How Low Do You Go?

At this writing, I’m sitting at my new desk. It’s a solid oak mission-style desk with a keyboard drawer and no other storage. And yes, that’s exactly the way I want it.

I’m a hoarder of sorts – not to the level of being on a reality cable show, but I save books, papers, notes that I can’t decipher a year later, you name it. I store around me, and organize useless stuff atop any flat surface. My old desk had a hutch top. Great idea – unless you’re me. It was filled with “essentials” such as nail polish, cuticle softener, batteries, assorted cords, containers filled with paper clips, etc. When I bought the desk, I bought it on looks alone. Function is something I have to work out without the help of a manufacturer. This served the purpose – a bigger workspace. And already I’ve pared down and thrown out a ton of unnecessary things. More to come.

I was talking with a writer chum about her latest project proposal. Her client offered to pay her going rate for one month, but then asked for a slight decrease in price thereafter for the next three months. What to do? She did the smart thing – she defined “slight decrease” and set in her own mind what would be acceptable. Whatever the outcome, she went into the negotiations with the confidence of knowing her price was right for her – as well it should be.

I can relate – I was just asked to reduce my rate by a client. It was a one-time reduction to fit within their remaining freelance budget. And it was a very small reduction, so I said yes. They’re also a favorite client and to me, this is good for the relationship to be flexible when I can be.

So what do you do when someone asks for a price reduction up front?

Decide your own limits. Please, do this first. Know in your head the amount you need to turn a profit and pay your bills. No one else can know that but you. Make a pact with yourself – don’t go under this limit. Stick to your word.

Define the reduction. Get it in writing – what are they paying at all stages of that contract? What is their idea of a reduction? Is it reasonable or another attempt to get something for nothing?

Do the math. If you let the client say, “I know you charge $100 an hour, but my budget is $1,200 for the whole project” and you don’t know what your limits are, you’ll be tempted to take it because hey, $1,200 isn’t entirely chump change. However, if the project is going to take you three months to complete, you’ve just screwed yourself. Know all the details up front.

If it doesn’t fit, walk away. Why writers are hesitant to turn down work is understandable. We do have to pay bills. But if you accept every job that is paying less than you can afford to work, you’re robbing yourself of the chance to get a better project paying your rate. Seriously. If you’re busy killing yourself for a few bucks an hour, you don’t have time to look for better clients, do you?

How do you respond to price-reduction requests? What has been your experience with reducing your fee to meet a client’s needs?

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  • Devon Ellington August 17, 2010 at 11:39 am

    It depends. If it's a one-time thing for a long term client with whom I have a positive relationship, I'll consider it.

    If it's a new client, no.

    I've yet to lose an assignment and not land something better in a matter of hours or days that made me realize if I'd agreed to the first assignment's truncated terms, I'd have lost out on something better.

    If a client starts a relationship nickel-and-dime-ing you, it's an indication of how it will continue. Do you really want to have to fight every time there's an assignment? I'd rather be writing. So I go on to the next client who respects my time, my skills, and my rates.

  • Jenn Mattern August 17, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I agree. I'll occasionally be flexible with existing clients (but if they want to pay less, we usually tweak the scope as well to make it a fair exchange). For new clients, absolutely not. If my published rates are too high, don't contact me. And if they can afford my going rate the first month, they can afford it for the following few months as well. Either that or they simply can't afford me.

    As Devon mentioned, once you let it happen, you show a client they can get away without paying what you're worth. And really, if you of all people don't think you're worth your going rate, then maybe they're right. With new clients, it's particularly important to hold your ground. If they can't afford you, someone else can. It's a part of your job as a freelancer to go out and find those prospects.

  • Anne Wayman August 17, 2010 at 2:16 pm

    Like Devon and Jenn,for me it depends. And I have to admit it sometimes depends on how rich or not rich I'm feeling at the moment – a great reason to have savings.

    I've walked away from far more

  • Cathy August 17, 2010 at 3:07 pm

    I do the same as Jenn. I'll look to reduce the scope for a reduced price.

    If I am reducing because of something like multiple projects (white paper+case study+editing existing case studies), I'll note my usual fee and show the discount.

    The longer I have done this, the easier it is to say no to a new client who can't pay my fees.

  • Ashley August 17, 2010 at 3:09 pm

    I think I mentioned this to you before, Lori, but I was getting nickeled and dimed to death by one potential client, and I just had to call the whole thing off. He was worried about pennies. Literally — pennies! It was very clear he didn't value me, and I was happy to let him go. I haven't looked back, but it DID free me up to look for better paying work.

