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Friday, February 27, 2009

Monthly Assessment - February

The week started slowly, but thanks to Wednesday and Thursday, my brain is now smoking and needing a rest. That's why today is my mental health day and no one beyond my family will be able to locate me quickly. That I'm considering hiding from the homeward-bound college kids is proof I'm toasted.

It's that time again - time to bare our journalistic souls and share how our month went in terms of earnings, work, and marketing. Here's my report:

Earnings -
A quick glance at the totals shows I've sent out $5K in invoices. Why did it feel like I did nothing? I sat idle for I'd guess about 5 or 6 days this month, but the numbers are saying I was busy.

Work -
Like I said, I sat idle a few times. I didn't work as hard (that's a good thing) except for a few odd days with back-to-back deadlines, but I still met my earnings target. And here's another odd thing - I never thought I'd ever type the words "earnings target" in relation to me. Goes to show even we math-averse people can get it eventually.

Marketing -
I didn't go crazy on marketing this month, but I sent out a few queries to new markets. My targets have been publications right now as they seem to be the only ones still needing material and still paying. I sent out a few responses to ads (and was disappointed twice), and I contacted three or four existing clients and pitched some new ideas. One idea I plan to develop into a mock project and present it to the reluctant client, hoping to sway favor in my direction.

Bottom line -
I could've marketed more in January and filled those idle days. I could've put more time into marketing this month, too. Both areas of improvement.

That's my report. How did you do?

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Playing to Your Strengths

If I could bottle yesterday, I'd seal it tight and bury it under several layers of rock, dirt, silt, and anything else that would hold it down. Too many deadlines, too much work. Today, I woke up with the expected headache. Today will be a lot like yesterday. But I'm taking tomorrow off. I need it. I feel like I've been running through my week and sleeping through my weekends. Time for a mental health day.

Yesterday, wordvixen commented that she'd love to write for magazines, but hates to interview. I know a few other writers who just can't pick up the phone. The fear is that they're going to turn to blubbering mush. Fact is if you can't, you can't. No amount of sucking it up and trying is going to make you any more sure of yourself.

So play to your strengths. If you don't do well on the phone, consider doing better via email. While it's unorthodox, it's not out of the question to conduct interviews over the Internet. I've done it, and so far everyone who's responded that way appreciates the chance to reread and rephrase. There were a few who gave one-sentence or one-word responses, so it's not always going to work.

But if there's something you just can't do or can't bring yourself to do, either find a suitable work-around or avoid those kinds of situations.

My point is there are things we aren't good at. We may not want to write press releases, or we may hate research. If so, we simply don't take those types of jobs no matter how much they pay.

There are things we are good at. They're usually things we enjoy doing or subjects or areas that fascinate us.

What are you good at?

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Honors, Followers, and Proof I'm Not Making This Up

I would like to thank both Lillie and Susan for kindly bestowing upon me the Premio Dardas Award, which is for blogs that have literary and artistic value. I'm really honored for that, ladies. I'm so glad to hear my ramblings have held some value over the last few years.

While I'm at it, I'd love to thank all those people who follow me - all 31 of you over there on the left column. Okay, so it was 36 last week. I'm trying not to take it personally. We can't be all things to all people. But knowing you guys are there, that you took the time to link to my blog, that you comment or just lurk, means a lot. Let me know how I can help you or what you'd like to see here. Or just post about your great news or your lousy day. Same goes for you hundreds of subscribers. Stop by and I'll thank you personally.

Now on to business - just a small illustration for you today courtesy of my 1099 forms. I worked for two magazines last year - both trade pubs. One paid me $1/word for my time. The other paid me 10 cents a word (I know - I was nuts to take it). I did exactly the same number of articles for each magazine, though the lower-paying one needed 3,000 words per and the higher-paying one needed 2,500 words per.

Here's the bottom line for 2008:

Earnings while working for 10 cents a word -

$1,350

Earnings while working for $1 a word -

$12,377

Did it pay me to turn down that ongoing gig for 10 cents a word and spend the time looking for, and getting, the $1-a-word job? Damn skippy it did. Remember - I did MORE work for the lower-paying one, and it got me exactly nowhere.

Are you now ready to leave those nasty jobs behind? Please? If not, tell me why you keep those jobs. Fear? Insecurity? Self-esteem? Don't think you can find a better one? What is it? Writers who get paid more - tell us how you broke the low-paying cycle. Do you occasionally lose your mind (like I did last year) and accept lower jobs? If so, what made you do it? How did you get out of the rut?

