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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.

There IS No “Copywriting Industry”…

Relax. No, our field hasn’t suddenly shut its proverbial doors. No, all companies haven’t suddenly stopped hiring folks like us. Nothing that earth-shattering (or ridiculous).

Rather, the above semi-apocalyptic-sounding title springs from, shall we say, a semantic epiphany I recently had. Hang with me here. I think you’ll like this (or perhaps, indulgently, you’ll just chalk it up to, “PB headed off on one of his mental-gymnastic routines…”).

To really understand the potential in our business, I say we need to think of it less as “The Copywriting Industry,” and more about servicing an eternal need that exists, by definition, in a business world that needs to communicate.

This hit me after I’d recently been asked, for the umpteenth time, “Is commercial freelancing still a good opportunity?” When you’re an insider, the question might appear silly, but to those on the outside looking in, it’s a perfectly logical inquiry.

After all, it seems like there’s this field called “freelance commercial writing,” so if there’s a “field,” then it can ebb and flow, right? Well, not really. The idea of a “copywriting industry” somehow implies that a bunch of people got together at one point and decided to create this industry writing copy for businesses. Wrong.

After all, if you go down that mental path, then, you open yourself up to having the rules (about “the copywriting industry”), expectations (of “the copywriting industry”), pay scale (in “the copywriting industry”), and any other component, change on you—without notice. And that doesn’t leave you with much control.

It’s far more valuable to view the existence of this field as nothing more than a response to an ongoing, never-ending, systemic need for writing in the business world. And as practitioners, we’re simply molding our writing skills to the needs of the marketplace.

It all starts with understanding how a typical medium-to-large-sized business works. Any such business that wants to stay in business needs to generate a constant stream of written materials in the course of their ongoing and everyday communication with prospects, customers, and employees.

When you get this, you start to realize there will never be a time when they don’t need to do this. They’ll need writing always and forever, and that need is completely independent of any of us out here. The only question becomes how they’ll get it done – in-house or outsourced.

And because it’s a response to an external, already-in-place need (versus some proactive initiative on the part of a bunch of writers to foist unsolicited services on business people), it’s a writing direction with serious staying power. We couldn’t stop it if we wanted to.

The only question—and challenge—is how to get a piece of the action for ourselves. I say that’s a more useful inquiry than asking—one more time, just to make sure, in case Something Happened overnight— “Is there still a market for copywriting services?”

Is this a useful distinction?

Does it give you a better sense of the work we do, and the opportunity it offers?

Does it help you feel a bit more in control of your career?

Any other thoughts? (besides that I might need a shrink…)

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

Put These In Place, and You’ll Grow Your Copywriting Business Faster and with Less Stress

So, a few days ago, I had a morning self-publishing coaching call with a client, after which I was thinking of heading over to the pool at the gym to do my laps. Now, I’m a pretty disciplined guy when it comes to exercise, but I’m also human, so, if I start getting busy, and time passes, it’s easy to say, “Heck, it’s getting late. I’ll just do it tomorrow.” And tomorrow? Maybe it’ll happen, and maybe it won’t.

So, before I got on the call, I packed my gym bag with a change of clothes, towel, etc. Put my keys, wallet and phone next to it. And changed into my bathing suit, T-shirt and flip-flops. Once the call was done, all I had to do was grab everything and go. Which, I did. Had none of that been “staged,” it’d been far easier to bail on the idea.

What I’d done was create a structure for fulfillment.

The whole point? Make something easy to do and you’re more likely to do it.

Duh, right? Well, yes it is, but I’d wager good money, a whole lot of ideas, campaigns, programs, goals, whatever, that never launched, would have if their creators had set up their own “structures for fulfillment.” The key being this:

Starting is the hardest part.

If you can make the “starting” easy, the rest of the steps are more likely to unfold.

I’ve invoked this idea in TWFW when discussing doing simple direct mail campaigns to keep in touch with commercial writing clients and prospects who are part of your database. You know, those folks, who, in the course of your various prospecting efforts for your freelance commercial writing practice, have told you that, yes, they have needs for copywriters, on an occasional or ongoing basis.

Sure, you could decide you’re going to do a really whiz-bang direct mail package, with a specially designed mail piece, maybe with a folder built in (for various copywriting samples), along with a cover letter, and a few other odds and ends. Sounds swell, but will you actually get it done?

Instead, why not create a postcard with a simple message as a reminder, leading them to your commercial copywriting web site/online portfolio? Given how much easier a postcard would be to create, you’d just be that much more likely to get it done.

So, what’s involved in making one? Well, besides creating it yourself or with the help of some graphically talented friend of yours—with whom, perhaps, you trade services— you might check out an inexpensive online printer.

Places like www.modernpostcards.com or www.overnightprints.com offer you the opportunity to pick a design from thousands available, add your copy front and back, and for probably less than $100, you’ll get 1000 cards (and about $125-ish for 2,000).

Remember one of the cardinal rules of direct mail: Frequency trumps creative. Doing it more often and simply is more effective than doing it seldom and creatively.

