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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.

How Long Did It Take You to Become a Profitable Commercial Writer?

So, I recently got the following email – similar to many I’ve gotten over the years from what I affectionately refer to as “shortcut-hunters.” Can’t blame them – we all want the path of least resistance as we build our commercial writing practices. He wrote:

I have been working as a freelancer now for a couple of years, and during that time I have pretty lucky in being offered work with little or no marketing effort.

The work has been relatively low-paid, but enough to keep me afloat. I’ve been planning to follow your guidance now for some time, but I have always felt too busy with work and family to extend my reach.

Recently a long-term client told me he’d hired an in-house copywriter and that he’d be in touch if and when the company needed to outsource. This has left me in a serious bind as that work constituted a large part of my income. Today, I’ve been cold-calling per your instructions in TWFW, and called 23 marketing agencies.

I got the usual gatekeeper responses (even when calling between 4:30 and 5:30), and I have been given a lot of email addresses of those in charge of marketing to send along my resume, etc. I’ve emailed them, and given them my website address and resume in some cases, but it feels mostly like I’m wading through mud.

What you recommend should be the course of action for someone like me who is a decent copywriter, but needs work quickly?

My reply:

I wish I could give you some magic solution, but there really isn’t one. If there truly were a shortcut to landing high-paying commercial copywriting work faster than normal, everyone would have figured it out by now, and, on the heels of that, no one would be making any money anymore…

I’m afraid the commercial writing business doesn’t really lend itself to fast ramp-up times to profitability, unless you already have a pretty sizable pool of existing contacts that you can tap.

What you describe (calling 23 agencies and getting people asking for you to send info, but nothing right now) is VERY typical of how prospecting in our business goes. In most cases, one has to make many hundreds of contacts, and then nurture those contacts over time in order for things to ultimately pan out.

As I note in TWFW, any business that can pay the wages commercial freelancing can, is going to take a healthy amount of ramp-up time. You just can’t expect it to happen fast. The only fast jobs in writing are the ones that offer lousy pay.

AND, the more calls you make, the better your chance of finding that client who does need something NOW, but you can’t count on that.

While I felt for him (sorta), my evil, snarky twin wanted to say, “Where did you get the idea that this was an easy business? And hello? One client who makes up a BIG chunk of your work? That’s a crisis waiting to happen. AND (echoing a line from my note above), if it were really that easy to earn $50, $60, $80, $100 an hour, how long would that window last, before the low-ballers entered the ring, and crappy rates became the norm?”

As I’m fond of reminding people, the commercial freelancing field pays well precisely because it’s not easy. It’s a bona fide opportunity precisely because you’ve got to bust your butt, and often for a long period of time before you make decent money, and that there are precious few shortcuts.

It’s precisely because it can take a long time to get profitable, that when it does, it’s likely to be a more enduring profitability. And chances are excellent that’s the case because you got into the right habits early—habits that ultimately led you to healthy profitability. Amazing how that works.

In 1994, it took me four months to hit financial self-sufficiency as a commercial freelancer, which is fast. Though, in all fairness, I’d scaled down my expenses, and hit it very hard. Count on longer these days. Put another way…

Anyone who promises you fast riches as a writer is jerking your chain. Period.

With any luck, this piece and the soon-to-appear comments below will provide a good reality check to those starting out or early on in the business-building process.

How long did it take you to get to comfortable profitability?

What advantages/disadvantages did you feel you had compared to others starting out?

If you made it happen fast, what do you think the key was?

If it took you longer to become profitable, why do you think that was?

Any advice to give to someone starting out?

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

From What Background Did You Come to Commercial Freelancing?

One of the things I love about this field of ours is that there are few backgrounds one can’t leverage into a freelance commercial writing career. Over the years, I’ve crossed paths with commercial writers who started out as doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, engineers, bankers, software salesman, PR people, undertakers, farmers, accountants, scientists, and many more that elude me right now.

It’s always interesting to me to see what fields someone can parlay into commercial copywriting career, and that they can parlay that field successfully.

Of course, it’s no surprise the commercial writing field is so accommodating to most any background. After all, every business needs a healthy volume of writing, and who better to deliver that writing than someone who hails from that field?

Obviously, as most of you know, I turned a 15-year sales/marketing career into a future as a commercial freelancer, and someone who understands sales and marketing is going to get the attention of many a prospect.

But I’d love to be able to share with readers of this blog who are considering a jump to our field, the various different paths that have led to it, to prove to them that, in fact, virtually any field one comes from can be a good starting point. With that in mind…

What was the background that you brought into commercial writing?

How did you leverage that background when you started out?

And if you did leverage it, what did that background mean to the people who hired you?

If you didn’t leverage it, was it harder to get started?

Any other comments?

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

Here’s What Long-Term Freelancers Do to Stay Disciplined. You?

More often than not, when I tell someone (say, at some social or networking event) how long I’ve been a commercial freelancer, people are impressed, often saying, “I could never work for myself; I’m just not disciplined enough.”

Course, my standard answer (somewhere in my book as well) is something like: “Once you get a taste of how great the freelance life is, staying disciplined—at least for me—isn’t all that hard, because you’ll do anything to keep such a sweet gig going.”

Yet, thriving as a freelance commercial writer over the long haul—especially with the numerous economic ups and downs of the past several decades—ain’t easy. So, if you’ve pulled it off, for even the past 5 years (heck, especially the past five years), take a bow. You’ve clearly got strong stuff.

