payment why not actually really try to negotiate? There are (possibly) several things she could have offered: write this for me for free now and you’ll get dibs on the next paid sponsored post (per Mike’s other post); write for this for me for free now and I’ll make sure it’s cross-posted to the Awl and/or Hairpin so you get more exposure. Etc. There are real things available to negotiate on – whether these would be acceptable for Matt or not is his call – than just pleading and naked pics (maybe those are real currency but maybe that’s not the convo you post here then?).

I also like that Matt pointed out that once you discount something, you never get the original rate back. That’s very true. I advise clients to either do it for free (for something non-cash in exchange if possible) or the full rate. And if they MUST discount then they bill the original rate and note the discount on the invoice – not just bill at the lower rate.

@Mary-Lynn Bragg@twitter Billing w/a discount is very, very good practice. I started doing this when I would I would do cheap web design for acquaintances and I’d get word-of-mouth referrals like “Oh he’ll do a good site for you for $XXX” which was terrible. Also, I’m not a tax accountant, but I believe the tax implications may be different in a way that makes the discount slightly more “expensive” (even if just in time) for the recipient.

@stuffisthings Also, fun fact, many U.S. government agencies are required to pay more quickly if doing so nets them a discount. If you’re working for the government, try offering a 1% discount for prompt payment.

littleoaks (#1,801)

“I am frustrated that our friendship is not trumping your rule.”

This line sheds a LOT of light on Logan’s regularly treating of friends to food or drinks or whatnot despite that she can’t afford it.

dudeascending (#1,921)

Yeah. Kind of a sad exchange to me.

selenana (#673)

I thought the naked pictures part was funny though.

Confused (#2,501)

How did Logan get this job? Seriously.

Nick (#1,548)

It is astonishing to me how many people in this comment section don’t pick up on irony. It’s like reading Baby’s First Day on the Internet.

dudeascending (#1,921)

Yes, irony. The only mode of communication possible or desirable on the Internet.

lindseykai (#1,544)

Professional writers should not write for free. It sets a bad precedent and does a disservice to all writers. And the argument that people should write for “exposure” is bullshit. I built my editorial career by moving up the freelance chain: student newspaper (paid) to alt weeklies (paid) to national publications (paid). If you think your writing is worth something, never give it away for free.

basically the reason writers can’t get paid now is because there is no surplus wealth left over that’s not in some way vacuumed up by either the government or finance sector. yes the internet changed the business models, but new options become possible. but you can’t explore any of that while rising living costs and greater income uncertainty force people to cut almost every expense out of their lives other than bare bones necessities. the exact same thing is true with the music and entertainment industries and with the arts. this is called debt deflation and its what’s ruining our society and these are just symptoms of it.

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