If you’ve built up a list of, say, 200-250 prospects you’ve gathered through prospecting, sending a postcard 3-4 times a year to that freelance commercial writing database of yours becomes a remarkably easy and inexpensive process. 250 postcards four times a year will run you roughly, $120 to $200 (depending on size of the postcard—regular or oversize), each time, including postage.

Simplifying it even more is this: You can send the same postcard every time. No need to reinvent the wheel each time. AND, the more your copywriting prospects/clients see that same card, the more they’ll associate it with you. And that’s a very good thing.

And there are countless other examples of establishing “structures” in order to ensure that you do the things you need to, to build your copywriting business.

For example, planning a cold-calling campaign, but dreading the process? If you…

1) Compiled a long list of the right kinds of prospects and phone numbers (think many 100’s, so if you screw up a few—which you likely will—you won’t worry about it)…

2) Set up your week with sizeable chunks of time, earmarked exclusively for calling…

3) Had a quiet space, protected from interruptions/distractions, and…

4) Created a brief cold-calling script modeled on the one in TWFW (p. 127)

…it’d be more likely to happen. All of which underscores an important truth:

Most of the fear surrounding many business-building activities stems from a fear of the unknown. Yet, once you set up your structures, much of that unknown becomes known. And, as such, can no longer be anywhere near as scary.

What are some of the “structures for fulfillment” you’ve put in place for your commercial freelancing business?

Have they made it easier to get things done?

Did you put them in place because you weren’t making things happen?

Any specific success stories around this idea?

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.

Can You Share Some Examples of *Useful* Commercial Freelancing Jargon?

Got an email recently from a budding copywriter with a big worry. She wrote:

What is the language of marketing? What kinds of jargon can I expect when I talk to marketing execs? I am concerned that in meetings or conference calls, I might find myself up against a foreign language of sorts because I never worked in a corporate marketing environment.

My first inclination was to simply say, “Not really a big issue in freelance copywriting. It’s not really like a different language, so don’t worry too much about it.”

But then, I got to thinking about it and realized that, when you’ve been in the middle of a particular world for 20 years (this month, in fact…), it’s easy to imagine that it’s not all that complex. And bottom line, it really isn’t that terribly complex, but it’s not completely transparent, either.

And right about the time I got that question, I received an email from a new commercial freelancing client, with the background information on a new project he wanted me to quote. And in that email, he told me what files he’d attached, which included “the wires.” Commence head-scratching. Huh? Wires? What are the wires?

He was with a marketing/design firm, and after clicking through the source material, I realized that one of the documents was a line-drawing mockup of the website they’re creating for their client, and for which they need new copy. That six-page mockup with all the little boxes, arrows and greeking*—is known as the “wires.”

*(Oh, that’s placeholder copy a designer inserts in spaces where copy is needed, but hasn’t been written yet. It usually reads, “Lorum ipsum dolor sit amet…” and a bunch of other, well, Latin, actually. So, the name’s a misnomer, but it’s still “greeking.” And two Latin-to-English translation sites are telling me that the five-word phrase above means…well, “Thong team…” Hmmmm. No clue. Remember, it’s placeholder copy.)

So, “wires.” Learn something new every day. So, maybe there’s a little more to the jargon in the commercial copywriting business than I’d like to believe. Of course, a couple of standard phrases come to mind: collateral, for instance: the term for various and sundry marketing communications pieces beyond ad copy that are part of a larger campaign—things like brochures, sales sheets, case studies, etc.

Then there’s the “creative brief.” Meaning, the document you’ll receive from clients (i.e., an agency, design firm, or the marketing department of the end-user themselves) describing the scope of the project in question, what the objective is, what the deliverables are (there’s another word: “deliverables,” meaning the final end products that need to be created, and which you’ve been entrusted to write), the timetable, contact people (a.k.a. “subject matter experts”—a.k.a. SME’s, and yes, actually pronounced “Smee’s”—yet another term!), etc.

All that said, I still maintain that, even if you come from a background completely different from commercial writing, that it won’t be anywhere near the same as, say, visiting a foreign country where you don’t speak the language.

Over time, I learned all these (and many other) words by osmosis, but my overriding recollection is definitely not of one embarrassing moment after another as clients exchanged looks, loosely translated as, “Where did this guy come from?” Not so.

So, that’s a few that occurred to me off the top of my head, but I’m sure there are a ton of others I’m missing right now. So let’s help out this nervous newbie, and share some of the jargon you’ve come across in your freelance commercial writing travels.

And, for the record, I’m not talking about the silly jargon that’s the brunt of jokes about “corporate-speak”—things like mission-critical, value-added, at the end of the day, outside the box, leverage, etc.

Yes, our fledgling freelancer should familiarize herself with those as well (here’s a pretty good list), but I’m talking about the useful terms native to this field of ours.

What are some of the terms, phrases, jargon, that you’ve encountered in the course of your copywriting practice?

In your opinion, how hard is it for a newbie to get a handle on all the vernacular? Did you feel at all confused or out of your depth when you first started out in the business?

Are you aware of any resources/glossaries listing a lot of these terms (I know, I should know some…)?

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