I think most freelance copywriters would agree: Setting your rates is hard. You don’t want to price yourself out of work but you also don’t want to charge less than what’s fair and allows you to be profitable.
Even though I’ve been writing for decades, I still often struggle when pricing projects. Below are my best insights on the subject.
Once you’ve been working as a freelance copywriter for a while, you get a sense of what the market will bear. You also can estimate approximately how long a job will take, which is one of the factors I consider when coming up with a quote.
With regard to writing websites, my most frequent request, I offer a per-page rate. For purposes of illustration, let’s say that rate is $100 per web page, up to 500 words. Then writing a Home, About Us and FAQ page would be 3 x $100 = $300. Once you think of pricing in those terms, it’s easy to come up with a quote. And it’s also easy for the client to understand.
Even after you’ve been in the industry for years, know that you will run into situations in which the client balks at your price or the client accepts your price but the job ends up taking much longer than you planned. In those cases, learn from the experience and move on.
Some questions you may want to ask yourself and factor into the pricing equation are:
That situation occurs more often than you think, especially with new clients. There’s a client or a project I really want. I don’t want to blow this opportunity by quoting a price that’s too high and causes the client to shop around for a cheaper copywriter. But I also don’t want to leave money on the table, especially if the project is substantial and will have me tied up for weeks. After all, that’s time I won’t be available to other clients who perhaps are more lucrative.
In that instance, I’ll usually hedge my bets by offering the client two options. One will be a top-of-the-line, all-the-bells-and-whistles, full-service option and priced accordingly. The other option will be barebones, adequate but scaled down, and may even involve having the client do some of the work himself but is therefore much more affordable.
On rare occasions, I’ve even offered a third option, one that’s a happy medium between the first two. I don’t suggest ever offering more than three options. The clients get overwhelmed and put off making a decision indefinitely.
In my proposal, I make sure to explain exactly what each option includes and does not include. The client needs to see a clear differentiation so he can make an informed choice.
Yes, unfortunately. I offered a client two prices to write his 8-page brochure. The cheaper option was what he chose, and it involved him doing the research and providing me with all the information I’d need to write the brochure.
Well, it’s been three years and I’m still waiting on that research. I didn’t get roped into doing a difficult project at a too-low rate but I also didn’t make anything at all on the project that never came to fruition.
The problem with charging an hourly rate is that as you gain skills and become more efficient, you end up doing more work and earning less. Trust me, that’s the opposite of what you want. With experience, you should be able to do less work and earn more.
You’re better off pricing projects individually. You shouldn’t get penalized for being knowledgeable and efficient in your work. Quote what the work is truly worth. Think in terms of value, not just how long the job will take. Factor in your years of education, experience and specialized expertise, similar to a doctor, lawyer or accountant.
The price you quote should be enough that you’re happy when you win the project. Quote too low and you’ll resent having to do the work if the project comes through.
Have you ever heard the story of the retired printer?
Stop Working by the Hour
The massive printing presses at a major Chicago newspaper stopped working on the Saturday before Christmas. Hundreds of thousands of dollars in advertising revenue were at risk if the pressmen couldn’t get the Sunday paper printed.
No one could figure out what was causing the problem. Finally, they placed a frantic call to the retired printer who had worked with their presses for over 40 years. They offered to pay any amount he wanted if he would come in immediately and fix them.
When the retired printer arrived, he walked around for a few minutes, looking at the presses. Then he opened one of the control panels. He removed a dime from his pocket, turned a screw 1/4 of a turn, and said, “The presses will now work correctly.” And they did. After he was profusely thanked, he was told to submit a bill for his work.
The bill arrived a few days later, for $10,000! Because of the large cost for what amounted to a few minutes of work, the printer was asked to itemize his charges, with the hope that he would reduce the amount once he had to identify his services. The revised bill arrived: $1.00 for turning the screw; $9,999.00 for knowing which screw to turn.
So, don’t calculate your rates based on how long a project takes you but rather the accumulation of your many years of writing education and experience that allow you to get the job done, and done well.
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Yes, that happens. I’ve had clients say, “Susan, I need you to write this web page. It should only take you a few minutes, so what’s the charge?”
Whoa! That’s way too presumptive. Sorry, but the client doesn’t get to dictate how long a job will take me and what it will cost. That’s up to me. Tell me the project parameters and I’ll tell you my price. If you don’t like my answer, don’t book the work.
By the way, I’ve had clients “confuse” typing speed with writing speed. Just because a page only has 2 short paragraphs and would take only a few minutes to type doesn’t mean you can compose the actual sentences for those paragraphs that fast.
