Too often a freelancer’s day is taken up with chasing clients and outstanding invoices. You can quickly find yourself drowning in excuses and empty promises. It can be stressful and detrimental to your business.
When I started freelancing I did almost everything wrong except, somehow I managed to implement good practises for quoting and chasing invoices.
Within two years, getting paid stopped being a worry of mine. Clients, keen to get the project started, would pay the deposit straight away and then delighted with the outcome, cleared the balance promptly.
Complaints about clients not paying is rife but tips for tackling this problem are rarely handed out. Today, I want to share some of the things that helped me in the hope they can help you too.
Working for free
Before we get into how to price your work, let’s first address a subject that comes up time and time again – working for free.
Many, many, many clients will offer you the “opportunity” to work on their project. They guarantee exposure and promise more work. Sometimes they offer shares in their company or a cut of the profits. In return, all they ask is that you work for free or for very, very, very little money.
The fact is, if you are working for free, you are investing in someone else’s project. If they are not willing to invest in it by paying you in full, why should you? That’s time you can spend investing in your career, creating your own projects and exposure.
If the client really believes in the added value you will bring and wants you to have an ongoing commitment to the project, then they should offer you shares/profit sharing in addition to paying you in full.
If you are not convinced that working for free is a terrible idea yet, and you are certain that it will lead to more clients, keep in mind when you are working for free the client will still treat you like you are getting paid. So it will come with all the typical headaches of moving deadlines and endless revisions. Also consider, that if paid work comes along while you are tied up doing free work, you may not have the bandwidth to do both. Forcing you to choose between turning down paid work or burning the bridge you were trying to build.
The caveat to never working for free is if friends and family ask you to do something. Personally, I do these “favours” outside of my working hours and try to get it done as quickly as possible.
How much to charge
When you are starting out, it can be difficult to know what to charge. In my previous article, How to Start Freelancing, I offered some tips on how to gauge the market. While it is helpful to know what others charge, that should not be the only factor. Your rate should also take into account your personal skill, uniqueness and professionalism (aka your unique selling point or USP).
Where do you begin? It’s important to know exactly what you are charging for; it’s not just the finished piece.
Being professional, attending meetings, creating presentations, answering emails and calls, keeping to deadlines, and keeping the client informed of the project’s progress adds heaps of value.
Whether you are charging the client per day or as a whole project, it’s useful to know your day rate.
Glassdoor, tells us that the annual salary of an illustrator in the UK ranges between £19,000-£43,000.
Taking the lowest salary of £19,000, we can calculate that is a day rate of roughly £75.
Now you know the very minimum you should be charging, you can factor in your specific setup.
Let’s assume you are working 40 hours per week, 8 hours per day, Monday to Friday and you are taking 5 weeks off a year. That’s a total of 236 days per year.
Don’t forget to factor in bills, studio costs, software subscriptions, commuting and so on.
Let’s say that after assessing your USP and overheads, you feel that you should be making £2,500 per month.
We can use The Salary Calculator’s Hourly Wage Tax Calculator to quickly find the rate you need to charge.
It works out to £128 a day. Which would give you an annual gross income (the sum of all your income before tax) of £30,080.
Having this information will be super helpful for you to quickly price work but it’s just a guide.
It is common practice for freelancers to mark up their day rate to cover quiet periods. I’d advise you to do the same so that you have a better chance of hitting your income goals.
Furthermore, projects have a tendency to go on longer than planned. Sometimes because of the client, sometimes because you underestimated the time it would take. You should always account for this and charge at least a 25% more, double if you have any doubts about the client.
When should your rate go up? Your rate should go up as your USP and overheads go up. Which you should review annually.
I’ve got my day rate, now what?
Before accepting any job, always ask for the budget and deadline. Everyone is happy to give you a deadline but you may not always get a budget.
