6 Tips for Working on Retainer as a Freelance Writer

Written by Ilima Loomis | Published 10/05/2020 | Posted in , , ,

hands holding a pen signing a contract

I recently spoke with a freelance writer whose client wanted to put her on retainer. I thought this was great news, but she was nervous — what if it didn’t work out? 

The reality is, retainers can be GREAT for freelancers if you set them up right. They guarantee you a steady amount of work and income each month, which translates to fewer hours hustling for assignments. Clients love them too, because they make it easy to budget and plan for your workflow. 

It’s important to approach retainers thoughtfully and carefully though, because once you set one up, you’ll be stuck with it for a while. If you underprice yourself, or commit to working with a client who turns out to be difficult, you won’t be happy with the agreement. 

Here are my top tips for setting up a retainer for a freelance writer:

1. Do a test run

I would never sign a retainer with a client I haven’t worked with before. Instead, take a few assignments on a project-by-project basis, to get a feel for what the client is like to work with. Are they hands-on with lots of revisions, or do they sign off on your work with minimal changes? That makes a big difference in how much time you’ll spend on their projects, and you’ll want to charge accordingly. And if the client turns out to be difficult or the work just isn’t a good fit for you, you’ll want to know that before you commit to working together for months. 

2. Stick with project rates — not hourly

In my experience, retainers work best with clients who are already sending you a consistent workload. In one case, a client was having me write several blog posts every month. We set up a retainer where I would write three blog posts per month for a set amount of money. We added a clause to the agreement outlining what the cost would be if they needed additional work.

I only use project rates, including with retainer clients. With a project rate, you make more money as you get faster and more efficient, and your client always knows what they’re going to get and how much it’s going to cost them. If a client is pressuring you to use an hourly rate, a lot of times it’s a sign that they don’t yet have a handle on the actual work they want you to do. To save yourself frustration, work with them to figure out the scope of work and deliverables before signing an agreement. 

3. Price carefully

If you underprice yourself in a retainer, that shortfall could add up to thousands of dollars over time. To come up with the right number, take a look at the work you’ll be doing each month, and carefully estimate how many hours it will take. Multiply that number by your internal hourly rate. (This is the amount you need to earn per hour to make a profit, NOT a number you share with clients.) I strongly recommend Laurie Lewis’ What to Charge for a more detailed breakdown of how to set prices. (Check out some of my other favorite books for freelance writers.) 

4. Invoice at the start of the month

Remember that with a retainer you’re actually getting paid to hold time for the client. Ideally they should be organized on their end so that they actually send you the work they want you to do. But if they don’t get around to it, you should still be paid. After all, you may have turned down other work or adjusted your schedule to be available for them. Letting your client know that you’ll be invoicing at the start of the month helps keep that boundary clear, and it also speeds up the process of getting paid. 

5. Set an end date

I like to set a specific period of time for the retainer agreement,  ideally a year or six months, rather than leaving it open-ended. That gives you some sense of security and ability to plan ahead — you know that you’ll have a certain amount of work coming in at least until the end of the year, for example. It also gives you a natural opportunity to adjust your rates or the scope of work when it comes time to renew.

6. Treat your retainer clients like VIPs

If you’re lucky enough to have a retainer client, don’t take them for granted! I try to prioritize my retainer clients and go above and beyond in terms of the service I provide. For example, while I normally charge a rush fee for last-minute assignment, I try to move things around and accommodate my retainer client as much as possible when they need a quick turnaround. After all, with a retainer, they’re not just paying for my work, they’re also paying for me to be available when they need me. That means getting VIP treatment, including automatically getting bumped to the head of the line. 

The bottom line is that if you have a client you love who is already sending you steady work, setting up a retainer can be a win-win. By setting clear terms and expectations, and pricing thoughtfully, you can provide better service to your clients while increasing revenue and growing your freelance writing business.

Are you looking for help with your next writing project? Contact me for a consultation.