As my mentioned earlier, you want to avoid setting rates based strictly on amount of time to do the work. Otherwise, as you get more proficient and faster in doing the work, you’ll be making less on each job than when you were starting out.
Yes, that happens, but fortunately, it’s rare. Most people are honest and pay their bills. But there are a few things you can do to protect yourself.
If the client is new, require a 50% deposit up front.
The balance will be due upon project completion. That way, you and the client split the risk. You have some risk in that they may not pay the remaining 50% and they have some risk in that you might take the deposit and not produce the work.
Quote jobs up front, especially with new clients, and in writing.
Estimating what a job is worth and how long it will take is difficult but you need to provide a quote. If you don’t, the amount in the client’s mind is likely much less than the quote in your mind. That means you’ll end up in conflict when you send the bill.
Be careful about providing a range.
Let’s say you quote a client $1,000 – $1,500, you can be sure that the client expects to pay $1,000 while you probably are thinking you’ll charge a lot closer to the $1,500 figure. So before quoting a range, be certain that you can live with the lowest number because that might be how it ends up.
Yes, you have to assume most businesses and people are law-abiding and fair-minded. If you’re suspicious of everyone, you’ll have trouble landing clients.
Most people know they’re asking for a professional service and should expect to pay professional rates. However, occasionally you run into a client who leaves you totally bewildered with their idea of what’s fair.
What’s Fair Can Be Up for Debate
To save a buck, some clients will try anything. Consider the following conversation I had with a client who owned an online furniture store. It went something like this:
Susan: Hi John, just following up to see what you thought of the copy I sent over last week.
Client: Susan, it’s great, exactly what we were looking for. No revisions needed. Perfect as is. It goes up on the website today.
Susan: Glad to hear it. Is there anything else I can do for you?
Client: No, we’re good for now. So go ahead and send your invoice. Oh, and I assume there’ll be an adjustment to the price?
Susan: An adjustment? Why? You just told me the copy was perfect and you were pleased.
Client: Right. But your proposal gave a quote that included the copy and revisions. Since the copy was perfect, and we didn’t ask for any revisions, I think we’re entitled to a discount.
I did not give him the discount. And that was my first and last job for that company.
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I can’t say that I have a set schedule, but I do consider increases at the beginning of each new year and also when I have consistently had an abundance of work for several months.
Over time, raising my rates has resulted in my losing some of my smaller clients with limited budgets and replacing them with better, bigger clients, which has been a positive step in my business’s growth.
It depends on the client and the project, as well as whether I’m buried in other jobs or business is slow. If I really want the project, I may offer to work within the client’s budget but will reduce the scope of the work accordingly.
For example, if they want me to write 10 pages for their website but have a limited budget, I might offer to write their 5 most important pages and let them handle the other pages on their own. Or if they want a 1,000-word article, I might suggest we keep the article to 600 words to stay within their budget.
Someone once told me, “If you land every job you quote, then you’re charging too little.” I think that’s true. You don’t want every client. You want the right clients. So don’t feel bad when you lose a job over price. That client wasn’t right for you.
Those websites and others like them do put pricing pressure on freelance copywriters who operate independently. It’s so easy to shop around online that clients don’t hesitate to solicit pricing from multiple sources.
To compete against those contracting sites as well as other competitors, offer better quality and service. You don’t want clients who are focused only on cost. You want to work with companies that appreciate your expertise and the level of commitment you bring to their work.
Also, you want your clients to know you take risk out of the equation. Once you have experience and a portfolio, you can demonstrate to clients that they will be working with a pro. They can have full confidence that you’ll steer them right and produce copy that will be effective in meeting their objectives.
Those contracting sites do no vetting of their freelancers. Many of their writers are inexperienced, treat copywriting as a hobby or side gig, or live outside the U.S. and only speak or write English as a second language.
The True Story I Tell Clients When They Compare My Prices to Sites Like Fiverr
When my daughter was 12, she once asked me for my bank’s name and my account number. It was an odd request, as I always bought her whatever she needed.
After a bit of probing, I found out she had set up a profile and had been selling copywriting services (a mini me) on Fiverr. She’d been writing for all types of clients and had all this money in Fiverr but no way to get it out without a bank account or PayPal account to which Fiverr could transfer the funds.
I wasn’t keen that this was going on without my knowledge, but the point of the story is, my daughter was 12! The clients hiring her certainly didn’t know that. She didn’t understand marketing or business. Heck, she didn’t even know how bank accounts worked.
