Negotiating with Agencies for Better Rates
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By Marie Brotnov
Most of us depend on agencies for a good chunk of our income, and if you’ve worked in the industry for more than ten seconds you also know that getting a decent rate for your work can be tricky. Here are some ways to tip the balance in your favor:
Look for signs that the job is time-sensitive
• Rush jobs. This is often spelled out in bold capital letters in the subject line of the email, so that’s a big fat clue right there. Always ask for a higher rate on principle, because chances are the end-client is charged a rush rate as well.
• Weekends, evening, holidays. Another no-brainer. The client and project managers don’t usually work after office hours, either, and if they do they get overtime. Let them know that your time is valuable.
• The initial linguist got sick/had an emergency/is incommunicado. Here’s a chance to be a lifesaver and make a friend at the agency. At the same time, you most likely have a full workload already, so it never hurts to ask for a higher rate to squeeze it into your busy schedule.
• Pay attention to time zones. If the deadline is fast approaching but it’s late in the afternoon or evening in the agency’s time zone, the availability of linguists in their area will be more limited, which means you are in a stronger position to ask for more.
The more difficult the job, the more you can ask for. Look for things like:
• Complicated formatting. Basic formatting such as bolding, italics, simple tables, etc. should be part of the job, but if the layout of a document will take a lot of additional time to recreate you should be compensated (on an hourly basis) for that time.
• Documents with lots of numbers that have to be retyped (such as laboratory values in medical reports). You can write several sentences in the time it takes to type a few numbers, so that should be reflected in the rate. If they will not give you a higher rate, ask if you can copy & paste the numbers.
• Handwriting. I have permanent wrinkles from squinting at too many indecipherable scribbles over the years, so unless an agency agrees to pay me more I pass on these jobs. A few sentences or sections here and there don’t bother me, but if the entire document is handwritten it needs to be worth it in terms of a more attractive rate.
• Technical difficulty. I charge more for a pathology report than a general document, for example. One lovely agency even voluntarily increased my rate simply because it was an extremely specialized, technical text. Most agencies won’t offer, though, so you have to ask.
• In general, look at the entire document and read all the instructions carefully before committing to the job. Some of my most horrific projects were the result of me being in a hurry and accepting an assignment virtually sight unseen because I thought I knew what the job involved. Like the time I contracted for 500 words of text, when the assignment actually included copying & pasting another one hundred pages of charts into the translation. I should have been paid for the time spent on that, but it’s hard to negotiate after the fact.
Be bold, but don’t be ridiculous
It’s amazing what you can get if you have good reasons for asking, but if an agency usually pays $0.10/word and they are in a tight spot, they might be willing to pay $0.12 or even $0.14 perhaps, but they are never going to give you $0.20. The only exception is if you really don’t want the job for some reason and you’re just trying to scare them away -- although I’ve been stunned on occasion when my “please go away” offer was actually accepted because they really couldn’t find anyone else and didn’t want to lose the client. Which leads me to my last point:
The less you need the work, the more you can ask for
The fact is, you will not always get that higher rate (my success rate is about 60%); the rest of the time you either accept the job at the regular rate or they give the job to someone else. The strongest bargaining position is the willingness to walk away, but unless you’re independently wealthy it will take a while to get to that point. When I started out years ago with no experience to speak of, I took any job I could get my hands on, working through the night sometimes on the most hideous-quality pdfs for rates I wouldn’t consider in a million years today. If I had been better informed about rates I might have held out for more even then, but the point is that I worked hard, built my resume, and now I can pick and choose my projects -- although this is an uncertain business and I never take my clients for granted. But don’t take your own skills and time for granted, either. The worst they can do is say no, so ask for what you’re worth.