Bird in the hand?


Bird in the hand

Flight of fancy *

Last month I did myself out of another $6000.

I hate it when that happens.

This chain of events (and my associated reasons and decisions) may save you from similar financial embarrassment.

Top job

A kind client extolled me to a plum prospect who needed help with an award submission. (Last year they came second.)

This job was so far up my alley, I took a torch to the briefing.

I’d done my homework and we hit it off at once.

Two hours later, my proposal (quote) was in their hands.

I waited.

Then waited some more.

Better deal?

Suddenly, an internationally successful author I’d been courting for 18 months finally offered me a shot at the title.

Would I like to proofread her new book?!

This amazing gig promised to rocket me to a breathtaking new level.

It wasn’t as lucrative as the award submission, but that prospect still hadn’t responded.


I was torn. Should I:

  1. Hassle the prospect for a decision on my quote?
  2. Take the paid work & supercharge my writing career?

I chose B, struck a deal with the author and told the prospect I’d be out of action for a fortnight.

Whereupon they said they were happy with my proposal and keen to start (and finish) ASAP.

With deep regret, I said I couldn’t do their job justice in the time remaining.

I then spent several unpaid hours connecting them with another copywriter before going on holiday.

I was sorry to lose the award gig and worried that I’d killed my precious referral source.

But I was excited to return to the author’s thrilling project.

Let down

I came home to an email from the author, reneging on our deal.

I emailed her twice, explaining what I’d foregone, but got no reply.


I feel such a fool.

I obviously stuffed up, but can’t pick the place I went wrong.

Can you?

Big time

Perhaps, as we’ve discussed, I should’ve hit the author for a one-third deposit to seal the deal.

But when your BIG BREAK finally arrives, who tempts fate by quibbling over ‘details’?

They say a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Alas, both mine have flown.

I’m not sure I even had any to start with.

What would you have done?



  • Hi Paul,

    Man, that must have hurt. I think it’s just one of those freak happenings that hopefully won’t happen a lot.

    Personally, I don’t book anything in until I have a signed agreement back from a client, and I tell them this when I send them my quote. So it’s whoever gives me the first written acceptation of my proposal and terms & conditions that I block off the first available time for in my schedule and then say no to whoever else comes along and say they need something within that same timeframe.

    I guess the only way to prevent this from happening again is to stick to your guns and get a written agreement and/or deposit before saying no to anybody else. But that doesn’t help you now, does it? Sorry.

    • Thanks, Micky. The sole consolation was that a fellow copywriter got the gig.

      I’ve always accepted email go-aheads, but I think I may need to tighten my systems in line with yours.

      A deposit seems a pedantic way to start a relationship. Then again, as my dad says, it’s better to have all your divorces before you get married!

      I greatly appreciate your ideas and words of support. :)

      • Well, if you received an email confirming the project (and accepting your proposal), then that should be the same as a signed agreement, I think. But if there were no stipulations about payment etc., then there’s not much you can hold them to, I guess.

      • When you say “a deposit seems a pedantic way to start a relationship”, surely you don’t mean you never ask for a deposit from any client and you just do all the work and hope people will pay you in full afterwards? If that’s the case, I honestly think you need to change the way you work as that just seems silly to me. Please tell me I’m wrong though and it was just on this occasion that you weren’t too concerned with the deposit just yet.

      • The author is in another country, so imagine I’d have more trouble putting my foot down on the strength of an email.

        Re deposits, I’ve only ever demanded one in all my years of operation. Looking at this objectively, I seem to prefer trust-and-weep to stand-and-deliver! Definitely time for a change …

  • Pretty much what Micky said.

    Plus, it isn’t hassling the client if you follow them up; you’re doing them a courtesy by communicating what your availability looks like. If they behave like you’re hassling them, then that is probably a sign something else is wrong with your proposal anyway, or that they may just be a difficult client to deal with.

    But, I know from my own experience that this sort of things stings, and in the ‘heat of the moment’ I’ve made choices that I wish I could do over again. But life moves on, and as long as I learn from these things, then I feel there is some value to be gained from them.

