Keep Your Cool

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I’m not a writer. I’m not a photographer.

I’m a businessman. I’m an accountant. I’m a mediator. I’m a politician.

If you plan on taking photos or writing for a living, then you’ll need to become all these things too. Even if you don’t want to (trust me when I say I’d rather be anything than a politician). There are times in my career when I feel slighted, short changed, or flat out kicked in the teeth. But I know I have to keep my cool. I can’t let emotions get the best of me. Being a creative professional still means being a professional. Walking, talking and acting like a professional too.

I’ll let you in on a little secret; if you’re a creative type, the world has no real idea how to value your work. None. Someone once offered me $15 for a print they could hang on their living room wall. The same week, an advertising agency paid $5,500 to use one of my images in a commercial campaign. It makes it tough to know where we stand with a camera in hand, ya know?

Complicating matters further is the fact that some good photographers charge too little for their services and some bad photographers charge too much. Worse still, some photographers who think they are good have no idea that they’re really quite bad, messing up the market for all of us (all of us including everyone who owns a digital camera, which is the one and only prerequisite for being a professional photographer these days, of course).

Today’s lesson is simple: don’t take it personally when someone undervalues your work, because they probably don’t know they’re doing it. If cases where they do know and they’re trying to take advantage of you, stay doubly cool – the last thing you want to do in this game is burn your bridges. The creative world is too small for you to do that.

Study this case.

Summer 2011. I pitched a story to an upmarket travel magazine. The editor got back to me and told me that he liked the pitch and wanted to commission the full story. I was, of course, thrilled. I spent the next week working on the story, editing photos to run with the story, and packaging this stuff together with all manner of service info. I handed the package in, went through revisions with the editor, and sat back to relax.

A few weeks later the editor sent me a PDF of the article. In turn, I asked how much I should put on my invoice.

Editor: Flash, we didn’t discuss a fee when we first started talking about this.

Flash: Right. That’s why we’re talking about it now.

Editor: Since we didn’t discuss compensation, I assumed you understood you would be doing this story for free.

Flash: Well, I don’t make it a habit to work for free, of course. You could have easily assumed that I would expect to be compensated for my work. If I were in the business of working for free I wouldn’t be in much of a business.

Editor: I’m sorry, Flash. We’ve already gone to print and we’ve closed the outstanding accounts for the month.

Of course, this last little bit was total BS. I knew that. My editor knew that. But as far as I was concerned, I had two courses of action here:

Option 1. Lose my cool. Get upset. Call this editor greedy and unfair. Beret him. Rip into him. Demand to be compensated for my work.

My work hadn’t just been undervalued in this case; it had been wholly devalued. It really hurt to know that I wasn’t going to be paid for writing this story or shooting these images when the magazine was going to turn around and charge advertisers $500 or more to run ads right there next to them. My work was worthless, yet it was good enough to bring in a few grand in advertising revenue. Ouch.

I knew I was never going to see a penny for this story. I had made a huge tactical error in not negotiating a price before doing the work; this was a big magazine and I assumed I would be paid their standard contributor rate for my first submission. I was wrong. I would never make this mistake again. Getting mad after the fact would only serve to ruin any chance I had of working with this editor and this magazine in the future.

Option 2. Keep my cool. Remain professional.

I went with Option 2. I thanked the editor for the opportunity to work with him and the magazine and expressed my desire to do so again – under different circumstances, where things would be laid out clearly for both parties before pen went to paper.

Some people might say that I could have done more; I could have taken legal action, pressured the magazine and the publisher, wrote a nasty letter to the press, and so on and so forth. But what you have to remember is that the publishing world is very, very small. This editor had already worked at two of the biggest magazines in the Western media market. He knew a lot of people. He could do much more damage to my career than I could do to his. If he labeled me a difficult writer, someone not worth the trouble of working with, I’d have little chance of working with anyone he knew in the future.

Yeah, it was a tough choice. A tough pill to swallow. But I did it.

A few months later I saw an email from that same editor in my inbox. He was requesting a story + photos from me. He apologized for what had happened earlier and offered to pay me my standard rate +15%, just to show that he appreciated my hard work.

I accepted, with one caveat: the magazine had to agree to buy two stories, and pay me when I turned in the first. The editor said that would be tough to do, that they could only commission one for the time being. I stuck to my guns; two stories or no stories. I wanted to know that they were serious about working with me. I wanted them to show a little faith. Otherwise I could walk away and start work on something else.

A few days later the editor came back to me and said that the magazine would buy both stories. One $5,100 invoice later I felt like I had recouped a little of what I had lost on the first piece. I also salvaged a business relationship and got to see two new stories in print. I kept my cool. It was difficult to do, but I did it.

I learned a hard lesson about this business: there’s no room for hurt feelings or for pride. To succeed you need a short memory, thick skin and the ability to conduct yourself professionally when it would be oh, so much easier to scream at the top of your lungs.

In short: practice politics.

I could write about times when I didn’t keep my cool. I could write about times I did, and I still ended up taking a shot on the chin. The point is that being a creative professional is tough. People are going to attribute value to your work in their own way. You’re not always going to agree, though you should always remember that the best way to get ahead, to progress your career and to remain working once you’ve started is to act like the consummate professional.

Work hard on one project. Work harder on the next. Don’t give anyone on a reason to undervalue your work and you’ll sleep better at night, even when things spiral out of your control.

- flash