In light of a recent fetlife writing about how presenters need to raise the bar of professionalism, I decided to finally flesh out this writing. It is based on a private email I wrote to a friend who asked me for some advice on how to not go broke as he presented to more events.
This is entirely my own personal experience, opinion, and should not be used in any form as a “True Way.”
I have been presenting on kink now for about eleven years, perhaps a bit more. Like many presenters I quickly ran into the issue of being asked to present, saying yes, and having it drain my bank account (not to mention put strain on relationships, family, and my own stamina). For the latter parts, I really can’t offer advice. Well, except for the stamina part:
As for finances: I have almost figured out how to not lose money when I present. Or, at least, to lose a minimal amount, and occasionally come back with more money than I spent.
The Simple Script
I used to be very nervous about negotiation – I hate haggling. In conversations with many other presenters who I wanted to emulate, though, I found that it’s really not so hard a conversation after all. For me, it goes something like this:
Event: Hey, Gray, can you come present your Water Bondage & Cigar Play class?
You: Sure! What is your compensation package? (note: you just assume they have one. That tells them that if they don’t, they should).
Event: Um…what did you have in mind? (this is them remembering that “whoever talks money first, loses” from Sales 101. Which isn’t always true, but it’s familiar territory.)
You: Oh, nothing unusual (again, declaring victory before the engagement). Travel and accommodation, a per diem for meals (especially if this is at an expensive hotel). My teaching fee is $150 per class with a two-class minimum, but that adjusts if you want me to teach more.
Event: Oh…um…I don’t think we can do that. (note: You’ll be surprised how many times they say “OK, sounds great!” instead. It falls in the category of “if you don’t ask for what you want, you won’t get it”). Do you have any wiggle room?
You: Hmm…well, I know you’re just starting out as an event, and I want to support you as much as I can…so how about I cut my honorarium in half and pay my own meals? (note: You should also be prepared to say “Nope, sorry.” More on that later.)
Event: Ah…that is probably doable. I’m just not sure that we’re paying any presenters.
You: Really? Huh. Who’s presenting?
Event: Well, there’s Name and Name and Name. (Note: Often they are respecting the Name’s privacy when they say this, because most Names do actually get some form of compensation. Event producers don’t like talking about it, sometimes out of the fear that every presenter will stop “paying their dues”. More on this later, too.)
You: Ah, yeah, I wish I had Name’s travel budget. Oh, well, I really wish I could come – I was also hoping to (mention a special event, or other service you can provide. For me, it’s often “produce an evening showcase” or “facilitate an open space.” Depending on your skills, it could be “work a shift or two on medical” or “organize the abduction crew” or “be an event photographer”)
Event: Oh! You could do that? Hmmm…OK, we can make that work! (or) Let me take that in to the next board/planning meeting and see what they say.
You: Awesome! Let me email you the presenter contract and as soon as it’s signed and I get the deposit I’ll ice the date.
Event: Contract? What…
You: You know, the basic liability that gets you off the hook if I kill someone in my class, lays out exactly what’s going on in case the event gets blown away in a hurricane, refunds your money if I get sick, that kind of stuff. It’s just to make sure everyone’s on the same page – you know, communication.
Worth the Paper It’s Printed On
We live in a litigious society. I am not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV. The contract I use with events could likely be torn up nine ways from sunday by any fairly competent prosecutor if an event decided they wanted to prosecute me.
That’s ok – they can do that anyway. The paper is less of a protection and more a means of communication, making sure everyone understands what is expected and what is delivered. It prevents misremembered phone conversations and lost emails.
It’s not confrontational or demanding, it’s just making sure that things are clear. I can tell you from experience that the only thing worse than not getting what you expected from an event is not getting it when a friend is running the event. Even when it’s an honest misunderstanding, having it written down is essential.
Plus, the liability stuff doesn’t hurt either.
Two lessons I learned: one, don’t “ice the date” (reserve it) until you are sure you are going to the event. More than once I’ve said no to an event because another one thought they might want me…and then ended up missing out on both. By asking for a deposit before you reserve the date, you are providing security on both sides that you’re in this for a deal.
Two is something I learned from a world-class fetish model: book your own travel. If you don’t, the event or organization tends to feel they “own” your time from the minute you take off to the minute you land. It’s not always the case, but it often is, and if (like most freelancers) you’re always hustling for work, they might feel cheated somehow if you do more than just their event.
