The Two Rules for Successful Freelance Pricing

Today’s guest post is from Laurie Lewis, who has had a freelance medical writing business for more than
25 years. She is the author of
What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for
Freelancers and Consultants.

I know a guest should be gracious to a hostess, so I hate to disagree with Jane. But I dispute her premise that there are no rules. When it comes to discussing freelance fees with a client, as I see it, there are two rules.

If you follow both of these rules, you’re guaranteed to be satisfied with the price. If you break either rule when pricing a job, well, just ask experienced freelancers to share stories about their worst work experiences from a financial perspective, and you’ll likely hear an infraction of Rule No. 1 or Rule No. 2.

Silence Is Golden
Usually toward the end of your initial exchange with a client about a prospective writing job, money enters the picture. The client either will tell you what the job pays or will ask what you want for the assignment. Either way, the best response is to say nothing.

You don’t want to be rude, of course, so you won’t literally say nothing. You might say something like, “May I get back to you?” If the client wants an immediate response, explain that you have a scheduled interview, and you’ll call or e-mail back as soon as it is over.

Then, without the pressure of the client breathing into the phone or looking over your digital shoulder, take time to analyze the job thoroughly.

  • Think of everything the client said about the job.
  • Think of what the client didn’t say, tasks or issues that might come up as you do the work. This process not only clarifies the assignment but also helps you arrive at a fair fee.
  • Consider what you, and other freelancers you know, have made in the past for similar jobs. Were you content with your earnings, or did you deserve more?
  • Anticipate the amount of time the job might take. Toy with different methods of pricing. How much do you want to earn per hour? What would be fair as a total project fee? What is a good page or word rate for this market?

Once you’ve gone through this process, you might realize that the job is worth a lot more than you—or the client—originally thought. I don’t know about you, but when this happens to me, I get a bit panicky. I worry that the client won’t want to pay what I know the job merits. It means we’ll have to—horror of horrors!—negotiate.
Know Your Bottom Line
Like most writers, you probably don’t enjoy haggling over money. But you also don’t want to be a sap and accept without discussion whatever the client is willing to pay. On the other hand, you likely fear that if you are too demanding, you’ll price yourself out of a job. To get over this hurdle, you need to arm yourself with a negotiating strategy.

  • First, come up with a fair fee.
  • Then, figure out the lowest fee you’ll accept. Do you want to counter with this fee immediately, or would you prefer to lower your price in stages, on the chance the client will blink first?
  • And what would you like as compensation for accepting a reduced fee?

Suppose the client’s budget is set, and you really really really want a job that pays peanuts. You might be able to salvage it with head held high by negotiating something not preceded by a dollar sign. What besides the small check will make this a good deal for you? For writers, a byline or opportunity to promote your other writing can be a valuable bonus, even though you can’t deposit it at the bank. Beginning writers may be willing to sacrifice decent pay for a chance to develop a portfolio of clips, especially from prestigious publications.

Don’t Speak Too Soon
What I’ve said thus far can be summarized in the two rules—the only rules, in my humble opinion—for successful freelance pricing. Both rules concern when to talk money with a client.

The first rule cautions against blurting out a price when the client first brings it up.

Rule No. 1
Don’t get cornered into naming your price too soon. Find out as much as you can about the job. Then take time to assess it thoroughly and determine the best rate.

The second rule extends the timeline before stating your fee and reminds you to develop a negotiating plan.

Rule No. 2
Figure out the lowest acceptable rate and the concessions you want if you have to go that low. Never agree to work for less than you know a job is worth, even if it means walking away without the work.

These rules may sound as if the freelancer is in charge of setting the price. In reality, writers often have no choice; the client dictates the fee, and it is not open for discussion. But the rules work in that case too. When the client tells you the price, don’t react immediately. Decide if it is fair; if not, and you want the job, figure out how to negotiate to make it a good deal for you.

I’ve been trying to live by these rules for more than two decades as a full-time freelancer. The only times I haven’t been happy with my earnings were when I locked in a price too soon or accepted what the client offered even though I knew it was too little. When I’ve followed these rules, I’ve always been satisfied that I’m running my business well.

Laurie LWhat-to-Charge.pngewis has had a freelance medical writing business for more than 25 years. She is the author of What to Charge: Pricing Strategies for Freelancers and Consultants. You’ll find much more about the only two rules of freelance pricing in the book. The second edition was just published; it is available in both print and Kindle formats.

