You Want to Bill Them HOW? By Crystal Schwanke

If you’re like me, the, “How much would you charge me for this article/project” question brings a clammy coating to your skin and you could swear the temperature in your office just dropped by at least a few degrees. There are several ways to calculate costs. Take into consideration how much research and time will be involved in the completion of the task. Work from there to discover the best way to bill your clients in order to remain fair to them while also remaining true to yourself and your financial needs.

Here are some scenarios that would require you to quote a price:

Flat Fee + Per Word

Client 1: “Oh, I don’t know how long this needs to be; I just want it thorough. Come up with an outline on your own and run it by me and we’ll go from there.”

In this case, you have free reign of this project, mostly. Usually, I won’t charge for the outline, even if I’ve already gotten the job. I keep heavy research to a minimum in order to build it, and then dig deeper once I know what they want to keep in the actual piece.

The tricky part is, you may not know enough about the subject yet to know how long it will take to be thorough and your client may want an idea right away. What you could do is set a base rate, 500 words for $50, for example, and then a rate per word past the agreed length (10 cents per word after 500 words, maybe). Then do your research, come up with an outline, and submit it to your client. By that point, you can gauge about how long it will be, advise your customer, and have them cut whatever they deem unnecessary from your outline, potentially saving themselves money and you a lot of work. By saying you’ll charge extra per word past 500, you’re not selling yourself short by accepting $50 for something that takes 20 pages to “cover thoroughly” instead of the 5 you originally thought. The only cons are, it takes longer to set a price than usual and you have to do a little prep work.

Flat Fee Only

Client 2: “I just want product descriptions. The pictures and information about the product are already there in raw form, but I want someone to really sell the item for me.”

This one’s easy. You can charge per word, per line, or per description. All the descriptions will probably be about the same length due to space limitations, and there’s virtually no research involved. Agree on the average length of the descriptions and then charge, say, $2.00 per description (you’re setting your own rates, of course, based on the length of descriptions). This type of project is so upfront, you’re safe when you charge this way, and your client knows exactly what’s expected of them, too. There’s only a con to this one is if you work slowly. If it takes you an hour to write a $2 description, well, you’re working for a lot less than minimum wage.

Hourly Rate

Client 3: “I want you to ghostwrite a book for me on the fate of the existing samurais after World War II. I want the book to be about 200 pages long. I’ll add in pictures later.”

What a big project! You may be tempted to quote a dollar amount for the finished piece, BUT take a step back and think about the hours you’ll be designating for research, the time spent driving back and forth to the library, and then the actual writing process. Hourly suddenly sounds better, huh?

Realize that this client trusts you not to take advantage of them by padding your hourly log. If you’re working, make sure that’s all you’re doing; don’t have your favorite message board minimized at the bottom of your screen that you check periodically on that client’s dime. Keep records of what you’re doing and for how long. This will make it easier for the client to see that you are, in fact, charging them a fair price. You’ll want to negotiate a way to get paid as you go, perhaps chapter-by-chapter, so that your client’s involved in the process all the way through to the end of the project and also so you can ensure payment for yourself. You’ve got to eat while you write, and this project will probably take up so much of your time you won’t be able to do much else with your time to generate other income.

Tips for making sure you get paid once you DO decide on how to bill a client:

+ Ask for at least partial payment at the beginning so you won’t get completely robbed. Some clients like to take the work and never pay, and there’s really not too much you can do to chase them down and collect, especially if they’re in another state or country. Protect yourself.

+ Keep in mind that you will have to pay almost one third of your earnings to the government (in the US), depending on your income and, if you’re using to receive your payments, you’re losing about 3% right off the top there as well. That may inspire you to bump your rate up a few cents per word.

If you’re writing for a magazine that pays on publication, try your hardest to negotiate a kill-fee so your work won’t have been done in vain if they can’t use your article. You should also include a clause that requires they publish your work and pay you within a certain number of months. Some magazines sit on articles for years or never use them at all (while refusing to relinquish rights back to the writer), meaning the writer never gets paid and can’t resell the work because the piece is in limbo.

Crystal Schwanke is a full-time freelance writer in Valdosta, GA. She graduated with a BA in Psychology in July 2004 and plans to return to school in the near future for a degree in Journalism with a minor in Creative Writing. She also hopes to write and publish a novel. When not working, Crystal’s spending time with her husband and two animal shelter rescues (dogs), usually with a Starbucks Frappuccino in one hand. If she didn’t write, she’d most likely be pursuing a career in fashion design, therapy, or marketing.