This Fallacy Trips Up a Lot of Writers (and Limits Their Income…)

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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14 replies
  1. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    This is a perfect lead-in to Lori Widmer’s Writers Worth month in May. 😉 Because isn’t that what it boils down to? Until we come to grips with what our services are worth, we will continue to struggle with rates. And as much as I’d like to say I’ve solved that issue, I can’t.

    I am far better with the topic than I used to be but there are still times where I could kick myself as I hear me justifying rates (usually with a couple of long-time clients from my early days). I’ve had the “Aha” moment when I sent what I was sure was a “too-high” rate only to be knocked over by their quick acceptance.

    That has helped me going forward as I no longer blink when someone says my fees are too high. I no longer feel the need to justify – except with those early clients – why is that? Anyone have a couch? 😉 I now feel incredible relief when I get turned down over a rate issue as I know chances are that client would have always battled over rates. And that’s a battle I no longer care to participate in.

  2. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    Here’s something that we freelancers often either fail to do or are afraid to do… ask about the client’s budget. Which is odd because clients have no problem asking us about our prices. In the scenario Peter presents, the client apparently had a very clear budget, but the writer had no idea what it was.

    If the client’s budget is unrealistic or in a range that isn’t worth my time, I may not want to waste time putting together a proposal.

    We get stuck in this game: you ask for budget info, and they’re coy. They’re afraid that if they say their upper limit is $5,000, you’ll come back and say, “What a coincidence! That’s how much I was going to charge!” You, on the other hand, don’t want to charge a price that is well below what the client would have been willing to pay.

    The client doesn’t want to be taken advantage of, and neither do we. But in my own experience and in talking with others, we’re the shy ones… so afraid of losing a client that we don’t ask some basic questions. Questions about their budget should not be considered odd by the client or offensive.

    I usually have a string of basic question when a prospect calls that gives me some clues about whether we might be a good fit. Budget is one of them.

  3. Henry Alpert
    Henry Alpert says:

    I agree with Peter that that brochure price seems on the low side to me. I also agree with Mike that you should ask for a budget first. Likely, the prospect will say “We don’t have a budget,” and then you can use those ballpark figures as a starting point, and you can say, “Are you thinking about $500; $1,000; $2,000?” Feel them out.

    In addition, that $650-$735 range seems odd to me. It’s such a small range. Why not just say $735? And if you’re going to say $735, just round it up to $750. That worrying over small dollar amounts says “inexperienced” to me. (I know because I made the same mistake when I was just starting out.)

    To the email writer: If you develop more confidence in your pricing, your clients will feel more confident about hiring you.

  4. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    I generally agree with Henry in terms of feeling out a client if they say they don’t have a budget. But I also know that “We don’t have a budget” goes on the list of Lies Prospects May Tell You. Not everyone, of course, but a healthy number for sure. And it goes back to not wanting to show their hand.

    I tend to see this more with prospects that don’t want to chat by phone. They’re e-mailing lots of people trying to get a rock-bottom price, and will refuse to talk by phone or give you more than the bare minimum amount of details. And “budget” isn’t in that category. I often send those people straight to eLance or a similar site. (And that’s not a knock on eLance as I think it serves a good purpose.)

    There are prospects who really don’t have a clue how much anything costs. This is new for them and you can raise their opinion of you if you take the time to walk them through options they might not have thought of. In fact, you can help them create the budget. But I find those are people who are willing to spend some time on the phone and give you details of what they’re thinking and able to afford.

    Hope we’re not straying off topic, but I think Henry raised a good point on how to deal with a very common statement from prospects when it comes to budgets.

  5. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all,

    Great comment, Cathy! Key comment: “And that’s a battle I no longer care to participate in.” That’s the key. As the old sales adage reminds, “He who cares least wins.” If you’re just not interested in convincing someone of your worth—for whatever reason—that puts you in a great bargaining position. And that IS the goal of longevity in this business – to be able to pick and choose who you want to work with and they type of work you want to do.

    And let’s face it – as much as we hate to have to “justify” our rates to clients, if it’s a new client who”s rarely/never hired a freelancer, they may just not realize the value a freelancer brings. Yes, that argues for only dealing with prospects who understand the value of folks like us, and are already sold on hiring out their writing.

    But, let’s face it, we all end up in slow periods (yes, even those of us who’ve been at a long time, though, happily, that’s not the case at ALL right now; I’m swamped!), and as such, we may have to do a bit of selling from time to time. I don’t lament that; I just deal with it, and over time, the longer you’re at this, the fewer times that’ll happen.