  • Yo Prinzel August 17, 2010 at 3:12 pm

    I have no problem working within any budget as long as I can reduce the scope enough to make what I want to make. A new client recently wanted 5/300 word blog posts each week but couldn't afford my price. He made the smart move to say my price was totally worth it, but that they just couldn't afford it (some douchebags get all up-in-arms over my price–like that's going to make me want to play ball with them). I adjusted the project so that we still have 5 posts a day but some of them are 100 word tips instead of 300 word blog posts. Now the job is less expensive AND less demanding on me.

  • Valerie August 17, 2010 at 3:36 pm

    I'll do a volume discount. That is it. If a client can't pay or doesn't want to pay, I either propose new parameters we can both live with, or walk away.

    I do pro bono projects for struggling micro-charities who couldn't afford me in a million years, but that's by choice and for a good cause. When real businesses start kvetching about funds being tight and oh please, could I drop my fee just a little, I'm gone. For all of the reasons listed above, but also – if they don't respect my rates, they're not going to respect me in other areas and likely the entire relationship will be one big struggle. Who needs it?

  • Paula August 17, 2010 at 5:06 pm

    One publication I've written for for several years finally raised their rates. But six months later the economy tanked, they lost ad revenue, and cut the rates back to where they had been before. Because the cuts were across the board, and not just me, I went along with it. They said it was temporary, but 16 months later the rates have yet to go back up.

    Other publications have been trimming their freelance budgets by cutting assigned lengths. So on paper I'm still doing the same amount (or more) of pieces for them each year, but the paychecks are much smaller.

    So which is worse: a place that cuts per word rates but keeps assigned lengths as is? Or a place that keeps a good per-word rate but assigns smaller and smaller articles? (Seriously, I'm coining the term "articlettes" to describe these glorified blurbs.)

  • becky @ misspriss August 17, 2010 at 7:14 pm

    Argh. Ate my comment.

    I agree with Anne – sometimes it's just how poor you feel at the time! ūüėČ

    My problem has been timing recently. I only have about 3 months open on my schedule and longer-term projects are what I'm finding right now. Being a working mom is, well, working against me right now.

    But I did recently go back to a client who'd cut their rates, asked how they were doing, and found their rates were back up again. Happily working with them again. Yay!

  • Mridu Khullar August 18, 2010 at 6:04 am

    I just walked away from an editor whose accounts department has reduced their rate from $2,500 to $1,500 for a 1,000 word piece. Nothing to do with the editor (who is wonderful), but it just doesn't make sense for me to accept a pay cut, particularly when the last piece I wrote for them won an award!

    I've already replaced that income from other sources quite easily. And the editor has promised to get in touch as soon as rates go up again.

    I think it really does come down to personal situations. A few years ago, I may not have walked away from this, but at this stage of my career, I can.

  • Lori August 18, 2010 at 11:56 am

    Devon and Jenn, I'm inclined to do the same. Rare is the new client who gets a discount. In my own experience, that never ends well because I get the "I'll raise the rates after three months" shpiel, which means never. In this other writer's case, it was more of "I'll pay you your rate first, then my rate second." I'm more comfortable with that, depending on what the reduced rate is.

    Anne, exactly. If you're feeling able and willing, maybe.

    Cathy, yes. I'm all about reducing if there's much more work on contract. If it's a promise of more work later, they have to have those projects defined and in a contract I've agreed to.

    Ashley, you did the right thing. When they start chasing pennies, the aggravation factor has just jumped exponentially. I had a client (who still thinks I'm working with them) who actually wanted a complete article rewrite with three new interviews – in two hours. Needless to say the end product was not what was expected. And you bet I told the client why.

    Yo, that's a great idea. If it's possible, it's a super compromise. Not always possible, obviously, but what a great solution!

    Paula, great question. What do you prefer? If it were me, I'd appreciate the lower word count – I think I'd resent it less, at least. It's a message that they value you enough to pay a competitive rate, but that their budget sucks. But the first one you mentioned? I'd be gone. I had a company do that to me, but they finessed the rate cut by promising lower levels of writer input required, which never happened.

    Becky, I'm glad the other company is working out! I hear you on the time constraints. I think that factors into decisions, too. If the money is a little lower (at your level of acceptance) and the time fits, then go for it. If things don't feel right, trust that.

    Mridu, I'd have walked away, too. That's crazy! Or maybe go back and apply Yo's thinking – "I can give you a lower word count for that rate"…. Yes? No?

  • Jenn Mattern August 19, 2010 at 2:46 pm

    Paula — At least in the case of shorter pieces, you're still being paid a (hopefully) fair rate for what you're providing. You're doing less. But you're not being paid less for the work you actually do. And if projects are shorter, that just leaves more time to bring in more clients paying an equivalent per-word rate, diversifying and protecting yourself even more.