There IS No “Copywriting Industry”…

by Peter Bowerman on March 5, 2015

Relax. No, our field hasn’t suddenly shut its proverbial doors. No, all companies haven’t suddenly stopped hiring folks like us. Nothing that earth-shattering (or ridiculous).

Rather, the above semi-apocalyptic-sounding title springs from, shall we say, a semantic epiphany I recently had. Hang with me here. I think you’ll like this (or perhaps, indulgently, you’ll just chalk it up to, “PB headed off on one of his mental-gymnastic routines…”).

To really understand the potential in our business, I say we need to think of it less as “The Copywriting Industry,” and more about servicing an eternal need that exists, by definition, in a business world that needs to communicate.

This hit me after I’d recently been asked, for the umpteenth time, “Is commercial freelancing still a good opportunity?” When you’re an insider, the question might appear silly, but to those on the outside looking in, it’s a perfectly logical inquiry.

After all, it seems like there’s this field called “freelance commercial writing,” so if there’s a “field,” then it can ebb and flow, right? Well, not really. The idea of a “copywriting industry” somehow implies that a bunch of people got together at one point and decided to create this industry writing copy for businesses. Wrong.

After all, if you go down that mental path, then, you open yourself up to having the rules (about “the copywriting industry”), expectations (of “the copywriting industry”), pay scale (in “the copywriting industry”), and any other component, change on you—without notice. And that doesn’t leave you with much control.

It’s far more valuable to view the existence of this field as nothing more than a response to an ongoing, never-ending, systemic need for writing in the business world. And as practitioners, we’re simply molding our writing skills to the needs of the marketplace.

It all starts with understanding how a typical medium-to-large-sized business works. Any such business that wants to stay in business needs to generate a constant stream of written materials in the course of their ongoing and everyday communication with prospects, customers, and employees.

When you get this, you start to realize there will never be a time when they don’t need to do this. They’ll need writing always and forever, and that need is completely independent of any of us out here. The only question becomes how they’ll get it done – in-house or outsourced.

And because it’s a response to an external, already-in-place need (versus some proactive initiative on the part of a bunch of writers to foist unsolicited services on business people), it’s a writing direction with serious staying power. We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to.

The only question—and challenge—is how to get a piece of the action for ourselves. I say that’s a more useful inquiry than asking—one more time, just to make sure, in case Something Happened overnight— “Is there still a market for copywriting services?”

Is this a useful distinction?

Does it give you a better sense of the work we do, and the opportunity it offers?

Does it help you feel a bit more in control of your career?

Any other thoughts? (besides that I might need a shrink…)

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

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A month doesn’t go by that I don’t get an email or two from a (clearly marketing-averse) commercial writer proposing, in various and sundry versions, the following:

“Since I’m sure you get plenty of overflow commercial freelancing work (not really, actually…), I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about farming it out to others for a lower rate than you charge, and keeping the difference. If you do anything like that, I’d love to be considered…”, etc., etc., etc.

Ah yes, subcontracting. I’ve never gone down this road, but when I focus on the best possible outcome (i.e., solid, reliable subs, steady work, and $25-50 an hour for every hour they bill, with minimal work on my part ), it can sound awfully tempting.

Though, it’s when I think of the worst-case scenario that I come crashing down to earth: Flaky, unreliable subs whose work you have to redo, and for that same $25-50 an hour. AND, in most cases, you’re handling all payments—from clients and to contractors—and all that entails). Makes me tired thinking about it. Pass.

I know it can work out well. The key, of course, is to find those totally “count-on-able” resources happy to work for less (and often far less) than the going rate in return for steady work they don’t have to chase.

In TWFW (p. 230), I share a cool story of a freelance commercial writer out in Montana who did subcontracting right, waking up one day and realizing she’d just made $4K off her subs in the prior month. Sweet.

Recently, got this email from a reader:

Thank you again for your book and the regular encouragement you send out. My writing career has really taken off, and I’m faced with a (good) dilemma.

I’ve found my commercial writing niche. I have regular clients I ghostwrite for each week, and they’d all like more of my time. I only work part time, as I have school-age kids. But, I hate to keep turning down steady gigs!

What are your thoughts about subcontracting out ghostwriting gigs (i.e., ghostwriting for a ghostwriter). Given that I’ve signed NDA’s (non-disclosure agreements) with most of my clients, I can’t see how this would work. Just wondering if you’ve have any creative solutions or ideas.

I wrote back:

I don’t have a lot of experience with subcontracting, so I can’t give you first-hand advice here. That said, your situation may not be as hopeless as you think.

If you were upfront with the client about how you were thinking of taking on a few writers to help you, ones you’d be personally overseeing every step of the way—they may not have a problem with it. Course, if they’re very attached to YOU and your skills and expertise in particular, it could make it trickier.

But again, make it clear you’ll be keeping very tight control over the creation of the content, and it can go a long way to easing their concerns. Also, if you couch it with the verbiage like, “I’m toying with the idea of…”, it gives you room to back-pedal, if indeed they express serious concerns about it.

And I really don’t think the NDA’s would be that big a problem. You could simply have your contractor sign them as well while explaining to the client that you will make it very clear to them how important non-disclosure is in our industry.

Subcontracting can be a tricky proposition, no question. It can also work out really well, if you find really good talented and reliable people to work with. If you don’t, obviously you can end up spending more time doing the same work than if you’d done it yourself.

Have you ever subcontracted out work—on a small or large scale?

If so, was it a good or bad experience?

What lessons have you learned from doing it?

Any other thoughts?

Want to be a guest blogger on TWFW Blog? I welcome your contribution to the Well-Fed writing community! Check out the guidelines here.

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