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Who’s Got the Right to Say What a Creative Practitioner Charges?

Got the following note from Twin Cities, MN commercial freelancer Megan Tsai (www.RedWagonWriting.com), who thought it might make a good blog post. At first, I didn’t think so, as it wasn’t about commercial writing, but the idea grew on me, and I starting seeing the potential for a good discussion. She wrote:

I sometimes take on assignments for a low-paying national magazine with high production value because I enjoy the work and the clips look great in my portfolio. Typically I take the photos myself or allow the publisher to select stock photos, but because I know the value of these clips and have no use for national photo credits myself, I thought I’d offer the opportunity to a local freelance photographer. As you discuss in your book, many freelancers get their start by doing non-paying work.

I posted a quick ad on Craigslist, explaining this would not be a paid assignment, but would result in some high-quality clips for a freelancer just getting started. I asked that anyone interested shoot me an email with a link to their portfolio. Within minutes, my post had been flagged and removed, and several angry responses posted (the site is self-policing, so it was the freelancers who had it removed, not Craigslist itself). At the same time, I received three emails from interested photographers and dozens of hits on my Web site. So the question becomes, is it fair to deprive fellow freelancers of the opportunity to complete non-paying work, or should this decision be left to the individual?

My take? Megan, you’re right. They’re wrong. I’m a libertarian at heart, believing that people should be free to take or not take work, and no one should dictate the conditions under which that happens. You offered a “free market transaction”: people were free to respond or not, and for others to attack you and move to remove your post note, was wrong.

Those applauding the freelancers’ decision to silence you think they’re “standing up for the rights of creative practitioners to be paid what they’re worth” as if you were forcing them to work for nothing. Instead, as you pointed out, what they were doing was indeed depriving freelancers who wanted to exercise their right to do non-paying work (to build their book and reputation) to do so. And in this case, even more so, because it wasn’t as if the publication was going to pay a photographer “market” rates for the gig.

That decision should be no one’s to make but a given freelancer. Yes, I understand the philosophy that says, “If you encourage the idea of working for free, you cheapen the value of what any practitioner in that field does.” Arguably true, but still not your decision to make for someone else. And not compelling enough in my books to make that decision “for the good of the industry” under the guise of protecting rights. Obviously, those people who responded positively to your ad didn’t feel they needed anyone else’s protection.

As I see it, is there any substantive difference between what they did and, say, removing an ad for a TV you had offered for $50 that they thought should have been worth $200? For those who’d say, “That’s different,” I’d ask “How so?” Whether a TV or someone’s time, you’re still deciding for someone else what the value of that thing is, and that’s not your decision to make. And, yes, the same would go for commercial freelancers willing to work for free or for far less than their competitors. I don’t like to see it, but it’s their right to decide, not mine. And until this economy improves, we’re likely to see more and more of this.

Granted, for most established commercial writing practitioners, we’re not likely to find too many newbies beating us out on sophisticated commercial writing projects (e.g., brochures, ad copy, direct mail, case studies, etc.) by working for free or for $25 an hour (they’re more likely to operate on online writing job sites and in the online article writing realm), but I’m still interested in hearing people’s take on this.

Your thoughts on this subject?

Have you had any similar experience of being on either side of a situation like this?

Where do you draw the line between individual’s rights and the “greater good of the industry”?

What’re Your Favorite “Well-Fed Writing” Resources?

OK folks, I’m closing in on finishing the updated edition of TWFW – due out mid-2009. Just to refresh your memory, I’ve combined and updated the content of both how-to guides on lucrative commercial freelancing, The Well-Fed Writer and its companion, TWFW: Back For Seconds, while retiring the latter. Two 300-page books into ONE 300-page book. Can you say “Editing Job of Biblical Proportions”? Though, I will be offloading some of both the original books onto the web site and a beefed-up Well-Fed Tool Box companion ebook. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, I’m putting together THE key appendix: Well-Fed Writing Resources, the equivalent of Appendix A in Back For Seconds. I’d love to get your input as to YOUR favorite books, web sites, blogs, conferences, local commercial writers organizations in your area, or any other commercial writing resource you’ve found indispensable (or even just plain useful) as you’ve grown your commercial freelancing business.

Whattaya say? What are your faves?

Put another way, what resources should no self-respecting commercial freelancer be without?

Even Seasoned Scribes Fret Over “Just-Turned-In” Copy…

I recently got a note from a fellow FLCW and friend of mine up in New York. Here’s what he wrote:

Peter: Do you sometimes anguish over the waiting period, after you’ve submitted work to a client and then anticipate their thumbs-up or thumbs-down response? As I write these words, I’m waiting on a client to whom I sent what I believe is some pretty solid creative copy. But the longer it takes to hear back from them, the more that glass-half-empty side of my mind’s town crier belches out, “Now hear this: they hate it! They hate it!”

