It’s time to start including freelance kill fees in your contracts.
A kill fee is a dressed-up way of saying a cancellation fee. It’s money clients pay if they agree to a job then cancel, or kill it, along the way.
Justifying Freelance Kill Fees
One of the major risks we face as freelancers is investing in a project, then having clients change their minds.
Granted, there are good reasons for a client to kill a project.
Maybe a newspaper commissioned a story, there were new developments, and the original piece is irrelevant or outdated. Of course, they wouldn’t want you to finish the article.
But there are also frivolous reasons to kills projects.
In the Columbia Journalism Review, Oliver Bateman said after about 75 hours of work, a newly appointed editor kill one of his projects.
Because the last editor requested that project. The new editor wanted a different article that suited his taste.
Whether there’s a good reason or a bad reason—neither one is your problem. But both result in you taking a loss.
That’s why you need freelance kill fees.
Cancellations have costs.
When a client cancels a project midway through, there are operational costs, like money for supplies you bought or expenses going placed you needed to go.
There’s the opportunity cost. Any time you invested in that project could have been used for something else, like finding or working on a paying job.
And there’s the financial pain of not receiving anticipated revenue.
Businesses, even large corporations, base a lot of decisions on projected revenue. When you close a deal, factor the income into your budget, and then it evaporates, it hurts.
Real bad in some cases.
How Kill Fees Help
When the editor canceled Bateman’s story, Bateman got $300. That’s far less than the $1,500 he would have gotten if the project survived, so it was a loss, but not a complete loss.
Bateman revealed he went through a period where he took a lot of losses. Between March 2016 and the end of 2017, he said he made $4,000 in freelance kills fees.
Although that only totaled a quarter of what he would have earned on those projects, something is better than nothing.
If you can’t completely eliminate losses, the next best thing is to minimize them.
This Isn’t a Foreign Concept
Cancellation policies are commonplace for photographer contracts, according to a PetaPixel article by Allen Murabayashi.
And some publications, especially the majors, have a practice of paying kill fees to writers.
But now, there are so many young publications and non-media clients, and there’s so many freelancers desperate to get hired no matter what, that kill fees aren’t as popular as they should be.
We need to reverse course. Freelancers need to revive kill fees and fight to keep the practice alive.
I know a lot of people will see that in print, and maybe agree. But in reality, they won’t take action because they’re too afraid of losing potential clients.
Meanwhile, some newer freelancers are like, What? You want me to ask for money for articles my clients don’t want?
I don’t want you to ask for anything. I want you to make it explicitly clear that kill fee are the name of the game—once you start working there’s a price to be paid.
Regardless of your client’s future plans and circumstances.
Think about it—why would the mention of freelance kill fees scare a client off?
In a world where businesses are accustomed to paying security deposits for their utilities and office space as well as cancellation fees for their cable, internet, phones, flights, and so many other things, why would freelance kill fees be so unthinkable?
Why would a client want you, the freelancer, to assume all of the risk for a project they’re commissioning?
More importantly, why would you agree to those terms? By avoiding kill fees, you’re the one who stands to lose.
Beyond the Contract
Having freelance kill fees written into contracts is one thing, but as Murabayashi points out, “enforcement is another.”
It’s like a condom on the nightstand—it’s not doing you any good if you don’t use it.
I’m not saying you should never make an exception. But as a general rule, when clients cancel you need to stick to your policy.
And you should definitely avoid waiving freelance kill fees when the client hasn’t asked you to.
Mimic the mindset of photojournalist Alex Garcia . “As a small business person who is heading into some serious headwinds with the economy, I’m not in a position to give everyone free cancellations especially if I have reserved a date for that client,” he said in the PetaPixel article.
The fact is, larger businesses are better positioned to handle the costs of freelance kill fees than you are to handle the loss of anticipated revenue.
Include kill fees in your contracts and enforce them.