One of the biggest questions copywriters have is, “How much do I charge?”
There is no perfect answer, but here are a few things to consider.
1. You don’t want to be a bargain basement writer.
I see writers on Fiverr, and I’m dismayed. I think it devalues writing skills.
In any profession or business there’s a pyramid. A very small percentage at the top makes a huge amount of money. In the copywriting profession this is true as well. You’ll hear about a handful of legendary copywriters who make seven figures.
Next, there’s the middle of the triangle. These are professional writers who make a very good living. They provide high quality work, and cultivate clients who respect their work and pay them well. At the bottom is the wide base of the triangle, the writers who offer their services for pennies a word.
Trust me, you don’t want to write for the lowest amount possible, or you’ll be toiling away forever, and be unable to pay your bills. Your goal is to get into the middle category as quickly as possible. It may take a few lower-paying jobs for you to gain confidence and create samples, but please don’t become comfortable working for pennies or you’ll never make a living.
Note: If you want to start off with O’desk or similar sites, I suggest you check out this book, to make sure you know how to get good clients. “The New Freelance Writers Guide to oDesk” by Lise Cartwright.”
Make it your goal to continually hone your craft by taking courses, buying books, and getting experience from writing, so you can command higher fees.
2. Don’t charge by the hour. When prospects contact you, the first thing they will ask is, “What’s your hourly fee?” Big mistake if you answer with a number – any number. Why? Because the minute you name a fee, they will ask you, “Ok, how much time will it take to do this job?” Then you have to estimate the hours, and you’re penalized both ways.
If the job goes faster than expected (because you’re a good writer), you get less money. If the job takes longer than expected, you have to ask for more money, and the client won’t be happy. The client will have no idea of the final cost, and will be anxious about you racking up the hours.
Plus you have to keep track of the time – something writers frequently don’t do well. You want to reduce the time you spend on administration because you are running a business. Administration takes time away from writing and marketing, which is where you make money.
3. Figuring out your fees. Charging by the project is much better. Here’s how to figure it out. Think of an hourly fee you want to be paid – say $50 an hour, which is a reasonable fee for starting out, in my mind. If you feel better at $30 an hour, start there.
Estimate how many hours you think it will take to do the job. This will be tough when you don’t have much experience. So just go with a ballpark – say 3 hours for a short web page (of up to 400 words). Assuming you’re charging $30 an hour, that comes to $90 per page. For a 5-page website, it would be $450.
But never tell clients how many hours you estimate. Instead, say “It’s $90 for a short web page, with a minimum of 3 web pages, for $270. For 5 web pages (which most people need) it’s $400. Bundling a few items at a slightly lower fee entices your clients to take advantage of your small discount. You win too, because you get more money overall.
By setting a project fee, both you and the client know the costs, and you don’t have to watch the clock while you write. It releases the pressure on both sides, and leads to better relationships. There are times when a project will take you longer than expected, and you’ll make less than your hourly rate. But as you become proficient, you’ll find that you often complete projects much faster than you anticipated.
I often make double my hourly fee (the amount I want to make per hour, which I don’t tell clients), because I have so many years of experience in certain types of writing. As you gain more confidence and more experience, you can raise your hourly fee without telling anyone. Just quote a higher project fee to the next client.
Tip: Don’t set your prices too low. Good quality clients expect professional rates, and if you put yourself in the bargain basement, they will not have confidence in your ability.
4. Negotiating fees It helps to set some fees ahead of time for a few projects you do frequently. For me, that’s web pages and E-books. Clients feel reassured when you have some standard pricing, because it shows that you are experienced.
If you don’t have a standard fee for what they need, you can say you need to get back to them. But first, I try to get a feeling for what they expect to pay, without asking directly. The reason is that savvy people know that whoever speaks first, loses.
Once a client said to me, “We can pay between X and Y for this job.” Of course I responded quickly, “Sure, I can do it for Y (the higher amount, duh!) One way to scout out their budget is to say, “When I did something similar for a client recently, I charged X. Does that sound like it’s in your ballpark?”
If the prospect says, “Oh no, I have a very small budget. I’m a start-up,” you have to decide what to do next. You can ask, “What kind of budget do you have for this job?” If they offer you something, but not exactly what you want, you can lower your fees by reducing the work. So instead of doing five web pages, you can propose starting with three.
Sometimes a company will have a really tiny budget, and you just have to walk away. If you take on work that doesn’t pay, that’s time taken away from working on your own marketing to get better clients. But most clients are not like that, and understand that they have to pay professional fees.
In fact, every so often I’ll raise my price to see what happens. I say the fee, and then hold my breath. (That’s the trick. After you quote a fee, stay silent! The more you talk, the more you lose.) More often than you think, the prospect says, “Yes, that sounds reasonable. Let’s get started!”
5. Preparing the proposal: Now I prepare a written proposal stating the work to be done, the timeline, and the fees. You should establish some parameters, such as how many drafts you will do (I usually do two revisions and a final), when the deposit is due, and when the final payment is due.
Get the client to sign off on it, even if it’s just to reply by e-mail, “I agree to go ahead.”
6. Making sure you get paid! Never (let me say this again: NEVER), start a job without a deposit. I’ve heard too many stories of writers completing a job, with the promise of getting paid at the end, and then the client disappears into thin air.
I always ask for at least 60% up front, although I do settle for 50% (this gives me bargaining room). Why so much up front? Firstly, you actually do the bulk of the work in the first draft. You may have to do research, and learn about the product or service. So the first draft is the hardest. In the second draft, you make changes the client requests.
Secondly, clients are usually eager to get started because they need their copywriting done, so they pay you pretty quickly. But once the final draft is complete, they have less incentive to pay the final amount. This also protects you if a client decides not to complete a project after you’ve done the initial work. In the magazine and newspaper business, this is called a “kill fee.” It’s what freelancers are paid if their article doesn’t make it to the final edition.
To reassure you, I have never had a client who didn’t pay the final amount (except for one company that went bankrupt), and only occasionally have I had to chase a client for the final payment. But be sure to protect yourself by getting paid as much as possible up front.
I even offer a 3% discount for paying the full amount up front. Some companies are obliged to take any discount offered, and other small businesses want to save every dime they can. It’s a good idea to offer this option.

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