    Mike’s second comment touches on this sentiment. If you’re dealing with an inexperienced copywriting buyer, by educating them on the process, you can definitely boost their confidence in and respect for, you. AND often make more than you might have thought.

    Thanks, Mike as always! And yes, I’m a BIG fan of asking the client what their budget is. It’s all in the delivery. If you ask like it’s the most naaaaatural thiiiiing in the woooorld, they’ll think it is, and with a frequency that might surprise you, they’ll tell you. But, ask it like you’re trying to get away with something, and in turn, they’ll sense that, and probably clam up.

    As for your $5K example, I hope most people know to NEVER reply like that (“That’s exactly what I was going to say.”) If they do tell you, and it IS about what you hoped, or even better, far more than you hoped (and that right there is the #1 reason to ask, to save ourselves from our own doubting, insecure, low-balling selves…), always say something like this (after a long pondering pause), “That sounds decent; I need to crunch some numbers, but I think we’re close.”

    Yes, this is a game, and you want someone left with the idea that you’re being paid a fair wage for a project. If they sense they left money on the table, it can set up all sorts of resentments that can show up later in the project.

    Thanks Henry – appreciate your weighing in. Actually, I left out (in the interest of brevity, though in retrospect, I should have included it) the part in the original story where she said in her email to me, “I asked the client what her budget was, and she couldn’t tell me!” Sounds like a flaky client to me, AND, maybe, it was in how she asked, who knows?

    I don’t necessarily agree that offering a range smacks of inexperience. I did just that for most of my career, and never had pushback. It’s a nod to the fluidity of any job, and how unforeseen circumstances can throw a curve, so a cushion lets you absorb those curves in the road (geez, how many metaphors can one cram into one sentence! 😉

    Seriously, another plus to a range is that, if a client signs off on the range, they’re essentially saying they’re OK with the upper end of the range. I may estimate a bit more intentionally, and if the job goes as predicted, and I don’t need that extra cushion, I can charge them less at the end. And THAT will always endear you to a client. AND, all that said, these days, I generally use firm figures in my estimates.

    Great ideas here. Anyone else?


  6. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Great topic Peter!

    It’s a shame that every year there seem to be more of these rate-setting guides online. One organization’s or website’s survey, based on a limited and often-skewed sample, shouldn’t set your rates.

    I generally suggest that new writers figure out what they really need to earn first. Even before we get into premiums and the competition, I find that many new freelancers don’t understand basic issues like freelance income being different than their past employee salaries or the fact that not all of their working time will be billable. Only after they realistically assess their basic needs and wants and figure out what they have to charge to reach those goals do I suggest they look at competitors.

    Base rates first. Then decide if your credentials or experience warrant a premium on top of that. Then look at competitors in that same price range to see how you measure up and what kinds of clients are working with them, and tweak things if necessary. That’s my general process. Rate charts never factor into the equation.

  7. Laurie Wink
    Laurie Wink says:

    As the writer of the initial email, I really appreciate Peter’s quick response to my message and have learned a lot from the subsequent comments. Although there isn’t a “copywriting industry,” I feel like I am part of a supportive community. I am a seasoned writer and therefore know that I am fully capable of taking on a variety of jobs and doing them efficiently. Since I wasn’t given a budget, I proposed what I thought was a decent rate and figured we’d discuss the particulars. The frustrating thing was that she didn’t call and have a conversation about it. She just went ahead and hired someone else for an unknown fee that evidently met her requirements (of course she had a budget!). That brings me to the point Jenn made about looking at competitors in the same price range to see how you measure up and what kinds of clients they work with. If I was able to do that, I probably wouldn’t have written to Peter. It’s the black hole of going rates and not knowing who the competition is that is the issue!

  8. James Palmer
    James Palmer says:

    Even if a rate sheet for a certain area exists, it won’t help this freelancer. He or she should have asked about the client’s budget first, so they could stay within that if possible. Since it was a university, the client might be forced to always take the lowest bid, something every freelancer should avoid. There is always someone willing to do it cheaper. BTW, I thought the quote was an odd range, and I would have charged a bit less, but that’s just me. I also haven’t had any copywriting work in over a year, because I got tired of dealing with lowball clients.

