Hourly rate vs fixed price vs everything else. How I quote for copywriting, after 16 years

August 21, 2018 •
Quoting on copywriting jobs feature image

We copywriters torture ourselves over a lot of stuff. It’s part of what makes us who we are. But few questions lead to more indecision than how to quote.

Usually it’s, “should I go hourly rate or fixed price?”, and you’ll find many fans of each out there.

Me? I’m like…

I’m happy with either. In fact, I don’t care what the engagement model is. Hourly rate, fixed price, retainer, day rate, barter, royalties, equity, contract, even salary… So long as I get paid, I’m good.

But that doesn’t mean I’m happy with any model on any job. The “so long as I get paid” bit is kinda important. Here’s a rundown of the factors that influence my decision, day-to-day…

Fixed price

I almost always quote fixed prices for new clients. When they don’t know me from a bar of soap, it makes them feel safe. The way I see it, I wouldn’t pay a landscaper an hourly rate if I hadn’t worked with him before; I figure copywriting clients feel the same. Assuming there’s a fixed scope, there are very few jobs you can’t quote a fixed price on.

Hourly rate

Occasionally I quote hourly rates for new clients, but usually it’s because they can’t give me a fixed scope. I also do a lot of hourly rate work for repeat clients. They eliminate the risk for me, and I don’t have to spend a lot of time painstakingly scoping the job to ensure I don’t shoot myself in the foot by under- or over-quoting. But obviously that means the client has to wear the risk, which can make it harder to win the job. And if you haven’t established a good foundation of trust yet, it can be difficult to tell the client if it turns out you underestimated the time involved. Plus some clients are daunted by a three-figure hourly rate, even if their overall investment would be exactly the same on a fixed price.

Day rate

I rarely work on day rates. I’m not sure why. I have a feeling they’re better suited to short-term contracts – anywhere from, say, a couple of days to a couple of months. Particularly when it’s on-site work. (I was asked to quote day rates for an 8-week contract the other day.) Let me know in the comments if you have more experience with day rates than me.

Retainer

Retainers are actually my favourite arrangement. I get some guaranteed, ongoing income, and the client gets a guaranteed chunk of my time each month. It’s a win-win. But more than that, because it’s long-term, and there’s less talk of dollars, hours and T&Cs, and more talk about getting stuff done, I feel like I’m a real part of the team. This is great for my motivation and work satisfaction, and excellent for my relationship with the client (and for generating repeat work).

Barter

I once wrote a manual in exchange for an espresso machine and coffee grinder. And I wrote some web copy in exchange for some genetic testing and consultation on supplements. I also do fairly regular contra work for my designer and developer. But, generally speaking, barter’s a hard way to do things. It’s just not easy finding the perfect fit. I’m not keen to swap my time for crystal healing services, and my mechanic is already booked out most days, so the last thing he wants is more marketing stuff. And then, of course, there’s the question of value; how much copy do I have to write for a year’s supply of eggs?

Royalties

You have to be pretty confident in a lot of things to write copy for royalties. Your writing, obviously. But also is it a good product or service, or will it bomb no matter how good the copy? How will you know the real sales figures? How do you know the client will honour their side of the deal and continue paying royalties, long term? What happens if they discontinue the product or service? What happens if they sell or close their business? In 16 years, I’ve only ever written for royalties once. (It’s a long-term client, though, and I’m on a retainer + rev-share arrangement. I completely trust the client and I have full access to all the sales data.)

Equity

As exciting as it sounds, equity is the riskiest of all the models for a copywriter. Most businesses that offer it are doing so simply because they don’t have the cash to pay you real money. Usually they’re a completely unproven startup, and sometimes they have nothing more than a concept. Although the potential reward is great, my advice is to be very wary when someone offers you equity. What they’re really asking for is investment – they want you to bankroll them. And bankrolling startups is notoriously risky.

Contract

I don’t have a lot of experience with contracts, and most of it has been in the technical writing field (in the software industry). The contracts I’ve been involved in were based on an hourly or day rate. I see them as kinda a short-term retainer. My experience with contracts tells me they’re a little bit more… ‘transactional’ than other engagements. The message is almost, “We need a body in here for 3 months, can you do it?” But again, I don’t have much experience in this area, so please feel free to correct me in the comments.

Salary

If the client wants a lot of me – and I mean a LOT – I may suggest a salary. This may sound like a strange one for an established business owner, but if you see your employer as just an ongoing client, then it’s really not a lot different from a retainer. A couple of years ago, I did a year as a salaried UX and copywriting manager for a major appliances retailer. I was full-time but working from home 4 days a week. Most days, I worked approx 9am-5pm for them, and another 4 or so hours for other clients. So outside of the long hours, holiday pay, sick pay and super, it was pretty much business as usual. Be aware, though, that the security of ongoing work comes at a cost: opportunity. You don’t have as much time to spend chasing other work and marketing your business, so when the engagement comes to a close, you may have to play a little catch-up.

Over to you

Enough about me; tell me about you. How do you quote? And lemme know if you have any questions.

Feel free to comment...
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Rashida Tayabali wrote on August 21st, 2018

I learnt early on that fixed price works for me so that's what I charge. I'm not a fan of contra unless it's for very small jobs.

