“Hire Other Writers! Make $25-50+ an Hour for Doing Almost Nothing!” (if you’re really lucky…)

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?

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18 replies
  1. Laura Spencer
    Laura Spencer says:

    Great topic.

    I don’t use subcontractors often, but I have done it once or twice for very large projects. I’ve had both the good and bad experiences that you describe.

    In the worst cases, I’ve had to completely redo what the subcontractor wrote. In the best cases, their writing is nearly indistinguishable from my own.

    Here are my (self-imposed) “rules” for dealing with subcontractors:
    1. Tell the end client you will be using subcontractors. Many won’t care, but some well.
    2. Make sure you have a contract with the subcontractor (as well as the end client).
    3. Pay the subcontractor fairly and on time. None of that $25 a post stuff. It’s pet peeve of mine when freelancers treat other freelancers poorly.
    4. Never assume the subcontractor’s work is correct. Always check it.
    5. Stick with the good subcontractors. It will save you time in the end and you’ll build a relationship.

    I think that’s about it. I’m sure other writers will have more to say.

  2. Mike Klassen
    Mike Klassen says:

    Peter, I believe you said this in one of your books… something along the lines of, “There are things you can control and things you can’t control. If you just worry about the things you can control, it will be more than enough to be successful.” (I’m sure you phrased it better.)

    Long ago I made the decision not to subcontract work, nor would I be a subcontractor. The reason? Too many things I can’t control.

    If I subcontract, do I tell the client or not? If not, and the subcontractor goes flaky, misses a deadline, etc., whose reputation takes a hit? Mine. If I do say that I’m using a sub, does the client feel robbed they’re not working with the person they found on my website? Would they, perhaps, feel better finding someone they’ll work directly with? Would they feel they’re being charged extra if I’m outsourcing?

    As freelancers, we already know that things crop up and mess with deadlines, or a client is unusually difficult. Usually that means we work longer hours to reach the deadline. Maybe we’re sick and barely feel functional, but we do the job. Are you 100% sure your sub will have that same “get it done at all costs” belief? (And if they don’t, will they say they do because they need the work?)

    Working once as a sub, I ran into a common scenario… a project I was working on needed a lot of last minute changes and additions. But that conflicted with a deadline I had for one of my own clients. Who gets the priority? A more important questions is how any sub _you_ hire will answer that question.

    As a sub, the person outsourcing work to you will, understandably, expect you to put their project as a priority. Why? Because of what I said earlier… their reputation is on the line. Maybe you had plans for the weekend with your family and now your outsourcer needs you to cancel those plans. If you’re the one doing the outsourcing, would you be comfortable asking your sub to cancel plans they may have made? You can’t always offer more money to solve these problems.

    I actually call this out on my site… I don’t outsource work and when you hire me, you work directly with me. I know my clients appreciate that because they’ve told me it’s important. Maybe I make less money, but I have far less stress because I don’t have to worry about the things I’ve mentioned here.

    Another thought… my guess (and just a guess) is the really talented people I might find as subcontractors won’t stay subs for long. They’ll soon have own clients and charge more than I’d be paying them. At that point, I feel too much time might be spent finding new subs and training them in the way I like to have things done. No thanks.

    I acknowledge that subcontracting can work. So I would never tell anyone not to do it. But I’ve weighed the pros and cons for me and the cons are too overwhelming. If I want to make some form of passive income, there are other ways where I maintain more control.

  3. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    Interesting discussion, Peter. Laura, I like your guidelines. I have never subcontracted work but I suspect that is more where I’m at in my career than an aversion to the idea. I simply do not want to manage anyone but myself. 🙂 Mike, I agree with you, the standards I have for the writing would probably mean it wouldn’t be long before that writer would move on from subcontracting.

    About the closest I came was managing a project for continuing education courses for insurance agents. The client had a team of writers and I had final editing/oversight of the project. I hated every minute of it. In fact, that experience led me to remove copyediting from my list of services.

    Just my 2 cents, if I was the client, I would want to know if I had been working all along with a writer who decided to subcontract some of my work. But that’s me.

  4. Lori
    Lori says:

    Great topic, Peter.

    I have subcontracted in the past. I’ve learned a few things from it:

    – The way the writer approaches you is how that writer will handle the work
    – Not everyone who says yes actually finishes the job
    – The best subs are worth whatever they charge

    I had a huge project in which I’d hired a few writers to help. I set the parameters — I needed your resume, cover note, and samples. Only one writer out of the several who responded bothered to meet those requirements. She was hired. And she was fantastic.

    Another writer I knew ignored the requirements and wrote this “Tell me what you need.” Since I’d spelled it out in detail in my ad, I wasn’t inclined to go over it again.