    Sometimes it has nothing to do with mindset. I know what I’m worth and I charged accordingly, but that doesn’t mean I got the job. Sometimes you’re stuck with who contacts you, no matter what level of clients you are targeting with your marketing. The clients who can afford your fees may not think you’re good enough, while those who can only afford to pay $100 for you to set up their entire email marketing funnel just love your work. At least that’s been my experience.

  9. Henry Alpert
    Henry Alpert says:

    Peter – Just to clarify, I don’t think providing ranges are bad and smack of inexperience. Often, they’re necessary, particularly for larger projects without well-defined edges. In this case, however, it seemed odd to me because the project just entailed a single brochure and also because the range was so small and entailed the high-end $735. I feel it sends a stronger, more confident message to say, my fee for this project is $700 (or whatever).

    Regarding asking for a budget, the client probably doesn’t have a line item in a spreadsheet already defined, but if you say, “Were you thinking of $500 or $5,000?”, they’ll probably have a reaction to that.

  10. Jenn Mattern
    Jenn Mattern says:

    Hi Laurie,

    I’m sorry if I wasn’t clear in my previous comment. I don’t suggest blindly trying to identify competitors in order to figure out the right rates to charge. I only suggest looking at the competition when you already have a rate in mind.

    That comes from figuring out what you need first: what will cover your business expenses, help you reach your personal financial goals, etc., and within the number of billable hours you expect to work. That’s your base hourly rate. Once you have that, you can look at competitors and see what others charging similar rates have going for them. If they’re less experienced, working for lower-budget markets than you’d like to target, or have fewer credentials, then you’re in a good position to tack on a premium.

    After doing that, again you’d look for competitors, but this time in your adjusted rate range. And once you have an hourly target — what I refer to as my “get out of bed rate” — it can be adapted to a project rate based on time estimates after you’ve gotten details from your clients.

    So looking for similar competitors is something you’d only do after you have a rate in mind. It’s more about making sure your rates are realistic than anything, and letting you know if you’re in a prime position to add a premium to your rates.

    I have a calculator that might help you come up with your base rates. I suggest clicking the link near the top of it to switch to the advanced mode. That’s the one that lets you input all of your expenses, savings goals, planned time off, etc. to figure out how much you’ll need to earn on average just to cover those basics. Then competitive research can help you adjust from there.

  11. Lori
    Lori says:

    Great topic per usual, Peter. This one strikes close to home in many ways.

    First, thank you, Cathy, for the shout out. 🙂 In fact, it was a post on one of my Writers Worth Month events that I’m about to reference. Walt Kania, who has a nicely irreverent way of looking at our profession, posted the dirty little secret about pricing — you raise your rates just by doing it. Damn. How simple is that? In his post on my blog, Walt says price is mostly in our heads. How true.

    To your questions:
    Whenever I’ve used pricing guides (specifically those printed in places like Writer’s Market), I come away thinking “Wow. How can anyone make a living charging those measly prices?” And that’s when I decide to do the math. Recently, I worked with a long-time client on a need-it-yesterday project that would require my working a weekend. It was proofreading. I gave them a price of $3,000. They accepted.

    Easiest $3,000 I’ve ever made. And they sent multiple notes thanking me for my “excellent” work finding some critical errors. They were happy. I was happy.

    Had I priced it out by following guides, I’d have made maybe 800 bucks at the most. Yep. Happy I quoted from my gut!

    My “Aha!” moment came a number of years ago at a trade show. I was already piled high with projects to do (seven that month) and another client came to me and asked my rate. I doubled it. They accepted. Later that night I did a happy dance in my hotel room, and I never looked back. I’d already begun to realize my skills were specialized and therefore worth more. That incident cemented it.

    I think too often we let client reactions cast doubt on our abilities. Last year, I had a client prospect say to me “Good luck to you. Your pricing is outrageous.” That would have destroyed the old Lori who was new to freelancing. This Lori looked at three other clients paying my prices and funneling me regular projects and shook it off. One guy’s inability to pay (and inability to act like a professional) doesn’t define me. Nor does the woman who just said recently “I can only afford $50/hour.” Then I’m not your writer. If the focus is on the hourly rate and not on the project rate you’ve already said sounded fair, then I can’t work with you.

    That, to me, is the kind of attitude we need to adopt. Just like there are shoes that don’t fit, there are clients who won’t fit.

  12. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I think it’s important to note that we’re living in a “have email, will travel” world in which a freelancer in any given part of the country can write for anyone, anywhere. If you live in an area where the expected rates are lower, I’d say charge at the top of whatever the scale seems to be. That way you get the best of both worlds — you’re pricing yourself as an elite writer in your neck of the woods, and at the same time you’re looking like the bargain of the century to a client in New York or LA.

