Writing to Goal

I’ve written before about the writer as entrepreneur, and recently reviewed Penn’s Author 2.0, which also describes the entrepreneurial opportunities for folks in our profession. As publication changes, more and more of us will be writing our books as individual ventures, rather than as bait for large houses who will share only a small percentage of the profits.

This weekend, I had a chance to sit with an old friend and his wife, who had just been struck by an entrepreneurial brainstorm with real merit. We’ve spent four long conversations playing with the idea, and oddly enough they seemed to value my counsel.

On second thought, this makes sense. As a writer-entrepreneur I’ve conceived and launched more than a hundred ventures. Some have even been successful. I’ll be posting regularly on this topic, since it seems important to new authors — and seems there’s much less out there than on other writing concepts.

Today, let’s talk about the end game. Every idea you have — and here I’m talking about writing as a business, not only for pleasure — should be paired with an end. You can write to sell to publishers — they offer some strong value for the cut they take. You can write to bring in web traffic. You can write to woo your One True Love. Whatever it is, start every writing project with a clear idea of what you want it to do and be once you’re finished.

Take this blog, for example. I started it with no clear idea of its purpose, other than learning about blogging and creating an online portfolio. The early posts are all over the place in terms of tone and subject. As things progressed, it’s narrowed in focus.

What I want, primarily, from this blog is to impress potential customers. I hope these posts amuse and educate my fellow writers, but you’ll also notice that most of these posts are about…

  • How to behave professionally as a self-employed person.
  • How to turn out quality writing.
  • Dropping knowledge about the industry and about writing.
  • How important it is to treat clients well.
  • How much I care about what editors and other customers want.

I step out from time to time — for example, the Friday Fun posts — but my real goal is part of how I choose what to write. It’s also a part of how I write. You’ll notice I don’t swear as much in these later entries.

It’s easy to get caught up in the task of writing and lose track of where you want it to take you. Business guru Michael Gerber puts it beautifully by reminding clients to work on the business, not in the business. Write well. Write often. But keep your eye on the ball.

Thanks for listening.

4 Ways to Get Paid For Your Work

You can write all you want, but you’re an amateur until somebody gives you money for what you’ve written. There’s nothing wrong with that for all the folks who write for the simple joy of the craft. If you want to make it as a full-time writer, though, you need to get paid for your work. Either that, or marry somebody rich.

Not too long ago, there was just one model of getting paid for your work. You sent your work to magazines or book publishers and hoped they liked it. If they did, you got some money and then started up on your next project.

That situation has changed. Traditional publishers are starting to hemorrhage. The market isn’t as strong, and the pay isn’t as good. That’s the bad news — and it’s not comforting. The good news is that as that market fails, others have sprung up.

1. Advertising Revenue

If you blog, or have another kind of website that brings in traffic, you can set up advertising accounts that get you paid for every visitor who clicks through to the ad. Google Ads will work with your page even before you have any traffic, paying you a small fee for each visitor. As you get increasingly more visitors, you can find higher-paying and more focused sponsors.

2. Content Writing

Print magazines that sell advertising and subscriptions close every day, but they are being replaced by websites hungry for a constant stream of fresh, well-written content. Many of them work on the ad revenue model from above, only on a massive scale. The best sites pay up to $25 for a 500-word article on basic topics, up to several hundred for longer feature pieces.

3. Company Blogs

Company websites need blogs — they’re one of the surest and simplest ways to keep a page high in the search engine rankings. They also provide useful information that attracts and interests potential customers. Although large companies have their own people for this, small businesses can’t afford a full-time guy, and the owner rarely has the time and talent to do it right. You can reach out to local businesses and offer to do their blog, or search writing job sites for potential clients.

4. E-Books

Instead of submitting your book to a traditional publisher, you can make your own e-book and distribute it on your website, via eBay and on Amazon. Print publication through on-demand printers is also an option, but e-book printing is free. There’s no risk other than the time you spent to write the book…and your share of the profits is much higher than if you’d published through a traditional house.

