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?
Good friend Michael Stelzner just released a killer report (and free, tool!) on social media, compiled from the input of some 900 folks. Entitled Social Media Marketing Industry Report: How Marketers Are Using Social Media to Grow Their Businesses, it’s available for download here.
Among the key findings?
Marketers are mostly new to social media: A significant 88% of marketers
surveyed are using social media to market their businesses, BUT 72% have only
been doing so for a few months or less.
How much time does this take? A significant 64% of marketers are using social
media for 5 hours or more each week and 39% for 10 or more hours weekly.
The top benefit of social media marketing: The number-one advantage is
generating exposure for the business, indicated 81% of all marketers, followed
by increasing traffic and building new business partnerships.
The top social media tools: Twitter, blogs, LinkedIn and Facebook were the top
four social media tools used by marketers, in that order.
Now, I haven’t made much of a secret out of the fact that I’m not big on social media right now for my commercial freelancing business. And judging from the first finding above, I’m not that far behind most folks. I’m guessing I’ll get on the bandwagon at some point, but it’s the second finding above that has me push back: The Timesuck.
I already spend enough time sitting in front of my computer; last thing I want to do is spend another hour+ a day (at the least) doing just that, and for what appears to be an as-yet undetermined payoff. My goal is to enjoy REAL life more, not just get better at the virtual one.
But, hey, I realize that’s possibly a short-sighted point of view, and there are no doubt ways for commercial copywriters like us to get maximum benefit from minimal effort (yup, guess that makes me a typical lazy card-carrying member of the human race). I figure I’ll wait till the rest of the world sorts it out rather than be part of the beta-test group.
I also realize that it IS working for many people, so I’d love to hear from you commercial freelancers about how you’re using it to build your businesses.
Are you active in social media (i.e., LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Plaxo)?
If so, which are you using, and what’s been your experience?
Most importantly, has it brought you more business in some specific, measurable ways? Or in less obvious, but still promising ways?
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?
I do these group dinner gatherings to little ethnic holes-in-the-wall every month or so. Always fun. I put a menu together with the restaurant and anywhere from 15 to 50 people show up, pay a flat fee, and enjoy. Nice way to enjoy good food, community and conversation.
This one couple comes to most of them. At the last one I did a few weeks back, as they were leaving, he says, “Oh, make sure you tune into the news at 11 tonight. They’re doing a little piece on Judy!”
Ah yes, that would make sense. After all, Judy is an estate liquidator. If ever there was a recession-proof business, that would be it. And she knows it. The worse things get, the busier and more profitable she becomes. Got me thinking. Are there such things are recession-proof businesses that are good prospects for commercial freelancers? Businesses that are doing well right now because of the economy and as a result, have the money and the inclination to spend it on getting the word out about what they do?
I’m working with a commercial writing client right now who’s awfully close to fitting the bill. She’s a consultant to small colleges, helping them increase enrollment – whether in times of upheaval (internally or externally generated) or not. And she’s got such a great track record that she stays as busy as she wants to be. And some of these colleges are so small (300-400 students) that adding just 20-30 students a year is huge for their bottom line.
I started out doing marketing materials for her own business, but pretty soon, she realized that I wasn’t half-bad at this writing thing (and yes, I’m getting my rate), and she started introducing me to her clients. Sweet. I’ll be talking to her later today to go over a whole list of projects one client wants done over the next few months and to give her an estimate.
There will always be a market for her particular skills among schools looking to bump up their enrollment, and everyone wants that – in bad times and good. And as long as I keep doing good work for her and those clients, the prospects for continued referrals are pretty bright.
Have you worked with any clients in recession-proof businesses or industries?
What might be some recession-proof businesses commercial freelancers could pursue? I can think of funeral homes, the alcohol industry, pawn shops and yes, estate liquidation and other bankruptcy-related businesses. Some more promising than others for sure. Any other thoughts?
Just got off the phone with one of my regular commercial writing clients after a semi-lovefest of good feelings. The Background: She calls me late one Friday and tells me she needs a sales sheet (8 ½ x 11, front and back) for a new program they’re promoting. She apologized for waiting to the last minute (hey, that’s what clients do), but wondered if I could turn around a finished product by early Tuesday. Which meant, of course, that the first draft would have to be pretty much done by EOD Monday. I said I’d be happy to help them out, but that I’d have to charge a rush fee. NO problem at all. In fact, we never discussed money at all. I’ve done enough commercial projects with her that she knows I’ll be fair.
So she sends me all the background info, and there was a good bit. She wasn’t able to send the last (and arguably most important piece) till Monday am. Once I had it all, and had looked it over on Monday am, I had a few questions, left her a voice mail, but got to work. As it was, she wasn’t able to get back to me till around 5:00. By then, I’d proceeded with the project, assuming x, y, and z until I heard differently. She filled in a few blanks for me in that 5:00 call, but it was 95% done by that point.
I sent it off the following morning and we had a call set up for that afternoon to discuss. She says, “The copy is awesome. I really don’t see anything that needs to be changed.” Music to any copywriter’s ear, of course. She went on to say how big a burden I lifted off of her shoulders. I mentioned that the piece had pretty much been done by the time the time we spoke, and she said, “That’s why I love working with you. You ‘get it’ fast, work with virtually no supervision, and make my life really easy.”
Incidentally, one part of the project entailed creating bios on three distinct entities who were part of the service offering being promoted on the sales sheet. Typically, a copywriter might expect to get the source material for such a set of bios from the client, but I knew this client had no time, wanted me to take ownership of the project, and trusted me implicitly to get it done. So, I simply looked up each entity on the Web, and put together the bios myself. Remember: clients routinely look to us to decide how something’s going to unfold. Want to move into the top earning echelons of this craft? Then, become one of those copywriters that takes ownership of projects.
Now. The point of this post is not some self-canonization. It’s to underscore what it is that clients want from writers: receptive to ultra-tight deadlines, a quick study, excellent work, minimal time invested on their end beyond emailing you background/source material, fast turnaround, being easy to work with, yes, taking ownership, etc. And when you give them all this, within reason, money ceases to be an issue. And when that happens, this business gets really fun. You become an incredibly valuable strategic partner to them and they will pay handsomely for your services. All of which is one pretty good answer to the question of how you weather a tough economy. Become invaluable.
Have you had a similar experience lately? If so, care you share?
What value do you bring to your clients that makes money a non-issue?
What have you heard from clients about other writers who don’t deliver?