19th Century Chick Lit

Part of the Web site, www.19thcenturychicklit.com, this blog is about the connection between the popular women writers of the 19th century and today's women writers and readers. I'm actually interested in women writers from lots of different time periods and genres--the 19th century is just my starting point.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Sara Willis Parton: The Negotiating Diva

One of the toughest things about working for myself is negotiating money. I hear that there are writers who enjoy this and think it’s a fun and jolly challenge, but it’s always been tricky for me. A discussion about an assignment will be going swimmingly; everything sounds all well and good, and then the money question comes up. “How much do you charge?” the client or editor will say. My response? “Uh, well . . .” Gulp. Geez, why is this so difficult? This is my business!

I heard a speaker at a writer’s conference say that when asked your price, your answer should always make you gasp a little bit. Believing you are worth a certain amount in your head, and then saying that aloud, are two different things.

That’s why I’m so amazed when I look at someone like Sara Willis Parton, who wrote under the pseudonym Fanny Fern. Parton was writing in the mid 19th century, at a time when women were certainly making money from their writing, but it was still widely believed that their place was in the home, not out there in the public marketplace, negotiating with editors and publishers like—dare we say?—men.

But that’s exactly what Parton did. In her 1854 book Ruth Hall (a fictionalized autobiography, and a book I highly recommend), she writes about her encounters with egomaniacal editors who underestimate her and undervalue her work. She also chronicles how Ruth—who is really Parton herself—negotiates her way to a more lucrative deal with a tough-talking book publisher. Parton was a popular newspaper columnist; when she sold a compilation of her articles in book form, the publisher offered her $800 for her copyright. That was a pretty big chunk of change in the 1850s. Not only that, but at the time, Parton was a poor single mother (her husband had died), who was desperately trying to feed her two children.

In Ruth Hall, she writes: “$800 copyright money? It was a temptation, but supposing her book should prove a hit? And bring double, triple, fourfold that sum, to go into her publisher’s pockets instead of hers?” Parton knew how the game worked. She took a giant leap of faith, and instead of accepting the sure-thing paycheck, she negotiated for a percentage of the royalties. This turned out to be the right move. Her book sold extremely well and she made way more than the $800 that was once so tantalizing.

Parton bet on herself, even when every message out there told her she wasn’t worth it. She bucked it all and negotiated for what she deserved. I try to keep that amazing example of chutzpah that was way ahead of its time in the back of my mind when the scary money talk starts.

So tell me your stories of when you’ve negotiated your way to something better—I’d love to hear them!