Demand What You Deserve, Because No One Else Will Do It for You
Three or four years back, I was speaking with a young but talented ghostwriter who had reached out to me on LinkedIn to pick my brain about the business. She was charming and smart and asked terrific questions, but then the conversation turned to money. She informed me that even though she loved being a ghost, she thought she might have to get a regular job because she couldn’t make a living.
I asked her how much she was charging and she told me her average fee was about $12,000 for a full-length book. I was floored. That’s about one-fifth of what I charge, and while I wasn’t expecting someone with much less experience to charge $60,000 to write a book, $30,000 didn’t seem out of line. But when I asked her why she didn’t charge more, her answer surprised me: “No one told me I could.”
There are many, many upsides to choosing the freelance life, but one of the downsides is that you’re forced to become your own advocate. You don’t have a manager to go to bat for you with your boss for a raise; you’ve got to do your own negotiating and demand what you’re worth. For some writers, that’s a terrifying prospect. I’ve been a freelancer since 1995, and in that time, I’ve coached a lot of writers, formally and informally. Let me tell you, when the question turns to money and business, by far the greatest source of anxiety for freelancers is asking for the fee, rights, or contract terms they want and deserve.
It’s difficult, I know. Not everyone is an aggressive go-getter—and in fact, many writers are the opposite. That’s one of the reasons we work in a profession in which it’s just us and our laptops! But if you want to earn the kind of income your skills and experience justify, and if you want to enjoy a low-stress, fulfilling work life, it’s worth it to get past your fear and learn to self-advocate. Why? A few reasons:
- Self-advocacy establishes with your clients that you know your value and won’t be pushed around.
- It gives you a negotiating floor when figuring out your fees.
- It feels good to know you’re not working for less than you’re worth.
Here are the key tips and tricks I’ve learned for being a ferocious self-advocate:
Ask for the money.
Would you accept a regular job at a salary that was way less than what you knew you were worth? Of course not. Then why on earth would you accept a freelance gig for half of what you know you deserve? I see writers doing this all the time because they’re afraid to ask for more. Some think it’s unseemly for writers to demand higher pay, but most are worried that asking for more means the client will say no.
You’d be shocked by how rarely that happens. In 25 years as a freelancer, including 16 writing books exclusively for $50,000 and more each, I’ve gotten pushback on my fees maybe 5 percent of the time. Yes, I’ve had a few clients whose eyes have widened in sticker shock, but my response is always, “Well, if that’s beyond your budget, I can refer you to someone who costs less.” You have to stick to your guns and be ready to walk away if someone won’t pay your fee.
What should you ask for? Of course, that depends on what kind of writing you do, but here’s my rule of thumb. Find out what 10 other writers with your level of experience are charging for certain kinds of work, and take the average. That’s your hourly rate or flat rate—today. Every two years, raise your fees 10% based on that original number. Say you’re writing marketing copy and have five years’ freelance experience, and you find that ten other writers with that same level of experience are charging an average of $35 an hour. That’s what you charge. In two years, raise it to $38.50. In two more years, bump it to $42. If you last ten years, you’ll be making $53.50 an hour, which means if you’re getting paid for 30 hours of writing a week, you’d earn more than $80,000 a year. Not bad.
The same thing works for flat-fee work, too. I started out charging $20,000 for a book. Now I routinely get $60,000.
Never cut your fees.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t negotiate if you need the work; you should. I’ve done it. But there’s a difference between negotiation and cutting your fees. Know what it is? When you negotiate a lower fee with a client, you should always change your deliverable. That way, you’re earning less, but you’re also working less.
For example, if a prospective client pushes back against my typical $10,000 fee for writing a book proposal, I might offer to do it for $7,500, but then I’m only going to write one sample chapter, not two. That’s negotiating: something for something. You’re not a charity. You determine your worth.
Cutting your fees just means taking less for the same work, and that’s a recipe for abuse. Trust me, your client will demand the same amount of work for the reduced fee as they would if you were charging them full freight; it happens all the time. Once, I felt bad for a woman who asked me to help her with a book, so I cut my fee. Big mistake. She proved to be the most self-absorbed, clueless client I’ve ever had, and I was forced to fire her because she was costing me a fortune.
Fire abusive clients.
You are your own boss. You get to choose who you work with. Repeat that out loud a few times with the first-person pronoun. You are under no obligation to keep working with clients who abuse your time or cannot abide by the conditions of your working agreement. Dump them, and move on.
Ditching bad clients is one of the most empowering, freeing things you will ever do. I’ve done it more than once. One time, I worked with a client who proved so impossible, so frustrating, and so obstinate that the stress started to affect my relationship with my family. I hung in and finished the book, but when he came back to me a year later asking if I would work on another project for him, I declined. It was easy money, but I never regretted it. The world is too full of good people who are easy to work with to put up with narcissists, screamers, or people who won’t pay on time.
Always have a contract.
You set the rules for dumping bad clients by always, always, always using a formal, legal agreement to define your working relationship. Insist that every client sign a solid, vetted contract (you can download an example of my boilerplate book contract on the Contact page of my website, timvandehey.com) that includes your fee, payment terms, deadlines, number of revisions, kill fees, and the conditions under which you can tell your client to go to hell.
Kill fee? Yeah, that’s a contractual provision that stipulates that if the client signs the contract, pays the first part of your fee, and then bails out of the job, you keep the initial payment. That way, you’re compensated for committing your time to the job and, in theory, turning down other work. That’s another way to be sure you get paid. But to bottom-line it, do NOT work with anyone who won’t sign a contract, period.
Make your fees or rates public.
On my website, I very clearly post my fees for writing a full-length book: $60,000 to $80,000. Why? Because I don’t want to waste prospects’ time or my time. I want to prequalify people who can afford me, and if the ones who can’t afford me don’t contact me, that’s okay, because I’m not going to work with them anyway. Being public about your fees is a great tool for setting expectations, which in turn increases the odds that you’ll get what you ask for.
Pro tip: If you charge by the hour, post a hard, immovable number. If you work on a flat fee like I do, always post a range. That gives you room to maneuver when you’re negotiating.
Pro tip #2: If you have to submit a bid, aim high with your fee. At worst, you’ll have room to come down a bit and still be well-paid. At best, you’ll earn more!
Be creative in ensuring you get paid.
If you’re anything like me, you have your favorite clients or types of projects, and you’re willing to accept a little less money for them. Don’t. Instead, offer payment flexibility with work provisions into your contract to ensure you get your full fee.
Here’s what I mean: A few years ago, I was approached by a publisher about ghosting a book on a subject I find fascinating. The author and his team were super cool, too, so I knew the project would be challenging and fun. Trouble was, the author couldn’t afford my fee of $50,000. Rather than take less, I made a deal.
I told the publisher I would do the book for $40,000 up front, but that the first $10,000 of the publisher’s share of royalties went to me. That would give me my full $50,000, and after that, I wouldn’t get any royalties. The publisher agreed, I wrote the book, it was a great success, and within a year, I’d made my extra $10,000 and everyone was happy.
You are what you say no to.
This is one I live by. You should, too. We’re freelancers. We chose this life because we wanted to decide when we work, who we work with, and how much we earn. That means having standards—rejecting projects you won’t take, authors you won’t touch, fees that are insultingly low. If a project doesn’t meet your standards, walk away. The more successful you are, and the more respect you have for yourself and your talent, the choosier you’ll be.
Tim Vandehey is a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, author, entrepreneur, and musician. A native Californian, he now lives in Kansas City, Missouri (go Chiefs!). He’s also the founder of Freelancium, a coaching and resource site for freelance writers. For more info on Tim, please visit timvandehey.com.