In this category, we discuss the Well Fed Writing business.

Job’s Done, But Client Can’t Pay. Now What?

Okay, maybe not quite that definitive, but close. Suffice to say, a sticky situation the likes of which I rarely find myself in. After all, one of the best things about commercial freelancing is that payment issues are rare. 30 days or less has absolutely always been the norm for me in 95% of cases.

Was contacted a few months back by a commercial writing client I’d done work for in the past. Successful businessman starting a new venture and needing a marketing brochure for it. He’s a hands-on guy (translation: major micro-manager), but not obnoxious about it. And willing to pay for someone’s attention.

In addition to the brochure (just a four-pager), I ended up crafting a name and tag line for the venture as well. Settled for $1000 for the both, which though a lot lower than I should have gotten (good blog topic in that …), they took me, probably, a total of a 2-3 hours to do – I actually came up with the name during a meeting – so I won’t gripe too much.

Anyway, because I’d done plenty of work with this client in the past and never had a problem getting paid, I didn’t get an upfront deposit. I’d say, “Mistake!” but given the track record, it really wasn’t. And hindsight’s always 20/20. That said, it may not be a bad move, given the climate we’re in, to go with upfront deposits from all clients until things get less dicey.

Well, my guy calls me after I’d sent an invoice for the total (we’d discussed it before I’d billed him) with some disturbing news: His credit line with the bank (to cover operational expenses of getting this new venture up and running) had been revoked. It’s one of the more common by-products of the economic slide we’re in the midst of. Banks just aren’t willing to get any more extended.

Add to that that revenues from his main business are off. So, suddenly, he can’t pay my invoice – at least not right away. So, we set up a schedule, with roughly 30% due on X date, about 40% due two weeks later, and the final 30% due about three weeks after that. Deadline One (a Monday) comes and goes. No check. But, that Friday, he calls me. And that’s key. As long as people are communicating with me, I’ll cut them a world of slack. Shows good faith, accountability, and integrity.

We’re going to have to rework the timetable, he says. I tell him I’m happy to work on a schedule of $500 here and $500 there. He says great, that he’ll be get back to me. It’s been about seven days (and a holiday in there) and I haven’t heard from him, and if I don’t in a few more days, I’ll be in touch. Bottom line, while I’m not terribly pleased, I’m not worried either. I know he’s good for it.

Ever had a situation like this or similar? What did you do?

What are some of the valuable lessons you’ve learned from your experiences?

Do you get upfront deposits from all clients?

Do You Quote By Hourly Rate or Flat Fee?

Pricing our commercial freelancing work. How do you do it? Me? I became a convert to the Flat Fee Channel (“All flat fees, all the time…”) some time back. Rates are best quoted within the context of a particular project. Tell a client your hourly rate is $100, without relating that rate to a specific job (he’s thinking, “Is it going to be 5 hours or 50??”) and he might just run screaming into the night. But say $1000 for a project you think will take 10 hours, and if that’s close to what he’s budgeted for the project in his mind, then you’re in business. An hourly rate, in my humble opinion, should be a number kept to yourself, and used only for internal calculations.

All that said, the debate still goes on. Last week, got the latest piece from wildly successful Atlanta commercial freelancer Ed Gandia. Ed’s the publisher of the great ezine, The Profitable Freelancer (visit and subscribe at no charge). Ed did a great two-part piece for my ezine in June and July of this year about how he made $163K in his first full year as a commercial freelancer.

Ed’s latest piece was entitled “What’s Best: Hourly or Flat Fee?” Check it out (it’s short) here before reading the rest of the piece. Here was my response to it:

Ed: I have found precious few commercial writing clients willing to even let you quote on an hourly basis if they don’t know you. That’s almost exclusively reserved for long-term clients who trust you implicitly, and/or for projects that have, by definition, an undefined scope and fluid parameters, that simply don’t lend themselves to being firmly nailed down. Not sure how one would even go about trying to force an hourly-rate approach on a client. For most commercial freelancers, in my experience, the more important issue is do you quote a straight flat rate or one that reveals your calculations (i.e., “$1500” vs. “$1500 based on 15 hours at $100 an hour”).