That is a subject for an entirely different post. The fact remains that I’ve found it preferable to ask for travel stipend (or, if you can afford it, reimbursement) rather than having them book the flights for me. This means I control where and how I travel, not them, and it gives me the ability to find additional work by making my flights flexible. Some event producers are reading this and saying But, Gray, you had us book your travel! Like everything else in this article, it’s something that changes on a case-by-case basis.
Another thing to make sure is in the contract is the right to sell your wares. My DVDs and books make me about a 100-150% profit margin based on cost. Usually that’s still only “going out to dinner” money, but it helps keeps events from being a loss for me. More on that later.
So: you send the contract and, like most contracts, it may have to go through a few back-and-forths before everything is set. Decide if you want to ask for any money in advance (I usually ask for travel money in advance and 1/2 the presenter fee). Be careful using PayPal, because they can arbitrarily suspend your account and seize your funds for “moral” causes. Also, be careful if you are presenting internationally – countries are funny about letting foreigners steal kink jobs from their native populace.
Revenue Neutral Isn’t
There is a phrase (apparently coined by Dov) used in conversations about presenter compensation: “revenue-neutral.” There was an event recently that I really wanted to attend that offered me a generous (in comparison to previous years) compensation package based on their calculation of travel, food, etc. so that I would not have anything out-of-pocket.
I had to say no. The reason? I am a freelancer. I don’t get paid for showing up – I get paid for what I do. While I consider myself moderately successful, I’m not yet to the point where I can give myself a paid vacation.
This means that the Thursday-Monday period that covers the usual events is a time when I am not earning. Therefore, while it is true I’m not paying “out of pocket” for the event, I am actually losing income.
There is more to this idea of “out of pocket”, but as I want this writing to focus on pragmatics we’ll leave the philosophy to another writing and get to the reality
What About Paying Yer Dues?
Yes, for most new presenters there’s a “dues-paying” period when you’re doing it for free. And yes, I do mean free – even if they are comping you into the event. Free admission to a place where you’re expected to work! That’s awesome! I actually can’t recall a time when I’ve had a job where the employer said “One of the benefits is that I won’t charge you to come in the door!”
The argument, of course, is that you get access to the rest of the event and activities in exchange for your work. That is definitely valid assuming you were going to that event anyway. I have done this model for most of my presenting career to date, and it’s what enabled me to increase my skillset, see many examples of various teaching techniques, get to know the community, and become a visible member of the community.
There’s a strange uncertain period between “amateur/pro” when you’re convinced you have to quit because you just can’t afford it to do it the way you have – but on the other hand, you don’t feel good enough to ask for money. “I’m not as good as they are, you say to yourself, looking at the people who (you think) are “professionals.”
You may be right. The way to find out is to start charging what you need. If you’re a good presenter, you will get invited to more and more events. On the other hand, you might not; I know of some people who have made the leap to “professional presenter” and discover they have overestimated their own popularity and demand. In fact, the jury is still out as to whether I’m one of them.
Either way, you’ve learned something. The thing is that there is a point in your life as a presenter when you either burn out or you ask for what you need. And if you’re going to go with the latter, there’s something else you need to do:
Learn the Word
The word is: No.
That’s the first and most important thing, and it’s hard for presenters. Say no. Say no to events, say no to private groups, say no to even just going out to dinner after an event.
Let’s be clear: this is my strategy for almost not going broke. There are many presenters who don’t need to do this kind of thing because they are well-off financially and can afford to subsidize this as a hobby. They see it as “giving back” to the community, and I respect them for it.
However, I’m not wealthy in a monetary sense. When people say “let’s go to dinner” that may be a drop in the bucket for them but for me it could be my entire food budget.
It doesn’t mean you have to be anti-social – you can just say “Not in the budget. How about coffee?” or, if you are embarrassed about the budget, say “I’ve already got plans” at Taco Bell “…how about we meet later for dessert?”
You can also say “Sure, if it’s your treat!” Money is a form of energy and appreciation, as Lee Harrington has written. It’s totally ok to give someone the opportunity to express their appreciation of you in the form of paying for meals, travel, housing, equipment, whatever, if you’re comfortable with it. It’s just another expression of appreciation. Think of it as a hug – and like a hug, you are entitled to say “No, thanks” if they creep you out somehow.
