Free Advice Friday: The Freelance (Under)Sell

What I’m listening to: Caledonia by Dougie MacLean

It’s a Robert Burns kind of weekend — time for poems written by the bard, whisky tasting, and haggis. (Take my advice — skip the haggis.) Hence the link to the song by Dougie MacLean, who was homesick for his native “Caledonia” when he wrote what has become an anthem in Scotland. Unless my father’s condition changes (stable for now), I’ll be heading to a Burns supper this weekend.

Next week, I’ll be pumping up the marketing again. While I’m working at a nice pace, I would like to add at least one more client project to the mix.

What I won’t be doing — underselling myself.

It happens far too often and with writers who should know better. Writers at the beginning stages, sure. You’re going to undersell your skills until you realize what you’re doing. If you’re learning as you go, your rates will go up as you learn more about your value.

What I can’t understand — veteran writers (five years or more at it) who continue to keep their rates low.

Really low.

Know what that attracts? More clients who won’t pay you what you should be paid.

Funny how like begets like, isn’t it?

I remember a time when I was attracting the low-paying crowd. It ended when a client referred me to his mother. I’d written a single website page for him for the ridiculously low price of $100 (I was so new I was still wet behind the ears). He told me his mom had a business partnership and they needed a website. I quoted them a price that reflected 20 pages of content.

Her response: “I thought you were cheaper than that.”


In fact, her son had sold me to her by saying “She’s really cheap!”

Not the kind of reputation you want. Ever.

But you, freelance writer, are afraid to raise your rates, aren’t you? You figure money in your hand is better than having to find other clients who actually value your skills, don’t you? See, I’ve been there. I know your excuses. Hell, I’ve used a few of them.

Here are the excuses you use to keep your rates low:

  • I can’t lose this client
  • I don’t have time to look for new clients
  • This is all the market will bear
  • This type of client won’t pay that
  • I’m doing okay given where I live

Oh, my.

Want to make more?

Lose that client.

Really, what are you losing? A one-off client, a difficult client, or one who will brag to his or her friends about how cheaply they were able to get their work done. Do you really want your name circulating about with that attached to it?

Besides, you can find new clients easily.

The minute your freelance writing rates go up, your clientele improves. Click To Tweet

Look for better ones.

Unless you found those current clients under a rock (aka, a content mill or bidding site), you can find others who will pay what you charge. Aim higher. Improve your query letters. Connect with influencers on social media. Emulate a writer who’s doing really well. Just don’t accept that this is all you can get.

F*ck the market.

I’ve had it up to here with writers using the “the market demands the price” bullshit. Here’s a fact — you determine your price. People pay it or they don’t. Other writers in your same space are making a lot more than you are. You think they give a damn about what some imaginary “market” is demanding? Think Starbucks gives a damn that you can get a coffee at McDonald’s for one-tenth the price? Build your perceived value. Buyers will follow.

Stop working with that type of client.

If you’re working with, for example, small business startups and their budgets are strapped, why aren’t you also trying to work with middle-market and larger businesses? Why are you pigeonholing yourself into an area where the clients are simply not going to be able to afford you? Branch out, for the love of all that is holy! Stop using that little “comfort zone” as your excuse for not trying to better your earnings. And that’s what you’re doing — you’re hiding away in your comfort zone. Stop it.

Stop inserting geography into it.

I know highly successful writers in large metro areas and in one-stoplight towns. No one cares where you live. Just because the local cost of living (and accompanying wages) are low doesn’t mean you have to match that. You, freelance writer, are not limited by where you live. You are limited by your own narrow view of the world.

Writers, how have you seen writers undersell themselves?
Any other advice to help struggling writers get out of their rut?

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  • Paula Hendrickson January 26, 2018 at 11:41 am

    Not long ago, a friend told me she has never raised her rate—one she set—for her longest-held client. A client she’s worked with for 20 years. She was afraid they would stop working with her if she raised her rate, when they’ve probably been wondering for the last 15 years why she hasn’t raised it yet.

    Both of my longest-running clients are magazines, and even they’ve raised their rates in the past 15 years.

    Heck, back when I hired a guy to mow my lawn I had to TELL him to raise his rates after a couple of years. He charged $15 for a large yard that others charged at least $25-35 to do, depending on services (and this guy mowed, edged, and got the weeds from cracks in the sidewalk and driveway). When gas prices rose I just started adding an extra bonus/tip and told him if nothing he needed to raise rates to offset his expenses. I suppose it’s no surprise that he just disappeared one year. Either he worked himself into exhaustion, or he landed a job that paid more, or he moved out of the area.

    • lwidmer January 26, 2018 at 5:40 pm

      They probably figure she’s just dabbling and doesn’t need the money, Paula. Not a great message to be sending.

      We told that to a guy who did some masonry work for us. His price was WAY too low for the quality he put out! I hope he took the advice — he’s worth a lot more than he thinks he is.

  • Anne Wayman January 26, 2018 at 11:42 am

    Well said, and oh so true… wonder why we have to keep shouting this? Why don’t writers get it?

    • lwidmer January 26, 2018 at 5:41 pm

      Fear of being told no, I suspect? Hard to say. Some are so attached to the work they have they fear having to look for better work? It’s a mystery to me.