I’m a firm believer in saying yes and generally being positive about things; have done for years. For example, if a client has a technically gnarly project, saying “Oh, that looks super hard” and then explaining how much work it is going to be or, worse, even hinting that you might fail, is not a good idea for your business. Instead, saying “Oh, that looks super hard…I love a challenge! I’m sure my team and I will find a solution!” will engender confidence in your client. Later, when you hand them a big estimate, they’ll remember you as the creative who said they could do it, increasing your chances of winning the project even with big numbers. So saying yes is a great thing for your business… except when it isn’t.
How often have you heard a (potential) client send you a contract and say “Everyone agrees to this” or “Oh, sure, the doc says you are assigning us your copyrights and that you can’t use the work, but we’ll let you use it” or “It’s industry standard to have a 90-day payment period,” or “You have to indemnify us against any claim that arises when you’re shooting for us, not just those related to your work or employees–no one ever makes an issue of that” etc. ? A bunch, I’ll bet and I bet you’ve often accepted those terms, trusting your client. Then, later…well, as Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls says,“Daddy, I got cider in my ear!”
The sad truth is that, whenever someone in a financial transaction with you says one thing but the paperwork says another, they have an ulterior motive and it ain’t good for you. Hearing anything like “oh, don’t worry…” or “You’re the only person who has ever asked…” is your signal that you absolutely must go with what the papers say. Always. Your clients, no matter how nice, are not on your side. They can’t be—they are negotiating for their best deal, not yours. You can like them, but don’t ever trust their word over what is on the page.
The terms they are insisting on are good…good for them, that is, and so they do use them. If they didn’t, the terms would not be there. Always. So, if they are saying “oh, we never do this thing the contract says we can do” and they won’t take it out, then you know they want to do exactly what they claim they never do, and will do exactly that if they can.
Relatedly, if your client/buyer tells you “my way or the highway,” waste no time in politely taking the second option. As the current writers’ and actors’ strikes confirm, bullying and fear-mongering is pervasive in the creative industries. All of them. Threats about not getting work are just manipulative bullshit. You didn’t have the gig but then lose it by saying “no”; nope, they just wanted to scare you into accepting a bad deal. Walk away. Use the time to get a better client.
Don’t bother trying to fix them or teach them the errors of their ways. You can’t control what your clients/buyers do and you’ll drive yourself mad if you try. But, you can control what you do.
The first thing is to know where your boundaries are. You can negotiate lots of things, but you should always know what lines you will not cross and respect those limits. No one will respect them if you don’t. You can and I think MUST set your own limits; and you should do it before any negotiations so that you know what they are. Write them out like a list if that helps: will never sell copyrights; will only indemnify for my own actions; will not lower my price without getting something (besides just getting the gig) in return; etc.
Once you have your limits defined, then you can respond rationally to whatever demands are made. So, for example, if a client insists on owning your copyrights created for the project, you can say “No” if your line is ownership, or, if you’re willing to sell at the right price, say “Not at this price—if you want full ownership, that will cost $X.” Don’t explain, don’t rationalize, and don’t be suckered in by them. Stick to your own boundaries. For example, “I hear you, but I won’t sell my copyrights for this price–you need to either pay more or get a license instead.” If they ask “Why?” you can simply say that this is how you run your business. Period.
You can use your boundary list for contract negotiations of all kinds: time to pay, deposits, usage license terms, indemnification clauses, you name it. When you do that, you are taking good care of your business: You set your limits. You have control.
Saying “no” to bad terms and bad deals does not make you a jerk, it makes you a smart businessperson. And, although standing up for your rights and doing what is best for you and your business is not always easy, it is vital. The other side is surely going to stand up for theirs.