Writing Professionally: Rates and Negotiating Rates

In a recent conversation with somebody I’m mentoring about freelance writing, my friend asked the following question:

“How to you negotiate your freelance rates?”

It’s an important question for freelancers — and for those who hire us. It’s also the worst kind of question: too complex for a short answer, but so “squishy” that it’s hard to put together a long answer that’s meaningful or useful. Here’s my attempt.

Part One: Freelance Rates in the Market

First things first. You can’t ask for $1,000 a day to write blog posts for a small business. Our skill doesn’t demand that rate, and the customer base can’t afford it. Although a lot of wiggle room exists from assignment to assignment, here’s a breakdown of approximately average earnings:

  • Insulting. Some publishers want to pay 1c or less per word. Do not accept offers for this price point. You’ll make less than minimum wage. Worse, accepting those offers perpetuates the idea that this is a reasonable amount to pay for what we do.
  • Barter. Never work for free. But if your first assignment is in exchange for a gift certificate at the restaurant you wrote the menu for, or for free lessons at a karate school, there’s no shame in that. Big Exception: never write “for exposure.” Get exposure by seeing people post things they paid (or traded) for you to write. Another option here is guest posts on blogs with lots of traffic related to your own work. Consider this spending your time on marketing, not working for free.
  • Breaking In. There’s a wealth of writing opportunities out there that pay freelance rates between $15 and $50 for about 500 words (about 3-10 cents per word). A lot of it is with content mills, but some smaller “legitimate” publishers will pay about this amount. It’s not what you deserve, but can still add up to a decent living — if you take 30 minutes to write one, that’s $30 to $60 an hour. 
  • Professional. A portfolio of strong copy coupled with good references will land you jobs where you get $100 to 200 for a single blog or online article (about 10-20 cents per word). You’ll also start to get assignments with some of the mid-range national print publications, for about the same amount per word. At this rate, it’s possible to clear six figures if you’re willing to make it a real job. I used to work mostly at this tier, and made a solid middle-class living while working about three to four hours on weekdays.
  • High-Tier. You’re looking at 25-50c per word here. Leading magazines and websites pay about this much, as do lot of freshly capitaled startups. Somewhere between 6 and 10 years into your career, you should be getting most of your assignments in this range. This is my sweet spot these days, the work that allows me to take lower-paying assignments in markets I enjoy more.
  • Elite. I’ve completed a few dozen assignments at this level, and would love to do more. Rates of $1 per word for articles of several hundred or thousands of words are the norm here. Major national magazines, ghostwriting for major clients, and a few top online publishers pay these rates.

Keep in mind, these numbers are for nonfiction work. Fiction pays less because the market is more saturated, so it’s okay to write in exchange for contributor copies as you break in to that market.

Part Two: Negotiating Good Freelance Rates

When dealing with publications, you’re usually stuck accepting whatever their standard freelance rate is. At least at first. But with business clients, everything is negotiable. Sadly, not a lot of the writers I work with have a lot of experience or comfort with negotiating pay rates.

Though this skill takes a long time to learn and could fill a book on its own, here’s the short version of how to do it.

  • Step One: Know Your Price. I like to make between $100 and $150 per hour, which I do by bidding on work produced as opposed to dollars per hour whenever I can. I work quickly, despite my high-quality output, so I can usually make more per hour if I negotiate on that basis. Whether you go for an hourly or production base, start any negotiation by knowing what you’re willing to work for — and what offers you’ll walk away from.
  • Step Two: Know Their Price. In my experience, about 1/3 to 1/2 of the job listings will give you a ballpark idea of what they’re willing to pay. Of those who don’t, it’s about a 50/50 split between those who’ll tell you what they think and those who’ll ask you to answer first. It’s good to go into negotiations with this information, but I won’t risk a client by refusing to answer the question if it’s asked.
  • Step Three: Give a Range. If I have to answer first, I’ll give a range of about $100, for example “I usually get between $100 and $150 per item for the work you describe.” I say that the rates vary according to how much work is offered, and how interesting I find the project.
  • Step Four: Is That Your Final Answer? Your client will reply with a yes, a no, or a counter offer. From here, it’s just like haggling for everything else. Just remember that it’s not a competition — getting another dollar an hour out of a client isn’t as important as everybody feeling like they got a good deal. Just never go below your minimum price.

One last thing on this: I don’t believe good negotiation is when I seek to hammer the client into paying more than they’re happy with. That just leaves hard feelings. Instead, negotiate to a point where both parties are happy, but not entirely thrilled. That’s how you form the beginnings of a good long-term relationship.

Part Three: The Magic Words

I’m giving away a trade secret here, and it’s possible I’ll do worse on some negotiations moving forward, but I have a paragraph I always say when I’m asked how much I cost. It goes like this:

“I know how much I like to charge, but this sounds like a fun project so let’s find a way to make it work. Between you and me, what’s your budget on this?”

It’s a little cheesy, but it really works. One person recently asked my advice about freelance rates, and our conversation led to the conclusion she’d be happy doing a job for $500. I advised her to use that line, and her client opened with $2,000 for the same amount of work.

One last thing:
When negotiating freelance rates, always bid for the project as a whole. You want to get paid X dollars for an assignment of approximately Y words, or X cents per word written. 

The reason you want to do that is, within the first three years of your career, you will become so productive that your hourly rate is obscene. Those $200 assignments take me 45 minutes to 1 hour of actual sit-in-the-chair work. The rest is in noodling, experience and expertise. 

Nobody is going to agree to pay you $250 an hour to write words in your jammies. But they will pay market rate for the high-quality work you produce. As long as it’s excellent, it’s none of their business how long it took you to make it.