Name Your Fee – As Long as it’s 7¢ a WordYou mean, I don’t get what I want? 

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a fellow who represented a large international firm that was setting up a website devoted to business. He wanted to know if I could write a series of informative 500-word articles for the site.

“We want high-quality writing,” he told me several times. “And we have lots of work.” And his definition of “lots” kept growing as we spoke, all the way from 30 articles to 300.

Three hundred articles! High-quality writing! Sounded like a dream job!

“What’s your budget?” I asked.

“We aren’t locked into anything,” he replied. “You tell us what you want to charge.”

Even dreamier!

But…well…it seemed a little too good to be true

And I had seen promises of “lots of work” at “great pay” evaporate before. The next day I e-mailed him: “I discussed your website idea with my team, and we believe we can deliver the high-quality articles you’re looking for. For articles of this nature – original, informative and sparkling, requiring research to ensure that they are absolutely up-to-date – we charge $1 per word.”

“That’s too much,” he e-mailed back. “Three hundred articles at 500 words apiece comes to 150,000 words, which means the fee would be $150,000. Since there will be a lot of work, can you give a volume discount?”

I replied: “Yes, that would add up to quite a bit of money and yes, we can give a discount on the per-word fee if we are guaranteed a large volume of work.”

“However, we find it difficult to work on the basis of ‘maybe money.’ We’ve seen the ‘maybe money’ scenario play out too many times: The client is given a lower per-word rate based on the expectation of a large volume of work. The initial round of work is performed. The client is happy with the results, but the additional work is not forthcoming.

“For that reason, we prefer to stick with our higher rate until we develop a relationship and the confidence that everything will play out exactly as expected.

“May I suggest a trial ‘get to know each other’ period?”

Suddenly the terms began to change

He asked for a lower quote on 150 articles. (What happened to the 300? And why would he expect me to lower the quote for fewer articles? Wouldn’t that be a reverse-volume discount? Or maybe an un-volume discount?)

Once again I probed. Without offering to change the per-word fee, I asked: “How strong is the assurance that there will indeed be 150 articles? Is your client willing to make a deal for all 150, complete with a down payment on the entire batch?”

“Yes,” he assured me. “The client is absolutely set on 150 articles and willing to make the down payment.”

I wasn’t so sure: “I’m delighted to hear that your client is willing to make a deal for all 150 articles, complete with a down payment on the entire batch. We generally ask for a down payment of 50% to lock in our time. Is that feasible?”

Apparently not, for he informed me, “The client has budgeted 7¢ per word, which comes to $35 for a 500 word article.”

Wow! What happened to “you tell us what you want to charge?”

Each of the all-original-content, high-quality articles he described to me could take several hours to write – but at $35 per article, I’d be better off serving lattés at Starbucks.

The lesson? Be wary when the deal seems too good to be true. Remember that talk is cheap, so it’s easy for potential clients to entice you with the prospect of lots of work and plenty of money to persuade you to drop your price way, way down. So keep talking, keep probing and trying to pin down the potential client. Find out what they are really willing to pay, and how much work is really offered, before offering a volume discount.

The lesson in brief?

Better to probe than to get shafted.

I’m Barry Fox, a New York Times #1 bestselling ghostwriter. I help executives, entrepreneurs, philanthropists and top professionals create top-notch memoirs and business books. I can also guide you through the self-publishing process. Call me at 818-917-5362.