    In another case, I hired a well-known writer and another writer to write articles for my newsletter. The well-known writer told me up front when she saw the content that it wasn’t something she could do with any degree of confidence. The other writer did the opposite — she clammed up. I heard nothing from her for six weeks, and when I got in touch with her (should have been the other way around, no?), she said “Oh, it was too hard. I decided not to bother.”

    Hiring out subs, for me, has worked only when I’ve made sure to screen them well and to match their skills and reliability to the job at hand. I would recommend anyone hiring a sub to put some requirements on the application process. A cover note gives an idea of writing ability beyond an editor’s hand. And the ability to follow simple directions — absolutely key reason to have requirements in the job listing.

    These days, I hire people I know. I have a handful of people in my network whom I would trust with specific jobs. They’re my go-to people.

  5. Michelle Kulas
    Michelle Kulas says:

    Great topic!

    I make it clear in my advertising that I might outsource work. In reality, I do 95% of my work myself. Sometimes, though, I do sub some of it out. It might be because I’m busy or because I’m not familiar with a particular topic and just would rather not deal with it, but I also don’t want to lose the client.

    I’ve contracted out to a handful of writers. One was very good as well as very reliable, and if I needed to sub out again, she’d be first on my list. I’ve worked with her pretty extensively, on a variety of projects. Another was also very good, but also quite unreliable. I would not use her again. The other two or three were pretty good. I needed to do some editing, but they had the material in when they said they would. I would use them again if my #1 weren’t available.

    No matter whom I hire, everything gets run through Copyscape and I read over it carefully. After all, it’s my name on the line with my client, and not the other writer’s.

  6. Keith Landrum
    Keith Landrum says:

    I’m completely new to the whole copywriting business (still trying to learn everything I can before launching into the great unknown, but had two cents to throw into the pot, so here goes:
    Rather then farming out to “just anybody” or using various freelancers (who you don’t know from Adam really) why not consider the possibility of taking on a partner, someone you can develop a relationship with and that you can trust, not just with the work, but with the disclosure aspects as well.
    Or, if you’re known by a business name, rather than your personal name why not just outright hire these subcontractors as employees of your company. Again, that would allow you to get to know the people that work under you, the quality of their work, and to trust them with non disclosure as you can have them sign one as well.
    Just my two cents. If I were in a position to need an extra hand, I’d trust my client’s work to someone whose work I am familiar with, that I can rely on, and who I at least know on a personal level, rather than farming out work to potentially problematic freelancers I don’t know.

  7. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    My experience in subbing out work pretty much mirrors what others have already shared. Too many “me too”s to cite.

    I think I subbed out only 5 or 6 times in my career. I only did it when I was swamped with work, couldn’t meet the deadline but turning the assignment down was not good from a client relations standpoint. But the only crunch was first draft. After that, schedules would be loose and overlapping enough for me to handle revisions. So whenever I subbed out, I only needed the hired freelancer to deliver a first draft that — if all went well — would only need light editing for me to make it sound like it came from me. Sometimes I told clients I was doing this, sometimes not.

    Of course, all did not always go well.

    Fortunately, none of the freelancers I hired ever missed a deadline, or caused me to miss one. But some just weren’t very good writers. The writing they did for me was nowhere near as good as the writing in their portfolios.

    One writer I hired to write most of the international environmental development and management case studies/success stories for a brochure. The source material was the client’s moderately technical project reports, written by non-writers including non-native English speakers. He did not grasp the subject matter, wrote sentences that misstated cause and effect or who did what, emphasized the unimportant, made numerous non-writerly errors, and told the stories in strict chronological order rather than starting with the result and benefit of the client’s program and then describing the end-user’s problem and solution without regard to chronology (the structure I had specifically told him I wanted).

    A writer I hired to write newsletter articles to fit a layout and not-to-exceed word count wrote long on every one — in one case giving me 800 words for a 500-word hole. “There was so much good information, I couldn’t decide what to cut,” she told me. Excuse me, I’m paying you $XXX to make that decision.

    In both of these cases, I had to work hours I could not afford to whip the copy into shape. The clients got copy that came from me after all. Needless to say, I never worked with either of those writers again. For years, they’d be in touch with me from time to time looking for work. These are people that were not in my social circle, had no other dealings with me, never offered to do anything for me but who never thought twice about calling to see if I could do anything for them. Softy that I am, I never told them how bad their work was.

    Some of my subbing out went really well. Linda Formichelli in particular (back in the 90s before she became the national star she went on to be) picked up on the voice I had crafted for a particular company and gave me drafts on some small brochures in which I barely had to change a word. She was so good, that when my client (a design studio/agency) needed a backup writer while my family went on a 30-day cross-country car trip, I gladly put them in direct contact with Linda. Very little work materialized while I was away, but she handled it well. Other projects subbed to other writers worked well enough to get me through short periods of overload.

