Big Ideas

How To Become A Freelance Writer Who Charges Outrageously High Fees. (QnA w. Steve Roller Pt. 2)

By 08/16/20134 Comments

{Interview with Anton Volney at} steve-roller [EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 2 of my interview with Steve Roller. Steve is a direct response copywriter, trainer of copywriters, founder of and all-around interesting guy. If you haven’t read part 1, go here now.]

Steve: So one of the questions you had was, how do you become a freelance writer who gets away with charging outrageously high fees. (Laughs!) I’ve got some ideas on that, but first of all, what is your take on that? Anton: Well, in the same vine of what you were saying earlier, you hear stories of some fella who charges $20,000 plus commissions for his freelance copywriter rate, and another guy who charges $1000 per hour. I’m sure that at some point, when you have accumulated enough impressive clients and accomplishments, you’ll probably be in high enough demand that you’ll get away with that…But then there’s also the process of negotiating higher fees. So you aren’t necessarily charging outrageous fees, but maybe this month you’re charging $2000 for a sales letter and next month you’re charging $3000. I’m sure there is a way to get good at making those incremental increases in your pay, and how to position yourself so that the customer sees you as an asset, not an expense? Steve: That’s a good question. I like the way you put that, “How to position yourself so that the customer sees you as an asset, not an expense” is that the way you put it? Anton: Yes.

Tip #1: You don’t have to be an A-level copywriter to make good money.

Steve: Well first of all, let me say that there’s a pretty small group of people who command what I would consider outrageously high fees. I’m trying to get into that category myself… There are guys who make anywhere between $300,000 per year and $1,000,000 per year. That’s some pretty A-level territory. But there’s a pretty large number of people who are between the $100,000 and $300,000 mark, and that’s pretty good money. In fact I was talking with a friend of mine, (copywriter Sean McCool) a couple weeks ago. I call him an A-level copywriter because he’s making very good money, and he said, “I’m not an A-level copywriter. I’m a B-level copywriter, but you know what? You can make a very good income as a B-level copywriter, as long as you’re producing results for your clients and staying booked up consistently.”

Tip #2: Drive sales to the company.

So I guess I would say to start with this: It’s not a huge group of people that are making outrageously high fees, but the reason that copywriters are making good money is we’re driving sales to the compan. Right now, I’ve got a project that I’m working on for a publishing company, and the owner of that publishing company is a very good copywriter himself. He started out as a writer as he built up this publishing empire. Even though he can write just as good of a letter as me or better, it’s not worth his time. He’s so busy running his business that it’s worthwhile for him to hire a guy like me to write the letter. But let’s just say, to use a figure, that he pays me $5000 to write a sales letter… I wrote one like this in January, they did three print runs to their direct mail list, and it’s been promoted online (the same letter, different format) and I don’t know exactly what the numbers are, but that letter that they paid me say $5000 for has probably generated in the neighborhood $100,000 and $200,000 in profits for them. So if you’re consistently writing letters that are generating 20-30 times what they paid you, they’re going to keep coming back to you and keep having you write more letters, because it is an art, and not everybody can do it. Once you know how to write persuasively, and understand the audience and understand the psychology of a sales letter and a structure of a sales letter—you can pretty much write your own ticket. And then, coming back to the idea of getting your own clients, that’s when people start coming to you. The word gets around. To be honest with you, I haven’t really used my website a whole lot in the last couple years, and I haven’t updated it, because I haven’t need to. People come to me because they say, “Joe told me that you wrote a sales letter for him produced this much and we’d like you to do a letter…” And then they ask me what my fee is, and I write up a quick proposal, and we get the project going. So they don’t ask to see samples, they don’t ask to see a clip of my work or anything…Life becomes a little easier once you’ve got a couple strong sales letters under your belt. Anton: It sounds to me like the key to charging outrageous fees is having a couple of good homeruns… Steve: Yup, somewhat, and I’ll say this: I wouldn’t even say that I’ve hit any homeruns. I’ve hit a couple of doubles, maybe a triple, but not a homerun; or what even major clients and publishers would consider to be a home run. I think I’m getting close, and when I get to that point, I’ll probably be a little bit more free to name my own prices. I’m still in a category where even though I’d like to say I’m going to charge $25,000 for this letter, I’m not at that level yet.

