The worst place to be is where your work is something the client doesn’t much care about.
Maybe it’s some nuisance item to be checked off a to-do list. Or maybe it’s something they need, kind of, but it doesn’t matter how good it is, or who does it. You are auto insurance. Gutter cleaning. Someone to mow the lawn.
No, this not about your value as a human being, your worth on this planet. It’s only about how the client perceives things.
They want someone to ‘write up some verbage’ for the website.* Someone to put these instructions into French, so we can get this stuff shipped to Canada. Someone to draw a picture of a swordfish for our menus. I have worked this low country, writing two-line descriptions for 63 varieties of electrical cable. It was mostly typing.
Your only chance here is to be the cheapest, fastest, most convenient one around. And even then, you will make more money mowing lawns. Move on. Wrong work, wrong clients.
Next worse place is where your clients care about the work, mostly, but don’t have the money.
The local cupcake shop needs a website. But they only have $427. They will drive you insane for that $427. The only hope here is to be impossibly fast, efficient, and still cheap. Recycle and reuse. Do them by the dozen. Keep your overhead low.
Long-term potential: zero. Take this stuff to start, then move on up. Right work, wrong clients.
Then, there are clients who have the money, but the project is rather low priority. It’s not make or break. They don’t live or die by their logos, their social media, or how well their website reads in German.
I’m sitting on three of these toothache clients right now, all referrals from friends who I wanted to accommodate. The problem: they delay and cancel conference calls. They don’t look at stuff you sent a week ago. There is no urgency. Projects drag. You will get paid, but the project will take forever.
It’s not your fault. Their minds are elsewhere. Right work, wrong clients.
Bottom line: Take these when you must. You will not get prime rate, nor find any repeat business here. Charge money up front: No check, no start. Keep looking.
Maybe you’re doing something that is clearly needed, well-recognized, but clients perceive it as relatively low value, routine, or a commodity.
They’d never think of publishing without proofreading and copyediting, but well, there’s only so much they’d pay for that.
After all, the website for the Editorial Freelancers Association says proofreading should cost $30 to $35 per hour. Copyediting, light: $40.
Your options? It’s hard to be seen as a genius rock star here. Try being delightfully fun to work with. Or robotically and rigidly punctual. Maybe you can be surprisingly fast. (By fast, you mean “By Friday,” not “Just an hour and a half.”) You can get maybe 20% more per hour.
Or specialize in an impossibly arcane and ugly form of proofreading or copyediting, such as SEC filings EU publications, or pharmaceutical submissions to the FDA. You will want to die, but you might get double per hour.
Next to best, is working with clients whose business depends heavily on what you do. The e-commerce website manager who needs kick-ass designers and coders. The news publication that publishes in three languages. The upstart tech company trying hard to compete with fat-cat corporations. They use a lot of what you make, and they care.
Or maybe it’s the manager or coordinator whose job is to buy what you do.
The marketing guy, the global relations manager, the technical editor, the publications director. They are looking for writers, translators, illustrators. It’s what they do. They have budgets. Their careers depend on looking good.
But, it also means they assuredly have freelancers on their rosters already. Sometimes, they are hard to get to. It can take time to win them over and get yourself a chance. But they can’t survive without you, or at least people like you. They are worth the chase.
Anyone who has made a big splash in the business works for people like this. That’s where your career is. They are pro buyers. You should start looking for them the first day you go freelance.
Oh, and there is the client in pain. The client dangling off a cliff.
A month ago, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, needed to respond to a shitstorm of bad publicity in China. So he issued a statement in Chinese.
I can guarantee you whoever did that translation wasn’t charging the usual XX dollars per 250 words. There might have been nine translators working that, some from the Chinese side, some from the English side. I don’t know. Maybe they worked all night. I don’t know.
But for sure, there were some handsome fees changing hands there. People got noticed, got on lists.
There is money in being a savior.
* Just for the record it’s not ‘verbage’ but ‘verbiage’, which connotes blather of too many words. When people ask for that, I usally recommend cabbage instead.