The complete guide to profitable copywriting quotes (when you’re using a subcontractor)

Are subcontractors costing or earning you $?.


This is a guest post by Sarah Moore of New Leaf Writing. Take it away Sarah!

In the fuzzy land of Would Be Nice, using subcontractors is an amazing way to make money in the background. You’d chat briefly with dream clients before handing off a project. After that, you just skim the perfect work quickly before passing it back and collecting your dues.


However, in the much-harsher metropolis of This Is Where You Actually Live, using subcontractors for your copywriting can be an extremely knotty problem. If you’re not careful to do your research beforehand, you can even end up losing money. I know, because it’s happened to me.

That doesn’t mean using subcontractors is a non-starter. In fact, it can be a very profitable thing for your business if done correctly … but perhaps not in the way you might think. Before you go tossing quotes off to clients and having to back them up with your own time and bank account, it pays to know what you’re paying for, and what clients need to pay to make it worth your while.

The downside of the supposed upside

The “upside” of subcontracting is supposed to be the whole skimming-off-the-top thing, but it is rarely free money, because you can’t just walk away and call it good.

Personally, I’ve yet to find a sub on whom I can just offload a project. Rather, I spend time talking to the client to make sure the project is a good fit for my business, then I do a thorough edit of my sub’s work before passing it back.

Here’s where some people get into trouble.

The truth is, if you’re a bootstrapping modern copywriter, then you worked really hard to get where you’re at and you’re not about to lose everything out of laziness. That means you’re going to spend a lot of time on the work of others before you pass it off, tweaking and refining and polishing. See, unless you want to put your whole biz on the line, you are obligated to oversee everything a sub does in your name.

Sound like a money-maker? It’s not. (For more on why this is true, check out Episode 37 of the Hot Copy podcast.)

Bottom line: If you’re going to use subcontractors, you should have a reason beyond the fallacy of saving time or money.

Know your subcontractor’s value

I have three subcontractors myself. One is insanely hilarious. One is absolutely, always, utterly technically flawless. One has a soft voice that appeals to my new age-ier clients. None of these is perfect for any situation, but I appreciate them all.

For instance, I use a subcontractor routinely who is dyslexic. Which means … editing, always with the editing. But her brand voice is very similar to mine, and she’s even funnier than me. She’s worth it not for speed, but because she makes clients love my brand even more and I can count on getting amazing content that only needs technical editing. Overall my client work is richer and I’m happier because of it.

I use another who can write spot-on technically, which is perfect for those clients who aren’t looking for my quirky brand voice but require, say, perfection in their citations. Since I hate formatting and citations, she’s an amazing subcontractor for me. Her work is great, and even though I still do a thorough edit, she adds skills to my repertoire and pulls in clients I wouldn’t otherwise have.

On the other hand, I’ve had the opposite experience too, where using a sub lost me time and money. Usually, it’s because I asked them to do something I could have done myself and they were less able than me. Uh uh. If I’m going to pay someone, it’s because they have a skill I don’t, and that I want to offer to clients. Period.

Don’t be sucked into the idea that more work in your name is automatically better for your business. That’s just plain not true.

The cost of doing business

Keep in mind, too, that your subcontractor’s work – even if it is well-edited by you – still falls under your guarantee. Whether or not your client knows you’re using someone else, they still look to you for quality of work and, in some cases, for their money back. (Ouch, but it happens.)

So know from the beginning that you will be on the hook, and if you care about your relationship with the subcontractor, you will still have to pay them. If you green-lighted the work and sent it to the client, then in my opinion the sub fulfilled their end of the bargain. Of course, you can still ask them for however many rounds of edits you’ve contracted for, but after that, a rejected project and lost money is on you, not them.

Also, your subcontractors often want something from you: to use your logo on their site, to claim the work as their own or just to get a testimonial. Decide what you’ll offer, and be very clear to them. And know that this is another cost to you, because it dilutes what you’re claiming you’ve done. To me, that’s worth money to the sub, and justifies me paying them a bit less, but it’s up to you.

Don’t forget about edits: Just as your client may ask you for them, you need to make it clear to the subcontractor that they may be asked as well. I write two rounds of edits into all my contracts, both clients and subs. This is pretty standard, after which I charge or pay for edits at an hourly rate. Again, this is where you can lose money, because it’s not really fair to charge a client for the time you spend communicating with your sub, so those minutes and hours may go unpaid for you.

Once you understand all the angles, it’s time to write up a strong quote for your client that takes into account the work you and the subcontractor will both be doing, so everyone gets paid fairly and your client walks away with the best possible output.