    • Thanks, Mate. I feel better just listening to you and Micky. :)

  • Sorry to hear this Paul and have to agree with Micky. If you look at the deposit situation and agreement another way such as reputable businesses do not have a problem with these as more likely they are doing the same with their clients. I wonder if your writer received an advance before she started her book.

    Good luck going forward.

    • Thanks, Susan. I’m indeed lucky to have such kind, clever advisors. I’m also lucky it’s never too late to learn. Good point about the book advance! Best regards, P. :)

  • It is interesting what we ‘run’ about how we run our businesses, is it not?

    From a coaching frame, you might like to think about the following questions to understand your unique motivations – just from this one issue.

    What was wrong with following up the client? How do you know that you would have been hassling them?
    How do you know that you couldn’t do the two jobs – given that you were confident it was ‘right up your alley’, wouldnt it have been an easy home run?
    How do you judge that a less lucrative offer from an ‘author’ is worth more than another client?
    How do you know that you have blown the cash? How might it come back in other ways?
    What is the real issue about deposits, and how do you know that they are not good business practice for you?

    Given your bent for customer experience, is the potential client now writing on their blog “met with a copyrighter who tyrekicked our proposal and then dumped me when I wasnt good enough”? hmmm…

    Food for thought..

    • You could have at least hynotised me before hitting me with these penetrating questions, Phil! I’m fighting a strong … flight response. Thank you, though, for planting the … seeds. :)

  • Sorry you lost both projects Paul. I’m sure you still have credit with the referral source and the copywriter you gave the project to so not all is lost.

    Phil raises a good point but not one that’s easy to hear – we don’t like tyre kickers so thinking we acted that way is confronting. It’s got me thinking though so learning for all could be a little reward from your experience perhaps.

    We all take risk in business and have to make decisions that with hindsight don’t look quite so good. Taking one project over another because it has more personal or long term reward than financial reward can be risky but makes good sense so I can see why you’d consider the author over the prospect.

    • I hear you, Tash. I can’t STAND

      Thanks for considering this case and putting your thoughts. You should know by now how highly I value them.

      I’m so keen to get and keep switched-on clients that I’m usually highly risk averse in business. It’s a shame that the first time I peeped over the sandbags to advance my writing dream, it took my head clean off.

      But if you never risk anything, you’ll never win. We’ll get there in the end! 😀

      • Sorry for the pragmatism and the straight up approach,Paul. A bit of hypno might have softened it a bit, but understanding what drives your choices (and your approach to clients and risk) can have a real impact on improving how you do your thing. I, of course, have no answers for these questions for you, but if you are aware of your purpose, your vision and your values, it provides a frame for making these tough business calls.

        Where do I send the band-aids?

      • *sniff* … thanks, Phil. *sob* … I’ll need some hankies too please.

        I’ll be fine … just slide them under the door. *snnnooooork*

  • Malcolm Owens

    Hi Paul,

    I would have accepted the first paying gig and then taken the second job, if it eventuated, and subbed it out to another copywriter clipping the ticket for 15% on the way through.

    But that’s just me!

    • Ha! Very good, M! I now see why you’re the prosperous CEO and I’m the starving artist! 😉

      • Paul, could it be that the fundamental problem is you cast yourself as the “starving artist”?

        I’m not entirely sure if that was a serious, or partly serious comment. But the thing is, we humans are funny buggers; we almost always live up (or down) to expectations.

      • That’s a very insightful observation, Stephen. You’re right. I do have a problem granting myself the respect I expect from clients. If I don’t treat myself right, why should they?! Thank you for flagging this. You can rest assured I’ll give it very serious thought. And may well do a post on it. Best regards, P. :)

      • I just realised I’m not following my own advice!

  • OK. Let’s get scientific here.