Do others ever go through this kind of self-doubt? Do you sometimes think the worst? Or wonder if you’re good enough to be doing this sort of work? Do you find yourself too needy in the “I-need-validation” department? I confess that this yoke finds itself around my professional neck more often that it ought to. But, I can’t help it! Am I totally alone in my self-imposed angst?

My reply?

You’re absolutely NOT alone in that. Believe it or not, I go through the same thing on every project. Thanks to a lot of successes and happy clients over the years, I’m not nearly as crazy about it about it as I was some years back. In fact, in the rare cases in which I DO miss the mark these days, in most cases, it’s a matter of the client changing direction or not being clear, because I will ask the right questions to get the copy right. But yes, until I hear, I’m always a bit concerned.

In fact, as I write this, I’m waiting to hear back from a client about the third ad I’ve written for their company in the past few weeks. The creative director loved the first two, and I’m sure she’ll like the latest, but she also usually responds within a few hours. It’s been closer to 24, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t nag at me a bit…

Perhaps it’s something in the nature of writers (okay, some writers; I’d be curious as to Jon McCulloch’s take – the subject of the 5/12/08 blog post (just scroll down) – a fundamental insecurity about putting our creations our there – especially when money’s on the line. Perhaps it’s just human nature – the propensity to think the worst when an outcome isn’t certain.

So, if that sounds familiar, you’re not alone, and if you’re still on the outside of the business looking in, know that even the seasoned pros chew a fingernail from time to time. And in a perverse way, I see an upside: that mindset will always keep you a bit humble, and humble writers listen carefully to their clients to make sure they DO create work that hits the mark. Which, in turn, will keep those angst-ridden moments to a minimum.

Do you experience those pangs of insecurity if you don’t hear back from a client after turning in copy?

Have you gotten beyond it, and if so, what made the difference for you?

“Stupidest Question Ever Asked” Spawns 5 Commercial Writing “Facts”

A year or so back, I got an email from an Atlanta gentleman that has to be a top contender for The Stupidest Question Ever Asked. I realize that’s not very nice, and I know “there’s no such thing as a stupid question” when starting out, but still…. In essence, here’s what he wrote:

“I noticed you’re in Atlanta – I am, too. Congrats on your freelancing success. For someone starting out in the same market as a commercial freelancer, that success is a bit intimidating. (Here it comes). Can I safely assume that you’ve pretty much sewn up the Atlanta market, copywriting-wise?”

(Beat). Rub eyes comically. Re-read. Drop jaw. Guffaw. Shake head. Okay, okay, maybe not the stupidest question ever asked, just one from someone with very little understanding of business in general and our business in particular.

My reply: “Joe, think about this logically. I couldn’t sew up the copywriting market in a city of 100K, let alone one of close to five million. Could one attorney, plumber, accountant, real estate agent, or mechanic sew up the market for their specialty? Rest assured, there’s plenty of copywriting business out there.” I’ve been working in this market for 15 years and consistently run across working, thriving copywriters I’d never heard of before.

Sure, as we all know, this business isn’t a cakewalk. 5K jobs don’t fall out of the sky with minimal effort. Lucrative freelancing requires good writing skills and a grasp of business. That said, his question is similar to those I get asking if this is still a good business to get into – given the economy. Questions like these underestimate how much potential work there is AND how many companies know the value of good copywriting (and they overestimate the number of competent, reliable copywriters out there). They fail to see the reality at work:

Fact #1: Every single business has to create written materials either for marketing, advertising, or internal needs. The bigger the business, the bigger the volume.

Fact #2: There are only two ways to create those materials: do it in-house or hire it out.

Fact #3: As long as that company’s in business, those needs won’t ever disappear (if they want to STAY in business), even in lean times, when arguably, they have to do even more.

Fact #4: While many businesses don’t understand the importance of good marketing materials, those are the ones that fail or struggle eternally. Forget ‘em.

Fact #5: Most successful businesses DO understand the importance of good writing as a key contributor to their growth and success, and many of those companies hire it out – especially smaller companies (which can mean $1-100 million+), for whom it’s not usually cost-effective to have in-house creative staff.

Obviously, our challenge is to find those companies, but know, as sure as the sun rises in the morning, that they’re out there.

Until and unless American business undergoes such a radical shift in modus operandi that all business books and schools have to retool their offerings, those five facts, are in my humble opinion, fairly immutable.

Agree? Disagree?

What would you have said to him?

Other comments?