Tip #3: Negotiate your price upward.

Usually it’s best for prospects to name their own price first.  I know a couple times when people have come to me as a referral and they’ve come and asked for a price, I said, “Why don’t you let me know what you were thinking of?” When they name a price first, it’s almost always higher than I was thinking! If you’ve already worked for somebody and they want you to write again, then you can negotiate up a little bit and try to get a higher fee, but the fact of the matter is, if I set a really high fee even if I wrote a really good letter before, they’re going to say, “Steve, that’s just out of the ballpark. How about half of that?” You can get a pretty good idea what to charge from asking freelancers to get a baseline for the freelance copywriter rates out there. You don’t want to insult somebody by quoting a super high fee. And here’s the thing too, I could say, “I’d like you to pay me $20,000, plus royalties to write this letter,” but now you’ve got to deliver on that. You wouldn’t want to get paid that kind of money and write a bomb. Which isn’t to say that good copywriters always hit a homerun (it’s quite interesting to hear stories about big name copywriters that you know who didn’t always hit homeruns) but you still have to deliver. I tend to err on the side of caution and charge fees that are probably not as high as they could be because I always want to make sure I’m over-delivering.

Tip #4: Get connected with the right people.

A lot of getting clients boils down to making connections with the right people. Sometimes it’s hard to decide on one freelancer from another. On the surface, they’ve both got samples, testimonials, their websites look good…but sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between me and 5 other copywriters that do the same thing. A lot of it boils down to: do they like you? Anton: A lot of what you’re telling me is about delivering results. When you can deliver big league results, you can charge big league fees. So how do you get away with producing big results as quickly as possible?

Tip #5: Getting feedback is key…

Steve: We’re freelancers. We work on our own, in our office. We work for a client and turn in a first draft, but I think getting feedback from someone besides your client in crucial. Especially when you are still figuring out how to become a freelance writer and you don’t really know whether your copy is any good or not. It may be too late when you turn it in to your client. There’s a couple different ways to do that. We have a formal system that’s called peer reviewing. That’s a system where four or five of your peers will get together and look at something your wrote and give you tips on what you can do better. You can form your own form your own little group by getting to know people, or getting connected through Facebook groups, LinkedIn groups, or at live events.

Tip #6: Get a coach.

Ideally, if you can afford it, I think getting a coach is great—somebody that you pay on a monthly basis to coach you along and give you feedback and help you navigate this whole freelance world, and all that kind of stuff. There are guru coaches who are at the top of their field, and if you have the money to invest in that type of coaching I think you’ll get a good return on whatever you spent. I was always a little intimidated to hire a coach at that level, and in the beginning, I found that to be a little bit prohibitive cost-wise too. If you can, find a less expensive coach—anybody that’s above your level that can still help you move along…

Tip #7: Get a mentor…

This is a little difficult to do, but if you can, find a mentor in this business. That’s even better than a coach. A mentor is not somebody you’re paying, but someone who for whatever reason, sees something in you that they like. If they take you under their wing, that’s the ideal situation. I don’t have any hard and fast rules on how to do that. Going to a live event is probably the best way to find a mentor. Have a conversation with someone you admire at tell them, “I love what you’re doing and I’m sure you’re really busy but, would you ever consider being a mentor?”

Tip #8: Practice your craft every day.

If you’re a writer, write every day. Even before you get booked up with clients. Sometimes people ask me, “If I don’t have clients, what will I write about?” A couple things…

  • I think you can look at online ads, email marketing messages, etc., with a critical eye, and ask yourself, “How would I do that differently?” And even though you’re not getting paid for it, rewrite some ads that you see. Figure out how you could do it better.
  • If you don’t have client work, you might as well practice with spec assignments.
  • If you have a website, commit to a blogging schedule of 2 or 3 entries per week. It’s amazing how writing 300-500 words per week will polish your writing very quickly, and you get into a formula of writing those blog posts and a lot of that translates into writing sales copy.

