What should copywriting cost?


I sat there, with my laptop open and the TV on, pondering that most awful of entrepreneurial questions: How much should I charge?

You’d think after nearly a decade as a professional word slinger I’d know how to price my services. And sure, I learned long ago not to write for free on the promise of future work and that a 500-word blog post is worth more than a foot-long hoagie. But on this day, I had two things gnawing at me…

First, I’d been through a bit of a dry spell. If you’ve ever been self-employed, you know nothing shakes your commitment to your pricing like low revenues.

Second, the project I was quoting was somewhat different from my usual work. It was pure ad copy; whereas, up to that point the bulk of my writing had been long-form content (blog posts and what-have-you).

Those short, snappy ads…they don’t look like much: just a headline and a sentence or two. You’ve probably written wordier texts.

But that doesn’t make ad copywriting easy. In some respects, it’s harder than blog writing. Ads require the same research (learning about the client, product, and audience) but demand big messages be squeezed into tiny packages.

Will my prospect value the brainstorming, writing and re-writing it takes to produce a good ad? Or have they budgeted for high volume at low cost? Should I lower my standards to meet their expectations just to win this gig?

In short: How do I value my words?

Does audience size matter?

As I dwelled on this, the TV droned on. It was tuned to CNN. They were playing some kind of goodbye tribute/documentary for outgoing president, Barack Obama. I wasn’t really paying it any attention. At least, not until the speechwriters started talking.

The writers were working on President Obama’s farewell address. The cameras followed them as they brainstormed ideas, and worked from laptops while traveling with their boss. As the days passed, and the event grew nearer, the lead writer started showing signs of stress. From his windowless office back in D.C. he tells the documentarians he’s on the 20th draft (of which the president had seen only three).

Oh, the delightfully maddening struggle that comes with wrangling ideas into sentences, sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into a singular, coherent message. I can empathize, though I’ve never written anything so consequential.

That address would be witnessed in real time by millions, parsed into sound bites for news reports, and preserved by historians until civilization forgets our democracy.

How valuable does that make those words?

Who decides a writer’s value?

Though I’ll never meet them, I feel a kinship with those speechwriters.

We wordsmiths are a peculiar and passionate breed. We’ll argue over grammatical minutiae like the Oxford comma or split infinitives. We’ll agonize over nuanced differences between closely related synonyms. And we’ll adamantly defend our right to write in incomplete sentences.

Many a great scribe is celebrated for his work. But far more are true ghosts: painstakingly compiling words that will forever be credited to someone else.

Those of us who toil in obscurity often feel our earnings potential is undermined by cut-rate competitors and a lack of appreciation. But we still have to make a living.

So, by what metric should we measure our product’s value?

By the time and effort we invest in our craft(i.e. charging by the hour)? By the loquaciousness of the text (a.k.a. word count)? By the richness and musicality of our prose? By the impact on the audience? By the dollars we add to the bottom line?

Seriously, I’m asking: How do YOU determine the value of a written word?


5 Responses to “What should copywriting cost?

  • Anonymous
    5 years ago

    It has been delightful reading everyone’s shares. Thank you. I hope to find time for a proper response. Meanwhile, one of my tricks is to do an estimate, then double the price.

  • I’m a writer and don’t specialise in a particular genre, casting my net far and wide from children’s books to corporate web content. I have found the money side of things a tricky beast to conquer.

    Authorship is dominated by the publisher, so although I was able to negotiate higher than the original offer, as a first-time author, my power to negotiate was limited.

    Feature articles are often set rates by online papers etc. so there’s not much room for movement there.

    Corporate work is that which I’ve struggled with the most, in terms of pricing.

    I tend to offer “bulk” packages – i.e. 10 blogs for $2000, as long as the word limits are set, the research is minimal and the brief is very specific.

    My father who was high up in marketing once said to me, “set the price by what it is worth to the buyer”. A little abstract for me. A multinational with cash to burn is probably suspicious of lowly pricing and therefore assumes the work is substandard – you get what you pay for and all that garb. So do you double the quote? A small business may be struggling to see the value of words, so can only afford x amount. Do you bend to fit? Or do they go elsewhere?

    I have referred to standards of pricing set by the industry but they are significantly higher than anything I have ever been able to charge.

    I think people often fail to see the value in words. To us, as writers, they are equivalent to opening a vein. It is our livelihood, and in many cases, our first love. To undervalue that cuts to the bone, but that doesn’t make it any easier to quote!

    I’ve been of zero help but I wanted to let you know, I feel your pain!

  • This is a returning question for every copywriter, long and short. I advise you to use several standards, being a fixed fee for delivery of a maxim number of words, a minimum hourly rate for indefinite numbers and a word-count-fee when it’s about ads. So you can suggest different kinds of measuring your value, which YOU can work with. And last: be a strong negotiator! Do not think that you’ve got to agree with the first suggestion! I’ve made a list of all kinds of work and media and platforms I’ve written for and calculated how much I found it worth and the amount I’ve received. So now I know what each product I write is worth. (Until you’ve hit rock bottom and need to eat, pay rent etc. Not much choice, is there?)

  • If I had a gun pointed at me and had to answer this question, I’d say – well – how much do you, client, think I’m worth? That would at least solve a problem: there is no objective measure to this but budget a client intends to invest. Does this mean that if client says I have ten hundreds bucks, that’s it – no matter if it’s a Facebook page’s title or the divine comedy– the copywriter has to live with that? No, it means that either you make the game, or you’re in God’s hand, and God is client.
    If I did not have that gun pointed at me, on the other hand, I would say that words are the most precious matter in the world (I apologize if these words don’t prove my thesis, please consider I’m not writing in my native language). I don’t think I need to explain why they are so valuable. Right words can build worlds from scratch; bad worlds can destroy them. Today everybody writes and post sand leaves comments (woah, am I leaving a comment myself? looks like) but – just to mention a reason why right words are so precious – right spelling and total absence of typos seem to have become a rare matter. Well, client: a copywriter, writing in his mother tongue language won’t do this, first. Second he/she might die on the choice of a single adjective or verb, and if you think that’s so easy a task and that anyone could do it –well– call anyone. Third, when you put your text, product or brand, into someone’s hands, any single word will weigh tons, at least as much all the pages a copywriter, like any writer, must have read to reach that control, that precision, that passion. That single right word.
    Right words MUST be expensive because everyone has his language, his lifetime’s readings, his lots of money and time spent in books and newspapers and he knows what.
    A client has the right to go for the cheapest, or the second cheapest; but he should also consider that he who is able to ask more money, is making a statement: my words will cost you “this”. He is taking a risk. I could decide not to spend too much money on my own words, but when I’m writing they’re not my own words anymore, they someone else’s. They for his good, they’re for his profit.
    Copywriters must be paid reasonably, where reasonably means three, four times more than, “anyone”. Society is based on words, not on images; whoever says we’re in the era of images knows too little about human psychology. Words will stille rule when paper will be gone. Words are images without someone watching them in your place. So I say a copywriter must be paid for his skills –true– but also for the intimate value of his job: making those “anyones” sound too cheap to clients’ eyes be good work. Trusting the good client knows this – and if he doesn’t know it, finding the right words to demonstrate it – is part of a copywriter’s work. After all, if you can’t sell yourself well, how could you sell someone else’s soap?

    • AlexaSteele
      5 years ago

      Excellent points, alberto. Very well said, even if it’s not in your mother tongue. Thank you for reading and commenting.

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