    If you are or use a copywriter, your response to this 2-second poll will be MUCH appreciated:

    Thanks to Micky @contentwriteroz for the ace idea! :)

  • Ohh, Paul, I feel your pain. :-(

    It’s a vexed question for many small-business owners – I had a similar discussion with my Pilates instructor about dealing with ‘no-shows’ who don’t want to pay up, despite agreeing to the studio’s policy.

    Although the $ amounts were not as large, I’ve lost income by not being more vigilant at the outset of a project.

    I now ask for a substantial deposit (usually 50% of the quoted amount or estimate) for new clients. In fact, I asked for complete pre-payment for a short editing job recently, because the negotiation process had been difficult and I wondered if I could end up with a non-payer. As it turned out, she was forthcoming with the funds and has asked me to edit her next professional assessment paper.

    So chin up, old chap, learn the lesson well, and onward and upwards. (Can’t think of any more cliches at this hour of the day.)

    • Wonderful words, Desolie. Yes, I’m learning my lesson well. Thank you for sharing your perspectives. I always get a lift from your visits. :)

  • Kat

    Hi Paul,

    Firstly – good on you for admitting the mistake and asking for feedback from your peers. That isn’t easy to do!

    Like Micky, I have detailed Ts&Cs which state that a 50% deposit needs to land in my account before I begin work (I send the Ts&Cs with the Statement of Work for the client to sign and the deposit invoice). When I first started out, I wanted to be the nice girl who only asked for payment once the job was done. Big mistake! I too spent many hours chasing and chasing and had to write off my first project.

    Now I treat my business like a business. I have policies, procedures and Ts&Cs to protect myself. It keeps all parties happy and helps you sleep at night. :)

    • Hey, Kat! Great to see you! Thank you for your patience. :)

      I’m so pleased you took the time to transfer your comment from Twitter. For my money, it was well worth the trip. :)

  • Oh no Paul:-( I pretty much always ask for a deposit of between 30 and 50% of the project fee unless it’s a repeat client or someone I know well. So far everyone I’ve worked with has been cool about it. It’s one way to make sure people are committed to working with you. I can totally understand why you didn’t insist on it in this instance though. Dammit. Every day is a school day it seems.

    • Thank you, D. There sure is a lot of love in the room today. This has been a real wake-up call for me. A stinging lesson, but one well worth absorbing. :)

  • Some Twitter comments just in from Alasdair @Alconcalcia

    ‘I never charged up front for my copywriting. I do things on trust (after having checked out the client on web).

    Then Micky said:

    ‘If they’re a new business, not much online to check out yet. And that won’t protect you in rare case of dispute.’

    Then Alasdair said:

    ‘That’s true, but then I tend to take things on gut feel & trust. Not been let down yet in 11 years.’

    Then Micky said:

    ‘I only require a deposit for new clients though. Any future jobs for same client I’ll invoice afterwards.

    ‘Great to hear you never had any issues. It probably only takes one such situation to reconsider your processes.’

    Then Alasdair said:

    ‘Me too + invoice monthly. I’m occasionally wary & ask a question. Last time they were offended! Was OK in end!

    ‘I’ve had one no pay. Chased for a year. Eventually got the money. They pleaded ignorance!’

    So I said:

    ‘The rotters!’


  • Hi Paul…have to admit I agree with Phil.
    In my business (breeding,raising and selling horses) asking for a deposit is the best way I know of dicovering the ‘tyre kickers’.
    You are a limited recource;your way of pruning words so they amaze and attract the right sort of attention awes me.
    Following up a client is not hassling; it shows you care about their business.
    Believe in yourself,keep writing and copy writing your own book you don’t need to court other authors.
    And a bit of advice from Aunty Jude…Never drop something/someone you’ve already give your word to for an exciting new prospect.
    I still think you’re a winner,Jude :-)

  • Hey Paul, I might just sound like a broken record as I agree with everyone here! I ask for a booking deposit of 30%, which secures a copywriting project in my calendar. Until I actually get the money, nothing is secure and work doesn’t commence.

