Got the following note from Twin Cities, MN commercial freelancer Megan Tsai (www.RedWagonWriting.com), who thought it might make a good blog post. At first, I didn’t think so, as it wasn’t about commercial writing, but the idea grew on me, and I starting seeing the potential for a good discussion. She wrote:
I sometimes take on assignments for a low-paying national magazine with high production value because I enjoy the work and the clips look great in my portfolio. Typically I take the photos myself or allow the publisher to select stock photos, but because I know the value of these clips and have no use for national photo credits myself, I thought I’d offer the opportunity to a local freelance photographer. As you discuss in your book, many freelancers get their start by doing non-paying work.
I posted a quick ad on Craigslist, explaining this would not be a paid assignment, but would result in some high-quality clips for a freelancer just getting started. I asked that anyone interested shoot me an email with a link to their portfolio. Within minutes, my post had been flagged and removed, and several angry responses posted (the site is self-policing, so it was the freelancers who had it removed, not Craigslist itself). At the same time, I received three emails from interested photographers and dozens of hits on my Web site. So the question becomes, is it fair to deprive fellow freelancers of the opportunity to complete non-paying work, or should this decision be left to the individual?
My take? Megan, you’re right. They’re wrong. I’m a libertarian at heart, believing that people should be free to take or not take work, and no one should dictate the conditions under which that happens. You offered a “free market transaction”: people were free to respond or not, and for others to attack you and move to remove your post note, was wrong.
Those applauding the freelancers’ decision to silence you think they’re “standing up for the rights of creative practitioners to be paid what they’re worth” as if you were forcing them to work for nothing. Instead, as you pointed out, what they were doing was indeed depriving freelancers who wanted to exercise their right to do non-paying work (to build their book and reputation) to do so. And in this case, even more so, because it wasn’t as if the publication was going to pay a photographer “market” rates for the gig.
That decision should be no one’s to make but a given freelancer. Yes, I understand the philosophy that says, “If you encourage the idea of working for free, you cheapen the value of what any practitioner in that field does.” Arguably true, but still not your decision to make for someone else. And not compelling enough in my books to make that decision “for the good of the industry” under the guise of protecting rights. Obviously, those people who responded positively to your ad didn’t feel they needed anyone else’s protection.
As I see it, is there any substantive difference between what they did and, say, removing an ad for a TV you had offered for $50 that they thought should have been worth $200? For those who’d say, “That’s different,” I’d ask “How so?” Whether a TV or someone’s time, you’re still deciding for someone else what the value of that thing is, and that’s not your decision to make. And, yes, the same would go for commercial freelancers willing to work for free or for far less than their competitors. I don’t like to see it, but it’s their right to decide, not mine. And until this economy improves, we’re likely to see more and more of this.
Granted, for most established commercial writing practitioners, we’re not likely to find too many newbies beating us out on sophisticated commercial writing projects (e.g., brochures, ad copy, direct mail, case studies, etc.) by working for free or for $25 an hour (they’re more likely to operate on online writing job sites and in the online article writing realm), but I’m still interested in hearing people’s take on this.
Your thoughts on this subject?
Have you had any similar experience of being on either side of a situation like this?
Where do you draw the line between individual’s rights and the “greater good of the industry”?
So, a few weeks ago, I offered up a competitive bid on a project for a commercial writing client I’d done some good work for some time back. The graphic designer on the project (we’d submitted a “turnkey” project bid) had actually worked for the client for 10 years a while back, had the inside track, and knew all the players. They did tell us they’d be looking at several bids, but we figured that was just a formality (after all, they were a government entity, so they had to go through a “competitive bidding process”). Yeah, buddy, we were in like flint.
Well, guess what? They went with a lower bid. Hmmm. Just an anomaly or a “bad economic sign”? Depends on what you decide, I suppose.
Fast forward to last week. It hit me as I was putting together a quote on a project for a prospect who’d called me out of the blue. I knew what I’d normally charge (and get) for a project like this, but found myself wondering if taking the business-as-usual approach was wise in a time when things weren’t quite usual. With the prospect’s admission that he’d be talking to several other writers echoing in my head, I shot a bit lower than I would have, say, a year ago. Still a healthy fee – we’re only talking maybe 10% lower than normal – but the fact that I was playing the game at all pissed me off.
Okay, so I’m a bit torn. Part of me hears my voice admonishing commercial writers: “Don’t play the price game! You’ll lose because there will always be someone willing to do it for less.” Absolutely true. And, “Stick to your guns; the good clients will always pay for quality.” Also true, and I’m working for several of them who haven’t made a peep about wanting me to charge less (and this new guy has no direct experience working with me, so he hasn’t yet gotten to the point where my competence trumps any price sensitivity). And the new year is off to a bit slower start than usual, so maybe that’s part of it.
But then the other side ponders, “Should I be a bit flexible these days? Are clients getting more budget-sensitive?”
So. Am I making a mountain out of molehill? Am I losing my nerve? Or just being realistic? In case all of you think that us seasoned folks always have it all figured out, think again… 😉 Love to hear from you guys about what you’re finding out there…
Are you finding price is becoming a bigger issue these days with your existing clients?
If so, are you becoming more fee-sensitive these days, making adjustments for changing times?
Or, even if it is, are you refusing to play the game at all, charging what you’ve always charged, because, by George, you’re worth every penny?
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?
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?
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?