Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

It’s Not Personal. It’s Strictly Business.

Full kurosawa pryal

Image: Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa

I was Skyping with a fellow freelance academic recently, and we were chatting about some of the challenges we’ve faced making the transition out of academia and into freelancing. We both pointed to a similar challenge: A lot of the work that we were expected to do for free in the academy is work that we charge money for now.

That may not sound like a challenge. Actually, if you are still in the academy, the notion of getting paid extra money for some of the “bonus work” that you do might sound outstanding. Indeed, as my friend and I agreed, freelance academics can sometimes manage to pay the bills when we are able to effectively charge money for our hard work as editors, writing coaches, and the like. (Elizabeth Keenan has written great articles on transitioning to a career outside of academia.)

But getting paid as a freelancer for work that you used to do for free as a faculty member can get tricky.

Here’s an example. When I was in the academy, I often read work for colleagues and helped them with their writing projects. I’m a good editor. In fact, I’m a trained editor who worked at newspapers and PR departments back before graduate school. I have a master’s degree in nonfiction writing in addition to my doctorate. I coached people through writing challenges for work before entering the academy. When I became a faculty member, doing the same editing work for colleagues came naturally to me.

What I began to notice, however, was that those colleagues rarely returned the favor. Perhaps they felt that they didn’t have the writing chops to assist me with my work. Or perhaps they just didn’t view my research and writing as important. I was non-tenure-track, after all, and my research didn’t count toward promotion and retention. (Amy Benson Brown has great advice for how to create critique networks.)

Whatever the reason, I did a lot of uncompensated work as a writing coach when I was in the academy. I considered it service to my departments. Then I left the academy, and one of my income streams became writing coaching — not just for academics, but for novelists, journalists, and more. This time, when academic colleagues came to me for the same kind of writing coaching that I used to give them for free, I asked them to pay me for my time and expertise.

Some of them got mad.

My friend and fellow freelance academic reported the same sort of anger and annoyance from her former colleagues as well.

So what gives? If you’re a freelancer and former academic, a lot of these business challenges arise because the relationships you have — or used to have — are with people still in the academy. Some of them, frankly, do not want to pay you for services you used to provide them for free. How do you manage the emotions of your former colleagues? How do you handle friends (or “friends”) who come to you for help and want that help for free? How can you tell if someone is a friend or a client?

Here are some rules of thumb to keep in mind when embarking on a freelance academic career that will help you transition your relationships as you transition your career out of the academy. First, remember what Michael Corleone said in The Godfather:

It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

A lot of the confusion in business relationships between people who are also friends arises because the participants don’t practice proper business etiquette. Instead, they think that because they are friends they can ignore business etiquette. But actually, the opposite is true. When friends do business together, business etiquette becomes even more important. Here are two very different examples.

  • I have friends who own a magazine. I always pay for my subscription. But they have other friends who expect free subscriptions simply because they know the magazine’s publishers. The thing is, my publisher-friends make a living — feed their children — from this magazine. Why would any so-called friend pass up the chance to pay them for their hard work? Asking for a free subscription is not friendship, it’s mooching. (Moochers are the worst.)
  • I have friends who own a restaurant. I love to eat there. I buy delicious food and wine, and I always tip the waitstaff ridiculously well. I never, ever mention that I’m friends with the owners. That’s not just annoying to everyone who works in the restaurant, that's pretentious, too. Ugh. But the owners have other so-called friends who come in to eat and expect special treatment — free drinks, free desserts, all sorts of things. They wave their “friendship” around like a discount coupon, mooching right and left. (See above for my opinion on moochers.)

To preserve your friendship with someone you also would like to do business with, you must do your utmost to behave in a professional manner. If you are the client, then pay for your friend’s services in full, in a timely fashion. That’s it. Period. You don’t get a discount unless your friend offers one. Don’t even ask. If you ask, you are a moocher. Worse, you risk losing your friend forever.

If you are the freelancer selling your services, you also must behave with proper business etiquette. That means: Don’t get aggravated with your friend/client over personal issues. Keep your personal knowledge of your client out of your business relationship. Sometimes, that can be really hard. Sometimes you want to get annoyed with your client. Sometimes you feel like it would be easier to take things personally. But trust me, once you realize that “it’s strictly business,” a weight lifts from your shoulders.