    It has been many years since I’ve had more work than I can handle. These days, on the rare occasion that several projects come in at once, I try to negotiate deadlines I’m confident I can meet. When the client is agreeable, I get the work. When they absolutely can’t wait, I turn the work down and they go elsewhere. Since I’m easing into retirement, I really don’t mind. I don’t even have anyone to whom I can sub out work.

    This is not an open invitation for anyone wanting to get on my list.

  8. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    Great article–great comments! In addition to the points about screening potential subcontractors, anyone considering it ought to screen *yourself* for potential in working well with subs:

    -Are you the type who easily lets high standards mutate into anxious perfectionism? If so, unless the subcontractor is someone whose work standards you know REALLY well, you’ll probably pay for the “passive income” with a lot of unnecessary stress and worry–and/or drive the subcontractor away through micromanagement.

    -Do you have excellent people skills? When you add a subcontractor to the mix, the need for dealing tactfully with others doubles.

    -Are you an experienced delegator? Subcontracting, with its additional legal and relationship considerations, is a risky place to get your first-ever experience delegating a major task.

    -Are you thinking ONLY of the “could make more money” aspect? In almost any endeavor, this attitude is a guaranteed path to disappointment.

    I don’t subcontract myself, partly because I don’t have much overload either, but mainly because I score average at best on the first three points above.

  9. Matt
    Matt says:

    As said about… echoes from me on several experiences. What I have subbed are a different genre of work that my clients often call, which I find, frankly, tedious. As above: mixed results.

    To Keith’s point about hiring… many of us get into freelancing work because we do NOT want to supervise people. I know that supervision was the least favorite aspect of my former paycheck job. Nearly all subs are 1099s. That means you pay them when they work for you as a contractor. (The IRS has very specific rules on defining a contractor vs. an employee.) If you actually hire them, (a W-2 relationship) life gets much more complicated for you. There’s insurances, payroll, government filings and then, oh yeah, keeping them busy! Hmmmm… sounds like a job to me.

    Best wishes all.

  10. Ken Norkin
    Ken Norkin says:

    What Matt said!

    When I went freelance in 1991, I set myself up with a business name because my intent was that I’d operate as a virtual agency, able to pull together creative teams to deliver complete projects that I’d write and manage. And if it became so successful that I needed employees and an office outside the home, great.

    Or so I thought. Twenty-three yers later (next month) I’m glad my business never grew bigger than me. Largely because of the writing focus in my launch marketing — with complete projects pretty much an afterthought — nearly all the work I got early on was writing only. Especially when subbed out to me from ad agencies and design studios. And those few complete projects that clients hired me to deliver — such as brochures and print ad campaigns — were not as profitable as I had hoped. I had to put in substantial time to manage the projects and coordinate multiple partners, but ended up not making not much if any more than I would have had I only written them.

    I watched my brother-in-law go from being a freelance copywriter to running a good sized, highly creative and award-winning agency. Not too many years ago, he had to go through the difficult process of cutting staff. Then he outright sold the business.

    I’m so happy I never had to do that.

  11. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks to all for some wonderful, meaty answers. It confirms a lot of my own thinking while offering up some real-world accounts that should give pause to anyone seduced by the idea of quick, easy money.

    Thanks, Laura, for some great guidelines. Very useful stuff!

    Mike, I always appreciate your detailed insights. You touched on a number of things that most of us might not think of (i.e., the expectations you might have of a subcontractor, and whether they’re fair or realistic, etc.).

    And Cathy, I’m with you – and others who brought up the same point – that I am all about keeping my life simple, and the idea of managing others besides myself is not something I want to take on.

    Great input, Lori! I had to chuckle at all of these faux pas’s made by writers – the very things that keep writers from breaking out of the middling-income level and moving on up to the next one. And a lot of it is a mindset…

    Maybe I’m wrong here, but perhaps, because many writers start out from a more creative perspective/world, there’s a certain casual vibe that permeates their whole offering. As such, they think that the clients they deal with, think the same way. And of course, most don’t. Bottom line, they may not even realize that they did something flaky or unprofessional; all they know is that they’re not making as much money as they’d like.

    And I was nodding my head at your note about only working with people you know. To all those who’d contact me for “overflow work” (even if it wasn’t a typical subcontracting scenario), no offense, but why would I hire a writer I have no knowledge of or experience with? More to the point, given how long I’ve been doing this, there’s no way I wouldn’t have developed a small – and proven – network of people I can turn to when I need other resources.

    Thanks Michelle! Sounds like you’ve made it work on a limited basis, and have the pieces in place should you need to again.

    Thanks for weighing in, Keith. Though, I’m with Matt about avoiding the whole employee scenario completely. After all, the “free” part of freelancing (as in, “freedom”) has always been one of the biggest draws for me. As such, last thing I want to do is make my life more complicated, and employees would absolutely do that.