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Getting Proactive on Your Arses

If you want to sum up my opinion of job boards and searching want ads, just use the word "passive." That's what it is, you know. It's passive job searching, waiting for someone to post their wants and then preparing queries to suit the ad. And then waiting for a response that may never come. Waiting. Passive.

That's no way to run a business. Hell no! Unless, of course, your goal is to run a business into the ground, in which case keep on keeping on. Finding a new, more worthwhile clientele requires something more out of you that you won't find in the hunt-and-peck method of securing work.

There are two themes littering this little blog - one is perspective. If you don't like the way things look, change the view and your approach. The other theme - proactive. If you wait for things to happen, inertia will be your reward. Time to suck it up and start acting like you have something useful to offer. And then go sell it. Again, you're changing your approach.

You know what that means, don't you? You're going to have to start approaching companies and asking for the job. Are you ready for that? You tell me. Are you going to do the preliminary research (check out their website, learn their business a little, find out who the main contact is, etc.)? Are you willing to plan how to get in touch and what method's working best with that company? Here's the tougher one - are you willing to get on that phone in a week and follow up on that killer brochure you sent or that proposal to be added as a consulting writing source? Are you willing to stick your neck out there and expect a few cases of whiplash in order to gain some new clients and a new work perspective?

You tell me.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Self-inflicted Depression

Maybe it was because it was late on Friday or maybe it was because I had more sugar/less sugar than I should have, but I sat in this chair at 5 pm doubting myself. Yes, even we cheerleaders (or wannabes - former wallflower here) get the blues.

I can tell you how it began and what I was doing when the feeling grabbed hold. I was scanning job boards when I got this sense of "What's the point?" It was just after I sent out a query to one particularly interesting posting that I suddenly felt... hopeless. Yes, hopeless. As in "Will I EVER find work again?" hopeless.

I'm not really surprised by it. I get that feeling every time I spend any amount of time on job boards. They're just damn depressing places and I don't know how anyone can spend day after day weeding through the gawd-awful job offers without wanting to take a sharp object through the forehead. Repeatedly.

It was a moment of weakness. A dear friend sent me a job listing she thought would fit. We both raised eyebrows when an automated response came in. My eyebrows shot through my hairline when I realized this response was almost word-for-word the same one I got a week ago when I responded to a different ad for a different website. It was one of those "Send us suggestions on how you'd fix this site" numbers. No promise of any work beyond, "If we like what we see, you're hired!" bullshit lines. I passed. What a pathetic attempt to get free copy.

However, that got me searching on sites - just for fun, I thought - to see just how bad things really are. Then I started to need to find one gem among millions of piles of dung. There were a few, and one in particular is a possibility, but who knows if it's still open? Enter malaise, hopelessness, depression.

That's why putting more time into actively finding new clients is time well spent. Responding to ads may work, and occasionally does, but it shouldn't be the main source of work for you. God, the way I was affected, I shouldn't go near them again!

Tell the truth - don't you get the same feeling of hopelessness when you search Craig's List or one of those pay-to-search job sites?

Friday, February 20, 2009

When Work Gets In the Way

I tried several times to start an article yesterday, but 300 words in I had to give it up. I have a regular gig with a client and that gig requires me to send back revisions same day because of already-promised deadlines. If you know me, you know punctuality is my middle name (my maiden name, my birth name, and my only name). So six times yesterday, I had to stop and reshift my focus. While most revisions were minor, there were two that took close to an hour each. Back and forth, back and forth. After about 8 hours of that, I was fried. Today's shaping up to be the same sort of thing.

So what happens when you have your to-do list all neatly filled out and work throws you a curve? Me, I work my tail off. I'm lucky - I was somehow born with a gene that allows for quick reorganization (I wasn't, however, born with a gene that allows me to dust or vacuum, but that's not necessarily a bad thing). I think the answer is to give a five-second assessment of deadlines. What has to go out immediately? What can be held for another day? Which clients are more flexible? Whose deadlines are set in stone and whose deadlines have some wiggle room?

How about you? What do you do when work gets in the way?

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Reconnecting

Thank you, Kathy, for asking how to contact existing clients and get their attention without getting deleted. You gave me something to blog about - I'm sporting an energy shortage and I don't want to spend time thinking up another topic. ;)

When I'm working with a client on a current project, I always end the project with a "Is there something else I can help you with?" note. Today, I ended it with two inquiries - do you need help at the upcoming trade show, and are you in the market for any more articles? It may come to nothing, but this client sees me in one particular role at the moment - writing one feature in one specific area. I want to see if I can impress them into thinking of me for full-length features and cover articles. You don't get there unless you put yourself out there as a possibility, right?

