So, about a week ago, I get an email from a good friend and fellow commercial freelancer who’s presenting on an IABC panel on freelancing a few days later. She’s written to me to get my input on an issue of exceptional interest to the many would-be attendees. Her question is:
Can you sum up “the current state of freelancing” in two sentences?
Sounds like a logical question, and one phrased in precisely the manner we’ve all become accustomed to. After all, there’s the current State of the Union, of the healthcare debate, of male/female relationships, of the Atlanta dining scene, etc. So there must be a “current state of freelancing” as well, right? Well, actually, no.
Here’s my reply (with a few embellishments after the fact):
I’d actually take issue with your wording. There IS no “current state of freelancing.” Think about it. That implies some condition pervading ALL of the freelancing market, which, by definition, affects everyone. Sort of a silly notion, actually. There’s MY current state of freelancing, yours, and everyone else’s, and none of them have much to do with the others.
Our respective states are dependent on how good a writer each of us is, how broad a network we have, how aggressively we’ve been tapping into that network, and a ton of other things inherent to us alone and how we run our businesses.
Buying into the idea of a “current state of freelancing” is victimization waiting to happen. It implies a reality to whose dictates we’re all subject, and hence, can do little except ride the wave along with everyone else, and “wait for things to turn around.” Which is exactly what a lot of people are doing, having bought into the idea (after listening to what some “experts” said IS that current state) of a “force” beyond their control. I suppose some people just like to be told what to do next (or not do).
In truth, my current state of freelancing is pretty good, as are those of a lot of others I know. And part of the reason for that is because we realize our commercial freelancing businesses are OUR businesses, largely under OUR control.
Sure, many businesses have pulled, back, but many haven’t, and the work is out there. Magazine and newspaper writing? Absolutely, those arenas are way down, but that’s not our field of freelance copywriting. So, don’t buy into the gloom and doom. Remember: the average commercial freelancer needs such a tiny slice of the overall universe of freelance commercial writing work to do well.
How would you respond to the above question?
Why do you think people are so anxious to be told what the “reality” is?
Screw-ups. We all have ‘em. With friends, family, and yes, with our commercial writing clients. But, how you deal with it can be far more important than the screw-up itself. This subject may be a bit off the mainstream of commercial writing, but thought it was worth knocking around, and certainly has relevance for our copywriting businesses.
Last week, one of my copywriting colleagues stepped in it after sending out a note about a coaching client and a niche that client had developed, and sent a link to a YouTube video featuring that client prominently on one side of contentious political issue.
Later that day, once realization dawned (no doubt spurred by some angry notes), out went the mea culpa, saying, in essence, “I didn’t mean to promote a political point of view, and have been so busy lately doing this and that that I neglected to ‘consider the content’ of what I sent out.”
In the wake of that, I got an email from a reader, saying, “Upon reading her apology I unsubscribed from her list” (having just subscribed a few days earlier). She went on to point out that, “not ‘considering the content’ showed little respect for one’s recipients, which, in turn, ends up losing, not gaining interest and goodwill.”
Finally, and most importantly, she took offense at my colleague’s apology, which was less of an apology and more of an excuse, citing “busy-ness” with this and that unrelated task and, as a result of that preoccupation, not thinking it through.
As my friend explained, “When we make a mistake, don’t we have an obligation to own it? With a different sort of apology I might not have unsubscribed. Something like: ‘Today I distributed a video featuring one of my clients. I regret sending it. The video did not demonstrate the point I was hoping to make, and in fact contained a political message many of you may have found inappropriate and offensive. I apologize. Please be assured that nothing like this will happen again.’ But instead she made excuses.”
Which made me think about the nature of apologies. In follow-on emails, we both sympathized with my colleague’s compounded error. You make a mistake, and in trying to apologize, it’s only human to want to make yourself look good (or less bad). You’re faced with a) frankly admitting no-excuse cluelessness, or, b) claiming the excuse of distracted carelessness (who can’t relate to being too busy?). In this case, my colleague chose the latter. And perhaps it worked on some, but certainly not on my friend.
I bring up this episode NOT to gang up on my colleague anymore (who no doubt took themselves to the woodshed several times), but to use it as a discussion starter about the nature of apologies. I’ve certainly apologized in the past like my colleague did, so I can’t throw stones. But now (perhaps based on the results of that approach), I put myself in the second camp. If I screw up, I’ll throw myself to the wolves – no excuses.
One of the things I’ve learned in my years on earth is that, overwhelmingly, people are just looking for reasons to forgive you. Do a soft-shoe, deflect and dissemble and they’ll pound you doubly hard. Perhaps because they’re punishing you for that same slippery quality they hate in themselves.