And then the other thing is, create a swipe file…

This might be one of my biggest tips. A swipe file is a file of good examples of copy that you see.

And then…

Tip #9: Write out good examples of copy by hand.

This is something I did in the beginning. For example, let’s say that you want to get into the financial newsletter writing copy world. You get a couple newsletters in the mail that they have used a few times… Print that letter off, and this sounds a little strange, but write off that letter, by hand, word by word, over and over. It get’s the rhythm of the cadence and the style of good copywriting almost embedded into your brain.

Tip #10: Master your craft as quickly as possible.

You hear those numbers that say it takes a thousand hours to get proficient at something, and ten thousand hours to master it. Those numbers might be true but my advice would be to crunch those hours into as short a time as possible. Let’s say you’re working full time and you’re just starting out as a freelancer. Let’s say that it will take one thousand hours of practice to become proficient, well if it only practiced 10 hours a week, well that might take you two years, but if you could somehow find a way to ramp that up to 20 hours a week, you could crunch that proficiency level down to one year. If it takes ten thousand hours to master something, that’s working 40 hours per week for five years. It’s almost like language immersion. The more you can learn and the faster you can learn it, the better off you are…

Tip #11: Always be connecting with people who move your career forward.

On any given day or week, people ask me to go out for a coffee or a drink, and I’m somewhat selective with who I share my time with. Sometimes people think that because I work out of an office at home, I’ve got this “flexible” schedule, and I can just take off and have lunch whenever and that type of thing… I work pretty seriously and I want to make sure the people that I’m spending time with people that I can help, and that can help me, or ideally, we can help each other. I had a great breakfast meeting the other day with a guy who is a published author and he’s been helping me with some ideas for getting my book done, and I’ve been helping him with his website copy, so it’s a mutually beneficial thing. So I would say to keep connecting with people who are going to help you move your career forward. It’s an ongoing process, you’re always learning, growing, getting better, and I think that if you’re doing things right, and focusing your time, and connecting with the right people, you can‘t help but constantly make more money each year. If you’re doing things right, that’s going to be the case. Anton: Thank you Steve for sharing all of these insights for growing a freelancing business. If anyone wanted to get in contact with you for your coaching sessions, how could they do that best? Steve: goes to my freelancing page, but the other website that I have there’s a full list of my services for monthly coaching, and a full list of retreats that I have. I have one coming up in Santa Fe in September, and another in Vermont in October. These are just small gatherings of writers and we work on each other’s businesses. So it’s kind of a combination of writing and marketing stuff. So we’re working on each other’s business. Not necessarily finding each other clients, but helping build our business so clients are coming to us. It’s just a neat way to get immersed with other freelancers.

Steve Roller

Author Steve Roller

I'm a business coach, author, copywriter, world traveler (33 countries on five continents so far), and professional speaker. In addition to helping companies get more customers and make more money, I help other writers create profitable businesses. I offer one-on-one coaching, professional copy critiques, and live, in-person business-building workshops. When I'm not writing, coaching, or speaking, I enjoy nothing more than hanging out with my wife and four kids and planning my next adventure.

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Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • Alan says:

    Steve, you may not have hit a home run with a copywriting piece yet, but you certainly stroked a round-tripper with this two-parter! In fact, I believe you hit for the cycle. Great blueprint for anyone eager to up their game. Kudos to Anton Volney for teeing up this excellent interview.

    • Steve Roller says:

      Thanks, Alan. With both of us making baseball analogies, I’m guessing we’d have something to talk about if we catch a game together some day. Fenway maybe? (It’s my favorite park.)

  • Mike Skiff says:

    Great stuff Steve! Just discovered your site through Jeff Goins. As a freelance copywriter-in-training, I plan to hit you up at some point to join the Cafe. Thanks for the tips!

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