Why Retainer Agreements Are the Best Type of Client Arrangement

Group of young business people talking on business meeting at office.

Imagine getting together with an old friend you haven’t seen in years. Despite the time that’s passed, you can sit down and talk as if you saw each other yesterday.

She knows the backstory on your family and your career. She even knows how you got your dog.

Your connection is comfortable. Easy-going. Gratifying.

It’s an ideal relationship. And when you can have that with a client, it’s hugely rewarding. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to get this: It’s called the retainer agreement. A comfortable, ongoing relationship where you understand and fulfill each other’s needs.

Retainer agreements are kind of hallowed ground for freelancers. Done right, they can bring you

  • Regular income
  • Valuable, long-term client relationships
  • A consistent work schedule
  • Great testimonials
  • A lengthy portfolio
  • Relief from the feast-or-famine frenzy web writers sometimes encounter

So today, I’m going to talk about where to find and how to land your own retainer agreements.

What Exactly Is a Retainer Agreement?

Retainers come in many forms, but they all break down to the following: A fee paid for a set amount of time or pre-determined amount of work.

A lot of times, a percentage of a retainer fee is paid up front for a specified amount of work within a time period. Or, you can bill as you go.

For freelance web writers, retainers are essentially safety nets. They guarantee you a set amount of income over a specified period of time.

The most common types of retainers can be set up based on a time period or a per-project basis.

Time-based retainers can be weekly, monthly, or annual. Some time-based retainers call for you to track your hours worked in exchange for an hourly rate, but this is rare in the web-writing world.

More common are the project-based retainers. These can include small projects, like one blog a week, or three e-letters a month. Or, they can be large, ongoing projects where you take on something big and you’re paid for a specified amount of time until the project is finished.

How Do You Get a Retainer Agreement?

Here’s the very best answer for landing retainers with your clients: ASK.

Some clients go into projects looking for a regular writer, but not often. You’re more likely to have a client hire you for a one-time project, or even a handful of projects … but nothing regular.

Let’s say you write something for a client and the project goes well. Your best bet is to turn right around and tell the client, “You know, I could do this on a regular basis for you, for $XXX a month.”

Plant the seed. Let them know the benefits they’ll get: “If we strike up a regular writing agreement, it’ll save you time in having to go out and find new writers for these projects. And I’ll become very familiar with your audience, so my content will connect with them better.”

Also, consider throwing in a bonus discount. In exchange for regular work, many web writers will give clients a cheaper rate: “I normally charge $300 per blog, but if you’ll agree to let me write four blogs a month for you, I’ll do it all for $1,000.”

Best Projects for Retainer Agreements

Some writing projects lend themselves to retainer agreements better than others. What you’ll want to do is look for a client that has recurring content needs.

Ideal projects for retainer agreements include:

  • Blogs
  • Social media posts
  • E-zines or e-letters
  • PPC Ads
  • Regular editorial content, such as a monthly or bi-monthly publication
  • Recurring reports, like annual reports

If you spot a client in your niche who has any kind of recurring project that’s a good fit for your writing abilities, approach them, lay out the benefits, and pose the question.

Do You Need a Contract for Every Retainer Agreement?

Depends on who you ask. I would say no, you don’t have to have a formal contract for every retainer agreement you enter into. But that’s contingent on who your clients are and what your relationship is.

Of my three major clients who’ve set up retainer agreements with me over the years, only one ever sent me a contract. It was the first time I’d ever worked with the client, and the contract essentially said I agreed to a set number of copy submissions each month for an agreed-upon fee. They emailed me the contract, I signed and scanned and emailed it back, and we were good to go.

That was four years ago. I’ve since entered into several new retainer agreements with the same client, and we never bother with a formal contract. However, nearly all of our other agreements have been made via email — informal emails, but at least enough to mention the fee, type, and amount of work.

That’s the same approach used by my two other major clients: Details were covered via email.

I prefer this approach because once you have your agreement laid out in writing, you can always go back to it if a question ever comes up. In my experience, an email serves for just as much proof as a formal contract.

On the other hand … all of my clients are major direct-mail marketers. They understand and appreciate the value of web copy, and they enter into agreements like this all the time.

If you’re working for a small business owner, or a company who has never before contracted for written services, my advice is to get all the details in writing at a minimum. In other words, specify the exact type of project, expected date of delivery, and pay. If you want to go the extra step and ask for a formal signature, don’t hesitate. Or, specify that your email serves as a formal contract.

As to whether email contracts will hold up in a court of law, the answer is … probably. The law is just now starting to recognize emails as potentially binding contracts, provided terms are outlined and agreed to by both parties. In the 2008 case of Stevens v. Publicis, S.A., a New York court held that a series of emails constituted a “signed writing.” Two other cases took place in 2008 where courts upheld email communication as an “unambiguous agreement on terms.”

On the other hand, one might argue that emails can be edited and IP address authentication is necessary for proof of someone receiving something … but I say, don’t put that much thought into it. If you’re comfortable with a verbal or email contract, go for it. If not, write up a full contract and request a signature.

The Ultimate Win-Win Writing Agreement

One final note — clients generally love retainer agreements, at least in my experience. It saves them a load of work in having to scour the Internet for new writers to suit their ongoing needs.

I once tried to get out of a retainer agreement with a client because I no longer wanted to write in his niche. I even referred him to another writer who could take my place. I certainly didn’t expect any resistance.

It surprised me then, when the client was not only flustered (okay, annoyed), but actually offered me more money to stay. While I wish I could say I was just that great of a writer that he didn’t want to see me go, I think the truth is closer to the fact that he didn’t want to have to re-train someone and re-build a relationship. When this clicked for me, I took the raise and kept the client.

Retainer agreements really are a win-win situation, so don’t be afraid to suggest them when you see the opportunity. You never know, it could lead to your best client relationship yet, not to mention a flourishing web-writing career.

Mindy Tyson McHorse

Mindy Tyson McHorse

Executive Editor for The Barefoot Writer, Mindy McHorse writes for clients in the biz-opp, alternative medicine, and self-help world.


  • I’ve often wondered what a “retainer agreement” is in our world, and now I know I’ve actually been doing this for years! I also like your tip for giving a client a discount in exchange for the steady work. Thank you so much, Mindy, for clearing this up for me.

  • Can I ask a few questions?

    1) How much should a beginning copy- / web-writer charge for a blog?

    2) If the blog is an auto-responder that generates income, how do writers convince the client to provide a royalty based passive income stream based on conversions?

    3) How many average words is one page 12pt font?

    4) How many pages is a typical blog?



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