    I believe the benefit of an upfront deposit is more than money in my account – it’s a commitment to the outcome. The client feels justified asking for your commitment because they’ve given you some money and you’ve seen some indication that they won’t take the copy and bolt.

    Having said all that, I think your particular scenario is at the fringes of the norm. Even if you *did* charge a booking deposit, you still would have been faced with two-jobs-in-the-air and the planning complexity it kicked up.

    I think Phil raised a really good point about following up. Rather than feeling like we’re pushing a client to decide, we’re simply letting them know other factors that could affect what you’ve told them so far.

    Customer satisfaction stems from what their expectations are and if everything is laid out for them, there is no reason you can’t keep them sweet :)

    • Gee, B.You really put some thought into this one, didn’t you? I’m glad you could see the shades of grey. The other complicating factor was that I was utterly tapped out – having waited too long to take a proper break. Funny how our mistakes eventually accumulate to trip us over.

      Fonnie says I’m a brilliant technician, with rather less effective client-facing skills. I must say I agee. I just wish she’d accept my damn head-hunting offer! Thank you kindly for tabling your thoughts. :)

  • G’Day Paul,
    Bloody hell mate! You just did a whole lot of work for nothing. That’s what it boils down to. Even Collingwood captains are smarter than that. I too have had my fingers burnt to the elbows by “renegers and cardsharps.” But not any more.

    If I’m asked for a quote, I ask for a fee. It’s usually half my normal fee based on the time it’ll take me to complete the quote. So if my normal fee is $5000 a day and it’ll take me two days to complete the quote, my fee would be half of $10,000. If my quote’s accepted, I rebate the quote fee against the final fee for the full job. If the client refuses, that’s it. Don’t quote. You don’t know how many quotes they’re getting. You could be there just to “make up the numbers.”

    The other advantage of this method is that you can spell out the arrangement on the invoice submitted with the quote. Whenever someone’s agreed to such an arrangement with me, I’ve always got the job.

    As for the author, same applies. Perhaps you’d call it an “Advance” to be deducted from your final fee. Put it all in writing. Make sure you include a commitment to complete the job by a mutually agreeable time.

    I’ve learnt all this through bitter experience. I’ve been left gnashing my teeth like you mate. A very wise friend told me years ago. “Leon, no one makes us work for nothing. It’s a choice we make. If potential clients take advantage of our naivety, we have no one to blame but ourselves.” He was right then. Nothing’s changed.

    You’ll starve whether you work for nothing or don’t get paid ’cause you don’t work .But you wont get your knickers in a knot with frustration if you don’t feel you’re being screwed.

    My fee for submitting this comment is $25,000. You’ll receive a full rebate on publication.

    Make sure you have fun

    Best Wishes


    • You are a killer, Leon! Sage advice, shot with wit and wrapped in idiom. I bloody love it! Thank you. A lot. :)

  • hey Paul,

    I haven’t read through all the comments above (there are so many) so forgive me if you’ve heard this all before.
    I used to ask for a 30% deposit, but now I’m asking for 50%. If the job is under $1k I ask for a 100% payment upfront, especially if they’re not an established company or haven’t come via an existing contact.

    I then speak to the client about ‘time slots’. E.g. “I can book you in for Monday x of x, does that suit? If not my next slot is x.” Then if they don’t get me the assets or the deposit in time then they miss out on there slot.

    Of course there are still situations where it all backs up and I end up writing copy at 7.09 when I’d much prefer to be watching the telly or lying in a dark room. But I think by making it clear to my clients that I’m super busy and I have limited availability it actually makes them want me MORE!

    And it’s nice to be wanted.


    • Hi, Kate. I’ve seen you round the traps online and am delighted you’ve paid us a visit! :)

      I like your approach a lot. It sounds like you respect yourself. Something I should perhaps do more of.

      I hear where you’re coming from. When I said I was going on a short holiday, clients rushed to get stuff done before I left. Scarcity really does seem to create value.

      It is nice to be wanted. Rest assured we want you to come back soon! With best regards and many thanks for sharing your thoughts. :)