    Thanks, Ken! Sounds like you’ve been through it, in a big way, so you seen the downsides up close and personal. Had to laugh at the “800-words-that-should-have-been-500-words” story, but echoing my earlier comments, these are the kinds of things that keep writers from reaching the upper end of their financial potential.

    And, I totally agree on your second comment. There’s some purity and clarity that comes from keeping your business small. More importantly, I can go away when I want to – take off a month if I want to I (as I’ve been lucky enough to do a few times in the past few years), and with minimal associated hassle. Far tougher if I had a bigger business. There’s this very American inclination to feel like you should be always growing, and becoming bigger. And I have zero interest in doing so.

    Love your questions, Katherine! That’s a wonderful litmus test for all of us, and can give us a good idea about the relative wisdom (or lack thereof) of moving forward on this path.


  12. Karen
    Karen says:

    I got into subcontracting through the back door — by unwittingly becoming one.

    A freelance graphic designer and I (a freelance copywriter) had a mutual client who had moved on to another job. One day he contacted us both, saying he wanted to “get the band together again” to produce an annual report.

    He’d been a great client and we were thrilled. However, once I agreed to do the writing, he informed us that he could only cut one check for the entire project (???), so I became the graphic designer’s subcontractor.

    No problem there, but as the job went on, I’d submit the text, then all further back and forth was between the designer and the client and I had NO idea what was going on nor what the client thought of my work. I was totally out of the loop.

    The project dragged on for several months (don’t know why), and then payment took another several months. The designer had to get paid before she could pay me.

    I didn’t like being the “silent partner,” especially when I was unable to follow up on the delinquent payment. Fortunately, my relationship with the graphic designer was solid enough to be unaffected by all this, but I’d never do it again.

  13. Linda Formichelli
    Linda Formichelli says:

    I’m JUST seeing this thread and wanted to thank Ken Norkin for the shout out! It was a pleasure working with you and I remember it was a fun gig. It stinks that not everyone works out, but should be heartening to good writers to know THAT’S their competition. 🙂 Hope all is well with you.

  14. Lori
    Lori says:

    Peter said:
    “Maybe I’m wrong here, but perhaps, because many writers start out from a more creative perspective/world, there’s a certain casual vibe that permeates their whole offering. As such, they think that the clients they deal with, think the same way. And of course, most don’t. Bottom line, they may not even realize that they did something flaky or unprofessional; all they know is that they’re not making as much money as they’d like.”

    I think that’s very true, Peter. It’s great to work in your slippers, but that shouldn’t translate into a nonchalant attitude toward the job. I think it means you should be working harder to negate the stereotype, but that’s me.

    Peter said:
    “And I was nodding my head at your note about only working with people you know. To all those who’d contact me for “overflow work” (even if it wasn’t a typical subcontracting scenario), no offense, but why would I hire a writer I have no knowledge of or experience with? More to the point, given how long I’ve been doing this, there’s no way I wouldn’t have developed a small – and proven – network of people I can turn to when I need other resources.”

    Oh, totally agree! I get a lot of people who say “I’ll take your overflow work!” If I had a nickel for every time I got that “offer” I’d not need to work at all. Even friends — friends who are not currently writers — say the same thing. To which I ask “Why aren’t you freelancing?” You know the answer, right — “Oh, I could never be disciplined enough for that.”

    So I’m to give you my overflow work because you’re not disciplined? Hmmm…

  15. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks all!

    We’ve all been there, Karen. It’s a pretty common rap on the part of a designer client, that they need to get paid before they can pay you. Never been happy with that excuse, but, in all fairness, most designers are small shops, so cash flow is an issue. It’s generally not a big deal if the clients are good, and the money flows when it should, but it can definitely be a drag if payment starts getting held up.

    Great to see you here, Linda – thanks for stopping by our humble little corner of the world! 😉

    Thanks Lori, for the corroboration. I recently farmed an editing project I didn’t really have time for (and I told the client, who was a personal friend of mine, that I’d have to charge a lot more than most editors). She’s doing a great job for them, but missed a deadline, largely because of some personal stuff going on in her life (which, she told the client about, but which, of course, the client doesn’t care about and doesn’t want to hear about).

    As to the other point, about freelancers contacting for our “overflow” work, yeah, just ain’t going to happen when I know little about them. Not to mention an arguably even more important issue: unlike straight articles, which could be passed on without too much hand-holding needed, most commercial projects just aren’t anywhere near as transferable.

    When you’re talking about marketing copy, unless the writer has some solid experience in that world, they’re simply not going to be able to quickly get up to speed on the client’s business, nor are they going to be able to write for that realm. And in the time it’d take to explain everything they’d have to know to be able to deliver a decent final product, I could’ve done it myself.

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