Skip to main content

Flat Fees vs. Hourly Rates

Forget charging by the hour. When writing copy, billing a flat rate can score you clients. by Art Spikol

“What’s your hourly rate?”

That’s a question I hear a lot in my business. But an hourly rate isn’t the best way to determine how my costs will coincide with my clients’ budgets. In fact, it can hurt both the writer and the client.

I’m not talking, necessarily, about the kind of writing that’s normally discussed in Writer’s Digest. I’m talking about the “other” writing that many of us already do—print ads, radio and television spots, brochures, billboards, annual reports, newsletters, news releases, websites and the like. That’s my business, and I’ve done it for major corporations like AT&T, SmithKline Beecham and Cigna, in addition to educational, healthcare, environmental and scientific institutions, and their ad agencies.

If that’s what you do—or would like to do—you may think an hourly rate is a solid way to agree on compensation. Actually, it’s one foot in the quicksand of negotiation. It raises the question, “How many hours will this job take?”

An hourly rate always comes with the likelihood of somebody getting hurt. If you’re slow, the client pays too much. If you’re fast—assuming you’re honest about it—you earn less than the slowpoke, which, of course, is absurd. Being a fast, dependable writer usually involves how much experience you bring to the table. The more experience, the faster you’re likely to be. That shouldn’t cost you—it should pay you.

If it takes you only an hour to write a brochure that would take someone else six hours, and your hourly rate is $100, you aren’t going to be crazy enough to bill only $100 for the whole brochure. You’ll decide what you want and figure out how to support it.

Every seller knows this. Every buyer suspects it.

Now consider the flat fee—a guaranteed price the client can depend on instead of one that varies according to the time involved. Psychology instead of economics.

Whatever your hourly rate might be, it will sound like a lot to some people and peanuts to others. Hourly rates cause anxiety, but with a flat fee, that worry is eliminated. If you estimate that a job will take 10 hours at $100 per hour, that’s $1,000—unless it takes you longer. To many clients, that sounds more risky than, say, a guaranteed $1,300 flat fee. It’s like the difference between an adjustable rate mortgage and a fixed-rate mortgage.

For me, hourly rates are too democratic—they treat all writers as equals, which we’re not. Cosmetic surgeons know this. If you inquire about a face lift (don’t take this personally), you’ll hear something like, “Hmm, let’s see, we can fill this in a little here and pull this up and back—you have very young skin, by the way—and add a little Botox around the eyebrows. Uh, $14,000 should do it.”

You don’t ask a cosmetic surgeon how many hours it will take. You don’t really care about the cost. It’s an abstraction, but your face is not, and you want it to be beautiful. As a writer, you’re a sort of surgeon yourself—a word surgeon. But words aren’t what you’re selling. You’re selling solutions.

Flat fees work because business doesn’t like surprises. No matter what else you’re offering, your first priority is to make your clients feel safe. If you can assure them that your invoice won’t change, that’s a value-added benefit.

There will be times when you must provide an hourly rate or lose the project. So provide it. Generally speaking, nobody should pay less than $50 per hour, and you can expect geography, competition and experience to have an impact on the fee.

Whenever I’m asked what my hourly rate is, I answer, “I don’t have an hourly rate. But I’ll give you something better: an exact price.”

I don’t worry about losing out to a lower bidder. There are lots of ways to lose a job, but self-confidence isn’t one of them. When clients negotiate, that usually means they want me. And if the job takes more effort than I anticipated, who cares—I got the job and, in some cases, a new client.

Then again, I’m pretty good at ball-parking my time. If you’re not—or if you haven’t freelanced advertising/marketing copy—the best way to learn the ropes and end up with samples is by working for an ad agency or corporation. If that’s not available, do some investigating. Check the Internet for freelance rates for the kind of writing you want to do. Talk to colleagues. And don’t forget that few assignments are ever as easy as they sound.
Learn how to develop article ideas magazine editors will find irresistible by considering:
Writer’s Digest Handbook Of Magazine Article Writing

Become a WD VIP and Save 10% on this book:
Get a 1-year pass to WritersMarket.com, a 1-year subscription to Writer’s Digest magazine and 10% off all WritersDigestShop.com orders! Click here to join.


Also check out these items from the Writer’s Digest’s collection:
Starting Your Career As A Freelance Writer
Freelance Basics – OnDemand Webinar
The Wealthy Writer
Writer’s Digest The Craft & Business Of Writing
Writer’s Digest Guide To Query Letters
Writer’s Digest No More Rejections
Writer’s Digest Weekly Planner

Writer’s Digest Magazine One-Year Subscription
Writer’s Digest Breaking Into Corporate Writing – On-Demand Webinar

Writer's Digest Interview | Marlon James Quote

The Writer's Digest Interview: Marlon James

Booker Prize–winning author Marlon James talks about mythology and world-building in his character-driven epic Moon Witch, Spider King, the second book in his Dark Star Trilogy in this interview from the March/April 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

writer's digest wd presents

WD Presents: New Podcast Episode, a Chance at Publication, and More!

This week, we're excited to announce our newest podcast episode, your chance to be published, and more!

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

David Adams Cleveland: On Truth Revealing Itself in Historical Fiction

Award-winning novelist David Adams Cleveland discusses the timeliness of his new novel, Gods of Deception.

Lisa Jewell | Writer's Digest Interview Quote

The WD Interview: Lisa Jewell

The New York Times-bestselling British author discusses creating thrilling plot twists and developing characters in her 19th novel, The Night She Disappeared, in this interview from the Jan/Feb 2022 issue of Writer's Digest.

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

5 Tips for Successfully Pitching Literary Agents in Person (That Worked for Me at the Writer’s Digest Annual Conference)

Author Anat Deracine found her agent at Writer’s Digest Annual Conference. Now she’s sharing what she’s learned to help other writers become authors. Here are her 5 tips for successfully pitching literary agents in person.

Tips for Reading Poetry in Front of an Audience

8 Tips for Reading Your Poetry in Front of an Audience

Poet's Market editor and published poet Robert Lee Brewer shares eight tips for reading your poetry in front of an audience.

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Plot Twist Story Prompts: Strength Lost

Every good story needs a nice (or not so nice) turn or two to keep it interesting. This week, let a character lose their powers.

Sharon Short | Point of View Quote 1

Managing Point of View: Mythbusting

In the first of this three-part series, novelist and WD columnist Sharon Short breaks down 7 of the most common myths about choosing which POV is right for your story.

Channel Your Inner Authorpreneur for Your Writing Labor of Love

Channel Your Inner Authorpreneur for Your Writing Labor of Love

As self-publishing continues to become an attractive and popular options for writers, it’s important to know what you’re getting into and to have the right expectations. Here, author and entrepreneur Tom Vaughan shares how to channel your inner “authorpreneur” to help your book find its readers.