Writing copy for a nickel a word: are you insane?
By Robert W. Bly

Subscriber WE asks, "If you were a somewhat green freelancer, how would you approach the client mentality of 'I can get this for $5 somewhere.'

"Would you try and convince them otherwise or simply look elsewhere? And if you tried to convince them otherwise, what argument would you use?"

This is an easy one.

I told WE that it is pointless to spend time trying to get the $5 client to pay you $500 or even $50 – for two reasons.

First, at that price the client can choose from one of a zillion hungry low-level writers clamoring for their crappy assignment. I picture those hack writers as the pile of warm bodies climbing up the wall in the movie World War Z.

Second, negotiating is worthless. Yes, you can haggle and maybe get the $5 client to pay you $6. But no way will they pay $500 or even $50.

By the way, I have the same experience in book publishing. If a publisher offers me a $5,000 advance, my literary agent might be able to get them up to $7,000 ... but not to $50,000.

The trick to making more money is to avoid cheap, low-paying markets, clients, publishers, editors, and assignments -- and to work for high-paying markets, clients, publishers, editors and projects.

To get $1,000 per assignment, target clients that pay $1,000. Do not go after $10 clients and try to convince them to pay more. It won't work.

What about raising your rates with current clients? When you are at the $500 per project level and up, you can raise your rates if you are in high demand at your current rates.

The best time to raise your rates is when you have much more business at your current rates than you can handle.

For example, if you have more $500 assignments than you can handle, you can start turning away clients that will only pay $100 – and experiment with quoting $650 to new leads.

BTW, whenever you raise your rates, charge these rates to all new clients starting with the first assignment.

But when you communicate your new rates to current clients, tell them that the old rates they were paying will be in effect for them for the rest of the year.

That gives them advance notice they appreciate, prepare them for the rate increase, and enhances your relationship because they perceive you are giving them a special deal.

Just this week, GR, the marketing director from a lending bank, called me and asked if I would write 500-word blog posts on mortgages, real estate, and related topics for them.

He told me he found my name on a web site for mortgage marketers in a post listing five top copywriters in the mortgage industry. One was me. The others were biggies.

Then GR dropped the bomb: he wanted to pay five cents a word for the blog articles. For a 500-word article, that's a staggering $25 per article.

Keep in mind that this is 2014 ... and when I started freelancing in the early 1980s, the going rate for articles was a dollar a word. That's 20X more than what GR thinks he should pay now.

My first impulse was to tell GR that if he would give me mortgages for investment properties at an interest rate of 0.1%, I would gladly write an article for him for a nickel a word.

Instead I suggested he contact the other copywriters recommended on the mortgage site and then let me know how many jumped at his five cents a word offer.

Of course, that was the last I heard from him....


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter with 20 years experience in business-to-business and direct marketing. He has written direct mail packages for Phillips Publishing, Agora Publishing, KCI Communications, McGraw-Hill, Medical Economics, Reed Reference Publishing, A.F. Lewis, and numerous other publishers.