Michael Corleone was right. (About this at least — not a model character otherwise.)

Here’s an example: I have a client who pays me with a personal check. (Others pay me via credit card or Paypal.) Often, she is late with her payments, but I overlooked that behavior, attributing it to her slightly scatterbrained nature. Then one month, she bounced a check. I had literally never had a client bounce a check before. The bank charged a fee, plus I didn’t have my money. I was super pissed off. But I talked with some other small business owners and got some good advice. "It’s just business, Katie," they said. “Put a returned check policy on your invoices. Charge her a fee, and send the invoice again.”

So I did. And she paid it, not only with no questions asked, but gratefully and apologetically. And I felt an immense relief. I didn’t need to feel strong emotions. I just needed to run my business. The next time she bounced a check (yes, it happened again), I didn’t even notice. I just did the paperwork. Bounced checks, like clients, are part of a freelancer’s life. She’s not a bad person. She’s just a client who makes mistakes — ones that I don't take personally, because they're not personal.

But how do you know who is a client in the first place? What about those friends who think the work you do for them should be free? The rule is simple:

A friend can return a favor. A client’s favor is money.

This rule is hard to follow when you first leave the academy. At first, you don’t know what favors you need. You don’t know anything, let alone what to charge your clients. You hardly know what kind of paper you need for your printer. But as you go along, you start to figure out how to distinguish clients from friends. Friends do things for one another. Clients take things you give them, and give you money in return.

The transactions are different.

But notice — and notice well — that they are both transactions. Friends still make a trade. They just trade favors. My friends and I refer to these favors as “chits.” (A chit, by the dictionary, refers to a voucher that records a sum owed to someone else.)

I’m a writing and career coach, so therefore discerning friend (or acquaintance) from client can be tricky. I get a lot of emails from people asking to “pick my brain” about my career path and my writing. I tend to err on the side of not-client, so I end up with a lot of hours spent doing writing and career coaching for free, for people who have no intention of doing anything for me in return — either because they don’t want to (they don’t understand the system of chits) or because they can’t (they don’t have the connections or know-how to provide anything in return).

I actually believe that most, if not all, people in the situation I just described can indeed provide something in return. The problem is that many people don’t understand chits. For those of you interested in “picking someone's brain,” I strongly encourage you to read a recent article in The New York Times on how to network properly — OK, the article is actually titled, “How Not To Be a Networking Leech.” (Once again, see above for my opinion on moochers.)

It follows, too, that if you are part of the friend transaction, it is up to you to tell your friend what you would like in return as your chit. You can’t expect someone to read your mind and know what you need. Here’s how I recently handled this very situation. I met a new freelancer for the first time just a couple of a weeks ago. Prior to our meeting, we knew each other casually, mostly from social media. She initiated the meeting. Just before our meeting, I scoped out her website and studied her expertise. Now, I already knew why she wanted to talk to me because she'd told me in an email — I knew what she was getting from me. What could she give me in return? At the beginning of our meeting, I told her exactly what I wanted as my chit, something that I knew she would be happy to give to me in return.

Because that’s the thing about chits. When you find yourself able to do a favor for someone else, you feel good about yourself. You feel that you aren’t a mooch, or a leech. You feel like you’re pulling your professional weight, which is a great feeling. By handing my new friend the opportunity to give me something in return in the future, I put us on equal footing. I did it on purpose because I wanted to be friends with this person. I wanted her to know that I respect her professionally.

But not every client is a friend. If you’re still in the academy, and you ask me to edit your promotion and retention materials, I will ask you to pay me for my time and expertise. I will ask you to pay me even if we are friends. We aren’t colleagues any more. I’m a freelancer with whom you are asking to consult because you feel you need extra help. That’s great. Furthermore, you are asking me to do a job that is squarely within the defined parameters of the work I get paid to do. You only have to read my website to know that. Indeed, you probably already know that. You already know that I’m a great editor because you likely have had me edit your stuff before, back when we were colleagues. But things are different now. Now I edit for money. That might seem crazy to you because you still draw a salary from a university. But it’s true. I make a living helping academics and other writers make their writing better. And my time is valuable.

It’s not personal. It’s strictly business.

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