8 rules for setting your freelance copywriting fees

June 8, 2010 by Dean Rieck
Filed under: Freelancing 

freelance copywriting feesSetting fees causes most copywriting freelancers to break out in a cold sweat. Besides getting clients, it may be the most stressful thing copywriters have to do.

Ask for too much, and you’ll drive clients away. Ask for too little, and you’ll lose respect and reduce your income. To make matters worse, no two clients are ever the same. Some are willing to pay more, others less.

So what’s a freelance copywriter to do?

Over the years, I’ve struggled with this, made every possible mistake, and discovered these 8 rules for setting professional-level freelance copywriting fees.

1. Don’t underprice yourself. This is probably the most common mistake freelancers make, especially early in their career. There are at least four reasons this happens.

First, fees vary widely from writer to writer. There is no industry “standard.”

Second, most freelancers don’t make their entire fee schedule public. This makes it impossible to separate truth from hype about what copywriters actually charge.

Third, too many writers are brainwashed into thinking that their work has little value.

Fourth, many writers charge ridiculously low fees. This distorts the perception of both clients and writers and can make even moderate fees seem high by comparison.

The resulting confusion about fees creates stress and leads most freelancers to err on the side of caution, setting low fees which they think will please clients and attract more business.

But what really happens is that clients show little respect for copywriters with low fees and view their work as a commodity, rather than a valuable service.

To get you started, here are some typical freelance copy fees to consider. If you want more detailed information on copywriting fees, check out Pricing Your Writing Services by Steve Slaunwhite. Steve surveyed working copywriters and shows you what the pros are actually charging.

2. Use a project fee whenever possible. When you know how long a project will take, don’t anticipate too many changes, and have fairly clear objectives, you’re best off charging a flat fee. This lets you sell your expertise rather than your time and generally results in higher pay as your skill and speed increase.

Should you ever charge by the hour? Yes, but only for projects where you can’t determine the amount of work or time involved.

I covered project vs. hourly fees in more detail last year.

3. Use a “good-better-best” pricing strategy. Just because you can command a high fee for one project doesn’t mean you can get a high fee for another. To preserve the value of your core services and also take on a wider range of projects, you can use the “good-better-best” pricing strategy.

If you’re over a certain age, you remember this idea from the Sears tool department. Every item came in three versions, each with more features and a higher price tag as you moved from good to better to best.

For copywriting services, you can use a variation of this idea. Let’s say you specialize in writing instruction manuals for high-tech equipment. For this you would charge your premium fees.

But you may also write product packaging and brochures for these products. This is related to your work, but it isn’t your specialty, so your fees could be in the medium range.

If you write general purpose press releases or blog posts, you may charge a low fee because this isn’t your area of expertise, and you offer these services as a mere convenience to your clients.

4. Set a project minimum. There’s a certain amount of work that goes into any project, no matter what its size. Paperwork, phone meetings, billing, research, etc. If you take on projects below a certain dollar amount, you’re losing money.

It’s about “opportunity cost.” By taking time to do something that earns you $20 an hour when you normally make $50 an hour, for example, you are sacrificing the opportunity to do more profitable work.

I’ve found that I can’t take on any project, no matter how small, that pays less than $1,000. For you it may be more or less. Set your project minimum and stick to it.

5. Use a “fee range.” When I started out, I tried to nail down a set fee for every possible project. This gave me no wiggle room when creating quotes for various clients.

My solution was to establish a fee range, from high to low, for each type of project. Then when writing a quote, I could consider fee expectations, the difficulty of the project, and other factors to arrive at a fee within the range.

I also discovered that the fee range could help close sales. I could say, “I normally charge from $LOW to $HIGH, but I think this project is toward the lower end.” Clients seem to like that and feel they’re getting a deal.

6. Never discount your fees. If a client complains about your price, your first reaction will be to say, “Well, I’m flexible.” That’s a mistake. Not only does this eliminate your chances of getting your asking price, it sends a message that your prices aren’t real to begin with. Plus, it shows you’re hungry.

A client will sense this weakness and weasel a lower price out of you. You lose respect and money. If the price is really too high, let your client say so, then look for ways to adjust the amount of work you do. Never back off on price.

7. Don’t be a “Walmart” writer. You should not compete on price with other writers. That will only cut your profits, since most writers charge far too little. Clients who work with you only for a low price will leave you for a better price. Seek clients who want your expertise, experience, and skill. They will be more loyal and less stingy.

8. Keep testing your fee structure. Over time, you’ll come up with a fee schedule that works for you. But you can’t just set your fees and forget them. You must test and modify your fees regularly to respond to your market and attract the clients you want.

For example, early in my career, I wrote radio commercials for several Fortune 500 companies and got paid a relatively high four figure fee for each 30 or 60-second script.

I didn’t know at the time that what I earned was far higher than the norm. So as time went on, and I kept losing bids for radio projects, I had to lower my fee to a more reasonable level.

It works the other way too. Now and then, you should ask for more than you ordinary get for a particular project to see if you can bump up your fee to the next level. And you keep doing this until you feel you’ve reached the optimum level, where you are charging as much as you can before starting to lose clients.

Do you have a fee setting strategy that has worked for you? Leave a comment below and share it with me.