Or if you’re just too tired.
Back to That “No”
If you want to almost not go broke, then you have to start setting boundaries. For example, in my case one of the boundaries is the cost of travel. I am a professional presenter, and I do not pay my clients for the privilege of walking in their door.
I’ve heard the argument “My employer doesn’t pay me to drive to work.” True enough – but you work wherever you do because you can afford to get there. If they need you to work in a different city, you expect your employer to pay for your travel expenses.
So do I present for free in Madison, WI, the Rope Bondage Capital of the World? You bet, because I can walk to the venue. But if it’s more than an hour’s drive away, I will need gas money or bus fare.
It’s a fair exchange of value. If an event wants you to present, it’s because you and your classes are a draw for the kind of people they hope will pay to attend. You are adding value by showing up and offering your knowledge, your experience, and your ability to convey them to the attendees. Basically, you are making them money (either individually or organizationally). The amount of value-added is certainly variable, but I’m positive it’s greater than zero.
If it turns out not to be, odds are you won’t be invited back. Ain’t the free market system grand?
What do you do if they say “No, we can’t afford that“?
You say thanks and you say no.
Here’s the hard truth: you’re not a special snowflake, essential to the existence of the event. There are always other presenters who will say yes. If they’re worse than you, it will show, and if they’re better than you, they deserved all those perks anyway. If they are saying yes to all the events and spending their own cash…well, it’s likely they’ll burn out just like so many do.
The thing to remember is: the event is not a special snowflake, either. There are many events. More all the time. You can even create your own; I did.
Once I was discussing the idea of selling my stuff in my classes with an event producer. They were not happy with the idea, since I had not paid a vendor fee. I pointed out that none of the other events I’d done that year had a problem with it. The response was “Well, (My Event) isn’t just any event.”
I understand that the producer honestly believed that. It was true – for that producer. For me it was just another event out of about 23 I did that year. Every client wants to believe that they are your only client, and the best freelancers have the ability to make them feel that way. But it is rarely true, and when it is true, it is not a good idea.
You have to be willing to walk away from the table. When you set a boundary, it is possible it will shut some people out; that’s what boundaries are for. You to have the ability to embrace the idea that: saying no might mean I never present again. And that’s ok. It’s scary. Hell, writing this essay is scary for me for the same reason.
You will have to be prepared for people to call you a whiny money-grubbing scam artist. They’ll say you only present so you can get laid and get “free” air fare and luxury hotels. You have to be prepared for people – sometimes people who taught you, who you thought of as friends – to accuse you of being an over-rated ego-driven attention whore or worse in public and private.
That says far more about those people than about you. You know your reasons for doing what you do. Integrity is cold comfort, but it is comfort, nonetheless.
But How Much Should I Charge?
Exactly? I don’t know. That’s a hard one. It’s a much more complicated topic. Short answer is: you’ll figure it out by how the events respond to your offer. If they say “Is that all?” you’re undervaluing yourself. If they require resuscitation or can’t stop laughing, you might be overpricing. I know my price, I’m comfortable with it, for now.
In my opinion, at the very least, if you want to be considered a professional you should be asking for travel, lodging, food, and a comp for your partner (and the events that say no to that last one are another of my rants).
At the very least, by asking for these things you’re letting the event producers know that you value your skills as a teacher at least that much. Eventually it will improve the presenter/event/attendee experience for everyone.
Forget Everything I Said
I will be honest: I don’t go through this negotiation process for every event. There are some events that I simply want to support, and I will do what I can within my own means to support them – my own version of “giving back”. Usually that means events in my own back yard, or events near places I’ll be traveling to anyway.
I am not saying everyone should charge all the time. Volunteering whatever skills you have is part of what makes the world go around. If you choose to support an event by changing your terms, more power to you! Part of good business is over-delivering, and it’s a great habit to get into.
But another part of good business is managing your resources. I know that as a presenter I did a very bad job of that the first several years, and it caused physical illness, financial stress, relationship problems, and more. I still don’t have a perfect system. but it’s getting better. I would like to see fewer presenters go through similar situations.
Got better ideas? I’d love to hear them in polite and civil discussion. Meanwhile, if you found this article useful, how about supporting me with something from Amazon? Or maybe you want to support my work via Patreon?
No? Well, then, I still hope it was useful – and I hope we all can continue to support each other almost without going broke.