Ask a Freelancer: How Often Should I Negotiate My Rates?By Nicole Dieker January 6th, 2015
Happy New Year to all of you Ask a Freelancer readers! We’ll go back to the usual advice column format next week, but today we’re doing something a little different.
As some of you know, I issued a Negotiation Challenge to our our readers at the end of October, daring all of you to negotiate (or renegotiate) at least one of your current rates before December 31, 2014.
During that time, I negotiated higher rates with two of my clients. Freelancer Alyssa James, a self-described “millennial expat” in London who has written for The Globe and Mail, Hipmunk, and other well-established clients, also negotiated some of her rates this year. We got together on Skype to talk about our recent negotiations and their results.
What I learned from talking to James is negotiation isn’t an “optional” step you take if you’re unhappy with your current income. Regularly negotiating your rates is an important part of every freelance career, no matter what you’re earning.
Negotiating separates amateurs from pros
When we’re getting started as freelancers, many of us are happy to accept whatever rate we’re offered. However, at some point—especially if we decide to turn our side hustle into a freelancing career—we need to learn the art of asking for more money.
If you don’t regularly negotiate your rates, you’re not alone. A 2013 Salary.com survey discovered that only 31 percent of respondents said they always negotiate salary after receiving a job offer. It’s especially important for freelancers to overcome the fear of negotiating because we are often the only people in charge of making sure we earn a livable income.
“Once I started doing this full-time, I was thinking this is my livelihood,” James explained. “I really need to start making what I’m worth.”
James began quickly practicing her negotiation skills. One of her first freelance assignments was for an online travel magazine that paid about $25 per piece. “I think that was the first time I’d gotten paid to write, so I was really excited,”she said.
James noticed the client’s site indicated that higher rates could be negotiated in certain circumstances, so on her very first piece—”In fact, my first paid publication ever!” James told me—she decided to negotiate for a higher rate.
She structured her negotiation on the idea she was putting extra work into her article and therefore deserved extra compensation: “I said, ‘This one was a really long piece, it took a lot of research and revisions.'” She asked for $60, and the travel magazine agreed to give her $40.
This is a good lesson for all freelancers trying to work up the rungs of the compensation ladder. Even when you feel like the only opportunities available are low-paying jobs, you can still negotiate for more money. You are not limited to the $25 those clients offer you, especially if you make an intelligent case for why you’re worth more.
Professionals negotiate, and if you learn how to do it when you’re earning $25 an article, you’ll be well-prepared to do it when you’re earning $250 an article.
Negotiations establish your value
James told me she negotiates her rates as a way to get more value for her time, but you can also view the negotiation process as a way of getting as much value from your clients as you provide to them. After all, you are worth a lot to your clients, and it’s important to be compensated appropriately.
“I did a lot of Googling of how to raise your rates and not have clients fire you,'” James said. “But for the most part, I just started realizing my value and how much work I was doing for a lot of companies.”
Although it is useful to study some best practices before asking for more money, the prep work you can do is to understand your own worth. Here are a few ways of calculating your value:
1. Research fair market rates for your work or talk to other writers. For example, from my own experience, a fair market rate for a 1,500-word lightly researched article on a high-traffic website is around $300.
2. Factor how often you write for a website. If you are a regular contributor for, say, six months, you are providing consistent value to a publication.
3. Track social media stats associated with your work. If you write popular pieces, your work is likely more valuable than the average piece to your client.
Keep in mind that you can always negotiate even if you aren’t a regular contributor or your pieces don’t get a lot of Facebook likes. After all, James proved that you can negotiate an increased rate even on your first assignment.
A good negotiation feels right for both parties
James’s largest rate increase, 50 percent on a per-article rate, came from a client with whom she had a year-long relationship.
“I’d been thinking about raising my rates with that particular client, and what happened was the editor came to me and asked me for a few pitches. I sent her all of my really awesome ideas. And then at that point I said, ‘I’ve been writing for you for a while. I really want to continue our relationship. And I’ve really enjoyed working with you, but I’m freelancing full-time now and a lot of my other clients are paying me this much per article. We can negotiate a new rate, and here’s what I’m expecting.'”
In this case, the editor told James raising her rate to the expected amount wouldn’t be a problem.
Likewise, my biggest rate increase came from a client who agreed it was a good time to raise my pay. In both cases, the expected amount felt right on both sides. James offered her number first, and her client said yes. I said “I’d like to re-negotiate my rate,” and my client responded with the exact amount I was planning to suggest.
When you’re working with a good client, negotiations should come from a place of mutual respect. You might feel nervous going in, but in many ways these types of negotiations work because, as in any good relationship, you and your client share the same values—and you’re both in agreement about the value of your work.
A negotiation is the start of a conversation
Over the last year, James only received a little pushback during her negotiations from a client who was happy to pay her more but not at the level she requested. “I told her my rates were going up in the new year, and she took a few days to respond, and then she said, ‘Well, it’s a little bit out of budget.'”
They ended up meeting in the middle, which is in many ways what is supposed to happen during a negotiation. Not all clients automatically give us our proposed rate increase. However, starting the negotiation process with clients helps establish a precedent: In this relationship, negotiations are an expected part of the conversation.
Or, as James put it: “We can always revisit it in the future.”
Advice for initiating that conversation
While many of us are proud of our work, we don’t want to push away a steady client by being too assertive. But odds are, if we’re thinking about asking for a raise, the client already respects us. “Just have confidence in what you’re saying,” James said. “That’s why I prefer to do these over email. You can word it in a way that makes you come off as confident. Give a little bit of background and talk about what you offer the company and why you deserve the raise.”
She also suggests presenting negotiations as a matter-of-fact statement. For example: “I love working with you, and we’ve been working together for a long time, and I’m doing higher-level work now, and I’m increasing my rates.”
After talking to James about negotiations, I also have some advice, both for you and for myself: Make negotiating rates a standard part of your professional life. It’s a good idea to establish a regular negotiation conversation at a specific time period, such as the end of a calendar or fiscal year, but you should also think about negotiating every time you get an increased workload, a new column, or another signal from your client that you’re ready to move to the next level.
How much should you ask for? James asked for an additional 50 percent of her per-article rate with one of her clients. I asked for a 33 percent hike. If you’ve talked to other freelancers and you’re not making what they’re making, consider asking for enough money to match that level. You don’t even necessarily have to offer a number. Sometimes, just saying “I’d like to talk about re-negotiating my rates” will prompt a client to fill in the gap with an appropriate figure.
Nicole Dieker just proved that you can learn a lot from talking to another freelancer about their work. Send your Ask a Freelancer questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.