After eight years as a freelance writer and editor, I’ve figured out what works and doesn’t work for my business — and for clients. This post includes everything I’ve learned about pricing and billing.
One principle drives everything you are about to read: all freelance arrangements should create value for the client and be rewarding (both emotionally and financially) for the freelancer. Find the intersection between the client’s interests and your own, and you’ve found the ideal type of project.
First, pick the right projects
Generic writers get low rates, because they’re easily replaced. And generic projects attract generic writers.
Unless you want a dreary and low-paid writing life, specialize. Learn a lot about writing and editing memoirs, or life science content, or business strategy, or research-heavy white papers. If you get good at those, the people who need them will pay more for your time and you’ll be able to complete the projects more quickly and with more confidence.
Based my experience, the best projects include the following qualities:
- The project is a good match for your abilities. You can reasonably state that you’ve done something like it before.
- The project is financially rewarding enough to take on. This includes big projects (editing a manuscript, ghostwriting a book) and repeating projects (for example, a series of articles). A small project that takes less than 2 hours to complete is unlikely to be worth the time it takes to close the deal and bill for it, unless it is a simple and repeatable type of project, that is, an “off-the-rack” standard deliverable.
- The client has budget. Clients who can’t realistically pay are time wasters. I’ve worked with big companies, small companies, and individuals; it’s not about the size or type of company, it’s about the seriousness of the client. If you get a sense that people are just tire-kickers, tell them a price range in an email and see if that scares them off.
- The project fits in your schedule. If you’re in the midst of a big, intense project, don’t sign another big, intense project that has to start immediately. But you can often fit small projects into the gaps in bigger projects.
- You’ll learn something. I prefer projects where either the content or the format is new. I’ve now learned about AI chatbots, marketing technology, management consulting, business psychology, small-business branding, networking strategies, and the history of health breakthroughs. I’ve also learned how to write Twitter threads, op-eds, web copy, and marketing tag lines. None of these projects was completely outside my expertise (or else the clients wouldn’t have hired me), but they were close enough to the edges that I knew I’d learn something new and expand my capabilities.
How to price by the project
I don’t price by the hour, because that creates an incentive to go slow and creates trust issues with clients. And I don’t price by the the word, because that implies that I’m interchangeable with other writers (and because some words are more expensive to prepare and write than others). I almost always price by the project, which gives both the client and me some certainty about what to expect. Pricing by the project impresses people with your knowledge and professionalism. But it also means you need to assess costs very carefully, because otherwise you could be getting paid too little for a project for which the time balloons out of control.
To compute the total price, I start with a rack rate (mine is about $400 per hour, because I have a unique, specialized background and proven experience). I estimate the hours that the project will take and multiply.
When making an estimate of this kind, it’s important to take into account time spent:
- Closing the deal. You need to get paid back for that time once you’re working on it.
- On introductions and working out how the relationship will work (can be significant for larger projects).
- Working collaboratively on ideas.
- In meetings.
- Gathering information from the client (this can be a one-time thing, or multiple ongoing meetings).
- Reviewing source materials from the client for research.
- Web research.
- Interviews, such as case study interviews.
- Travel. (You can’t bill for every hour spent traveling, but that time isn’t free either.)
- Actually writing.
- Reviewing feedback (from one person or multiple people, in one round or multiple rounds).
- Managing tasks other than writing (for example, working with illustrators, copy editors, or publishers).
- Arguing with accounting (I bill higher for companies with annoying payment bureaucracies and amazingly, they are often less price sensitive).
This means that two projects that ostensibly look similar may cost different amounts. Editing a 50,000-word manuscript could cost three times as much if it’s in terrible shape and needs lots of attention as compared with a manuscript that’s already pretty close to perfect. And one 60,000-word ghostwriting job might cost twice as much as another because of the need to do extensive research or deal with multiple reviewers. This is why there are no standard prices on my site — because there are no standard jobs.
Billing breakdowns for specific types of jobs
Here’s how I bill for some typical deliverables.
I assess the level of effort required to research and write, including review of client materials and client discovery meetings. Invoice milestones are as follows:
- 50% up-front.
- 50% on completion.
