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This Fallacy Trips Up a Lot of Writers (and Limits Their Income…)

I got this email recently from a newly-minted commercial freelancer:

I recently quoted a tri-fold brochure and three cover letters for a local university. I gave a range of $650 to $735 for the project, but my proposal was turned down because of budget. Could you offer any advice about pricing writing jobs that fit with the going rates in a particular area (we’re a smaller market than Atlanta).

Okay, several points worth making here:

I don’t think she can come to any conclusions about the opportunity, try to imagine “what I could’ve done differently,” or alter her pricing strategy, based on ONE possible gig. If anything, $700-ish for that scope of work seems on the low side to me.

She (or anyone starting out) needs dozens of situations like this to gather any useful knowledge. One is meaningless, except as a single brick in your wall of experience as a commercial writer. One has to make a TON of contacts to get to critical mass and have things start happening.

But for today’s discussion, here’s the most important point…

There’s no such thing as some set copywriting pricing for all copywriting clients; that implies all clients are reading off some “standard price sheet,” and of course, they aren’t.

Yes, it’s good to have some idea of ballparks when quoting rates in a particular market, but know there are different tiers of freelance commercial writing clients, all with different fee thresholds. Our not-easy job is to find those willing to pay the good rates (and that’s more likely to be in business than academia).

The discussion of “going rates” in any given area is related to my last blog post, “There IS No Copywriting Industry.” I’d planned to include this with that post, but felt it deserved its own dedicated post.

I routinely get asked about “going rates” in the commercial writing field. If there’s a “Copywriting Industry,” then there’s some “going rates” for that industry, right? Sure, what a commercial writer can command in NYC is likely more than they’ll get in Peoria, but the longer I’m in the business, the more subjective I believe rates to be.

Add in a wired world that invites us to prospect anywhere, and it makes the idea of “going rates” even more irrelevant.

Most importantly (see the sidebar, “Debunking the Myth of “Standard” Writers Rates…” on p. 171 of The Well-Fed Writer for the fleshed-out version of this idea):

Following some “industry pricing guide” or the anecdotal advice of other commercial copywriters (even those in your area) will give you, at best, only a partial view of the rates-picture in your area.

Just because a copywriter or guide says you can “expect” to make $ ___ per hour—given a certain experience level or geographic are—while useful as a ballpark guide, does that mean that’s all a copywriter can hope to earn at those levels, and in that locale?

Absolutely not. ALL it means is that some copywriters are making those rates, and some clients are unwilling to pay more. Sure, many clients think $50 an hour is too much to pay even a pro, but there are also plenty who won’t flinch at $125 an hour. And I’m working for a bunch of them.

What’s sad is that tons of talented commercial freelancers (and yes, you need to have the chops to be able to consistently land high rates), are making pathetically low hourly rates for NO other reason than that’s what some guide told them they can expect to make at their experience level, and because they’re working for clients who pay no more than that. Just because it’s your world doesn’t mean it’s THE world.

Meanwhile, other writers who never got that memo (like me when I started out, and perhaps those who read my books), and don’t realize that they shouldn’t be able to command higher rates, are doing just that. All because they looked in different places, believed different people, and found those willing to pay more.

Heck, land a few entrepreneur-type clients with big budgets—which I’ve happily done quite a bit over the years—along with big egos that drive them to pay high rates for “the best,” and all discussions of “standard rates” go out the window. When people like that routinely pay, say, $400+ an hour for legal services, $125 an hour for a professional writer will make them downright giddy.

One caveat: Someone starting out with little experience and armed with the concept of “going rates” can end up deluding themselves into thinking they should be able to ask for and get the “standard rates,” when they’ll likely have to work up to them.

Sort of a “Duh,” but more commercial copywriting experience (in general) will boost what you can ask for, and more industry-specific writing experience will boost it even more (assuming you’re pursuing work in that industry).

Just know that the concept of rates is far more fluid than we’re often led to believe, and sticking to “conventional wisdom” can limit income potential significantly.

Have you ever used others’ guidelines to determine your copywriting rates, only to land a client that defied rates expectation? In other words…

Have you ever had an “Aha!” moment when you got far higher than you expected to, and henceforth rewired your thinking about what you could ask for?

Have you had a sense that you’re shortchanging yourself when it comes to rates?

Any other thoughts or ideas on the subject?

