• J. Woken

A Fair (Fare?) Working Relationship

I happened upon this ad yesterday as I scrolled down my Upwork screen looking for jobs to bid on:

An ad pulled from freelancer site

When I first saw this ad I laughed. The problem isn’t with the wording, or the need, but with the advertiser’s expectation. Just take a look: They’re wanting an expert to draw likely 10+ illustrations (probably in full color) for $125, total. Really? That comes to $12.50 per illustration, maximum.

Fees and the question “What to charge?” has been on my mind lately. Not because I don’t know what to charge (I now have a fair set of rates that I go by regularly), but because I run into the problem so often of potential clients feeling like a writer’s (or, in this case, an illustrator’s) time is worth a dime on the dollar.

I don’t know what it takes for other illustrators to do their work, but I know when I’m drawing a full page for a client each image can take from half to a full day to complete. At a half day (4 hours), that comes to $3.13/hr; a full day, $1.56/hr. Unless they’re ten and doing chores for candy money, nobody in their right mind would work for such low wages.

Most don’t realize an illustrator isn’t just mindlessly sketching in some notebook. There’s a lot of thought, drafting, finalizing, and coloring to do, and this doesn’t count the back-and-forth communication with the client about the layout, characters, color choice, et cetera before pencil even touches paper.

In short, a hobbyist or novice will sketch out something for $12.50 per illustration while riding the bus to his day job. An expert, on the other hand, will charge $125 per illustration.

The unfairness starts with YOU.

Ads like this — of which there are many — tell me there is a big reality gap between what a client thinks we do and what actually happens. And this doesn’t just apply to rates, but also to time schedules: Clients will be willing to dish out a fair sum of cash but their expectations about how long it’ll take to complete the work are far off course.

The above is a funny rendition of the gap between outside perspective and what actually takes place at the illustrator’s desk. Illustrator’s certainly don’t work for free, draw all their business-owning friends (free) logos, or doodle all day like Kindergartners. (Some of us do, though, get our sleep. I happen to take sleeping very seriously.)

Entering into business with someone who doesn’t understand what a freelancer puts into their work is like going into a one-sided relationship: Person A makes good effort to spend time together and Person B sits around twiddling their thumbs while also complaining that Person A never hangs out anymore.

Annoying? Yes. Unfair? Absolutely. Toxic? You bet.

Luckily, as of late last year I’ve purged myself of toxic clients, guilt-free. And I do mean “luckily,” because I know a lot of freelancers don’t enjoy that freedom. Why? I think a lot of it has to do with perspective about what good clients give. That is,

It starts with the writer’s expectation about what they can get. If that’s skewed, everything goes downhill from there.

If you think you’re not worth more than a few dollars an hour, you’ll only get paid a few dollars an hour. A lot of the freelancing game is about mentality, so build and maintain your mental strength when conducting business.

It’s about setting your market value. I’m not going to repeat the overdone freelancer’s chant, “We need to stop taking such low pay!” because it’s a cop out. Saying “we” takes the pressure off of ourselves and puts the obligation out there, into the wide, empty nothing, for some unknown entity to take hold of. Taking low pay is now the world’s problem, and who can fix the whole world? Nobody.

But stop passing the buck! YOU are the only entity you should be fixing!

Instead of chanting to the proverbial “we,” take charge of your situation. Stop worrying about everyone else’s earnings and the general freelancing market value (i.e. what freelancers overall are willing to accept as common expectations and wages) and start focusing on your freelancing value.

I’m not saying that since I’ve altered my expectations and self-valuation I get the “best paying freelance jobs” out there. (I put that in quotes because I’m sure you’ve typed that into Google more than once as a freelancer, just as I have!)

But I am saying that my earnings per project are better than what they used to be, and certainly better than what potential clients advertise, like the one looking for an expert illustrator at $12.50 an illustration. Pfft.

To improve your own situation starts with just three easy steps, which are more like new mentalities you need to adopt and apply. (Sorry — no easy 1-2-3 checklists here!) Here’s MOI’s strategy for…

How to Get Paid a Fair Fare

1. Don’t get into an unfair relationship in the first place.

Just because its business doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be looking out for your own — present and future — well-being.

Think of starting and developing a working relationship with a client like you would a relationship with anyone else. Your business relations should be fair, understanding, open, and respectful. That means the client should respect your time and effort by paying you a fair rate, and you should respect the client’s money (and time) by doing your best job and staying on schedule.

2. If you’re already in an unfair relationship, adjust it.

Whether that means renegotiating your rates, deadlines, or availability, do it and do it NOW.

And don’t forget to do it via a contract, on paper. (Don’t have a contract to begin with? Yikes… doing work under contract is respect rule #1!) Make the new terms clear and concise, and make available a way for either party to back out of the deal at any time. One of you isn’t indentured to the other (or if you are per the terms of a contract you signed, you shouldn’t have agreed to that in the first place!).

Remember: You’re working with, not for, the other person. You’re a freelancer, not an employee! So take the “free” in “freelancer” seriously.

3. If the other party won’t adjust, dump them.

If the other person doesn’t want to change terms — or doesn’t even want to see or admit that they are doing you wrong — then it’s high time to say goodbye. It’ll hurt, but in the long run you’ll be better off. (Don’t worry about them: They’ll undoubtedly find someone else to fill your shoes at $3/hr. That’s not your concern.)

If your clients don’t respect you, you shouldn’t want those clients. Period. So let them go.

Bad clients. Just let them go.

Keep to this strategy and eventually you’ll have clients, old and new, who value your talent, time, and who will pay you a fair fare.

Mountain Owl Ink LLC is a freelance creative services company located in Minnesota, USA, that has been providing writing, illustration, and design services since 2013. For more information, visit