Later, I’ll go into some of the best practices for success in each of these models. I don’t pretend to know everything, but I’ll share what I do know.

Thanks for listening.

Getting Paid

Captain Mal of the oft-lamented, early-cancelled, just about perfect Firefly said “I do the job, and then I get paid.”

Freelancers need to take this attitude, although we should think a little longer than the Captain when it comes to the subject of shooting people who are slow to make good. I mention this today because I’ve come across a small hitch that’s all too common in the freelancing world: the gap between acceptance of work and payment for that work.

My accountability post on Sunday noted that I’m $130 behind — don’t worry, I’ve already caught up. But further troubles have reared their heads.

  • One client asked for revisions on $120 worth of articles, which I’ll need to do without further payment. Revisions are part of the job for a freelance writer.
  • One client received $180 worth of work last week and still hasn’t gotten around to reading for approval. Lags like this are part of the job for a freelance writer.
  • Another client has amassed a $470 bill for my work, but won’t be able to pay until May. This kind of payment cycle is part of the job for a freelance writer.
As another example, two weeks ago I got a check for an article that was originally accepted in 2007. You read that right. Accepted in 2007, paid in 2011.
I don’t post this to complain. The operative phrase from the above list is part of the job for a freelance writer. I post this to share a facet of your worklife if you think you want to take on this as a career. For the most part, money you earn this month should be earmarked for spending next quarter. If it comes in early, great — let it earn some interest until you need it. Budgeting, planning and strict personal discipline are absolute necessities if you’re going to go full time in this field.
That’s not to say I’m an expert at any of those three things, just that they’re important.
This payment lag presents a special problem for people who want to break in as freelance writers. You’re looking at a four to six month gap between the first month that you make your living expenses and the first month you can pay for them — and we’re not even talking yet about how long it will take you to land that much work. There are several different ways to make this work.
The way I did it was I worked a job I disliked, writing for extra money when I could. When I landed a long-term gig with a client who paid promptly and reliably, I pulled the trigger. That client won’t last forever — although they’re still going strong two years later — so I make it a priority to pursue other gigs as aggressively as possible.
Bottom line: expect to get paid late. Expect to get stiffed on occasion. Plan your finances so you’re always living off money already in the bank, not waiting for a payment to come in just so you can cover your mortgage.  Understand that this isn’t a special hardship — businesses face this payment cycle problem every day. It’s part of the price you pay for the privilege of owning your time.
Thanks for listening.

Writing Professionally: Six Ways to Generate Buzz

The truth is that print publishing has been taken a beating. In 2010, eBook sales at Barnes & Noble and Amazon exceeded sales of any other kind of book (though admittedly not sales of all other kinds put together). It may not be long before the model of being a published author promoted by your book company is a thing of the past.

In the mean while, the best way to attract the attention of a publisher or an agent — aside from excellent writing — is to come to the negotiation table with an aura of buzz already surrounding your book. Celebrities and the new wave of “ce-web-rities” can still ink good deals because they bring fans with them when they sign a contract.

The rest of us have to generate buzz the hard way. Fortunately, the same factors that are killing the traditional book deal also make it easy for us to generate that buzz with inexpensive and convenient tools.

1. Set up and maintain a social media account such as Facebook or Twitter. Post frequently with the juiciest morsels from your book. “&%$# My Dad Says” started as a Twitter game and now it’s a book with a TV show.

2. Blog about it. For fiction, trickle out a few early chapters or especially beautiful scenes. For nonfiction, write a set of actionable advice posts that establish you as an expert and keep people coming back. Track the statistics to use as evidence when you go to sell your book.

3. Start a Webcast. Video and audio podcasts are growing in popularity every day. If you make it interesting or funny, it may go viral at any moment. Although you can cast about anything you want, you should always end the show by telling your fans about the book that’s coming up.