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

Why Commercial Writers Earn More Than Regular “Freelance Writers”

When I first wrote the original piece noted below, it struck me as a subject on which I’d love to get some feedback from you guys. Look for other such posts (I know, recycling content, but all for a good cause…;)

In the November 2013 Well-Fed E-PUB, my Appetizer course shared a recent client experience that underscored for me why good commercial freelancers generally make a lot more money than regular “freelance writers.” Here’s that piece (adapted and slightly edited)…

Got an email from a client of mine a few weeks back, needing a little editing work on a project her designer was working on for her (i.e., combo brochure/direct mail piece she’d be giving away at trade shows as well as mailing out to prospects).

While I can’t make blanket statements, I’d wager good money that had she simply contacted a “freelance writer”—someone charging quite a bit less than I do—with the same request, she’d have likely gotten just what she’d asked for: edited copy.

However, I took a look at it, and gave her my thoughts: she didn’t need the thing edited. She needed to trash what she had, and start all over again both with the copy and design (and, while she was at it, replace her newbie, “moonlighting-college-student” designer with one of my trusted design partners).

While the existing design was quite creative—a main panel with all sorts of other panels that folded in on it—I looked at it through a far different lens. I listened to what she said she was going to do with it. I looked at what she was selling—a service that needed to have a “case built” for it, and in a logical, sequential fashion.

Her existing copy didn’t begin to build that case (and given the design, the requested editing wouldn’t have allowed me to expand it to do so), nor did the existing design framework even remotely facilitate the proper persuasive unfolding of that “story.”

Doing good copywriting work for her for years has her trust that I know what I’m doing. So when I suggested a totally different layout (still quite creative), new designer, expanded copy and a far higher fee than originally envisioned, she quickly gave the green light.

She’s the ideal client: someone who understands that the ultimate effectiveness of a marketing piece always trumps cost (within reason, of course). So, I’m being paid far more, largely because I’m providing a level of expertise that straight “freelance writers” wouldn’t.

If you know how to write, and even tell a good story, you’ll only be able to command a certain fee (given how many other writers have those same skills), but if you can, indeed, “build that case” for a product/service in a logical, creative way, and can think strategically about copy, and—when necessary, about physical layouts that facilitate that “case-building”—watch your writing income rise.

On this piece, I averaged roughly $120 an hour, not as much as I’d like, but not bad for fun work. And I made more than a regular “freelancer” because I know both how to write AND organize what I write to fit a certain layout (which in this case, I suggested, further increasing my value).

My goal with this post (and hopefully, the ensuing comments) is NOT to discourage non-commercial writers from our business. Anyone can learn, through experience and practice, the craft of good marketing copywriting and the strategic planning side of it. But, I did want to highlight that it IS a different set of skills, and for a businessperson, they’re worth more, and hence worth learning.

And, in all fairness, we commercial copywriters get paid a lot more than regular freelancers, in large part, because the business arena in which we’re operating pays higher rates than say, magazines, newspapers, or content mills.

So, it’s the setting as well as the good skills, but being in the “high-rent” district will only get you so far without the skills.

What do you feel good commercial freelancers bring to the party that regular writers don’t?

Can you share a specific moment/project when you realized you truly had far more marketable skills than the average writer?

Can you share a moment where a business client had an epiphany, as they realized how much more you were able to do for them than a regular writer did/could?

Can you share a moment when your ability to think strategically about copy or layout, set you apart from other writers?

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

The Confidence Conundrum: How a Newbie Writer Builds Enough to Succeed…

In my first commercial freelancing group coaching series, one of the participants said: “I think my biggest problem is uncertainty. I prefer feeling confident about what I’m doing – to be able to do it with authority, and I just haven’t been able to reach that point so far. I’m always afraid I’ll do it ‘wrong.'” Welcome to the human race.

Not at all surprisingly, that statement resonated with all the other “coachees,” and the same issue has been brought up by many folks in every series since. When you’re starting out in a new field, and often, as one’s first foray into self-employment, to boot, it’s easy to get mighty wigged out by this Big Unknown (a.k.a. commercial writing).

Sure, I’d like to think that commercial copywriting resources like my book can demystify the business-building process quite a bit, and it no doubt does. But still, until someone takes those steps for themselves, everything they read about in my book (or any other) is still untried, unproven – to them – and hence, still theoretical.

So, how does one develop the confidence necessary to make it as a commercial freelancer? How do you know you’ve got what it takes to succeed? How do you get yourself to a place where you can boldly go where you’ve never gone before?

Well, the bad news is if you’re a newbie, chances are, you’ll have to deal with this. But, that’s also the good news: most commercial copywriters starting out deal with this. Sure, if you’ve left a corporate position, and carry experience, clients and work from that industry – or ex-employer – with you, you’ll likely have an easier transition. But, that’s not the norm.

