Should A Freelancer Ever Negotiate His Rates?

After reading my recent two-part post entitled “How To Bid Out A Project” (Part 1 and Part 2), artist Mike Dashow emailed me with a question. He writes:

I really enjoyed your blog post on bidding out a project….Once you have spoken with a client about needs, time-line, rights for image reuse, etcetera, you generally have a good idea of what you think the value of a job it. Do you then tell them that’s what the job will cost and hold firm on that? Or do you inflate the price more, leaving yourself room to negotiate down when they make a counter-offer? Or does it depend on the client?

A great question. Here’s my response:

My personal approach is to just give a straight-up, reasonable cost of what I really think a project is worth. I don’t think it’s fair or respectful for me to “jack up” a price estimate unnecessarily with the expectation that the client will try to talk me down. In fact, if a client wants to haggle it often indicates that they don’t have much respect for my time, effort, and skills—they just want to find a bargain. That’s not the type of client I want to work with.

A funny thing about human nature is that the more we pay for something, the more we value it. When I was starting out as a freelancer I was surprised to find that the clients with the lowest budgets were sometimes the most difficult to deal with (slow to give feedback, asking for endless revisions, etc.). From my perspective I was doing them a favor by cutting my rate, but from their perspective they weren’t paying much for the artwork anyway, why not tinker around with it?

Of course not every low-budget client is difficult—I’ve worked with some terrific ones who were absolutely wonderful. But in general my experience has been that the lower the budget, the less likely it is that the project will be smooth sailing. So I’ve taken the attitude that a fair price is a fair price, and either they can afford it or they can’t.

However, I want to point out that there is a huge difference between the haggling client and a respectful client who just happens to have a smaller budget. The respectful client’s attitude is not “how much artwork can I get for cheap”, but rather, “how much quality artwork can I afford?”. There’s a world of difference between the two. For such clients I will try to find a pleasing compromise that will fit their budget without slashing my rates.

For instance, if a magazine wants a spot illustration and a half-page illustration for only X amount of dollars, I might suggest doing two quarter-page illustrations instead. Other ways you can negotiate working for a lower fee might include extending the deadline, simplifying the artwork, cutting the number of illustrations, keeping more rights to the art, or requesting a higher royalty. Never lower your price just to satisfy a client’s desire to land a bargain. There should always be a fair trade-off.