The former is the better approach, because as you point out, if you work fast, and finish the project in, say, 12 hours, you’ve just upped your hourly to $125. And as you also point out, the client only cares about the final result. As long as you get it done for the amount they agreed on, then, technically, they don’t care if it takes you 1 hour or 50. If you share your internal calculations, then if it takes you less time, technically, you should charge less. Going with a flat rate focuses the whole discussion to the end result, which is the only thing that really matters.

Just as importantly, the flat-rate approach has the subtle but powerful affect on you, the commercial copywriter, of further “professionalizing” what we do. We’re being paid to deliver a professional service for a fee. We’re not an hourly worker punching a proverbial clock. And I say that same distinction isn’t lost on the client either, who’s more likely to view you as that professional and worthy of your fees.

Also, just a note about flat fees. I’ve found over the years that a range in your quote that varies by 10-15% is acceptable to most clients. Haven’t had any pushback from a client ever. Generally speaking, by agreeing to a quote of, say, “$1500-1700″ or “$4500-$5000,” clients have reconciled themselves to the upper end of the range, and because the two figures are close, it’s not a problem. But it gives you a bit of extra wiggle room for unexpected surprises, which if you have a cushion, you may not have to even charge for. And that’s good for client PR (though if there IS extra time involved, and you don’t charge, you might let the client know that you usually would but won’t this time. That way, you don’t establish a dangerous precedent by having them think that such an M.O. is standard, which it definitely isn’t).

AND, if you end up below your upper end, which has often happened for me, and charge a bit less, it’s a nice surprise for clients, who can’t help but notice you were responsible and frugal with their money. If you suspect money isn’t the #1 issue for a client, I might even suggest one bump the top end of your fee range a bit beyond what you know it’ll take, so you can in fact, ultimately charge less than the upper range so as to make that good impression.

How do you price your work?

Have you had unpleasant experiences quoting hourly rates in a vacuum (i.e., minus the context of a particular project)?

Do you have clients you work with on an hourly basis, and if so, what’s the nature of the relationship and the work?

Any insights you’ve learned about pricing work you care to share?

What’re Your Favorite “Well-Fed Writing” Resources?

OK folks, I’m closing in on finishing the updated edition of TWFW – due out mid-2009. Just to refresh your memory, I’ve combined and updated the content of both how-to guides on lucrative commercial freelancing, The Well-Fed Writer and its companion, TWFW: Back For Seconds, while retiring the latter. Two 300-page books into ONE 300-page book. Can you say “Editing Job of Biblical Proportions”? Though, I will be offloading some of both the original books onto the web site and a beefed-up Well-Fed Tool Box companion ebook. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’m putting together THE key appendix: Well-Fed Writing Resources, the equivalent of Appendix A in Back For Seconds. I’d love to get your input as to YOUR favorite books, web sites, blogs, conferences, local commercial writers organizations in your area, or any other commercial writing resource you’ve found indispensable (or even just plain useful) as you’ve grown your commercial freelancing business.

Whattaya say? What are your faves?

Put another way, what resources should no self-respecting commercial freelancer be without?

Are You a Businessperson/Writer or a Writer/Businessperson?

Put another way, is your business “a series of jobs” or a “profession”? (And yes, I know how most of the commercial freelancing pros who weigh in here would answer, and I’m counting on that…).

Success as a commercial writer begins in the mind.

I know, typical positive-thinking mumbo-jumbo, right? And not even terribly profound. But hang with me here.

I was thinking about how I started in this business of lucrative commercial copywriting 15 years ago, and realized that how I viewed this business and how I entered the profession has made all the difference. A dear writer friend of mine who does mostly magazine work likes to say, not unkindly, that I’m a businessperson first and a writer second. She’s not implying I’m not a good writer (perish the thought…), just that if I were a “pure” writing animal, I’d probably be writing feature stories or novels. Or would at least have started out that way. Fair enough.

When I discovered this field back in the early 90s after stumbling on Bob Bly’s, Secrets of a Freelance Writer, it was an epiphany. You mean companies actually hire freelance writers to execute many writing projects and pay them far more than typical “freelance writer” rates? Who knew? I’d wanted to be a writer, but wasn’t willing to starve at it. Proof, perhaps of my friend’s gentle charge of “businessperson/writer” not the other way around. Anyone who was a pure writer would relish starving – at least for a few years anyway.