Book idea development
Unlike other projects, the idea development project is fairly standard: it requires a single 90-minute meeting and the deliverable is a title, subtitle, and one-page treatment for the book. Because of the high value of this project for the client, I price it at $4,000, which compensates me at far higher than my usual hourly rate. (A lot goes into it; the 90-minute meeting is just the only part the client is present for.) If multiple passes or meetings are necessary (which is rare), that’s included in the price. Invoice milestones:
- 50% up-front.
- 50% on completion.
A book proposal intended for pitching a book to publishers is a complex project, involving the idea development as well as an analysis of the market, a book marketing plan, and a sample chapter. Pricing varies based on how much work I do and how much work the client does, but given the work involved, is often about one-quarter of the cost of ghostwriting the whole book. There is a lot of value here, because the proposal I deliver may generate an advance in excess of $50,000. I will often include a bonus that pays me a small share of that advance, so the author and I can share in the upside. There is typically one part of the proposal that drags the project out for a while (such as the marketing plan or the sample chapter). This is why I set the invoice milestones the way I do:
- 35% up front.
- 55% on completion of all parts of proposal but one.
- 10% on completion of full proposal.
- Bonus on advance payments.
Book developmental editing (on completed manuscript)
I start by assessing the hours required. This depends on two qualities: the length of the manuscript and the type of problems it has (for example, idea weaknesses, structural issues, or writing flaws). I can usually get a sense of these qualities by reading about 3,000 words. Invoice milestones as follows:
- 50% up-front.
- 50% on completion.
- An additional 50% of the original cost if the client requests a second pass edit of the revised manuscript.
These projects are the biggest, most complex, and most varied that I take on. For me, pricing varies from $60,000 to $100,000 based on the length, time required, amount of research required, and review process. I try to match the invoice milestones to the work deliverables. (The final stage, supervision of copy edits and page layout, is often time-consuming, but clients won’t typically pay too much for that time, so I fold it into the earlier deliverables.) Invoice milestones:
- 35% up front.
- 20% on delivery of first drafts of half of chapters.
- 20% on delivery of first drafts of all chapters.
- 20% on delivery of final draft of manuscript.
- 5% at conclusion of supervision of copy edits and page layout.
I love creating book indexes, but I can only make it worth my while on books I wrote or edited, because then I am much more familiar with the content. This is the lowest per-hour compensation of any work I do; it’s a labor of love. The going rate is about $1,500 for a 65,000 word book, and that likely takes me 15 hours of work. I can’t increase the price because no one pays extra for a good index, and there are lots of other indexers who can do the work. I bill on completion.
Some clients want ongoing coaching as they develop their skills. My objective is to make them smarter, not make them dependent on me. Pricing is $1,000 per coaching session, which includes time spent on editorial review of chapters by the author before each session.
A few more notes on billing and contracts
I prefer actually getting paid to the promise that I eventually will be paid. That means I am not shy about billing. People who are shy about billing end up starving for no good reason. Just send the invoice.
I bill the up-front invoice immediately upon agreement to do the work. There is no reason to wait for this.
I bill additional invoices immediately upon completion of milestones.
I wait two or three weeks after sending invoices to remind clients. Sometimes they forget to approve invoices for payment.
If the client has a purchase order process and a purchasing department, I will start work upon commitment to pay, rather than on actual payment. I may end up waiting longer to get paid, but I do end up finally getting paid.
For coaching, I typically bill about once a month.
For clients who look like they will be slow, I may put a retainer arrangement in place. That is, I send a monthly bill, and when I hit milestones, I subtract retainer payments already billed from the cost of those milestones. This creates an incentive for clients to get moving, and compensates me for projects that have long gaps in the middle where the client isn’t ready for me to engage.
When I work through an agency, the agency will charge a fee (typically 15%). I still bill the agency close to the same amount, because they are still competing for my time with other clients who pay the full amount. The agency deserves to get paid for finding and vetting clients and dealing with contract and billing issues, but I’d like the client to bear most of that cost.
I don’t usually do contracts for small, simple, short-term jobs where the greatest loss would be me doing work and not getting paid. My basic principle is: you own what I create for you, and you are also ultimately responsible for the consequences of publishing it. I do have contracts for larger and more complex projects. This includes all book ghostwriting jobs. Note that this is not legal advice; you should determine your own risk tolerance before deciding whether to use a contract on any given job.
These principles have worked for me. Over eight years and hundreds of projects, 98% of my clients are referenceable, I’ve never gotten stiffed for work in, I’ve made a good living, and I like most of the people I work with. It’s a good life.