The truth about freelance pricing

One question I hear frequently from freelance writers — both new and experienced — is: “What price should I quote for this particular project?”

Variations on this question are “What’s the going rate for this?” and “What do other people usually charge for this?”

When people post these questions on online chat forums, most often they’re met with tepid responses or none at all. Those who do respond are rarely willing to quote an actual dollar figure, and if anyone does, the next response is likely to contradict the first suggested amount.

“$75!” says one person. “$200!” says another. “Don’t do it for less than $500,” says a third.

This leaves a lot of advice-seekers frustrated and wondering why they can’t get a good answer. In writing circles, some follow pricing charts that purport to list “going rates” for freelance writing projects of various kinds. Some of them, such as this one for business writing by the inimitable Ed Gandia, offer decent guidelines (and better yet, can open people’s eye to what solid pay looks like).

But ultimately, both for freelance writing and other kinds of freelancing, no list of prices will offer any definitive guidance about how much you should ask for in a given instance.

The truth about freelance pricing

Here’s the thing: How much you should ask for is what you think you can get the client to pay you.

(Or, better yet, you should ask for more than you think the client will pay you, with the hopes of actually negotiating down to the upper limit of what they are willing to offer.)

Internalize this: There is no set standard of pay for freelance work. That is because as a freelancer you are running your own business, and the way any business prices its wares is figuring out what the customer is willing to pay for them.

As I always say, it’s the Wild West out here.

There’s no impartial governing organization setting standards. There’s no general consensus about how much a blog post or a photo shoot should cost.

There’s really no such thing as a “fair” price — there are only these questions: What do you need/want to make? And, What is the client willing to pay? Where those two answers intersect — if they do — will be the fair price for the assignment.

How much the client is willing to pay will be influenced by various factors, but it comes down in large part to how much the work is worth to them.

Many freelancers focus overly much on how long things will take, basing their pricing on an hourly rate multiplied by the estimated time for the project. But doing so will likely have you leaving money on the table. (You can use this method to find a baseline you won’t go below, but that’s just a minimum ask.)

In freelance fields where work is based at home on your computer, a client usually doesn’t care (and really shouldn’t need to know) how long something takes you to complete. They care about whether the product you deliver is what they’re looking for — whether it will satisfy the business need they have. (Read more about this concept of letting go of hourly thinking here.)

This means what price you quote will likely vary for every single situation, since each client and each need will be different.

How do you figure out what to ask for?

The goal is to craft an ask that both fits your own goals and takes advantage of whatever knowledge you have about the client and the situation.

When faced with a pricing question, ask yourself these things:

  • What do you need/want to make? This question may leave you just as confused as the one about what to charge, but it shouldn’t. You should know exactly how much you aim to make per hour at minimum and have enough information about the project to judge how long it is likely to take. See this post about setting your freelance financial goals to learn more about how to approach this.
  • How badly do you need/want the work? In an ideal world you’ll be in a comfy situation where any given freelance gig won’t make or break you. As you move into that territory you can afford to price higher and higher since you can afford to risk not getting the work. If you need the work to keep the lights on, then you’ll naturally want to take less risk in pushing the limits of what you feel you can ask for.
  • What are the characteristics of the client? Is the client a major company with deep pockets or a small nonprofit with a lean budget? This type of thing will influence how much they are able and willing to pay you. Try to get a sense of whether the company is the type you’d expect excellent pay from (say, a major law firm) or the type that will be pinching pennies (a mom-and-pop shop, for instance). Of course there’s a vast middle — those that don’t want to low-ball but won’t pay a king’s ransom either. Where the client is likely to sit on this spectrum is useful information.
  • How badly/how fast does the client need the project done? The urgency of the need is a factor you can consider, in part because it’s certainly worth charing more for rush timing. If it’s obvious the client needs the project done immediately and is looking desperately for a trusted freelancer, you can feel more confident that they won’t balk if your ask comes in on the higher side. If the timeline seems lax and there’s no sense of urgency, you may not have so much leeway in your pricing.
  • Are you the only one being considered? If you’re part of a pool of candidates only one or a few of which will be selected for the gig, then pushing the ceiling on pricing is a bigger risk than if you’re the only one they’re asking. If you’re the only candidate, shoot higher, and doubly so if you’ve been recommended and it’s clear they want to hire you. The bottom line is that the more they want to hire you specifically as opposed to just “some freelancer,” the most leverage you have to ask for more money.

Of course it’s rarely possible to get full — or even any — information on each one of these elements. Garner as much of an inkling as you can on all these issues and use that information to influence how much you ask for.

And while these guidelines still don’t provide any sense of actual dollar figures, that is something that comes with experience and through networking with others who are doing what you want to do as a freelancer.

I know it can be extremely frustrating — and even terror-inducing — not to have a good sense of what the “right” price is for any give piece of work. But figuring out how to price is part of the challenge and excitement of developing a freelance career.

The more you take this on as a learning opportunity that you want to figure out for yourself instead of depending on others to give you the “correct” answer, the better you’ll end up doing as a freelancer.

Good luck!

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