Sunday Mailbag

February 8th, 2009 | Posted in Mailbag

Q: Obviously most freelancers start at the bottom of the barrel and in the beginning of their career may take on some less glamorous jobs. However, once they start becoming a bit more established and gain bigger clients, how do they separate themselves from previous clients in order to focus on the jobs that they had been trying to get in the first place?

A: A freelancer is not a factory, where you can add more employees and equipment to increase production when demand gets high. As a single artist you can only produce so much work. Therefore, once you reach a point where you are consistently working, the only way to increase your income is to charge more for the same work. That mean getting clients with deeper pockets.

One of the hardest things about being a freelancer is moving up the “food chain” when it comes to the level of clients you work for. As you point out, when starting out the inexperienced freelancer takes on jobs that are not exactly “top of the line” in terms of pay or exposure. At what point do you stop accepting those jobs? Simply put, when you start getting busy enough with bigger and better jobs that accepting and doing those lower paying jobs keeps you from accepting the more lucrative one. That’s a nice position to be in.

So, how do you break away from the lower paying clients once the higher paying ones come calling? You simply tell the clients, both previous ones and newer ones who have small budgets, what your current rate is for illustration work and let them sever the ties or not contract you for the job. That can be a little hard to do on a personal level, especially if you are talking about a long time client who was very good to you at a time when you really needed a steady client or three.

One thing to keep in mind… once you tell your now former clients that essentially they cannot afford you, then they will be a former client forever. Its rare when a freelancer can go back to a client with his/her hat in their hand and say they are willing to work with them again for the old rates and then resume getting work from that client. Once you move on that is usually it. A freelancer had best be sure they are getting plenty of work at their new rates before pricing themselves out of work they used to do regularly.

Sometimes it’s worth it to do jobs for lesser pay if the work is steady and the relationship with the client is strong. I’ve got a few smaller clients that I still do work for at rates that are a little less than other clients might pay, but I either enjoy the work or they give me enough of it for it to be worth while.

Thanks to Chris Houghton for the question. If you have a question you want answered for the mailbag about cartooning, illustration, MAD Magazine, caricature or similar, e-mail me and I’ll try and answer it here!


  1. Mark Hill says:

    Terrific question and very thorough answer. It is a subject that is on the mind of freelancers who are trying to ‘move up the foodchain’ as you put it, or even just trying to keep up with inflation.

    I have the hardest time talking with the occasional early client who calls after little or no contact for quite some time. My rates have gone up incrementally, and my regular clients are up to speed…but if someone who has been out of contact since the ‘early days’ calls out of the blue, they experience sticker shock. Still, one’s instinct is to work with them on pricing, because after all, they helped get things started.


New profile pic courtesy of my self-caricature for the Scott Maiko penned article “Gotcha! Mug Shots of Common (but Despicable) Criminals” from MAD 550

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