I see the confidence-building game as three-fold. Arguably, a lack of confidence is driven by a lack of mental adjustment, a lack of experience and a lack of knowledge. The mental side? Get comfortable with the fact that you likely won’t be comfortable for a while (one reason this field pays so well…). Just the nature of the beast, and knowing that’s the case should make it easier to deal with.

The experiential side? Self-evident. You gain confidence by doing. Every new commercial writing experience you have, every copywriting project you work on and complete successfully, is a brick in your own personal Confidence Wall.

You learn a little more about the commercial freelancing process, you understand a little more about copywriting clients – what they expect, how they are to deal with, and how to make their lives easier (your goal, by the way…). Sure, all situations are a little different, but there are always some commonalities in every scenario.

String enough successful commercial writing projects together (translation: growing respect, competence, portfolio, testimonials, and bank account), and one day you’ll wake up and realize that this gig is for real, and so are you. That’s where confidence is born. But it takes time.

The knowledge side? Along the way, of course, you can hasten the process by reading books on copywriting, marketing, sales, etc. The more you know, the more tools you have at your command when talking with clients about their challenges. In addition, study the work of fellow commercial freelancers. Visit their sites, see how they position themselves, look at their samples (starting with mine) to get a sense of the required skill sets.

How did you build confidence in your abilities when you were starting out?

Was there one particular project that stands out as a big confidence booster for you?

Do you remember the moment when you realized you had what it took to make it in this business?

Kickbutt Writing Skills Still One of the Most Effective Marketing Strategies…

Was updating the customer testimonials on my commercial writing site the other day, and came across this one (excerpted):

“Not only does Peter intuitively grasp where we need to go with a project, but his writing truly inspires my design. Bottom line, Peter’s spoiled me with his talent and he’s always my first choice.”

Now, I don’t include this to preen, but simply to underscore what happens when you’re a good writer (and you’re not the only one who thinks so…) – one who, in this case, enhances the quality of a graphic designer’s work. When that happens, they’ll go out of their way to bring you in on projects whenever possible. And why wouldn’t they? You make their portfolio stronger and their clients happier, and both lead to repeat business and referrals – for BOTH of you.

Which makes solid writing skills, arguably, one of the most potent marketing strategies commercial freelancers have going for them. Good commercial copywriters who craft effective copy make their clients’ lives easier and their businesses more profitable. Do that consistently, and you’ll get invited back again and again, and steered to other work.

And unlike other marketing strategies (i.e., cold calling, direct mail, email marketing, networking, social media, etc.), being a good writer “markets” you without you having to do much other than what you do naturally.

Sure, you still need to do your own marketing campaigns to let the world know you exist, but all those outreach efforts end up turbo-charged when your skills are a few cuts above. Till eventually, you may not have to do much marketing at all anymore. It happens all the time to good writers. The world starts coming to them.

A good analogy? A really good book will have a long shelf life (literally) because it’ll benefit from strong reviews and powerful word-of-mouth advertising, while a mediocre one – with few or no “champions” – will struggle to find an audience, and will likely quickly sink into the nether regions of the bargain bin.

Obviously, however, not all commercial writers are created equal. I feel fortunate to have innate writing ability (though, yes, I still cringe at some of the copy I wrote in the early days of my business). Others’ skills may not be as strong or natural. And let’s face it. While the commercial writing field – like any – certainly rewards those with superior skills commensurately, it doesn’t exclude those with modest gifts. Given the staggering amount of gruesome writing in the business world, those who can simply provide solid (if unflashy), coherent copy can find their niche.

So, what makes someone one of the better writers? Well, for me, a very partial list would include, for starters, a lot of technical things: writing like you talk, telling stories in your writing, avoiding $50 words, making sure your writing has the right cadence, and more. It also means understanding marketing fundamentals like audience, features/benefits, and USP (Unique Selling Proposition); being a good listener so you give your clients what they want the first time; and being able to quickly visualize how copy for a particular project needs to be structured and flow in order to maximize its effectiveness.

And a ton of other things. But I want to hear from you (I’m doing a teleseminar in a few months on the subject and would love to use your comments and observations – with attribution, of course).

If you (and/or your clients) consider yourself an excellent writer, what skills, gifts or talents contribute to that reputation and have them coming back again and again?

How has being a top-notch writer made your marketing easier?

Have you always had natural ability, or have you honed initially-less-impressive skills over time?

If you’ve demonstrably improved your writing skills over the years, what books, resources or ideas made the difference for you?

Any other comments or insights?

New (and free!) Report on Social Media Invites “The Question” Yet Again…

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?

If you’re NOT using it, what’re your thoughts?