    Another point: One price does not fit all, even within a geographic area. You may want to charge wholesale rates to marketing outsourcers (so they’ll have room to mark up/resell your services) and retail rates to business owners who hire you directly.

  13. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, Jenn! Yeah, I never understood rate-setting guides, based on, as you say, a small sampling. A few years back, one fairly prominent rate survey based its findings on responses from just over 100 writers! Why would you make important income decisions based on such a small sampling.

    And yes, it’s good to have some idea of what fellow writers are charging (and thanks to my small writers group of commercial writers with whom I interact frequently, I have a pretty good idea of how competitive my rates are), but I’m not going to try to ferret out a bunch of writers to make sure I’m in line. And thanks for the calculator – useful tool!

    Thanks, Laurie, for weighing in (and my apologies for not letting you know I’d written about you, but glad you made your way over here). And hey, that’s the way it goes in this business sometimes. Another thing: You have no idea what other factors were at play in that situation, so no use in getting frustrated over somebody else’s actions (whether a client or another writer). All we can do is the best we can do, given the circumstances under which we’re operating.

    Which is why the comment from James is so true: they may have been forced to go with the lowest-priced writer, and there will always be a lower-priced writer. The key is to never play the price game, and you do that by working with clients who understand the value that a professional writer brings, and are willing to pay for it. And James, had to laugh at your comment about how the clients paying little always love your work; of course they do!

    Thanks Henry, for clarifying. And, you might’ve missed in the original post, that the project was a brochure and three cover letters, making a range of little more understandable. That said, I agree with you that giving a firm number is never a bad thing.

    Thanks, Lori! Always good to see you over here. And yes, how simple to just say, “I’m raising my rates.” Marcia Yudkin, in one issue of her Marketing Minute, addressed this some years back, pondering why freelancers feel the need to justify a price hike, when precious few other businesses out there do. All comes down to that fundamental insecurity so many writers have (and truth be known, something I still wrestle with from time to time), as if they’re just happy to be there, and don’t want to rock the boat.

    Just as importantly, if you’re charging by the project, not hourly (which I say you HAVE to do, for so many reasons), then do you ever really even have to tell a client you’re raising your rates? Obviously, if you’re doing the exact same type of project over and over (i.e., case studies of X length) for a particular client, you’ll need to let them know that your price for that is going up.

    But, otherwise, if you’re doing a variety of work for a variety of clients, are they going to be able to discern that your hourly rate (which should only be an internal basis of calculation, assuming you’re charging by the project) went up?

    But, as Marcia pointed out in her piece, you can always offer your existing price for their next project, only raising your price for them after that project. Again, no apologies, just a statement of fact.

    And don’t you love it when you offer a far higher price that normal (which tells me you were ready to walk if they said no, which puts you in THE ideal bargaining position…), and the client goes for it?

    Think about what that means: It’s proof positive that our clients (the good ones, anyway) have a far better handle on what we should be charging than we do.

    This affirms a truth a learned a long time ago: Sometimes, we need to ignore our own voices (which, more often than not, are self-limiting) and listen to those of people around us, because what others think about us and our offerings are usually far more accurate than what we come up. As that wonderful saying reminds:

    “Your own mind is dangerous neighborhood. Don’t go there alone.” 😉

    Thanks, William for the reminder: Yes, there’s nothing keeping any freelancer from living in a place with a lower cost of living, and prospecting in places where clients expect to pay more.

    As for your second point, yes, while it’s not at all uncommon to have different pricing for “middlemen” (allowing them, as you say, to mark you up), I’ve actually rarely ever had to lower my price for designers or marketers working with third-party clients. Some do mark me up, even at my higher rates, but others don’t, OR sometimes even let me bill the client directly.

    Point being, don’t assume you’ll have to charge a middleman a lower rate, and as such, proactively offer to do so. Assume you won’t have to, and then address any request that comes your way.

    Great discussion!


  14. Lori
    Lori says:

    Peter, that rate just slipped out. I don’t know what possessed me, but I had just given her a list of project rates and then I followed with “For everything else, $XXX an hour.”

    I’m still kicking myself. But I have a feeling we weren’t going to come to an agreement. So no loss. But I will see her at the trade show next week, and I intend to introduce myself. One more person knowing I exist isn’t a bad thing. 🙂

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