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…)

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11 replies
  1. Joseph Ratliff
    Joseph Ratliff says:

    So long as people are communicating with text or other written language among each other in an economic environment of some type (even barter) … there will be an opportunity for a freelance commercial writer.

    Our trade responds to how businesses communicate, it does not “ebb and flow” in and of itself.

  2. danny
    danny says:

    I think it was the great Peter Bowerman who said, “Writing is the engine that drives all business.” As true today as ever. Thank you.

  3. Katherine Swarts
    Katherine Swarts says:

    Since copywriters serve every business field, it’s ludicrous to speak of a separate copywriting “industry.” It would be like asking “Is there still a market for books?” every time the news reported that sales of fantasy, biography, self-help, or any other individual book genre were down.

  4. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    If you need a shrink, I guess I’m there with you, Peter. 😉 I stumbled on another benefit to the services we offer. We help managers/directors (whomever we are working with) reach communication goals and deadlines that often get sidetracked by the “ebb and flow” of their business. And that makes that person a hero to their boss (and the business).

    It’s interesting to me how often I encounter businesses that have not considered the possibility of outsourcing work. I’ve found it helps to show that manager or director how using our services helps their career path. He or she becomes a believer and it keeps the work flowing – even when that person changes jobs. 🙂

  5. Lori
    Lori says:

    So Peter, you’ve just hit on exactly what’s been gnawing at me for ages. I hear people say they’re “copywriters” or “online copywriters” and to that I think “Wow, that sounds rather limiting.”

    And I write copy. Go figure.

    Maybe I’m going off on a separate tangent (in which case, could you share the number of your shrink?), but I think the moment we put labels on what we do, we create a boundary (it’s why I think adopting the term “work-at-home-mom” is the worst thing you can do to your writing business). Maybe clients looking for white papers or research projects would think a “freelance writer” would overlook that label thinking it doesn’t fit. It’s like you said, there are now rules, limitations, and all kinds of hoo-hah in the way. Before, we were chugging along, doing the job and defining our own terms.

    You said “And as practitioners, we’re simply molding our writing skills to the needs of the marketplace.” Amen, Alleluia! Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do? But you’re right — it’s so easy to lose sight of that.

    But I’ve seen writers who do pigenhole themselves into those very specific titles. It’s crazy. Look at the work they’re passing up!

  6. Karen
    Karen says:

    Peter, I think you nailed the job description. We are (or should be) masters of our own destiny, providing a service that will never go away. That is, never until some future generation grows up without learning to handwrite or spell because it relies totally on simple line drawings. Then man will have come full circle. But because of the mass confusion and wars caused by emoji-only communication, written words, with all their nuances, will have to be resurrected and FLCWs will flourish again!

  7. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks, all! Figured you guys would resonate with the idea. And no question, I put it in the category of an “un-profound profound epiphany”… 😉 Sort of a “duh” but at the same time, subtly different from how we’re used to thinking about our field.

    I agree, Lori, that we definitely limit ourselves with labels. Why do we need to call ourselves anything? The key is simply to put ourselves in those situations where our skills are a match for the needs. Period. And heaven knows, there are enough of those needs out there; the only question is whether our skills can address them.

    Add to that this truth: the more people who have the same skills we have, and who are all competing for certain types of common work, the lower that work will pay. To the extent that we can set ourselves apart from the herd with skills that clients can get few other places (never imagine you’re the ONLY game in town; as long as you’re part of a small group, you’ll do just fine), is the extent to which we’ll make a higher wage.

    Great point, Cathy! We absolutely can be that facilitator to make things happen that could get put off indefinitely. AND, that can fall into the category of skills that not everyone has: to take ownership of a project and move it along so it happens, WHILE the client is off doing their core job.

    Of course, we have to sell them on taking that action initially, but again, that’s yet another skill that not every writer has. In fact, I really like this idea – it’s one we don’t talk about much as a reason why companies should hire us, but it’s a critical function we can play, and we should be driving it home on our sites and in our prospecting conversations (“Have projects you need to get done, but just haven’t make the time to get them off the back burner? Let me be the facilitator to make them happen…” etc, etc.

  8. Angie Dixon
    Angie Dixon says:

    Peter,

    I think this is very useful.

    On Facebook this week, someone criticized Bob Bly for his book on six-figure copywriting, on the grounds that he was leading people to believe something is possible that is not. I didn’t jump into the fray. Bob can defend himself better than I can, if he wants to.

    But it struck me that some people take the attitude that there’s a limited amount of “copywriting” to be done, and that it’s deceitful to explain to someone how it’s possible to make a good living at copywriting, because not everyone makes that good living.

    I’m not sure I’m making sense. What I mean is that, yeah. There are opportunities. That isn’t an empty promise. There are people who need to communicate and who hire people to help them communicate.

    That doesn’t mean that everyone does make six figures or more. But I think it’s very possible, and I think part of it is realizing that you don’t have to write for some limited number of clients perceived as “the big copywriting purchasers.”

    Lots of actors make a very good living as character actors. Lots of musicians play locally or regionally and make a living at it–I know one personally. And lots of writers make a good living writing “under the radar” without being a big name.

    But no one makes a living by complaining that there aren’t any opportunities.

  9. Sharyn Inzunza
    Sharyn Inzunza says:

    Hi Peter,

    Great post(s). Phew! So glad we’re not in an industry; that would make us industry workers…robots, churning out content. I think there are websites for that.

    Instead (just to remind myself, as I line up my cold contacts for the day), we provide solutions to business’s problems and get our foot in the door by communicating the benefits (benefits, benefits) of our services.

    By the way, I’ve just finished The Well-Fed Writer. Thank you!

  10. Melzetta "Mele" Williams
    Melzetta "Mele" Williams says:

    Great post, Peter! Unlimited opportunities await those who see themselves as problem solvers.

  11. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    From my perspective, there’s certainly more of a need for what I do now than there there was when I first entered the field back in the mid-90s. Since then, the Web exploded, social media became a thing, and businesses in all industries began churning out blog posts and videos (both of which require professional-level content).

    What will the future hold? No one can say for sure, but I’d bank on more channels of communications (and sales), not less.

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