I got this email recently from a newly-minted commercial freelancer:
I recently quoted a tri-fold brochure and three cover letters for a local university. I gave a range of $650 to $735 for the project, but my proposal was turned down because of budget. Could you offer any advice about pricing writing jobs that fit with the going rates in a particular area (we’re a smaller market than Atlanta).
Okay, several points worth making here:
I don’t think she can come to any conclusions about the opportunity, try to imagine “what I could’ve done differently,” or alter her pricing strategy, based on ONE possible gig. If anything, $700-ish for that scope of work seems on the low side to me.
She (or anyone starting out) needs dozens of situations like this to gather any useful knowledge. One is meaningless, except as a single brick in your wall of experience as a commercial writer. One has to make a TON of contacts to get to critical mass and have things start happening.
But for today’s discussion, here’s the most important point…
There’s no such thing as some set copywriting pricing for all copywriting clients; that implies all clients are reading off some “standard price sheet,” and of course, they aren’t.
Yes, it’s good to have some idea of ballparks when quoting rates in a particular market, but know there are different tiers of freelance commercial writing clients, all with different fee thresholds. Our not-easy job is to find those willing to pay the good rates (and that’s more likely to be in business than academia).
The discussion of “going rates” in any given area is related to my last blog post, “There IS No Copywriting Industry.” I’d planned to include this with that post, but felt it deserved its own dedicated post.
I routinely get asked about “going rates” in the commercial writing field. If there’s a “Copywriting Industry,” then there’s some “going rates” for that industry, right? Sure, what a commercial writer can command in NYC is likely more than they’ll get in Peoria, but the longer I’m in the business, the more subjective I believe rates to be.
Add in a wired world that invites us to prospect anywhere, and it makes the idea of “going rates” even more irrelevant.
Most importantly (see the sidebar, “Debunking the Myth of “Standard” Writers Rates…” on p. 171 of The Well-Fed Writer for the fleshed-out version of this idea):
Following some “industry pricing guide” or the anecdotal advice of other commercial copywriters (even those in your area) will give you, at best, only a partial view of the rates-picture in your area.
Just because a copywriter or guide says you can “expect” to make $ ___ per hour—given a certain experience level or geographic are—while useful as a ballpark guide, does that mean that’s all a copywriter can hope to earn at those levels, and in that locale?
Absolutely not. ALL it means is that some copywriters are making those rates, and some clients are unwilling to pay more. Sure, many clients think $50 an hour is too much to pay even a pro, but there are also plenty who won’t flinch at $125 an hour. And I’m working for a bunch of them.
What’s sad is that tons of talented commercial freelancers (and yes, you need to have the chops to be able to consistently land high rates), are making pathetically low hourly rates for NO other reason than that’s what some guide told them they can expect to make at their experience level, and because they’re working for clients who pay no more than that. Just because it’s your world doesn’t mean it’s THE world.
Meanwhile, other writers who never got that memo (like me when I started out, and perhaps those who read my books), and don’t realize that they shouldn’t be able to command higher rates, are doing just that. All because they looked in different places, believed different people, and found those willing to pay more.
Heck, land a few entrepreneur-type clients with big budgets—which I’ve happily done quite a bit over the years—along with big egos that drive them to pay high rates for “the best,” and all discussions of “standard rates” go out the window. When people like that routinely pay, say, $400+ an hour for legal services, $125 an hour for a professional writer will make them downright giddy.
One caveat: Someone starting out with little experience and armed with the concept of “going rates” can end up deluding themselves into thinking they should be able to ask for and get the “standard rates,” when they’ll likely have to work up to them.
Sort of a “Duh,” but more commercial copywriting experience (in general) will boost what you can ask for, and more industry-specific writing experience will boost it even more (assuming you’re pursuing work in that industry).
Just know that the concept of rates is far more fluid than we’re often led to believe, and sticking to “conventional wisdom” can limit income potential significantly.
Have you ever used others’ guidelines to determine your copywriting rates, only to land a client that defied rates expectation? In other words…
Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment when you got far higher than you expected to, and henceforth rewired your thinking about what you could ask for?
Have you had a sense that you’re shortchanging yourself when it comes to rates?
Any other thoughts or ideas on the subject?
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Got an email recently from a reader with a concern (and frustration…) we’ve all come up against at some point in our commercial writing careers. He wrote:
The challenge that’s just unnerving me is how to shift prospects’ minds from thinking they can do the writing themselves instead of paying a commercial freelancer $100+ an hour to do it. What would be the best way to create a brand that would neutralize this kind of thinking on the part of prospects?
Got a similar question posed to me by one of my group coaching participants:
What’s the best way to approach an industry that often relies on in-house engineers to write its copy? Should I try to convince them that a good writer is a better choice than an engineer, or could I instead offer editorial services in these cases?
Here’s an aggregate response to the both of them. There are two ways to approach this issue and both have merit.
#1: A question immediately comes to mind: Why are you wasting your time trying to convince people who don’t think they need a professional writer, to start using one, rather than finding those clients who understand the value of good copywriting and already use writers, or, at the very least, are open to hiring one?
In one of my books, I talk about The Salad Dressing Rule (explained by a fellow freelance commercial writer friend):
If you sell salad dressing, it’s far easier to convince someone who already eats salad to try your dressing than to convince someone who doesn’t eat salad at all that they should start doing so.
In both cases, these folks are finding people who “don’t eat salad.” So, using the prospecting strategies laid out in the book, start barking up some different trees.
