A couple of recent conversations got me thinking about setting fees for copywriters.
One was a conversation with James, who commented that many copywriters aren’t good with numbers. Another discussion was with an associate who said he saw freelance projects on Elance with bids of $50 for sales letters and $5 for blog posts.
Guys, what in the wide world of sports are you thinking? Working for $5?
I know that many writers aren’t great with numbers or comfortable talking about money. Maybe it’s because the world has beaten you down until you think you aren’t worth more than a French Fry Jockey.
But we need to get this straightened out, because if I ever meet you and learn that you’re working for next to nothing, I’ll have to kick your ass. You’re not only robbing yourself, you’re making things difficult for every other writer out there who wants to make a good living.
So let’s go over a few basics for on how to set your copywriting fees.
And just to be clear, I’m talking about setting rates for copywriting, or writing copy for the business market, not writing poems or short stories or even published articles, which are never going to pay much. Copywriting includes writing sales letters, brochures, blog posts for business sites, web pages, etc.
Charge hourly for long or uncertain projects.
When there’s more than a reasonable amount of uncertainty about the time it’ll take to complete a project, it’s in your best interest to charge for copywriting by the hour. The uncertainty can take many forms:
- You don’t know how long it’ll take you to complete a project.
- You anticipate that the client will make significant changes during the project.
- The objectives are unclear.
- You’re dealing with a project that is inherently vague, like generating “concepts” for an advertising campaign.
Set a project minimum for hourly billing.
Never bill in small time increments, such as a half hour. When you add up the time it takes for estimates, contracts, printing, filling, phone calls, and all the rest, you’ll lose money without a minimum.
For example, I charge hourly for client meetings and set a minimum of 4 hours. Even if the meeting is just an hour, I have to account for the extra time of meeting prep, road time, and returning phone calls I miss while out of the office. Heck, I even have to shave. The horror!
Charge at least $50 an hour.
If you’re used to working for $15 or $20 an hour in a full-time job, you may find it difficult to ask for $50 an hour or more. However, for most freelance copywriting, that should be your minimum. Charge less, and you’ll have a hard time making a living.
Because of downtime, office work and expenses, as well as the uncompensated time you spend marketing, $50 an hour may translate into only $25,000 a year if you’re working full-time. Of course, certain types of work, such as technical writing or editorial, may offer you less per hour, but more steady, longer-term projects add up to more income.
Really, I’d like you to charge $100 per hour or more. Assuming you write full-time (at about 30 hours a week, with 4 weeks off for vacation), that should translate into about $144,000 gross per year before taxes.
Use a project price for well-defined projects.
When you know how long the job takes, don’t anticipate too many changes, and have fairly clear objectives, you’re best off charging a flat fee for the entire content project. Why? Because project fees offer you important benefits:
- You sell your expertise, not your time. You don’t want clients to look at you as an employee or a hired hand. They should see you as an expert, a valuable resource for special projects.
- Clients prefer predictability. I have found that clients almost always prefer a fixed price they can depend on. They’re even willing to pay a little more for the certainty of knowing exactly what the bill will be later on.
- You make more money. If you charge hourly, you make less money as you get better and faster at writing. That’s not fair. A project price means that the better and faster you get, the more money you make even without raising fees.
Use the project fee correctly.
Many copywriters misunderstand the project fee. They consider it a mere estimate, then charge for their time at the end of a project regardless of the project fee.
Some try to have it both ways, quoting a project fee upfront then charging extra if they put in additional hours. Of course, they conveniently forget to reduce the bill if they finish the project more quickly than expected.
Here’s how it should work:
A project fee should be a flat, fixed price for a given piece of work. Once quoted, it should not be changed unless the client significantly alters the project.
If the work is a bit more than anticipated, make the adjustment on your fee schedule for next time, but stick to your price on that project. If the work is a little less, consider that a bonus for being efficient. Everything evens out over several projects.
Look at typical fees, and then double them.
Copywriting rates are hard to nail down, but you should start by looking at examples in publications from Writer’s Digest or the National Writer’s Union. Ask around. Call writers you know. Whatever most writers charge is usually too low, so double it to arrive at your starting fees.
Keep testing your fee structure.
If you’ve been getting $1,000 per brochure, ask a new client for $2,000 and see what happens. If clients normally pay $100 per hour for consultation, ask for $150 the next time someone calls. If your minimum project price is $500, increase it to $750.
Keep experimenting and adjusting with new prices — usually with new clients — so your income is always on the move up. You’ll be surprised how often you get what you ask for without hesitation.
One smart way to handle this is to use a “fee range.” Set minimum and maximum fees for various projects. You can then easily and fairly vary your pricing per client. Plus, a range with your normal writing rates at the lower end allows you to say to your clients, “I usually charge from $500 to $2,000 for this type of work. For you, I’ll stay near the bottom of my scale. Say $700.” Clients like that. It helps to close sales.
Be upfront with money matters
Don’t be shy about discussing money with potential clients. State your writing rates as early as possible to weed out businesses who can’t afford you. Walk new clients through your payment policy. Put everything in writing. Act like a pro and you’ll be treated like one.
Don’t apologize for high fees.
There are those who try to make you feel guilty for making money at copywriting. They may be frustrated freelancers themselves or the kind of people who can’t stand to see others profit, even though the work you do benefits them.
You may even have friends and family who don’t understand the value of your work. Ignore all of this. Set your fees and stick to your guns. If you’re losing work because of your fees, it probably isn’t that you’re charging too much, but that you’re pursuing the wrong clients.
Always get a signed contract
While most people are honest, some take advantage of you, especially if you are not businesslike. You should make it your firm policy to have your client sign a contract outlining the work you will perform, the date it is due, how much will be paid, your terms for payment, and all other details of the project.
You should ask for a 50% retainer upfront, as least for a first-time project. This usually weeds out those people who don’t have the money or want to squeeze free work out of you. It makes you appear more experienced and businesslike and sets the tone for a mutually beneficial relationship.
Never discount your writing rates.
If a client complains about your rates, your first reaction might be to say, “Well, I’m flexible.” That’s a mistake. Not only does this eliminate your chances of getting your asking price, it sends a message that your prices aren’t real to begin with. Plus, it shows you’re hungry.
A client senses this weakness and weasels a lower price out of you. You lose respect and money. If the price is really too high, let your client say so, then look for ways to adjust the amount of work you do. Never back off on price.
Don’t sell based on price
You are not Wal-Mart. You should not compete on price with other writers. That only cuts your profits, since most writers charge far too little. Clients who work with you only for a low price leave you for a better price.
Seek clients who want your expertise, experience, and skill. They’re more loyal and less stingy.
Give your copywriting rates value.
When clients can only see your finished copy, they sometimes can’t justify the high fees you want to charge. So make sure you show your clients the value you give them for their money by specifying all the individual tasks you must perform “behind the scenes” to finish their project.
In your estimates, proposals, and invoices make sure to spell out everything you do in the course of your project, from start to finish, such as research, phone calls, travel time, design work, reports, surveys, interviews, organization of files, reading background materials, meetings, investigating the competition, outlining, writing, editing, proofing, revisions, and putting up with the jackassery of the client.
Okay, don’t include that last one. But you have to figure that in anyway. I call it my secret PITA (pain in the ass) upcharge. Some people are simply harder to work with than others are.
And remember, I will boot your buttocks if I learn you’re charging silly low fees. So work up a professional fee schedule and start earning what you’re worth. Okay?