The Born Freelancer on what to charge: Part 2

This series of posts by the Born Freelancer shares personal experiences and thoughts on issues relevant to freelancers. Have something to add to the conversation? Your input is welcome in the comments.

In my previous post I began to share with you my thoughts on the burning question that confronts every freelancer time after time: what to charge?

Today I’m back with more advice about this most important issue.

In calculating what you want to accept as payment there are many subjective factors to take into account.
How long will it take to do? How annoying is your client — will they try to micromanage you or leave you in peace? How much is your sanity worth to you? I know some freelancers who demand a huge fee upfront when they really don’t care for the job or for the client. Surprisingly they often still get it. I guess the client thinks if you have the nerve to demand so much you must be good! The freelancer just thinks, OK, it’s the amount I wanted to do such a thankless job — so in the end everyone is happy. There is rarely any point in accepting such a low fee it makes you miserable. Your work will usually end up being sub par and your reputation will often suffer.

Think of each job as a stepping stone in your career.
In theory, each job should result in a slightly higher fee. This takes into account your greater experience as well as the cost of inflation etc. If you are working on a steady basis for a particular client you may only be able to revisit future fee escalation in this way on a yearly basis. But have it in writing that such options are more than likely in the future so it comes as no shock to them.

You must always get your agreement in writing and witnessed.
It doesn’t have to be fancy but it needs to be clear and contain all relevant details. If you are unsure of language or the construct of a legal contract consult a lawyer and/or get a Canadian Media Guild contract as an example from which to work. There are also numerous resources available at your public library and on line about contract law. It is well worth your time to investigate. Do not rely on your client’s good will. Do not rely on their memory. Do not rely on verbal agreements. It is in your mutual best interest to be clear and concise and complete in writing about what services you are providing for them and exactly how much and in what sequence you will be paid.

You should always remember to include “kill fees”. Some contracted written work proceeds in phases — an outline, a first draft, a final draft, a polish — that kind of thing. At each step the client can offer input. If they decide to kill the project at any of those agreed-to steps you must have an understanding that they will pay you for work completed up to that point. If not, you can be left dangling without payment for the “final draft.”

I once neglected this small but critical point in writing and the client pulled the plug on me before I got to the final draft. When I pointed out I was owed for work up to that point they were able to point out that they had agreed in writing only to pay upon the “successful completion of the final accepted draft.” The trick is that they had to “accept” it. And they wouldn’t. So I was SOL. I learned any verbal agreement isn’t worth anything. If it isn’t on the page you should feel outrage!

By the hour or by the project?
Some freelancers prefer an hourly rate. Others by the contract. What personality type are you? Are you a clock watcher? Does the project lead itself to completion within a reasonable amount of time of set hours? Is it likely to go over time from your initial estimate?

Don’t forget to include all your costs in calculating a fee (unless you are using them as “adds ons” later).
For example, the use of your office space, electricity, heating, on line time, etc. as well as the things you need to pay for such as your health care benefits, etc. etc. that any regular employer would provide and/or pay for their regular employees. Of course you can only include a proportion of those costs but never forget to add a little something for each such category.

Don’t be afraid to say no.
Saying no can be the most effective bargaining strategy ever. Of course you are not the only freelancer on the block. But even if you have impressed them with your sales pitch and portfolio and they really, really like you they may still try to low-ball you. This is called step one in the art of negotiation. If you say, sorry, that is a ridiculously low figure and point out in detail why, you may be surprised when they come back to you with a counteroffer. Or an offer providing you with more flexibility to complete the project time-wise which you might consider at the original fee. Or a written guarantee of multiple work offers. So don’t be afraid of the power of “no” — although you must of course be prepared to walk away if you decide to invoke its awesome power!

If you are no good at negotiations, find a friend or family member who is or get a professional agent.
The latter is a separate topic for a future post. A trusted friend or family member could be a great business ally and you can offer a percentage of any fee negotiated for you above and beyond your regular price. But enter into business relationships with friends and family very warily — talking out every aspect of your expectations and requirements ahead of time. There’s nothing like a little smell of money to drive a huge wedge between families and friends. Alternatively, if you are negotiating a big contract, consider the use of a contract lawyer on a job by job basis.

What are you giving away?
If I’m selling my copyright I want a lot more money for it. Many but not all commercial clients will require it for work done to ensure rivals can’t also use it in future. But if I am selling it that is an add on and a costly one. For those clients who don’t care, much better you keep your copyright. Never give it away for free! You never know when your work can be repurposed, repackaged and resold down the road. Copyright is an invaluable property all creative freelancers should learn to value and appreciate.

The projected time line is an important factor.
When is it expected to be done? You want it tomorrow? That’ll cost extra. You want work done over the weekend? That’ll cost extra. If it can be easily fitted in amongst existing projects then that could be accepted at a fee negotiated without lots of extra surcharges.

Ask around to see what others are getting for similar gigs.
Freelancers can be notoriously unreliable when it comes to describing their rates to fellow freelancers so always be prepared for “creative embellishments.” Other resources to check are relevant union guidelines — the CMG, WGC, ACTRA, etc. all have published minimum amounts for different forms of work that can inform even nonunion gigs. They also have standard boilerplate contracts worth consulting.

There are of course other organizations that exist who post their idea of what are acceptable fees to charge for certain types of freelance work such as here. While I would encourage anyone to consult such lists (and union lists noted above) if they feel the need to get a ballpark figure, in the end I would discourage relying on any of them to any great extent. Your circumstances are unique to you. I have tried to outline some of the factors you should take into consideration for yourself when reviewing your unique situation. If you cannot be bothered to take the time and necessary effort to figure out what you and your services are worth in your own estimation regardless of some perceived marketplace minimums (which may be right for someone else but not necessarily enough for you) then perhaps you are in the wrong business. Remember, nobody knows better what you are worth than you.

I hope the general thoughts in this post when combined with those in my previous post will help you decide what you and your freelance services are worth when it comes time to answer the inevitable question, “so what would you charge?”

Got any tips on what to charge? Please feel free to share them in the comments.

Posted on June 12, 2012 at 10:08 pm by editor · · Tagged with: , , ,

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