Negotiating rates is a key element of the freelance business. In an industry where freelancers are regularly taking on gigs, contracts and more, naming your price matters. With the right moves, it’s a business strategy that can exponentially build your career - and your earnings.
As a full-time freelance writer, editor and content strategist who built a freelance business from the ground-up, and a former assigning editor at a national publication, I’ve learned through experience how to approach this sensitive subject.
Being on both ends of the spectrum has taught me how to know - and sell - my worth as a freelancer, while understanding how editors manage budgets and rate negotiations. These are the biggest lessons I’ve learned throughout 10 years of freelancing and managing freelancers:
Set a minimum rate
Before you begin any rate negotiation talks, set a minimum rate for yourself that you won’t go below. This helps create a baseline that you can then use as a building point for your rates. Consider whether you want to work hourly, on a project basis, or both, then draw a starting line.
Backup your request
Simply asking for more money might get you a rate increase. But giving clients a reason to pay you more is a good way to both position yourself as a professional and help clients understand why upping your rate might be beneficial for them as a business.
I always start by giving a brief explanation of my background (“I’ve worked in X industry for X years with X, Y and Z clients”) to build expertise. Then, to build trust, I let clients know I consistently deliver on time, approach edits carefully and thoroughly learn brand voice.
By delivering this message, I want to show clients I’m reliable. This can make them more amenable to rate negotiations and builds a strong foundation for a business relationship to grow.
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Try not to name your number upfront
Clients will often ask, “What would you charge for this?” It’s a big question that freelancers can struggle to answer. On one end, you don’t want to lowball yourself. On the other, you don’t want to scare a client away with a price they’ll never match.
A safe way forward is to steer clear of naming a number upfront. Instead, ask a client what their budget is and how much they have allotted for this project. You might receive a low end and a high end with possible rates, or the client might suggest a flat rate that they have in mind.
This might get you more than you were initially looking for - for example, there have been times I was hoping for $400 for a specific story, and ended up getting $700 without naming my price.
Steer clear of naming a number upfront.
Vet opportunities carefully
If a client does offer a rate upfront, you have several options.
If the rate is significantly lower than what you’re looking for (you’re offered $125 instead of your goal of $500), chances are that the client won’t or can’t meet your number due to budget.
Trust your gut. If it’s obvious the client can’t match your rate or a rate that feels fair to you, consider whether the project is worth it to you. You can always pass on the opportunity instead of working with a partner that isn’t right for your needs. Vetting freelance opportunities carefully and weighing out the pros and cons can help you make these decisions.
Ask for a realistic increase
A second option to navigate a proposed rate is to ask for a realistic increase.
I always like to start with a 30% increase if an opportunity feels right and I sense room for negotiation. For example, if a client offers $500 for a project, $650 is a safe ask for a rate increase, especially if it’s your first time working together. However, doubling that rate to $1,000 likely won’t be within their budget.
Unless you’re offering an exclusive story, breaking news or similarly enticing work that a client would pay exponentially higher for, playing it safe (while simultaneously sticking to your worth) is a sound technique, particularly if you’re looking to build a long term relationship. I’ve found that being flexible yet firm is a great way to negotiate rates with clients that can offer regular work.
Another smart strategy is to simply ask, “Do you have wiggle room in your budget?” Similar to not naming your rate upfront, this gives the client an opportunity to explore their budget and possibly offer you a higher rate, which may or may not be more than you would initially ask for. Instead of getting an additional $100, for example, you could be offered an extra $300 for work.
Being flexible yet firm is a great way to negotiate rates.
A different direction freelancers can take is to negotiate project scope. This can be particularly helpful for clients with fixed budgets that realistically can’t offer rate increases. Asking for project modifications like reduced word count, fewer interviews and extended deadline might make the opportunity worth it to you if the initial rate doesn’t cut it.
As a former assigning editor with both fixed and non-fixed budgets, I was open to agreeing to project modifications if I couldn’t offer higher rates. Sometimes, as a freelancer, you can also offer additional services that won’t take you much time or effort, like sharing content on social media, that can make a world of difference to the client. If you’re planning on sharing your work anyways on social media, let the client know and see if they’d be willing to go higher for it.
It’s up to you as a freelancer to determine your worth. Negotiating rates is a business strategy and what might work for you may not work for someone else, and vice-versa. Consider trying various techniques to see what aligns best with your particular clientele and services. From there, you can learn how to negotiate rates like a pro and build a successful freelance business.