Sub-optimal rates: "better than nothing," or not?

“The rate isn’t ideal, but it’s better than nothing.” “It’s not what I’d like to be earning, but you have to start somewhere.” “I wasn’t thrilled about the rate, but working is better than not working.” Stop me if you’ve heard this before… But the real question is: is this a valid way of looking at your freelance rates?

Ideally, here’s the situation you want to be in: you don’t even deal with low-paying clients, because you don’t need to. You are busy all the time at your regular rates, and if clients won’t pay those rates, you simply don’t work with them. Or, when you take on lower-paying work (let’s say a book translation, or work for a non-profit that you find meaningful), it’s for a reason: just because you enjoy it, or because you want to contribute to the organization’s mission, or bring a certain author’s work to a different culture, or something like that.

But when you’re looking for more work, or for any work at all, it’s a different story. Then, an experienced translator’s advice to stick to your standard rates and never offer discounts can feel a bit condescending. When, if ever, is a sub-optimal rate better than nothing?

  • Bottom line: rarely. You tell yourself “it’s better than nothing,” but low rates can become a treadmill that’s difficult to dismount. You’re making a few cents a word, so you have to translate 12 hours a day just to keep the lights on. That leaves approximately zero time to market yourself to better-paying clients, or do some networking, or attend conferences where you might meet better-paying clients, or upgrade your skills and marketing presence.
  • When you’re working within a lot of constraints. In most ways, huge agencies are not ideal clients; but they do have some advantages. One of those is that you can generally turn them down many times without fear of losing them as a client, or you can give them windows of time within which you can work. So, if you’re trying to start a freelance business while going to school, or raising kids, or working another job, a huge agency that pays sub-optimal rates might allow you to do that.
  • When you put some parameters on the low-rate work. Working at sub-optimal rates for decades will a) suck the life out of you and b) destroy any love you have for this job. Really, it will. But if you decide that the low-rate work fits your purposes while you… (finish school, sock away enough money to quit your day job, etc.), and if that time period is relatively short, like a couple of years or less, I think it’s more doable.

When is a sub-optimal rate absolutely not worth it?

  • When you’re doing it out of desperation. Desperation is rarely a good precursor of good business decisions. If you’re in sketchy financial shape, you’re probably better off looking for a stable part-time job rather than taking low-rate freelance work. Take the part-time job and then translate pro bono for clients who work for causes you believe in: in the end, you’ll feel much better about yourself. Out-of-the-box tip: look for a job where you could do some translating while you work. For example, I once worked in a fancy office building that needed a receptionist, but there was actually very little work to do. The owner’s technique (because it was hard to keep people in that job long-term), was to deliberately recruit students from the writing program at the local university, with the stipulation that if they committed to staying for a full school year, they could work on their own writing while they sat at the desk.
  • When you could cut fat from your spending budget and avoid the low-rate work. I’ve beaten the freelance frugality drum here and here. Blackbelt frugality isn’t for everyone (although I did get quite a few compliments on the haircuts that my husband gave me in the early 2000s!), but to me, it’s certainly preferable to doing soul-crushing work.
  • When you have the skills to work for better-paying clients, but you never go out and look for them. As I’ve said before, but it bears repeating, there is *so much* interesting, well-paying translation work out there. But, it’s not going to flop into your inbox with a bow on it; you need to be out there (in person, online or both) being in the places where the good clients can find you, or going and knocking on the good clients’ doors and pitching your services. Otherwise, you’re running in neutral in the low-rate market.
  • When you’re telling yourself that the low-paying clients will love you so much, they’ll agree to a big rate increase at some point. Harsh but true: most times, they won’t. Once a client knows that you’re willing to work at a certain rate, you can’t blame them for refusing to pay more. No matter how much a client likes you, most agencies, especially big agencies, have a fairly rigid rate ceiling above which they absolutely will not go, no matter how much they like you. When you want to make more money, you just have to move on.

Readers: any other thoughts on this? And if you’re thinking, “This sounds great, but how do I find work at decent rates?,” you might enjoy this post: To break out of the low-rate market, change these three things.

39 Responses to “Sub-optimal rates: "better than nothing," or not?”
  1. ciclistatraduttore December 10, 2015
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