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10 thoughts on “The Two Rules for Successful Freelance Pricing

  1. Steven M Moore

    Hi Laurie…and Jane,
    I’ve followed this discussion, find it interesting, and believe that the rules probably apply to commissioned fiction short stories for magazines. I haven’t received any offers like that yet, but I’ll keep them in mind. The bottom line, I guess, is for freelancing anything, you have to be your own agent. Great thread….

  2. Donald Thurmur

    Your two rules are perfect … I broke them when I weighed my love for writing and a by-line against "cost per hour." But I also anticipated if my work was accepted and helped this publication succeed, in the long run, I would benefit. Young, foolish and naive. Now my goal is "top dollar" and don’t feel a missed opportunity is defeat.

  3. Tom Bentley

    Both of the rules are solid. Holding your cards close to the vest before throwing them down is a sound way to maintain a strong position in the bargaining, even if, as you say, you don’t really have a choice at some levels. But you do have a choice to have a voice in the process, and in being heard, you might bring your client closer to your point of view (and price).

    And knowing when to walk away (from holding steady to your lowball price) is great stuff, particularly if you apply your buffer of recognizing there might be other bargaining points than strictly money. Thanks for setting it out so clearly.

  4. Michele Dortch

    Excellent advice Laurie! Pricing can be challenge for freelancers, especially those just getting started. I’ve found that the longer I’ve been doing this, the better I understand (and appreciate) the value I deliver my clients. And that makes me much better at your Rule #2: knowing what I’m worth and when to walk away. Thank you!

  5. Mahesh Raj Mohan

    I agree wholeheartedly with Rule #2. That strategy works pretty well for me. Rule #1 only works if I am being contacted about a job where the work is unfamiliar. If someone contacts me for the type of work that I’ve done before, I feel pretty confident talking about price without a time gap. But your mileage may vary!

  6. Deborah "LeafRiverWriter" Lucas

    Great advice. It reminds me of 1971 when I was taught to sell Arizona swamp land in a banquet room down the hall from a major Las Vegas Casino — "make the close (ask them to buy, give them the price, ask them to sign on the dotted line, or whatever) and shut up! The next person to speak loses." This is an extreme case, and I don’t like the idea that in every sale the customer is a loser, but the concept is strong, and has been echoed by my husband who has worked in manufacturing sales for over thirty years. It takes self-confidence, or maybe just "guts" but whatever you call it, if you are a beginner at the sales game, try this: fake it ’til you make it! Sales is a basic in every business. It just takes practice. I hear at every writer’s conference I attend how much everyone hates the business of writing, the selling and marketing and building of platform. You have three choices, folks. Learn it, hire it out, or find a job somewhere that doesn’t involve sales. If you want the joy and liberty of working for yourself, you must choose from the first two; if you have limited funds (like me) you have but one choice–bite the bullet and give it a try. It does get easier. Another "sales" standard is "every no is one step closer to a yes!"

  7. Perry

    I agree with your two rules. I am a project management consultant and I use these rules. Taking the time to figure out what the job really entails, and then feeling out my bottom and top price has always worked for me. I never feel like I’ve given too much up, and my clients never have a problem with the cost of the work. So whether you are quoting for a few hundred dollars of freelance copy writing, or a project worth tens of thousands, keep the two rules in mind.

  8. Lynn

    Excellent advice! Having taken commissions for almost 30 years, I agree with all that you’ve said. Every time I’ve panicked and let a customer talk me into a price I knew was not fair for the hours involved, I’ve regretted the choice and kicked myself for feeling desperate enough to agree to it. I’d say, "Know your worth." That’s not to say that we should be arrogant or inflexible, but price can indicate expertise. Do I want to be known as the cheapest in town? Once in a while a customer will say, "But so-and-so will do the work for half that," and whether it’s true or not, I simply say, "If you’re pleased with his work, that sounds like an unbelievable deal!" 😉

  9. Allan R, Wallace

    Having done a fair amount of negotiating, I’d say you’ve got it right. The only thing to further emphasize when negotiating is, if possible, get the other side to mention price first. You want to know the least they expect to pay, not tell them the most you hope to earn.