She knew just enough to string together coherent sentences in English. While the copy she managed to write was adequate, had the clients hired someone with experience for a few more dollars, they probably would have gotten a better product that would have been more effective in generating sales for their business.
I share this true story about my daughter with prospective clients when they say they’re considering trying to save a few dollars by using a site like Fiverr or Upwork.
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That’s an interesting question. The answer keeps changing as new payment types and methods become available. When I started in this business, all payments were by check, typically sent via the U.S. mail. Nowadays, I get very few checks.
I accept PayPal, Zelle, Venmo, and Western Union. I also accept direct transfers to my bank account and international wires. On the plus side, using any of these payment methods, you get your money much more quickly than waiting for a check to arrive and then clear once deposited.
But there is a downside. Some of these payment methods aren’t free. Be sure you know the fees associated with each payment type. Otherwise, you might be disappointed once you see the final amount.
For example, PayPal charges approximately 3% for domestic payments, 6% for international payments (including currency exchange). Those fees add up quickly, so you might want to consider building them into your prices.
Clients with whom I have ongoing relationships and who make frequent payments to me typically opt for direct transfer or Zelle, both of which are free, no fees. And here’s a quick, little-known tip regarding PayPal. If your client clicks the “Friends and Family” button on PayPal, you don’t get charged a fee. But that’s something you’ll need to work out with them in advance, and may not be appropriate depending on your relationship with the client.
One more tip. If you’re ever asked to do work for a company or individual located in Africa, find out how they plan to pay you. Because of high rates of fraud, payment service providers like PayPal don’t service some of the countries there such as Nigeria. I have had to turn away legitimate Nigerian clients because there was no way to receive payments from them.
Spec work is a non-starter. If you can show the client samples of prior work that reflect your capabilities, then he or she will just have to take a leap of faith that you can do for him what you’ve successfully done for others. I can’t think of any service provider who does work and gives the client the option of whether to pay for it.
Be sure you’re clear up front, so there’s no misinterpretation. When you quote a job, include your payment terms, i.e. 50% deposit; balance due upon completion. I recently had a situation crop up when I didn’t properly iron out the estimated costs of a job prior to doing the work and ended up at odds with the client.
Quote Prices Up Front and Avoid Spec Work Situations
I had a client in the food industry. My contact was the marketing director and he didn’t want to pay for a project because he ultimately didn’t use the copy I wrote.
He requested some ad concepts at about 5pm for a meeting where he’d present them the next morning at 9am. I didn’t request a deposit because it was such a rush job. And I didn’t even give a quote because I was anxious to get started if I was going to get the job done in time. I just did the work. That was a mistake.
I’ll share the correspondence between the client and me below. Maybe it will help you to avoid ending up in this type situation.
Thanks so much for the ad concepts you sent. I presented them at the meeting. We ended up brainstorming and coming up with something completely different. Thanks anyway.
I responded to Adam with a note that said:
“Adam, I’m glad you were able to get your ads done. I know you were super rushed on them. Attached is an invoice for the concepts I submitted.
Ohhhh, I didn’t realize you’d be invoicing for this. We didn’t even use one of your concepts.
And here’s my reply:
“Are you serious, Adam? Why wouldn’t I invoice for the work? When you do work at your company, don’t you expect to be compensated for your time and expertise?
Writing is how I make my living, not a hobby. I don’t do it for fun. I do it to put food on my table. Even if you went through a low-end provider for copy like Upwork or Fiverr, would you assume they’d provide work for free? Of course not.
You asked for ad concepts at 5pm due the following morning, obligating me to cancel plans, work after hours and provide a rush turnaround. I accommodated your needs on extremely short notice, and without complaining I might add.
I realize you didn’t use my concepts but I don’t write on speculation. If you request work, and I do the work, I expect to be paid. If I do work and you’re not pleased with it, let me know and I will revise the copy.
I’m not new to the business and trying to create a portfolio. I am a skilled professional with 25+ years of experience, not to mention a BS in journalism and an MBA in business marketing. That’s why I’m able to give you quality work and fast turnarounds. And because I go out of my way to be helpful, I’ve also given you excellent service. I would hope you agree.
Lastly, your organization is a business, not a charity or nonprofit. Why would a business expect its vendors to provide services for free?
I sincerely hope getting paid on this and the other projects we have in progress is not going to be a problem.”
Could you picture the steam coming out of my ears? The client did not respond to my last email, but about one week later, I received payment for that job and the others. I never worked with Adam or his company again.
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Want to know more? Read the next post, Changes in the Copywriting Industry Over the Past 25+ Years.