This whole idea of discipline came to mind again as I ran a tip in the November Well-Fed E-PUB last week, from Pittsburgh, PA FLCW Jeff Durosko, about what he does to stay disciplined. Jeff’s in that “strong-stuff” category of folks, having been at it for eight years.

A few of Jeff’s ideas for keeping the rigor in his business life, and most importantly, to treat his business AS a business:

I get up, get dressed (not dressed up, but not in sweats or pajamas either) and get ready just as I did when I worked in the corporate world.

I go to Starbucks after dropping off my daughter at school and head straight back home to my dedicated office where I work through the morning. Having a dedicated office with a door that closes is key to keeping one’s routine. While I may “reopen” that door late at night when the kids are in bed, I don’t let it consume my life.

I must confess, I DO work in my sweats, but then again, I didn’t come from the corporate world, so I’m not trying to emulate that setting. I’m not at my desk at oh-dark-thirty, being more of a 10:00-10:30-ish to 7-ish kind of guy (with a walk or sometimes a bike ride worked into the day somewhere; I intend to enjoy the “free” in “freelance” whenever possible). But, I’m serious about my work, and let my work earn me my breaks.

I could be wrong, but I suspect a lot of folks who say, “I’m just not disciplined enough to run my own business” say that, not because they truly lack discipline (heck, they’ve gotten up every morning and made their way to an office for years, which sure looks like discipline to me, though perhaps it’s just fear…), but because they just haven’t had much practice at it, nor the tools—many of them mental—to stay on track.

Something else I’d say to them: You’ll get used to anything. The idea of freelancing may be new and foreign to you, but once you do it for a while, if you enjoy some success, it’ll quickly ratchet up your belief level in the overall viability of the enterprise—and that’s a HUGE step to transforming that initial success into a more enduring variety. So much of success as a freelancer is mental.

Do you agree (that much of freelance success is mental), and that most people could pull it off if they shifted their thinking?

If you’ve had some long-term freelancing success, what would you tell someone who’s not sure they have the “right stuff,” to make it seem more doable?

When starting out, if you doubted your ability to make it work, but still made it happen, what changed for you?

What strategies, approaches or tips have worked to help keep you on track and thriving over the years?

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

How Do You Deal with the Unimaginative Client?

Got the following note from a reader and fellow commercial freelancer:

I wrote a website recently in which I dropped the reader right into the environment of the business and took them on a tour of the facility, while describing their experience of the place. Nice flow, lots of mental imagery, etc., if I do say so myself. The client changed it all to “the purpose of,” “We do this,” We do that,” on and on. Read like a drill sergeant. Frustrating to say the least. Ever had a similar experience?

To which I replied:

Yes, we’ve all been in that frustrating place. Clients without vision and imagination are everywhere. All you can do is make your professional opinion known, but ultimately, they’re the boss, and they get what they want. I’m always prepared with an “I-did-it-this-way-and-here’s-why” rationale if they suggest changing it, and I will push my case strongly (and having been at it for as long as I have, I might push harder than someone newer to the biz). But, again, that’s all you can do.

Sometimes our job as commercial writers is just a job. You do your best, you put your best creative foot forward, hope for a client with an open mind—willing to embrace a bit of creativity—and make a strong case for your approach if they balk. But, in the end, if the client’s narrow perspective wins out, and you end up simply being paid well (even if you don’t end up with a copywriting sample worth showing), c’est la vie. There are worse things.

If they keep doing it, you need to make a decision: stay, hold your nose and collect your money; or let them know you can’t work with a client who won’t let you do your job. Guess what you’ll do depends on how much you need them…;)

It always amuses me (used to make me angry, but I’ve mellowed…) when clients hire me to do something they presumably don’t feel they have the skill to do, and then change what I’ve written to something of their own creation that isn’t nearly as effective. I could understand it better if I were being paid $25 an hour, in which case they’d consider me little more than a stenographer. But I’ve had clients who were paying me $125 an hour do it as well.

And in the example above, how our friend crafted the piece is a wonderfully effective way of doing it: making it real, letting the reader “test-drive” the experience of a product or service. Why clients can’t see that an approach like that is more engaging, and hence, more effective, is a real head-scratcher.

I suspect it’s more of a comfort-zone thing. They’re so used to thinking about business in black-and-white terms, and they’ve worked hard to carve out some market share, so they’re afraid of somehow alienating their customer base by communicating to that base in a “voice” that’s more colorful than their usual. Just a theory.

With bigger companies (smaller companies are typically far more willing to be creative), the fault can be laid at the feet of legal departments, which, trained as they are in imagining every possible worst-case scenario for every piece of material they disseminate publicly, will predictably nix anything out of the ordinary.

I talk in TWFW about a project I did many years back for that Big Soft-Drink Company here in Atlanta, working through a design firm. It was a promotion geared to their bottlers, and linking one of their products to a big golf tournament. I filled the piece with all sorts of fun, golf-related double-entendre-verbiage: “Drive for the Green!”; “An Opportunity that’s Dead Solid Perfect;” and more.

Some months later, I saw the final product. Every single one of my clever little bits of color had been sanitized out of the piece, replaced with bland, snoozer copy. Oh, well.

Why do you think many corporate copywriting clients resist more creative approaches? Have some shared their reasons?

Have you had client push back on a creative/interesting approach, and if so how did you handle their resistance?

If you were able to sway them to your point of view, what did the trick?

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