But, come to them with a clear-eyed admission of guilt, hat in hand, no excuses, and they’ll fall all over themselves to offer you absolution. Perhaps, because, by the same token, they’re rewarding you for showing the same flawed humanness they share with you, a humanness they know takes courage to reveal. And they’ll not only forgive you, you’ll grow in stature in their eyes. Sometimes irrationally…
Caught a news item last week about Lt. Calley of My Lai (Vietnam) massacre infamy, who, 41 years after the fact, finally apologized for his role in the cold-blooded murder of 500 unarmed Vietnamese civilians – mostly women and children. He did it at a Kiwanis Club meeting in Columbus, Georgia, where afterwards – you ain’t going to believe this – the assembled attendees gave him a standing ovation.
If that isn’t proof that people love to be magnanimous (and will actually think better of you no matter what you did), whether or not they should be, I’m not sure what is.
Can you share a time you apologized to a client in a no-excuses manner and how did it turn out?
Can you share a time you apologized to a client by making excuses and how did that turn out?
A reader recently sent me a link to an interesting piece in The Week, entitled “Is Writing for the Rich?” It was written by the editor himself, Francis Wilkinson, who concluded that the future of freelance writing is mighty bleak, and that, given the unfortunate current financial calculus of the craft, it’s become a field only for those who don’t have to make their living from it – trust-fund babies, those living on Daddy’s money, heirs, etc.
I just LOVE reading stuff like this. Makes me laugh out loud. I mean, when the editor of a prominent national publication is saying this, it’s clear that the commercial writing field, by and large, is flying completely under the radar. I should have left well enough alone and let him spread his “Abandon-all-hope-ye-who-enter-here” message unimpeded. But I was torn.
On the one (greedy) hand, the less people who know about our field, the less competition we’ll have (though, that said, you do have to work hard to get established in commercial writing, and that’ll weed out most people right there…). On the other hand, I firmly believe there’s enough to go around for all of us. And I DO have a few books to peddle…
So, I wrote him a note (email me if you want a copy), essentially cluing him in about our field, which can be a most refreshing financial oasis from the otherwise sad and sorry freelancing paradigm. Addressing some of the inane “talk” about the commercial copywriting field, I wrote: “I’ve heard it all (‘sellout,’ ‘going over to the dark side,’ and other assorted and sundry head-scratchers – as if the only ‘writing’ that’s pure and acceptable is that which provides the writer with neither pay nor respect. Sure seems that way sometimes.
Never heard a word back. Big surprise. And that’s fine. I went on record. Meanwhile, the carnage continues out there. All I hear these days is about how tough it is in “freelance writing” right now – magazines paying nothing, asking for assignments on spec, $10 articles for web sites, all the “how-can-a-writer-make-a-living” talk. Meanwhile, many of us in the commercial field are doing just fine, thank you very much.
Part of the problem – and what I say to anyone who asks what the answer is – is that straight articles (especially for the web) are a “commoditized” project type – meaning there are zillions of writers who can write a decent article. As such, it’s a buyer’s market, and rates fall to nothing. It’s when you get good at project types NOT everyone can do (that’d be us…), and hence, are competing with far fewer people, that you’ll start making more money. As long as you’re in a BIG pool of interchangeable skills, it’s tough to make a living.
What do you think when you read articles like the one in The Week?
What would you have said to Mr. Wilkinson?
Are you hearing a lot of wailing and caterwauling coming from straight freelancers these days?
Got an interesting though somewhat disturbing email a few days ago from a commercial freelancer. She wrote:
I wanted to get in touch because I have a concern that’s starting to affect my commercial writing business, and others will likely be coming up against this more frequently as well. In the past six weeks, I have been asked to sign contracts with three corporations. One company wanted me to obtain a General Liability policy in the amount of $1 million (has absolutely no relevance to freelance writing); the other two companies are insisting I obtain Errors & Omissions insurance, which also is irrelevant.
Errors & Omissions insurance is professional liability insurance for mistakes or negligence. One financial Web site said: “It protects a company against claims for financial injury that allege a product failed or the company failed to perform services, causing a loss of use of tangible or intangible property to others.”
I sent the following reply to my contact at one of the companies:
“Here’s the problem: If I/we as freelance writers are writing about a company’s products, the information provided to us comes from the company or company sources. The company is responsible for the accuracy of this information and having their legal departments sign off on the final document. With words, you could never gauge how someone would be making a purchasing decision and how your choice of language influenced that. The only thing you can gauge is whether the facts are correct or not—statistics and so on. And it is the company’s responsibility to check their facts and give a final okay.
