If Freelancers Operated Like Other Businesses

By Susan Johnston Taylor November 4th, 2016

Freelancing isn’t like most traditional businesses. As freelancers, we routinely bite our tongues when clients love scope creep, count ourselves lucky to receive late payments, and endure other occupational hazards of the job—stuff that, in most other industries, would never fly.

Can you imagine a patient stiffing a doctor for a routine checkup? Or a phone company working with you sans a contract?

In my fantasy world, freelancers would be able to charge immediately at point of sale like a grocery store (instead of waiting 60 days after publication, as some contracts dictate) and set contract terms like a cable company.

That will probably remain my fantasy for the foreseeable future. In the meantime, here’s what life would look like if freelancers operated like other businesses—and why they ultimately don’t.

If freelancers operated like plumbers

“All right, your résumé is fixed. That’ll be $300. Cash or check? No, I’ve never heard of exposure. We don’t accept that form of payment. Wait, now you want me to fold your laundry too? We don’t do that.”

The example above illustrates two truths about plumbers: They don’t fix your toilet for the sheer joy of being in your home, and they don’t do other unrelated tasks just because you ask.

Writers are often asked to work for free (or “exposure,” a euphemism for free) and then find themselves resizing photos, hunting down video files, or doing other miscellaneous tasks that fall outside the original project scope.

Multimedia skills can help make freelancers more marketable, but if it’s sucking up all your time for no extra money, that’s a problem.

If freelancers operated like cable companies

“Copy editing your blog posts? Sure, I can do that. I’ll call you sometime between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., so you’ll need to wait by your phone for the entire day. Oh, and I’ll require a contract that says you’ll need to pay me every month for the next two years, regardless of whether I provide service in a satisfactory manner.”

Long-term anchor clients can be a freelancer’s best friend, but few clients would agree to a cable-type contract without any exit clauses. That’s just as well, because the best freelance–client relationships are mutual. You both want to assess the relationship before making a long-term commitment.

If freelancers operated like lawyers

“Let’s see… 15-minute phone call consultation. My rate is $500 an hour, so that’ll be $125.”

Most freelance writers don’t charge hourly rates anywhere near what a lawyer charges (which, considering the price tag of law school, is fair enough). Billing clients for every phone call or email is a different beast, however—almost no freelancer would dream of being so bold.

The solution? Answering client inquiries on your timeline, and making sure that your project fees reflect the time involved.

I rarely answer my phone during the work week unless I’m expecting a call. Otherwise, I let it go to voicemail and return the call later that day when I’ve finished what I’m working on. If I notice a client requires extra hand-holding, then I’ll weigh that fact before accepting the next project.

Some freelancers even charge what they call a “PITA fee,” which means they charge more from clients who are a pain in the ass than then the ones who trust them to complete the work.

If freelancers operated like fashion boutiques

“Let me get this straight: You took so long editing this that it lost its timeliness, added a meandering anecdote that adds nothing to the narrative, and now you want to return the piece because the editor above you decided to go with your boyfriend’s step-dad’s article instead?

Well, you’ve damaged the piece, so unfortunately we’re not able to accept a return.”

Most editors wouldn’t pull the stunt described above, yet I’ve had some who have put a story through multiple revisions by committee and wait for the topic to go stale—until eventually killing the story.

If I sense that timeliness might be an issue, I follow up regularly to find out when the story will run or, in the worst case scenario, ask for permission to sell it elsewhere. But I also realize that freelancers can’t control the editorial process, so if editors subject a story to a slow, painful death, I simply try not to work with that publication again.

If freelancers operated like grocery stores

“You can’t just walk out of here without paying for those 12 social media posts and that infographic! I’m calling security.”

Walking out of a store with unpaid merchandise is clearly theft, but many publications expect writers to wait months or sometimes years before getting paid. That’s like if grocery stores allowed customers to walk out of the store with a rotisserie chicken, eat it a few days later, and then take months to actually pay for it.

Personally, I focus my energy on clients who pay promptly. Although payment upon acceptance doesn’t guarantee promptness (stories can sit on editors’ desks for weeks or month before they’re “accepted”), I much prefer that method to clients who pay upon publication.

Even though freelancing is a fundamentally different business than the examples I’ve used above, there is a lot to learn from the business practices of established industries. Even if policies seem bureaucratic and frustrating to their customers, they exist to protect the bottom line. Freelancers should try to do the same.

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