How to Win a Freelance Rate Negotiation

By Debbie Swanson June 10th, 2014

When freelance writer Wendy Helfenbaum was asked to complete an article prior to the agreed upon deadline, she inquired about a rush fee.

“They offered $150.00. I was very happy,” Helfenbaum recalled. “Had I not asked, I am quite sure I wouldn’t have received one.”

In the quest to secure work, freelancers often hesitate to question their payment. But as with any profession, freelancing is all about meeting annual income goals. If you know what your time is worth and what the going rate is for your services, why wouldn’t you speak up when presented with a job that should pay more. Think about it like this: When your plumber shows up to deal with a flooded bathroom, do you toss out a low-ball figure hoping he’ll agree, or does he clearly state what the job will cost?

Talk the talk

Sometimes, pointing out when more money is due is enough to raise awareness. However, the inquiry will most likely initiate a conversation, so be prepared. According to New York freelance writer and ghostwriter Marcia Layton Turner, discussing your qualifications and know-how can help clients feel more confident with the rate you specify.

“When I present my rate, I’ll tell the customer that I work very quickly, and I’ll mention similar projects I’ve done,” she explained. “I’ll sometimes provide a breakdown of their project, giving them a range of their expected costs. They may originally think my hourly rate is high, but I’ll prove to them they’re going to get a quality result, perhaps in less time than someone with a lower rate.”

“I get the [per project] question all the time, and usually before the person tells me what the project is,” said New Hampshire writer Lisa J. Jackson. “Someone will ask, ‘What do you charge to write 600 words?’” If a customer asks you for a per-project quote, use the details about the assignment—the audience, turnaround time, and required research, to accurately justify your rate.

When clients offer a figure too low, don’t worry about burning bridges; most professionals look at payment terms as just another business conversation. “A freelancer asking for more money doesn’t in itself adversely affect the decision to work with them,” said Tuts+ business editor Sean Hodge. “There’s nothing unprofessional about asking for more money for work.”

It’s never too late to ask

Rescue Me editor Jackie Brown believes writers who haven’t worked much with her in the past should prove their chops before asking for an increase. “Budget is the most important [factor],” she said. “I might have little-to-no wiggle room in how much I can offer.”

But if there is financial flexibility, don’t be afraid to talk money, even if the project is underway. Just as the plumber charges more after finding rotting pipes in the walls, a freelancer can adjust the barometers of a project if there are unexpected and time-consuming glitches.

“If the assignment’s scope changes, such as a higher word count, that’s a great opportunity to discuss payment terms,” Hodge added.

Of course, there will be situations when your request can’t be honored. What to do next becomes a personal decision. Sometimes, taking a lower-paying job can be a smart move. “A byline with a [prestigious publication] might be worth considering because that can turn into money down the road,” Turner said. “You only have to work for them once to add them to your credentials.”

Some losses need to be cut

But if nothing about the job seems appealing, it may be best to walk away and free your time for better endeavors. When negotiations with a startup hit a stalemate, Jackson didn’t hesitate to decline. “I was asked to start low, and as the company made money, my rate could increase,” she said. “Although I felt the company might do well in the long run, I know I don’t ever consider asking my doctor to bill me that way, or my mechanic.”

Personal interest can also warrant sticking it out. For example, working for a cause you strongly believe in, or in a niche you’ve been hoping to break into. And of course, the need for immediate cash can color your decision.

Like any professional, the freelancer’s main goal is to remain profitable, and making constant concessions won’t get you where you need to be. Payment negotiations can be uncomfortable, but it’s just another part of the job. And remember: Editors aren’t opposed to negotiating with a good writer. As long as you present a smart case with evidence, they should always be willing to hear what you have to say.

Image via Igira

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