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Freelance Writers - What’s a Billable Expense?

It depends…

Freelance writers have the joy of working their own schedules in their own way. But the ability to work odd hours and in our PJs also means we have to buy our own pens, pencils, paper, provide our own health insurance, buy the software, and get the computer fixed. Depending on the kind of work we’re doing, we may be able to bill our clients for some of our expenses.

Thinking About Writing Expenses

Of course, some of your costs of doing business belong solely to you. You can’t, for example, expect to be reimbursed directly for your computer, printer, basicl phone charges,
paper and the other items and services you need just to be in business. Nor will you get reimbursed for things like health insurance costs or housing costs. You need to track those costs for your records, and you need to factor them into your pricing, but you won’t get paid back directly for them. Some of these, like a home office, may result in a tax deduction, but that's another issue entirely.

It’s the unusual costs of getting a particular piece writing done that you may be able to bill for.

For example, if you know getting an important interview is going to involve lots of long distance calls and maybe even a trip, you may be able to ask for reimbursement in addition to the fees you charge. And telephone and travel are the most likely billable expenses.

I just negotiated a contract and the job requires taping interviews. We agreed the client will pay for transcription. I could have asked for reimbursement, but I decided it would be simpler just to get them to pay in the first place.

It Depends On Your Contract

Whether or not you can bill for expenses depends on the agreement you’ve got with the person or company you’re writing for. In general, freelancers work in one or more of three categories: magazine publishing, book publishing and writing for others, which includes everything from corporations to individuals. While there are no hard and fast rules in any category, it is possible to make some generalizations.

Expenses and Magazine Publishing

Never assume a magazine will pay your expenses. For the most part, they expect that the fee they pay you for the article covers your costs. A few state in their market listings that they will pay the expenses of writers on assignment – but if you’re writing on spec, you probably won’t get reimbursed, even if they accept the article. In other words, reimbursement must be negotiated up front. Typically, such costs may include long distance telephone charges, travel expenses, film, etc.

Expenses and Book Publishing

Again, never assume a publisher will pay your expenses. In fact, most book contracts spell out that they won’t pay expenses. Like everything else in a book contract, this may be negotiable. If the book, for example, has lots of color pictures, you might be able to get reimbursed for film; if travel is required to write the book, all or some of the costs may be reimbursable. Or, you may be able to negotiate a larger advance against royalties and/or a higher royalty rate.

If the book requires special equipment or software, the publisher will probably be able to provide that for you or make it possible for you to acquire it from the manufacturer or developer at no cost.

Expenses and Writing for Others

When you’re writing for a corporation, business or an individual, your ability to get reimbursed totally depends on what you ask for in the beginning. Large corporations are the most likely to be willing, and to be set up, to reimburse you. Some will actually assume you will bill them for your expenses, but be sure you know how they want the bills presented.

Smaller businesses and individuals may be surprised if you ask about reimbursement – it just doesn’t occur to them. It may make better sense to increase your fee rather than ask to have expenses paid.

The only way to be certain you’ll get reimbursed is to ask up front. Make sure you get the agreement in writing. It doesn’t have to be complicated or even a formal contract – a memo from the person or business will do. You also need to find out how they want your bill submitted, and when to expect payment.

Like so many things, the devil is in the details.

Write well and often.


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