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Glenn Murray wrote on August 21st, 2018

Hi Rashida. Thanks for your comment. Yeah, fixed price ties everything up nicely. It's a nice, safe feeling for everyone, copywriter included. :-)

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Amy wrote on August 22nd, 2018

No one size fits all in my experience and have learned that offering a choice is best for most clients (mix of fixed, capped or hourly rates). Also learned the hard way that it can be smart to get even a token deposit paid upfront from some of the more flaky potential clients...

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Glenn Murray wrote on August 22nd, 2018

Definitely. And yeah I require a 50% first instalment from new clients too. All of them. It's not just about minimising risk, it's about streamlining cash flow. I do that on hourly rate jobs too.

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Angela wrote on August 23rd, 2018

GREAT blog. Thanks for starting a discussion around this. I've often wondered about royalties/equity/bartering... probably not for me at this stage, but I might consider them one day for the right client(s). I've recently started testing out the day rate offer and I'm really liking it (although it's not perfect). If a client can't seem to tell me exactly what they want/need, I'll either promote the day rate (because that way, we can go with the flow and I'll still get paid) or I'll quote a higher than usual project fee but have a day-rate option (which will work out cheaper for the client in most cases). Some stuff I really like about it: - Clients know when they can call/contact me about the job, so the project is neatly contained within set days - I'm still learning how to price projects so that I don't underquote, but figuring out how to price myself for a day of work is easy - Quoting is quick and easy - Clients "get" it - they don't question what they're paying for as much - It's habit-building for some clients... they enjoy the experience, can easily book another, and a few weeks later it's starting to look like a retainer might make sense (I've only been doing this for less than a month, but it's already happened once) The other thing about day rates is I can automate the booking process a little. If I block out one day per week for potential day-rate work, I can often fit in fairly last minute bookings for those clients, and they can book it all straight through my Calendly page. It's really just an experiment at this stage, but I'm enjoying the results so far :-)

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Glenn Murray wrote on August 23rd, 2018

Interesting. I've only ever done day rates on contracts, so it's never been a scheduled day each week. I like that approach! I definitely agree that day and hourly rate generally work out cheaper for the client. No need for us to factor in risk.

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Dean Mackenzie wrote on September 22nd, 2018

I went looking for productivity blogs and ended up here! Thanks for posting this Glenn, some nice angles (barter and equity are both ones I don't think I'd be "brave" enough to take). The big take-away for me is to revisit hourly rates. Fixed price was/is a way for me to take on "pricing risk" if a project ends up being more complex than first thought, but I try to take a longer-term view and put the relationship first (sounds similar to your thinking... though this can depend on the client not being an ass-hat on the first few meetings). But it also came down to confidence (or lack of). Taking on that risk was a way for me to spend time on something without charging for it, because I wasn't confident about the "yeah, it took 5 hours to write those 400 words because I had to spend the first 2 researching and working out what the heck you meant in the brief". I think I've moved past that problem, but have just stuck with fixed price as a result, so maybe it's time to take another look at the ole' hourly rate.

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Glenn Murray wrote on October 1st, 2018

Yeah, confidence is a huge part of quoting, isn't it? In lots of subtle ways.

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Cortex Copywriter wrote on January 20th, 2019

Thanks for this treasure trove of information! It helped me give a quote to a client yesterday. Thinking of doing a coaching session with you… Congrats on the Awwwards Honorable Mention! My site is up for voting on Awwwards now – would appreciate if you voted or gave feedback on the site’s innovative conversational interface. Looking forward to more great blogs :-)

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Dane Alexander wrote on February 25th, 2019

Thanks for the tips, Glenn. I really like the idea of retainers, too. It helps combat the loneliness of freelancing. I also don't mind a good barter. I just wrote some copy in exchange for a Gibson guitar. Was only a small job, so it worked out really well. Cheers.

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Glenn Murray wrote on February 26th, 2019

Very nice! I once bartered for one of these https://www.coffeemachinespecialist.com.au/shop/bezzera-domus-galatea/ and one of these https://www.coffeemachinespecialist.com.au/shop/bezzera-bb005-doserless-grinder/. I still made shit coffee, but it smelt great!

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Dane Alexander wrote on February 26th, 2019

That's awesome! Next barter: at home barista training. haha

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Glenn Murray wrote on February 26th, 2019

lol. Yeah, probably a good idea.

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Storm wrote on May 1st, 2019

An oldie, but a goodie blog post - thanks for being transparent in your approach to charging. I think it helps other freelancers immensely who are just starting out. I personally love retainers for the same reasons you outlined. Other than that it's fixed rates fwt.

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Kristen Lowrey wrote on November 21st, 2019

Hi Glenn! I've only just found your blog, and what a great resource! Freelancing (and quoting for freelancing) is lonely and sometimes scary. We need more freelancers to shine a light on their process like you have. Thanks so much!

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Glenn Murray wrote on November 21st, 2019

Awww, thanks Kristen! Very kind of you. Stay tuned over the coming weeks. We're launching a new site and more helpful content is on the way. :-)

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