Negotiating higher rates for creative freelancers: unlock your worth

Asking for more money can be a daunting prospect for many, but this simple guide provides simple steps to unlock your true worth.
Fee negotiation for creative freelancers. Negotiate higher fee with our guide. Image is a plant growing out of a pot filled with coins.

Many freelance creatives depend on their project-based income, making fee negotiation an essential skill for maintaining a successful arts business. Unfortunately, many artists haven’t updated their fees for years. At a time when Australians are experiencing a cost-of-living crisis, artists mustn’t shortchange themselves.

This guide sets out practical tips for negotiating a higher fee and how to make sure you’re reaching your maximum earning potential. 

Negotiating a higher fee is often less about the actual conversation around your fee and rather about preparing to frame yourself and your work in the best possible light. Many of the tips below can be done well before conversing with a prospective employer, making the negotiation less pressurised. 

Establish a minimum rate

Monkey-swinging from project to project can devalue your worth as you intuitively estimate your fee. In a career built on personal and professional networks, it’s easy to slip into “mates’ rates” for almost every project. 

Establishing a minimum rate will help eliminate fee slippage. Create a simple document that sets out minimum rates for your projects. Make sure to include an hourly consultation fee for extra meetings or administration. Also, include a footnote stating that these are minimum fees and the base price is not subject to negotiation. 

Be aware, however, that whatever minimum fees you set down will be what your client expects to pay. You will need to make a good argument about increasing your costs. Rate documents are excellent for “standard” projects that take up a significant part of your workload, but more speciality projects will require additional conversation.

Check what expenses you will incur on most projects, including travel, accommodation and meals over time. You can check the latest allowances from HM Revenue and Customs. For example, remember that car travel has a claim rate, and parking fees may incur additional costs. You can offer online meetings as an alternative, but make sure to include rates for travel from your office in your minimum rates.

Ask for details

Before negotiating your fee, ensure you know all the project’s essential details and the client’s expectations of your workload. Ensure the project’s scope is well-defined, with a clear endpoint or outcome. In addition, ask about the following expectations or obligations:

  • marketing and publicity, including the time you will spend with media or advertising on your social media profiles
  • format and frequency of reporting of the project’s development, outcome and post-outcome
  • meeting attendance, including when in-person is preferred and whether parking is available, and
  • who will own any intellectual property you produce during this job? 

These questions help establish a project’s scope and give you an idea of the workload and expenses that you can expect.

Know your experience – and make it visible

If you’re getting paid the same as you were five years ago for the same amount of work, something’s gone wrong. Those five extra years of experience are worth something, but ensuring your experience is visible is just as essential.

Many creatives rely on word of mouth for jobs and don’t keep their CV current. Ensuring your CV, LinkedIn profile or – most effectively – online portfolio is entirely up-to-date ensures you have legitimacy when negotiating for a higher fee.

We have a guide to building an online portfolio that will suit your work. Including a link to your portfolio in your email signature or visible across your social media profiles will help keep your work visible and accessible. 

When negotiating for a higher fee, provide links to previous relevant experience that means you are especially suited to the role and are able to offer rare insight and expertise. 

Capture testimonials

Where most people have references as part of their CV, creative freelancers rely on testimonials. After each project, capture client feedback and ask if you can publish their comments online. Make positive testimonials part of your online portfolio. These will assist in developing your legitimacy when negotiating for a higher fee. 

And … negotiate!

With everything else prepared, you can ask for a higher fee. Remain professional and resist any Machiavellian urge to “play games” or attempt to sour your relationship with your employer or client by unreasonably squeezing them for cash. Instead, in a professional email, set out the following:

  • your gratitude for their interest in your work and your open willingness to work with them
  • details of the project that you feel make it “special” or heighten the workload or time commitment from a standard project (and hence your minimum rate)
  • links to your experience on previous relevant projects that demonstrate you have a unique set of skills that will deliver them a high-quality outcome
  • links to relevant testimonials from previous employers who can attest to your skill and value, and
  • finally, ask for the price bump that you feel is reasonable, given everything you’ve outlined.

Simply, you are asking for what you want and explaining why. Matters don’t need to become more complicated than that. 

Be prepared to walk away

This is a golden rule of all negotiation, but it is often tricky for money-starved artists who have been told to ‘say “yes” to everything’.

However, saying “no” is sometimes essential. Be realistic about your expenses, experience and market worth. You must also commit to an honest appraisal of your genuine desire to do this work (or work with this particular set of people) and what it’s worth. 

Contrary to popular belief, walking away from a potential gig rarely burns bridges. As long as you’ve kept the conversation professional, mature and transparent about your reasoning, you can lengthen your relationship beyond this project. 

Ensure you’re claiming entitlements

Outside of negotiating for higher fees, you may already be entitled to extra benefits you’re not claiming. You should also ensure you’re claiming everything you can regarding tax time. This handy guide points out a whole range of expenses that you may not be aware are tax-deductible, many of which apply to the UK. 

Remember that for any arts business, including acting as a sole trader, it’s reasonable to expect that admin will take up about a third of your time. Ensuring you’re using this time to consider ways to manage expenses and income is essential. 

With these tips in mind, move forward into fee negotiations with confidence and make sure you’re claiming your true worth.

David Burton is a writer from Meanjin, Brisbane. David also works as a playwright, director and author. He is the playwright of over 30 professionally produced plays. He holds a Doctorate in the Creative Industries.