Writing For Others – What to Charge?
When someone hires you to do a special writing job, they give you the assignment and you do the job. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, not really.
These are examples of complaints I’ve received over the years:
A local drycleaner thought he could write his own brochure, but he just “didn’t have the time.” He hired Melanie, a professional copywriter, to write it for him for a flat fee, and gave her a list of bullet points to include. After the job was complete, he decided he wanted to add a few more bullet points and remove some he’d provided previously…but he didn’t understand why Melanie asked for more money.
The marketing manager of an old business downtown hired Jeff to ghostwrite a historical book about the company. The book would be offered to local bookstores and be used to generate publicity, of course, but the main purpose of the project was to provide a marketing freebie to potential clients. The marketing manager sent Jeff a very detailed outline of the project along with a list of interviewees. A few weeks later, after more executives at the firm got excited about the project, they all started getting ideas. Some items Jeff had already written were deleted and the list of interviewees suddenly got much longer. When Jeff asked for a contract amendment and more money, the marketing manager told him there were no more funds in the budget and that the original flat fee was the only money available for the project. He even threatened to sue Jeff if he refused to finish the book, saying there was nothing in the contract that allowed Jeff to quit the project.
Linda was hired to write a series of press releases by the co-owner of a company. After completing the third press release, the company’s other owner decided he didn’t like the way the series was progressing. He wanted the first three press releases changed. Linda asked for additional payment to make the changes because the scope of the project had changed so drastically. The company balked at her request, fired her, hired another writer to finish the series, and never paid Linda’s invoices.
Scott was hired to ghostwrite a novel for an individual. He completed the work and sent the manuscript and his invoice to his client. The client phoned a few weeks later to say she now wanted the book written in first-person. When Scott requested more money, she told him he should have thought about this possibility before he agreed to the contracted price.
I receive emails almost daily from writers asking me what they should charge for special projects like these. My answer is always the same – charge them BY THE HOUR!
Most people who have an idea for a new project only have a very rough idea of what they want, and they almost always change their minds about some or all of the project along the way. Unfortunately, when this happens, especially when writing is involved, many people don’t think the writer deserves any more money to incorporate the changes. Why? Perhaps they think “it won’t take very long.” Or, maybe they think you “just have to move a few sentences around.” They don’t want their budget disturbed and almost always want to blame the writer if something doesn’t turn out as they’d hoped it would.
A sad fact of being in our industry, and probably the main reason why some people think writers don’t deserve payment for their work, is because most people think that, just because they can type or hold a pen, they can write. Thus, they think writers’ jobs are easy. One certainty about our industry is that books, brochures, websites, and even most articles are NEVER published as first written. The boss almost always wants some changes, often because they’ve changed their mind about the scope of the project.
The way to avoid getting into this mess in the first place is to:
- Get the entire preliminary scope of the project in writing. Be sure to list as many details as possible. If the project description seems too broad, ask lots of questions and include the additional information they provide in your proposal and the contract itself. This will be your best weapon later when they don’t want to pay you for additional work.
- Estimate the total number of hours you believe will be required. Stress in bold that this is a rough estimate, based on the scope of work initially provided to you for this project.
- Quote an hourly rate. If the client wants to see a round number, multiply the hourly rate by the projected number of hours. But, remember to stress that the figure is a rough estimate based on the information initially provided by the client and again state you’ll be billing them by the hour.
- Include a clause in your proposal and in the contract that any change requests may require additional time and will therefore increase the cost of the project.
- Make your payment terms no longer than net 14 days.
- Include a clause in the contract specifying that prepayment is required for delivery of the final installment of the project. Withhold delivery of the final 15% of the project until your final invoice is paid.
- VERY IMPORTANT! Include a clause in the contract specifying that you own all copyrights to the work until all your invoices are paid.
- Submit the project in increments (every 25 or 50 pages, or every other week, or every 20 hours of work). Send them an invoice each time you submit a piece of the project and stop work immediately if even one invoice is past due. Don’t continue working until they’ve paid what is currently owed. (You’d be surprised how many writers keep working after their client stops paying their invoices!)
- Never turn in the last part of the project without having your final payment in hand. (You’d be surprised how many writers never get that final check!)
- If the information above doesn’t appear on the contract, ask them to include it as an addendum to the contract and make sure you and the “boss” sign it. Don’t start work until you have a signed copy of the contract in hand. (You’d be surprised how many companies never return signed contracts and then never pay the writers, saying the contract was never signed!)
- When change requests come through, save all emails and letters and document all changes in detail. If the changes come via a phone call, make a list of the changes requested, send the list to the “boss” and request he sign the list and return it to you. (You’d be surprised how many clients ask for more work but then later, after their budget is blown, claim they never asked for more work!)
When two companies sign a contract, both firms usually know how to correctly handle the situation (get signed copies of the contract, include a copy of the proposal, addendums, penalty clauses, etc.). Unfortunately, when companies are dealing with freelancers, they often don’t follow standard procedure and then use the freelancer’s ignorance about business processes to screw them later. After reading hundreds of emails sent in by readers over the years, it’s obvious, when a project goes awry, the company’s attitude toward the freelancer is often, “Well, you should have known this could happen, and included it in your price!”
When the boss changes their mind about a project, it’s not your fault! When those changes mean more time on the job for you, you deserve more money! Protect yourself in writing up front and remain firm and professional when they try to talk you out of charging extra for THEIR mistakes.