4. Employ your loyal army of ninja warriors. Okay. Since I came to this from a career as a martial arts teacher, I may be the only one with a loyal army of actual  ninja warriors. But you have your own loyal army of friends, family and acquaintances. If half of them get three friends to check you out, and half of them get three more friends…well, you can see where that leads.

5. Publish excerpts. This is sort of like the blog idea, but with more generally respected sources. Maybe you can take a chapter of your novel and sell it to Escape Pod as a short story. Or you can write about essential aspects of your nonfiction book in an article for a trade magazine. Not only will this increase your audience, you might even get paid.

6. Self-publish an ebook or limited print run. Nothing succeeds like success. If you can sell 2,000 to 5,000 copies of a first printing of your book all by yourself, you will get the attention of publishers as you look for a second run. Even if you don’t want to print more of that particular book, having a successful personal run will give you more credibility with agents and publishers.

There are dozens, hundreds, an infinitude of other possibilities out there. The main point is to use your imagination and beat the “new media” at its own game.

Thanks for listening.

Writing Professionally: Entrepreneurship

All freelance writers are serial entrepreneurs, whether we like it or not. An entrepreneur is somebody who comes up with an idea, tries to sell that idea, works with people to make that idea happen and finally makes or loses money based on the quality of that idea.

The cycle of selling an article follows that exact process. As freelance writers, we come up with an idea for an article, we try to sell that idea to a magazine, we work with experts as we research the article, and we get paid based on whether or not the magazine accepts the final product.

There’s just one difference between an entrepreneur and a freelance writer. The typical entrepreneur will go through this cycle less than ten times in his entire career. A productive freelance writer will go through this cycle more than ten times every single month.

With the increased availability of self-publication and self-promotion on the internet, freelance writers become even more entrepreneurial as we release actual products such as blogs, newsletters and ebooks.

Bottom line: to make it as a writer, we shouldn’t just study the tools of writing. We must also understand entrepreneurship, small business management, sales and marketing.  Bottom line: if you’re writing well enough to sell even a few articles, you’re better off getting an MBA than an MFA.

I’m fortunate enough to have come to this career after nearly a decade in small business management and ownership. I’ve read the key texts on the important subjects, and I’ve experimented in the laboratory of a working brick-and-mortar business.

For those who are coming from a less business-oriented background, I’d like to take the liberty of suggesting a few books to start your education:

Remember: if you don’t make your writing a business, you have no business trying to write for a living. There’s nothing wrong with just writing for the pure joy of it. Just don’t try to support your family by treating your writing business like it’s a hobby.

Thanks for listening.

PS: On the subject of entrepreneurship, I’ve just launched a side project based on a simple, fun idea. Check it out and let me know what you think.

Writing Professionally: Managing Income

I am a full-time professional writer. This means that I can fulfill my financial responsibilities doing nothing but writing. From time to time, I’ll post tips to offer what advice my meager experience can offer to others who want to do the same.

Today I want to talk about managing income. As an amateur, I took what assignments I could find, then counted the money at the end of the month. The result: I wrote as an adjunct to my day job.

Professional writers do it the other way around. We work out how much you want to make each month, then pursue assignments until you reach the goal. Because the writing-acceptance-payment cycle often takes weeks or months, this doesn’t mean you’ll get cash money equal to your goal every single month. Over the course of the year, you can expect the average to equal the goals you set.

This can be a frightening leap of faith – after all, you don’t know who’s going to accept your proposals. There are a few things you can do to hedge your bets:

  • Take extra work when you can get it. This will give you extra cash for when things just don’t add up.
  • Pursue assignments in areas with a high need for volume, such as web content and ad copy.
  • Publish multiple times in the same magazine or site, rather than once each in many. The relationship you forge can lead to streamlined assignments, even a column.
  • Submit early and often: like any other sales situation, this is a numbers game. The more assignments you propose, the more you will receive.

I hope this helps. Thanks for listening.