Your subcontracted project quote formula

It’s up to you what you pay your subcontractors, but I generally pay mine between 50 and 70 percent of the per-word or hourly cost of a project, depending on how much oversight is required. (You can also choose a per-word rate if you prefer.)

Once you and the sub agree on your rates going forward, it’s time to decide what that means for you when quoting the project.

I caution you against just hiking your rates just because you’ll have to spend time communicating with and editing the sub; clients will rebel. However, sometimes you’re paying a subcontractor for their expertise, and it’s worth it to the client to pass that on.

So really there are two formulas here, one for what you will pay the subcontractor, and one for what you will charge the client.

Subcontractor formula

Assuming you’re just using a percentage, the first is simple:

Per-word and hourly rates x subcontractor percentage = Subcontractor Cost

Client formula

The formula to the client seems a bit more complicated, but it isn’t really. You simply charge them full price for the copy and hourly work performed by you and the sub, then add any other fees.

It becomes:

(Total word count x per-word rate) + ((Yours + subcontractor’s hours) x hourly rate) + (Surcharge for specialty/fast turnaround/whatever) = Client Estimate

If you only quote a full-project price and don’t include a per-word price, the math is even simpler:

(Total project price) + (Surcharge for specialty/fast turnaround/whatever) = Client Estimate

One caveat: When you quote a full project price, there’s less room for maneuvering when it comes time to collect. If you went over your estimated word count or hours allotted, the client is unlikely to care … but they are likely to be upset by a higher price tag (if your contract even allows it).

Therefore, I advise estimating high. If you can slice off a few bucks at the end because it took you less time, so much the better for your client relationships.

It’s especially important to note that I never pay a subcontractor more than 70 percent of the per-word rate, because any model you use will always require a good amount of oversight. By the time you’re ready to trust someone implicitly, in my opinion, you better be hiring them full-time.

So there you have it.

Subcontracting? Not a simple thing at all.

You need to know why you’re doing it and create a smart estimate upfront, so you get paid what you’re worth and your business continues to thrive.

7 Responses

  1. I have been a subcontractor. I used to get 40 % later 50. The contractor dumped their losses on to me. Gave me the free samples to do. ‘Not a paid job, I’m afraid’. I was doing it for the experience and eventually learned my lesson. Never, ever again.

    1. Hmmm, that really doesn’t seem fair at all … but happens all the time. 40 percent is definitely too low, in my opinion; I think if a subcontractor is working for you, they deserve at least half, but that’s just me. And free? Uh uh. It’s okay to do a little bit of that at the very beginning when you don’t have any clips/recs, but after that, no way. This is making me think I should write another post on how to BE a subcontractor. What do you think?

      1. Write it Sarah!

        That experience sounds totally shit Maria. I’m sorry you had to go through that.

        I always asked my subcontractors for a quote for the project and regardless of how much I was being paid, once I accepted their quote, I paid that amount and always abided by their terms and conditions. It was usually about 50% of the project.

        It was not only professional of me to do that (and therefore necessary) but it also helped to build their professional confidence and processes.

        I also always made sure they could show off their work (with client approval) and shared testimonials relevant to their writing.

        In a nutshell, I’ve always treated subcontractors the way I wanted to be treated!

        1. Exactly, Belinda! I’ve been on both ends, and so I strive to treat subcontractors in a way that matches my BEST experiences as a subcontractor.

          And beyond compensation, I think it’s critical you help the subcontractor get exposure. If you’re not going to help them do that, I don’t believe you should be taking advantage of their lower rates in order to build your biz. Any time we writers work with another writer, at bottom, it should be with the intent to help eventually them become the commander of their own ship. 😉

  2. “Keep in mind, too, that your subcontractor’s work – even if it is well-edited by you – still falls under your guarantee.”

    Sarah, that summed it all up, for me. I’m a proofreader, and had a HUGE project with a company producing planner-type books for schools. Lots of detail (dates, holidays, history tidbits, etc.) and there was no way I could do it all.

    Two great proofers to the rescue … but I had to dump three other people. Sigh. No matter who does the work, you are correct: it is OUR work as far as the client is concerned. I had to proof everything they did.

    Excellent article.

    1. Exactly, Kathy! That kind of experience is so common … and it’s really unfortunate when a contractor doesn’t realize it’s all on them. I’ve heard horror stories of people who tried to blame it on their subcontractors and it did NOT go well. Realizing where you stand upfront is key.

  3. Most of my work comes from people subcontracting projects to me. Highly informative!

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