But, not me. I looked at it dispassionately. I enjoyed writing, knew I was good at it, but I didn’t live and breathe it (remember: NO writing background, experience, or paid jobs before I started out). Nonetheless, I had long been on the lookout – perhaps unconsciously – for a way to turn that aptitude into a career. Once I read Bly’s book, I was hooked. This was how I was going to do it.

I know many of you have heard this story before, but the point here is this: Right out of the gate, and with zero starving-writer experience under my belt, I looked at this field as a true pay-all-the-bills career. It wasn’t a hobby. It wasn’t a lark. It wasn’t a supplement to other less-lucrative writing. It was my profession.

As a result, from day one, it wasn’t playtime. It was serious. And I think that’s made all the difference in how it’s turned out. But, that was MY path. There’s not a thing wrong with coming at it any other way, but I say the initial foundational perception of your business may have a lot to do with its outcome.

Many who come to this field were writers first, and came to this field as a way to make more money, crafting a mix of both jobs. I’d never say they’re not as serious as I am, but am curious as to their perceptions of how it unfolded for them.

I’m not 100% sure of the point I’m trying to make here, but my gut tells me it’s a good conversation-starter… 😉

How did you come to this field, as a businessperson/writer or a writer/businessperson?

If the former, what impact did that initial perception have on your ultimate success?

If it was writer first, and you’re successfully established now, was there a point at which it became more serious?

And what advice would you give other “pure writers” about making this a serious career instead of just a series of jobs?

In Tough Times, Are You Keeping Your Thinking Tough?

Tanking economy. Up-and-down stock market. High and growing unemployment. The end of the world as we know it. Etc, etc, etc. How’s all this affecting your commercial writing business? Perhaps less than you might imagine…

Okay, rest assured, I’m not here to say that all the economic turmoil is just a mirage. It’s not. But I am here to say that you’re in control of how you view it, and in turn, the extent to which you allow it to affect you.

I thought about offering a collection of tips on dealing with your commercial freelancing clients in tough times, but others, like Mike Stelzner are doing a good job of that. Instead, let’s talk about our thinking….

When you watch the news (Mistake #1), do you go into a sort of trance-like state, mumbling to yourself along the lines of,

Ohthislooksbadallmyclientsaregoingtostopreturningmycallscutbackorgooutofbusinessaltogetherwhichmeanslessworkforme
IshouldlookatgettingajobwhoamIkiddingtheyrelayingoffrightnownothiringmaybeajobworkingatthemallduringtheholidayswaita
minutethatwon’tworkeitherbecausenoonewillbebuyinganythingIknowIsurewontnextstopstreetcornerwithasignwillwriteforfood
whatwasithinkinggettingintothisstupidbusiness
… STOP!!

Okay, that’s called flabby thinking. Understandable, perhaps, but still flabby. Let’s toughen it up a bit. No mind-control hocus-pocus here. Just a few facts. During tough times, will businesses stop marketing, stop communicating with employees (internal communications), stop trying to reach new customers (ads, direct mail case studies), stop building web sites or updating existing ones, and all crawl into holes and wait and hope for things to get better? The very idea is ludicrous. And incidentally, I’m busier than I’ve been in a long time…

Will some businesses cut back on outside resources and perhaps bring projects in-house? Yes. But many can’t because they don’t have the in-house resources to do them.

And if there will be some cutting back, does that mean that bigger companies who’ve been using pricey ad agencies, design/PR firms and marketing companies might be cutting back on them? Yes. At which point, might the idea of hiring a far more economical, but-just-as-if-not-more effective freelance writer/designer team sound much more attractive? You bet it will.

And how much effect does the economy truly have on ONE person’s quest for financial self-sufficiency and freelance success? Given that that ONE person needs to garner only a tiny sliver of the entire universe of possible lucrative commercial writing work out there? Not much.

And don’t forget: there will be a certain chunk of your competition who will buy all the gloom and doom, will blink and run, opting for something they perceive will be more secure, and will leave you with less competition.

Feeling better yet?

If you’ve been around the block a few times, what are your thoughts?

What other tough-thinking strategies can you suggest?

What are you seeing from your clients?

What do you see as the keys to getting through tough times?