ABCs of Freelance Writing: R is for Retainer


I’ve only needed a lawyer once in my life. When I met her the first time to discuss my problem, I decided immediately that I was going to hire her. She explained that she thought my particular problem would take about $800 to sort out, and that she needed to collect that amount as a retainer to get started.

I signed a contract and wrote a check without squawking, because I fully expected to pay up front.

She started work and billed me against the retainer I’d already paid. Time elapsed. The hours racked up. And, as it turns out, it took about $3,500 to sort out my little problem. (Don’t feel bad for me; it was worth every single penny.) Luckily for both of us, the contract I signed covered what was expected if it appeared the work would exceed the estimated hours.

I got billed again. She got paid again. She did more work.

How Retainers Work

Retainers are just a type of contract. The consultant, or freelance writer in this case, agrees to do work for a client who pays in advance. The specifics of each job are determined later.

So, you might know you’re going to be given a certain number of blog posts to write, for example, but you might not know the topics until the client calls you up after the weekly marketing meeting.

Retainers Work for Freelancer Writers

The retainer contract works to your advantage as well as the client’s, so don’t be afraid to try it just because it’s something the fancy lawyers do.

When working on retainer you still have the freedom to set your rates by the hour, by the day, or by the project’s clearly defined deliverables.

For example, you might receive a retainer of $600 to produce 3 articles each month. If the client has a particularly busy month and needs another article, this can be billed separately. (If the workload increases on a regular basis, consider upping your retainer.)

This set-up is win-win because you know you’ll have steady work, and the client knows he won’t be scrambling to find a writer.

Retainer Contracts and Client Expectations

Here’s the thing about a retainer: clients will expect you to prioritize their work. And with good reason! They’ve paid you upfront. Just keep in mind that if you take on retainer work, you need to be totally dedicated to communicating with your client and delivering on time. Put off returning calls or emails, and you could lose a client.

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0 thoughts on “ABCs of Freelance Writing: R is for Retainer

  1. I’m usually weary of retainers (having worked with recruiting agencies in the past). But I must say, in the freelance world it’s been working well, with a fair amount of trust.

    Enjoyed this article – great educational tidbit.

  2. Well the retainer you describe for freelance writers strikes me as not the same as the retainer your lawyer charged you. And it doesn’t quite describe the type of retainer many clients have in mind when they ask a writer to go on retainer.

    Let me explain.

    The writer retainer you describe is probably the most equitable to the writer and the client because it’s a set monthly fee for an agreed upon volume of work. In this case, you used the example of a certain number of blog posts per month. So basically, the writer has agreed to do a certain number of projects at a flat fee every month, and charge that fee regardless of the hours actually worked.  This is good, because it allows the writer to work efficiently and earn more than her published hourly rate.  Of course, she could also work inefficiently and not hit her rate, but that’s her problem, not the client’s.  As long as the retainer is tied to a set number of specified projects it’s fair.

    What’s less fair is the type of retainer in which the client agrees to pay the writer $X per month for however much work the client asks for.  This is obviously unfair to the writer because it lets the client monopolize his time.  And if the client requests too little work, then it’s not fair to them because they’re paying for service they don’t need.  A fix for this type of retainer is to tie it to hours at some specified rate.  But then that doesn’t provide for what to do when the hours are insufficient for the amount of work requested.

    Then there’s the retainer your lawyer charged.  I know lawyers call this a retainer, but it sounds like all they mean is that the client retains their services — paying the lawyer a deposit (what she called the retainer) to get started.  She told you your case could be handled for $800.  It actually cost $3500.  Under the alternative approaches to retainers discussed above, that would have been her problem.  She set the fee, she lives with it.  That didn’t happen.  Instead she did for you what many writers do for their clients:  she provided only an “estimate” — which is not the same thing as a quote (or the writer retainer you described).  A quote says this is the price.  An estimate says this may be the price but I don’t know.

    The regular and predictable income of a retainer is a good thing, but only if it doesn’t obligate the writer to an irregular and unpredictable volume of work.  It’s clearly a bad thing if it obligates the writer to more work than the client is actually paying for.

    • No objections from me, Ken. The word “retainer” is defined differently by different folks using it for different purposes, and retainer contracts can be drafted in countless different ways. Of course both sides have to be agreeable to the terms, and my praise of the retainer does assume that both parties can come to a satisfactory arrangement. My praise of the retainer also assumes that both client and writer are capable of protecting their own self-interests.

      To be clear, I don’t use a retainer for each and every client, but I do use it for maybe a quarter of my clients. It works swimmingly in each case. There are (and always will be) some assignments I take that just aren’t suited for this kind of arrangement.

      As for my lawyer’s style of retainer, the $800 was paid for her to do the work in the first place. Some truly unforeseen circumstances drove the cost of a satisfactory resolution much higher. If I felt she merely low-balled the retainer to get my business, I’d have been pretty upset with the outcome. So that’s definitely something for writers to keep in mind, should they have notions of conniving their way to a fat paycheck.

      Thanks for weighing in!

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