How to negotiate a project fee

Getting past the dreaded question: "What's your day rate?"

No freelancer enjoys being asked what their day rate is, but freelance journalists have it particularly hard. As most of the work we do for magazines, newspapers and websites are paid per word or per article, it can be really challenging to translate that figure into a day rate.  

So when a client I've worked with before got in touch recently to ask if I'm available to do a bigger project for them, I wanted to try a different approach to setting my fee. 

My aim was to come up with a total project fee rather than trying to figure out how long it would take me to complete the work. I didn't want to "price my time" because on a philosophical level, I believe I should be paid for my output and quality of my work rather than the time it takes to do it. (If you want to know more about my reasoning for this, I talk about it in this episode of my podcast). 

Anyway, here's how I went about setting and negotiating a project fee.  

Pick a method

The first problem with setting a fee is that there's no formula for doing so. You can charge a day rate, an hourly rate, a project fee or some combination of the three. On top of that different industries and clients will have different expectations when it comes to dealing with freelancers’ fees. 

In the particular case of the project I was approached about, it involved a mix of producing editorial work, as well as delivering some workshops. The former I'd done before for the client, but not the latter (although I have done workshops in general before). This was also a pilot project for the client, so they didn't have a benchmark for giving me a budget. 

In calculating the rate, I decided to separate out the editorial work from the workshop bits. For the editorial work, I simply tallied up the total word count and multiplied it by the client's usual word rate. For the workshops, I decided to set a flat fee per workshop.

I chose this approach for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I was trying to speak in the client's language – the rate I gave them for the editorial work was based on one they had set. For the workshops, I gave a flat fee because that's how I've priced workshops for previous clients and I find it easier to give a rate when I’ve got past precedent and can just say “my usual rate for this is X”.

Show your working

Always over-communicate how you've arrived at your figure. My email outlining my fee was about three paragraphs long and I went into detail (basically a client-friendly version of the above) about how I'd calculated it.  

I once got into a negotiation about a fee in which I didn't explain how I’d worked it out – I literally just quoted the number. I got turned down for that work and I felt really embarrassed about it because the reason I was given implied I'd been cheeky in my ask. However, my reasoning was actually fair and made sense. And it probably would have made sense to the client as well, had I just communicated it properly.  

Know your bottom line

While negotiating rates can feel like plucking numbers out of the air, you have to go into every negotiation knowing the minimum you would accept. Negotiation is by its nature a back-and-forth, so it shouldn't come as a surprise if the client makes you a counteroffer. If they do, you need to know what the lowest amount is that you’re willing to take in order to assess the offer. This also helps when trying to set a price for a piece of work you’ve never done before (eg I’d done workshops before but when I first started doing them, I had to figure out how to start pricing them).

In order to do this, I start with a rule I’ve made that any commercial work I do (and by that, I essentially mean any work that’s not for a news outlet) needs to be paying more than I would get for doing journalism. This is because I do commercial work in order to fund my journalism, so if it doesn’t make financial sense then I won’t do it (by the way, that’s not to say I don’t enjoy the commercial projects I take on, but that’s for a different newsletter).

In order to know if you’re getting more money compared to a journalism project, you need to know how much the standard rates are in the media industry. If you’re proposing a day rate, figure out the day rates for shift work at newspapers by asking around your fellow freelance friends or consulting the NUJs rates card. Project fees are a little different, but you can roughly work out how much time it takes you to complete a project and compare that to an equivalent day rate.

Show the client they're getting a good deal 

What most people don’t realise about fee negotiations is that they’re sales by another name. And the best way to sell something to someone is to make them feel like they’re getting a good deal – they simply want to know they’re getting the most for their money. Some lines you can try using: 

“I’m charging X for this workshop – I usually charge that amount for workshops that run for half the time .”

“My rate for a project like this is Y, but because this is a big project and I’ve always enjoyed working with you, I’m happy to offer a 10% discount.” 

"The cost of this is Z, you'll more than make that amount back after I help you improve your pitching techniques."  

The biggest secret is to make the client feel like they’re getting a great deal without you compromising on what you feel to be a fair price.   

Always ask for more 

You should always ask for a little bit more as the client is likely to negotiate your rate with you. But more doesn't always have to mean more money. In the same way when you negotiate an employment package, if you’re negotiating a freelance project fee there are additional “benefits” to take into account.

Will they cover expenses? Can you keep the fee the same but offer an extra half day on the project? Are they asking you to come into the office – do you really need to? Can you ask for half the fee upfront? Does the company make a product they could give you as a freebie or discounted perk? (NB: I mean perk, not in place of a fair fee!)

In the end, the client accepted my proposal. As the project was a pilot, they actually also offered a “contingency plan” of paying me a day rate if the project ran over. I was happy to accept that and thought was a great thing to include in further negotiations.

When it's all said and done, I really do feel like I'm licking my finger and sticking it in the air when I set a rate. So I'd love to hear how other people set theirs!