“Also, the company always touches the piece last, and unlike an actual product such as a computer, medical device, electric fan or something else that could have flaws due to its manufacture, words can be changed and altered by the client right up to the last moment–or continuously, if the words are in an electronic format. Therefore, the final copy or ‘product’ is never static and the product the original writer produces can and often is very different from the final product the public sees.”
Her reply was that she completely agreed, but her hands were tied. Either I obtain the insurance or I cannot work for that particular company. This is a company I do quite a bit of work for, so I am probably going to cave in and purchase this insurance; she thought it could cost up to $1,000 per year.
I feel like this is a big issue that’s only going to get bigger, and this change is happening fast. I feel like we need to educate corporations about the fact these types of insurance have no relevance to what we do. I thought this might be helpful for other freelancers to know that this is happening and perhaps we can work together to find ways to deal with this (or get around it).
Other actions I’ve been asked to take within the past year (by only large corporations, not smaller businesses) that I have never been asked to do in the 12 years prior:
1. Change from a sole proprietorship to an LLC
2. Obtain a Dun and Bradstreet number
3. Take steps towards becoming a registered woman-owned business
4. Provide information about my personal health insurance coverage and homeowner’s insurance
Companies are trying to cover themselves, but need to be educated about what we do. Any advice freelancers can share with each other regarding this would help us all.
PB: Okay, so all of this is just bizarre to me, but if this person’s encountered it multiple times from different companies, something’s going on. I’ve never gotten hit with any of these demands in 15 years, though in the past 4-5, I haven’t been working (by choice) with many large companies. And in 15+ years in the business, I’ve never ever heard of any copywriter being hit with a lawsuit over copy they wrote, nor even heard of someone who knew a copywriter in that situation. We’re talking about Powerball lottery odds here.
Given the fundamental irrelevance of this concern on the part of these companies to what freelance commercial writers do, and the ensuing demands being made of this particular copywriter (and others, presumably), in my humble opinion, it has all the earmarks of corporate legal departments working overtime to come up with anything that could possibly go wrong. Pretty much the raison d’etre of the legal profession anyway.
But why now all of a sudden? Any thoughts?
Have any of you come across any of these demands from your bigger clients?
If so, how did they explain their thinking on it?
And if so, how did you deal with it?
Any other input based on specific knowledge of industry trends?
So, a few weeks ago, I offered up a competitive bid on a project for a commercial writing client I’d done some good work for some time back. The graphic designer on the project (we’d submitted a “turnkey” project bid) had actually worked for the client for 10 years a while back, had the inside track, and knew all the players. They did tell us they’d be looking at several bids, but we figured that was just a formality (after all, they were a government entity, so they had to go through a “competitive bidding process”). Yeah, buddy, we were in like flint.
Well, guess what? They went with a lower bid. Hmmm. Just an anomaly or a “bad economic sign”? Depends on what you decide, I suppose.
Fast forward to last week. It hit me as I was putting together a quote on a project for a prospect who’d called me out of the blue. I knew what I’d normally charge (and get) for a project like this, but found myself wondering if taking the business-as-usual approach was wise in a time when things weren’t quite usual. With the prospect’s admission that he’d be talking to several other writers echoing in my head, I shot a bit lower than I would have, say, a year ago. Still a healthy fee – we’re only talking maybe 10% lower than normal – but the fact that I was playing the game at all pissed me off.
Okay, so I’m a bit torn. Part of me hears my voice admonishing commercial writers: “Don’t play the price game! You’ll lose because there will always be someone willing to do it for less.” Absolutely true. And, “Stick to your guns; the good clients will always pay for quality.” Also true, and I’m working for several of them who haven’t made a peep about wanting me to charge less (and this new guy has no direct experience working with me, so he hasn’t yet gotten to the point where my competence trumps any price sensitivity). And the new year is off to a bit slower start than usual, so maybe that’s part of it.
But then the other side ponders, “Should I be a bit flexible these days? Are clients getting more budget-sensitive?”
So. Am I making a mountain out of molehill? Am I losing my nerve? Or just being realistic? In case all of you think that us seasoned folks always have it all figured out, think again… 😉 Love to hear from you guys about what you’re finding out there…
Are you finding price is becoming a bigger issue these days with your existing clients?
If so, are you becoming more fee-sensitive these days, making adjustments for changing times?
Or, even if it is, are you refusing to play the game at all, charging what you’ve always charged, because, by George, you’re worth every penny?