Related posts:

  1. Freelance fees: hourly or per project?
  2. Are you losing thousands in freelance fees to PayPal?
  3. Should you ask for freelance referral fees?
  4. The one simple secret for earning top freelance pay
  5. 7 elements of a solid freelance copywriting contract

>>> Subscribe to blog by RSS or E-mail

Smart Comments

15 Comments on 8 rules for setting your freelance copywriting fees

  1. Elizabeth on Jun 8th, 2010 9:22 am
  2. Ugh! I have such a difficult time establishing what I should charge. Currently I provide all the copy for the company I work for and would like to branch into freelancing. (Sales Reps have such an unsteady flow of income something more inspiring would be nice.) Thanks for the great post. I feel one step closer to putting my foot out there. :)

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Roseli A. Bakar, Dean Rieck. Dean Rieck said: Please RT: 8 rules for setting your freelance copywriting fees http://ht.ly/17F28a [...]

  3. Kathleen O'Connor on Jun 8th, 2010 11:02 am
  4. Hmmmm, I offer ready-made packages so people can buy directly from my site, so that gives me no wiggle room on most of the writing services I offer. And I wonder if the typical copywriting fees you mention are more appropriate for corporate clients. I get the feeling that many of the small business owners I work with could not afford to pay $500+ for a page of web copy. Or maybe I’m just targeting the wrong market! :)

  5. Dean Rieck on Jun 8th, 2010 11:59 am
  6. Kathleen,
    Like I said, prices are all over the lot. That’s what’s hard about setting fees. It also depends a lot on the client. Corporate clients pay much better because they have more money and they have more riding on your copy.

  7. Chris Mower on Jun 8th, 2010 3:00 pm
  8. Something to consider… I’ve worked for companies who have copywriters on staff. These companies make a minimum average of around $125/hour off their copywriters. They pay their copywriters anywhere from $20-$40/hour. That’s a mighty nice profit they’re getting off their writers.

    I cringe to think of all the people who are charging peanuts for their writing services. If a company feels confident enough to charge $125/hour for a copywriter’s services, as a freelancer, you should feel confident enough to do so as well.

  9. Dean Rieck on Jun 8th, 2010 3:48 pm
  10. Chris,
    Good point. And really, as a freelancer, you shouldn’t be trying to compete with in-house staff. You should be offering to help with work they can’t handle, special projects employees aren’t qualified for, etc.

    What’s really hard is dealing with companies that are used to hiring freelancers for squat. Guy called me recently and wanted me to write a sales letter for $75. That buys about 9 minutes of my time and I just couldn’t help him. He said he could get people to write letters for $55. Who ARE these people?

  11. Lucy Smith on Jun 8th, 2010 9:20 pm
  12. I had this problem when I started. My mistake was not having much confidence in my abilities, and basing my rate on what I got paid at my last job.

    When I had a spate of people saying, “Gosh, that’s reasonable” (that should ring alarm bells for anyone) and a big telling off from a business consultant about what I was charging, I hit Google and found a few copywriters in my country and sent them emails posing as a potential client. I then priced myself somehere in the middle of the range, so I’m more expensive (and therefore look more professional) than the obviously tinpot ones, yet realistic enough to be priced lower than the ones who’ve had 20+ years in major agencies.

    I’m still working on a proper pricing schedule, but feel more confident that I’m actually charging fairly, for clients and for myself.

  13. Dean Rieck on Jun 9th, 2010 10:46 am
  14. Lucy,
    I imagine a lot of writers set their freelance rates based on former jobs. Trouble is, you have to pay your own benefits, taxes, etc. and have no corporate support structure … and it’s nearly impossible to bill for 100% of your time. So you really have to at least double your “job” pay to stay at the same level when you freelance.

    Great input. Thanks.

  15. Michelle on Jun 22nd, 2010 12:01 pm
  16. I dont post my fees on my website but I do post my pricing policies. This has worked very well because I can use it as a “filter” of sorts to elimate cheap clients or the dreaded price negotiators. When I get a new prospect calling me for services I specifcally ask them if they have read my pricing policies and if not I ask them to.

    This has helped weed out a lot of clients who can not afford my services and help me make a lot more money.

  17. Bob Ress on Jun 27th, 2010 4:55 pm
  18. Great guidelines for all kinds of freelance services. I’ll keep these in mind as I set up my consulting fees, thanks `;->

  19. Sara Korn on Jan 9th, 2012 3:19 pm
  20. Thanks for this great information. What about editing/proofreading – do you do that as well, and how does the pricing for that compare to pricing for writing?

  21. Dean Rieck on Jan 9th, 2012 4:15 pm
  22. Sara, I can earn anywhere between $250 and $500 an hour for writing copy. I doubt I could do much better than $25 an hour for proofing or editing. So, no, I don’t offer those services. The big money comes not from writing, but from expertise delivered in the form of writing. In other words, I’m not paid to write about a gadget, I’m paid to help sell a gadget.

    I’m not knocking proofing or editing, I’m just trying to answer your question clearly.

  23. Sara Korn on Jan 15th, 2012 7:47 pm
  24. Those are some very good points, thank you. I especially like what you said about being paid to sell a gadget not just to write about it. I will keep that in mind.

  25. Dan on Jan 16th, 2012 1:02 am
  26. Just saw this and for someone like me, just starting out, I really appreciate it! Any additional advice on pricing for someone who’s just starting? I think I made somewhat of a business mistake and did some work for free just to get my name out there and get a rock solid testimonial. What’s your advice Abby? :)

  27. Dean Rieck on Jan 16th, 2012 1:06 pm
  28. Dan, doing some free work when you’re starting out is fine to get some samples and experience. But the hard part is learning how to ask for money and not letting people negotiate away your profits. Go through my copywriter information center on my main website: http://www.directcreative.com/copywriter-information-center.html You’ll find some pricing there. Maybe start a little lower, and work your way up.