So, when giving a quote make the deliverables clear: full-colour digital illustration (show examples), two weeks turnaround, two revisions, full rights. If the client comes back with the price being too high, you have wiggle room, you can increase the timeline, reduce the revisions, simplify the illustration, etc.
Once the deliverables have been agreed on, you need to write a document/contract/proposal for yourself and the client. It needs to include a project overview, deliverables, costs and time, next stages, and terms (payment structure, cancellation, usage rights, etc.)
All correspondence should be done through email, and any face-to-face meetings or phone call should be followed with an email summing up what was discussed and agreed. You always want a paper trail and evidence of what has been agreed to.
Before hitting send on your quote, stop and ask yourself, am I happy to do this work for this amount of money? The key word is ‘happy’. Sometimes during a project it emerges that the budget was higher or they have paid another illustrator more for a similar job. Which can be a bitter pill to swallow. But you can shrug it off because you are being paid an amount you are happy with.
Licensing and royalties
Many recommend charging based on usage, circulation, rights and even size of the client, so what I am about to say goes directly against this popular opinion.
I have never had an agent, which means I have had to personally keep on top of all my clients. In my experience, setting limits to usage becomes difficult to enforce. There is no way of me knowing if a client will go outside of the agreed usage.
To combat this I offer the client full rights but always reserve the right to display it in my portfolio. I can hand over the work and not worry about the client breaching our agreement and the ensuing legal actions of them doing so.
I also quote independent of a client’s business size, fulfilling my egalitarian side.
This advice applies mostly to one-off illustrations or small projects. If you are illustrating a book for a reputable publisher, then it’s royalties all the way.
Invoicing and chasing payment
Before you begin a project, you should always take a deposit. Always. Do not start without a deposit.
I typically take 50% deposit, unless a project is over £5,000. And depending how much over, the deposit I take can go down as low as 30%. The aim is to commit the client to giving you a sizable amount of money so they feel invested and would not be tempted to drop the project two-thirds of the way through.
Keep the client informed throughout the project. Give them a week or two’s notice when you expect to deliver the finished product. This creates a bit of excitement and anticipation, at the same time as nudging them to prepare the outstanding funds.
On the invoice, include all the ways they can pay and contact you. Include the due date and any interest charges for late payment. It’s good to include late charges on your invoice, it adds a bit of fear in the client.
I typically give clients 30 days to pay from the date they receive the invoice. If they do not pay within the first two weeks, I email to politely ask when I can expect the payment. If they give you a specific date, wait until then before pestering them again. If not, a week before the due date drop them another email or phone call. Calling them adds a little extra pressure.
If the 30 days go by and you have had nothing but promises to pay, create a version of the invoice with a big red “Overdue” written on it. Send that over with a reminder that from now on late charges will be applied.
Remember to always be polite throughout, there could be a genuine reason why they are late paying you. If you are polite, accommodating and friendly during this process, you are more likely to get a better response.
These days, I rarely have to chase a client for payment. They usually pay a day or two after I have sent the final invoice. Some of that has to do with what I have mentioned above, but a lot of it has to do with being very selective with who I work with. Consider dropping clients who pay late. It will save you so much time in the long run.
You may think to yourself, but next time I will just charge more for all the headaches they have caused. Don’t. This will likely leave you in the exact situation again, just with a larger outstanding payment.
No one likes to chase clients, so the less you have to do it, the happier you will be. And as mentioned earlier, happiness is the key.
That’s it, for now
We hope these tips helped. Let us know in the comment section what you found useful and the techniques that have worked for you. Also, let us know what other freelance topics you would like covered.
- Work Notes — Contracts
- Freelance Fees Guide — Illustrations and cartoons
- AOI — Licensing Illustration
- Business of Illustration — Book Royalty Rates for Illustrators
- The Illustrators Guide — You need a licence for that
- The Illustrators Guide — Copyright for Illustrators
- The Illustrators Guide — Agents
Illustration by Mr Geo Neo