Negotiating with Clients: Part 1 – Unpacking the Term “Comparable”

We love our clients. They pay our bills, help us do what we love, and, for full-time freelancers, enable us to stay home and work in questionable clothing and messy buns. But clients are also running a business, and if you’re not careful you might fall for some of the things they tell you. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that clients are being dishonest. I’m just saying that they’re using the same sales and marketing tactics to get a good deal as we are to land them as clients.

Case in Point 

Recently, I was in communication with a potential client who wanted to hire me for a very involved project. The project consisted of major SEO work, long-form content, a fair amount of research, and multiple hand-drawn illustrations. When I quoted my price, which was still lower than it should have been, I was told that other US-based writers were quoting far lower, so those rates were comparable, and could I come down in my price?

No. I couldn’t. I won’t. And you shouldn’t, either. And here’s why.

There’s something insidious in that little word “comparable”. What it seems to say is “You’re charging too much because other people in your general market are charging lower prices.” But comparable is a tricky thing. Is it truly comparable?

Comparable is Multi-Layered

The term comparable is a multi-layered term. Location alone is not what makes your bid comparable to someone else’s, or your work comparable to another freelancer’s. I have friends who are absolutely amazing photographers. Then there’s me, who couldn’t shoot a decent picture if a gun was to my head and my life depended on it. We’re in the same location, we both have cameras, but we bring very different skill sets to the table. Like…they have them and I don’t.

“But, Courtney, you wouldn’t bid for a photography job, so that’s not fair.”

Alright, fine. Take five writers, put them in a room with the same access to the same information using the same equipment. Give them the same assignment. Do you think you’d pay the same rate for each of the resulting deliverables?

If you said yes, think again.

Of all the layers of comparability that exist within that example, the one rogue layer that can never truly be calculated is individual skill and experience. Not to mention creative vision.

You Are Not Comparable

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go all special snowflake on you, but hear me out. You are you. Nobody else is you. Axiomatically, you cannot be compared to anyone else. What a client is willing to pay for largely depends on the very unique set of offerings that only you can bring to the table – creative vision, skill, experience, background knowledge, and work ethic. Those are yours. Everyone has them in some amount or another, but they’re not comparable.

Even among photographers, to use a previous example, creative vision is a big deal. Two photographers can look at the same scene but see completely different things, and that vision is what sets each of them apart from the other and from all other photographers in the world.

Value Your Unique Contributions and Don’t Settle 

If somebody tries to tell you that other offers or proposals or pitches they’ve received are comparable just because you all do the same thing and you’re in the same location, take a step back and reflect on the implications of that statement before feeling like you’ve overstepped your bounds. Location and occupation are hardly enough to say that two freelancers are comparable in what they offer. You know what you bring to the table, and that confidence level and skill set should translate into a price tag. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you deserve.

Industry Standards Are a Real Thing 

Most freelancers drastically underprice themselves because they’re either not aware that industry standards exist, or they lack the self confidence to charge them. For instance, if you’re writing direct mail copy for a client, the average (I said average) price in the industry is $84/hour, $2,839/project, or $2.17/word.

Let that sink in.

Ghostwriting without credit given to you? Average industry rates for that are $73/hour or $1.79/word.

I’ll give you a minute.

If you can handle more, check out the Writer’s Market publication How Much Should I Charge? Writer’s Market is $5/month and it’s the best money you’ll spend. This isn’t sponsored, I just really like their services. Also, you get access to the report when you sign up.  You can find more of these rates in their report.

Industry standards are there for a reason. It’s so we don’t spend our careers screwing ourselves over while clients who want quality without paying for it try to convince us that we’re overcharging. Consult them. Learn them. Love them.

I’m Talking to Me 

If you think by now I’ve got this confidence shit in the bag, you’d be wrong. Routinely, I work for less than I should. Sometimes far less. But as soon as that familiar feeling of being a hamster in a cage descends, I realize that I’m spending tons of time working for less-than-acceptable rates and because of that I have no time to pursue higher-paying work.

It happens to all of us. We need money, so when money’s dangled in front of us we think, sure, I’ll do it.

But here’s something to ponder. What are we doing to the industry if we continue to work for insulting rates? If we’re willing to spend 12 hours on a project and wind up getting paid less than minimum wage, we’re not only screwing ourselves, we’re screwing over every single freelancer trying to make an industry-standard living. And that’s wrong. It might sound harsh, but it’s the truth. So stop that shit.


You provide a high-value service. Your clients aren’t using this content just to read a nice article and throw it on their site. (If they are, by the way, don’t work for that client.) Your clients are using what you produce to make money. It’s marketing. All of it. Sure, they might spend $9,000 on a white paper. But if that white paper turns around and makes them $250,000 in investments or sales, it was well worth it. And decent content marketing should warrant results of that nature.

Here’s the thing. We do something that everyone thinks they can do. You’d never claim to be able to practice law or perform surgery (unless you’ve been trained, of course). Yet somehow everybody and their mother’s ex-boyfriend’s sister thinks they can write. The sad truth, however, is that most of them can’t. Especially not for SEO. Especially not for marketing purposes.

What we do is as much art as it is technique. Your clients are paying to get results. Fiscally verifiable and profit-creating results. That’s an enormous value, so charge accordingly.

In Part 2 we’ll discuss the verbiage of negotiations.

That’s all for this time. Until next time, happy writing.



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