How Much is Your Writing Expertise Worth?

Photo Credit: Mira Pangkey via CC (Flickr)

Photo Credit: Mira Pangkey via CC (Flickr)

You know what I really don’t like? When a client asks how many hours it’ll take me to complete a project. Why? Because, more often than not, they’re using that information to determine what they’re willing (or able) to pay me. Their calculations are based on an hourly rate—not on what the value of the work is.

Let’s look at a possible scenario: A client comes to you asking for copy for an eblast. You’re a pretty fast writer. So, it might only take you an hour to finish the assignment. If your hourly rate is $70—you’d get paid $70 for your work. But, does that represent the true value of the eblast copy? What if that eblast helps your client bring in leads for thousands or tens of thousands of dollars worth of new business? That $70 pales in comparison, particularly when you realize that taxes still have to come out of that fee. It’s simply paying your for your time—not your expertise or your strategic insight.

Now—let’s be fair—it’s not our clients’ fault for asking about hours. They’re just doing their job. Putting budgets together by figuring out how many hours everyone will be contributing to a project makes sense—at least for the client. It provides cost predictability and a simple (although not necessarily accurate) way to track progress. So, I get why they ask freelance writers and other contractors for hours. But, here’s why I don’t like it:

Rarely do I hear, “How many hours will you need to develop the highest quality product for us?” Instead, it’s often, “I know this is last minute, but can you get this to us by tomorrow?” In other words, they want the highest quality product created and delivered in the fewest number of hours. And, because we don’t want to lose the opportunity, what do many of us say? We reply, “Sure! No problem?” By doing that, we’re hoping to be seen as the freelance writer who doesn’t give them any problems, who is there for them for whatever they need, and who is willing to do whatever it takes. Our hope is that our willingness to do more work for less money and in less time will demonstrate our loyalty and dependability—setting us apart from other writers they could bring in. But, does it do that? I don’t think so. Instead, it ultimately weakens our negotiating position and continues to reinforce the VERY wrong assumption that writers offer a commodity product.

Here are the reasons why quoting an hourly fee—particularly one that’s in the lower range—can be bad for your writing business:

1. If you start with a lower hourly fee, it’s going to make it difficult to ever raise your rates with that client. When you quote an initial hourly rate, it’s understandable that a client would think that’s what you believe is fair. How many times has a client every acted surprised by how low your rate is and suggested that you significantly increase it? Yep. That’s what I thought.

2. Take another look at the example at the beginning of this post. When you consider such a scenario—which isn’t an uncommon one—can you see how it has the potential to lessen the value of what you do and what we do collectively as writing professionals? We have to earn the respect of our clients and of the business world in general. And part of doing that is ensuring that you get paid for value—not simply for time.

3. Charging by the hour limits your income. There are only so many hours in the day—and, unless you’re superhuman—you’re not going to be doing billable work during all 24 of them. Again, taking that eblast copy job used in our earlier example, what if you were to charge a flat fee of $350 for it based on the concept of value? Suddenly, your income potential increases significantly if you apply that to most or all of the projects that come your way.

4. If you quote a lower hourly fee to a client, odds are you’re eventually going to become frustrated with that client and the work you’re doing for them. And, you’re also more likely to struggle financially. There’s nothing much worse that working your butt off and still feeling that very painful pinch of financial hardship at the end of the day.

So, what can you do to make sure you don’t fall into the trap of working by the hour? Here are a few suggestions:

1. Charge a flat fee based on value. There are pricing guides out there that can help you determine what a fair flat fee would be for different projects. (I’ll be putting one together for Page-Turners, too. So, stay tuned.) Also, if you have a friend and/or colleague who works in the field you’re writing for, consider asking what his or her company would be willing to pay a writer for a particular project.

2. If a client insists on working under an hourly fee arrangement, then do two things:
Set your hourly fee at the higher end of the fee spectrum for your level of expertise.
AND
Make sure you estimate the number of hours not on how fast you can write—but on how long it will take you to create a superior product.

3. If a client doesn’t like your estimate (whether it’s a flat or hourly fee) and has indicated they won’t be able to pay you a fair price for the work you’ll be expected to do—don’t take the job. Yes—I know it can be hard to turn work down. But, what I’ve found is that it’s typically the best choice for me and my business—not to mention my sanity!

As professional freelance writers, we want to distinguish ourselves on the value we bring—not how low we can go on our pricing. The latter is a game anyone can play. But, the former is one that requires business savvy, professional confidence, and a renewed sense of self-worth. And you are worth it!

The Business of Writing: Are You In?

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For many of us who write for a living—either on the side or as a full-time career—there have been times when we’ve wanted to stand on a rooftop and shout to the top of our lungs, “I’M IMPORTANT, TOO!” Unlike engineers or architects or surgeons or other professionals who are viewed as being able to do those amazing things that the rest of us can’t even begin to understand, writers are often viewed as a commodity. I mean, everyone can write—right? Uh—no. They can’t. But, you can. So, how do you command fees that reflect the value of what you do and the experience you have? And how to you gain the level of respect that other elite professionals seem to obtain so easily? You do it by rethinking what it means to be a freelance copywriter or business writer. Simple? Not necessarily. Possible? You better believe it.

I’ve started The Page-Turner Mission because I believe that—as copywriters and business writers—we have something unique to offer to our clients. We are the storytellers of the world. We tell the stories of businesses, of organizations, of causes, of people. And that’s an incredibly powerful skill—one that you can leverage both financially and professionally—when you start thinking like an entrepreneur rather than a struggling artist.

Not long ago, I was sitting in a breakout session of freelance writers at a conference. I went into it thinking I was going to hear about all of the interesting ways my fellow freelancers were marketing themselves, making a difference in the lives and businesses of their clients, and finding new revenue streams in our ever-expanding digital world. But—it didn’t take long for my expectations to be dashed, stomped on and swept out the door. Most of what I heard from this talented group of folks included comments like these:

“I love what I do, but I really don’t think I’ll ever be able to make a decent living chasing down freelance gigs.”

“There are SO many writers out there. I’m just one more—so why should anyone choose me over the others?”

“No matter what I do, I just can’t seem to find clients who really appreciate what I do. Instead, they’re always trying to get me to go lower on my fees.”

For me, it felt like a great big therapy session full of people who would rather whine about how everything sucks rather than taking an honest look at what they were doing and searching for solutions that would lead them to a better place. Instead of leaving that session feeling like I had made a whole bunch of new connections—I left feeling like I had heard a secret that they hadn’t. And that “secret” is that freelance writers can make a damn good living if they’re talented AND if they:

• Promote themselves based on the benefits they provide their clients rather than the commoditized product (writing) they’re selling.

• Look for projects in markets that are used to paying (and are willing to pay) higher feeds.

• Consistently, diligently and strategically market themselves through a variety of channels and platforms.

• Developing a strong lead generation program and process.

• Remain open to new ways of using their writing skills to create revenue streams.

• Shift their mindset from one of “I’m just a struggling writer” to one where they know it’s possible to make a great living (think six figures) with their words.

• Find ways to provide value to clients beyond just writing.

Here at The Page-Turner Mission, we’re going to be exploring these areas (as well as others) and finding ways to get really good at each of them. One of the really great things about being a writer is that you’re always learning something new. There’s a lot of “new” for us to test drive out there. New strategies. New tactics. New ideas. Different things will work for different people when it comes to building your business. And, together, we’ll find out what those things are and how we can help each other create the Page-Turner careers and lives we’re meant to have.