Bottom line, you can’t convince those who are convinced otherwise, unless you get them to try you out and they see the difference a commercial copywriter can make. Which leads to the second approach…
#2: As many experienced copywriters have noticed in their travels, getting a prospect to understand what we do by trying us out will often make converts of them (assuming we’re good at what we do, and understand that particular client’s business). As such, in the case of the engineering firm (or ANY prospect who’s hesitant to hire you to execute a writing project from scratch), yes, maybe you offer editing as a door-opener.
If the client has an epiphany (and I’ve seen it happen plenty) based on the editing, maybe they’ll try you out right from the get-go the next time around. All you can do is offer. If the client isn’t receptive, move on. If you’ve had other clients start out as they did and become converts, make sure you’re getting testimonials from them and share those with the hesitant ones…
(NOTE: this is where building alliances with graphic designers can really help. Designers hate designing around crappy copy and ending up with a sample that looks great but reads like doo-doo. So if they have a client who’s written their own copy (and it shows), and you’ve built a partnership with that designer based on delivering superior copy that makes their design shine, they’ll often try to persuade the client to hire you, knowing the client will end up with a more effective piece, which can only reflect well on them. Not to mention they get a stronger piece for their book. In those cases, you’ve got a third-party doing the selling, which can be more compelling. Doesn’t always work, but when it does… There are few things sweeter than seeing an erstwhile skeptical client find religion after seeing professionally written copy that positively puts theirs to shame.)
All that notwithstanding, the “try-a-taste” approach is still going to be harder to pull off than finding those already inclined towards folks like us. If you’re in a smaller-market area, and trying to build your freelance copywriting business there, it might prove a necessary stepping-stone to cultivating serious clients. If, however, you’re in a major metro, you might not need to beat your head against the wall; there WILL be plenty of prospects who do “get” what we do. Not saying they’re easy to find, but likely easier than trying to get the others to “start eating salad.”
Do you only pursue prospects already sold on the value of professional writing?
Or do you try to do some converting along the way?
If so, how have you gone about getting them to try you out, and has it worked?
In a tough market, should we be investing more time in “educating the unsold” or do you feel it’s still largely a waste of time?
I couldn’t have scripted it better myself. A little background….
Got a call from a prospect in early November. About 18 months earlier (May 2008), the local daily, The Atlanta-Journal Constitution, did a “Why I Love My Job” feature on yours truly in the Sunday paper. Following a few live seminars I’d done in March 2008 on commercial writing and self-publishing, I’d been approached by one of the attendees who turned out to be the writer of the popular weekly piece.
“You seem like someone who really enjoys what you do,” he said. “Would you be interested in being featured in WILMJ?” “Is this a trick question?” I asked. Uh, yeah. Course I would.
We got it done, the piece came out, and my new prospect, a successful local entrepreneur, saw it, tore it out and said to himself, “I may just need this guy some day.” Well that day came last month. In a nutshell, he was angling for a strategic partnership with another company and wanted a professional writer to work on the proposal. Long story short, I ended up putting in roughly 30 hours – including two back-to-back 10-hour days – over a five-day period at a most healthy hourly rate.
As we were wrapping up the thing on the second marathon day, he stopped, looked up and said (you’re going to love this…):
“It’s a amazing what a difference a professional writer makes. I think of all the times over the last 10 years (as long as he’s had his business) that I really could have used one, but tried to do it myself. It’s great to know I have a resource like this now.”
Seeing the impact a professional writer could make and seeing a proposal turn into an eloquent statement was nothing short of an epiphany for him. THIS is what we need to be communicating to people. No, not everyone will get it, so don’t waste your time beating your head against the wall trying to convince those who don’t. Just find the ones who do.
There will always be people who think writing is something anyone can do, and they’re not worth wasting your time on. But there are plenty of folks out there who, a) understand the value of a good writer, b) know they’re not one, and 3) realize good talent doesn’t come cheap.
True, it took my new client a long time to come to that realization, but I say it’s because he simply didn’t know how to go about finding one or that copywriters like us even existed. Meaning, that in 10 years, chances are excellent not one single commercial freelancer ever made contact with him.
The first time he was exposed to someone of that description, the idea resonated enough with him to have him cut out an article and set it aside. Remember, he didn’t hunt for just the right copywriter; he flagged the first and only one who’d crossed his path. But had he known HOW much a difference a good writer could make, I’d wager he wouldn’t have waited 18 months. And there are TONS of people like him out there.
Update #1: The proposal is moving along nicely, and he shared that his main contact person at the target company, someone, who according to him, is not the complimenting type, told him, “This is very well-written proposal.” Yes, I was part of a larger team, but we writers still love to hear stuff like that.
Update #2: He called me last week to jump on a crisis situation that had just cropped up in a completely different area, and in less than a week, I’d logged roughly 20 more hours. And there are three more projects on tap. With each project, I more firmly establish myself as a valued member of his team – not just a vendor.
None of this is said to toot my horn, but simply to share what’s out there and possible – even in a down economy. I’m telling you, I’m not doing anything more monumental than writing good persuasive copy for letters and proposals. That said, do I think that any $10-an-article, content-mill writer could do what I do for him? Absolutely not. But any good, strategic-minded commercial freelancer well schooled in marketing? I’d bet on it.
Have you had any similar situations?
What sorts of things have you had delighted clients say to you?
Based on these experiences, how would you describe what a good freelance copywriter brings to the right kind of client? What skills are most crucial?
How hard/easy do you feel it is to deliver those things?