With clients I've not seen in a while, I try to connect directly to them. No blanket emails copied to a dozen of them - that's lazy and gets us nowhere. (Put in the subject line - Project Update or Question on Project just to pique their interest a bit.) I write to them asking how they are, what's new at their business, and if there are any projects I can help on. And I offer to help them come up with other ideas - the weblog, the white papers, sales letters, etc. Whatever their industry, they have customers who need now more than ever to view them as the ultimate source for their products/services. Offer to help them get more client-focused messages out there.

Why not offer a customer-loyalty discount? Save 10 percent by contracting your project by the end of the month/middle of next month, etc.

Some less personal approaches I'd take and not skimp on - send postcards/brochures that outline your "sale" and remind your clients of your services. And follow up a week later with that call asking if they need any help.

A neat idea is a calendar that's got a marketing tip/writing suggestion per day/week/month that also has coupons attached for discounts on your services. What a great way to remind your clients you exist! You could also extend this to an opt-in weekly email that gives your clients valuable tips to improve their business (and repeats your contact info and any offers you're extending).

How about you? How do you approach clients you haven't worked with in a while?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

If You Lost Your Library, Would You Want Help?

A bit off-topic, but my sister's youngest is home from school today. Her school is closed because Thursday night, an electrical fire destroyed their library. Read about it here. I talked with my sister today - not only is the library gone, but so are the teachers' supplies, and the students' textbooks are all damaged and in need of restoration, which apparently can be done to the tune of 20 bucks a book.

If you can, please help them out. I can't imagine what it will take to replace all those books, not to mention the equipment and the space itself. Here's the church's website.

Update: A school official told me the school is now accepting funds (not books--they have no room to store them at the moment). Checks may be made out to St. Charles School and sent to:

Library Restoration Fund
c/o St. Charles School
7107 Wilber Avenue
Parma, Ohio 44129

Feel free to link to this post, copy, reproduce, or any other rebroadcast that can help these kids get their library back.

The New Job Dance

Yesterday I mentioned how we sometimes head to job boards to find immediate work, only to end up with something offering less-than-acceptable terms. I'm going to say it right here - and you're free to disagree - but I think using job boards or job postings to find regular, high-paying work is doing you a great disservice.

Have I found long-term work that way? Absolutely. Once. Maybe twice. In one case the work was steady, but the pay was low - 10 cents a word. One job was longer term and better pay, but again, that's the exception. The rule on job boards is you're competing with untold thousands of writers/writer wannabes for the same job. You can do it, but the odds are the jobs are one-time gigs or ongoing jobs that offer little pay. You'll know the gems when you see them, but I think you should be spending your time looking in more fruitful directions. Try looking here instead:

Magazines. Since the Internet, this is a much easier job than when I started writing for magazines. Researching a magazine is as easy as finding it online and studying the sample. Finding topics - oh my lord, is it easy these days! Put a little more time into finding ideas that fit into areas you enjoy writing about or talking about or reading about.

Web-based Publications. Someone has to write all the copy - why not you? A quick look at Yahoo! and you can see how much copy is out there. Check out the various sources and look at some of your favorites. Why not approach them with an idea?

Local businesses. I joined a Chamber of Commerce once and found almost instant work with a marketing firm. I would suggest this - save your CofC fees and just market directly to marketing firms, printing presses, publishing houses, etc. Marketing companies need help with proofreading, copywriting, and editing. Printers have clients asking regularly, "Know any writers?" Publishers need proofreaders and editors, too. And these are just a few of the places you can be marketing to - why not try larger corporations, businesses that don't have web presences, etc?

Past/current clients. When I'm staring at an empty calendar, I get my emails going. Current and past clients get a quick "How are you/what are you working on/how can I help?" note. Sometimes they have things waiting for completion. A nudge is all it takes.

Where would you look that doesn't include a job board?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Avoiding Desperation Marketing

Raise your hand if you've ever been in a place where there's no cash coming in, none on the horizon, and you're looking desperately for something - anything - that pays now or sooner. Ooo, that many?

Fact is we've all been there - some of us more than others. And what's the first thing we do? We go straight to Craig's List, Guru, or eLance and practically beg for work. If we score a gig, chances are mighty slim that it's paying anything near what we are worth. "So what?" you say. "I'm able to pay the rent/pay the electric bill/buy groceries." Yes you are - for now. And in the time it's taking you to finish those low-paying projects, you could have scored at least one gig that paid competitive wages. Seriously.

Case in point - I saw last month that my February projects were slim. The temptation was to hit Craig's List or the job boards and take a lower-paying job that paid much faster. Instead, I took the time to craft two magazine queries for two publications, one paying 75 cents a word and the other paying $1 a word. These are pubs I've worked for in the past, so I know the average time it takes to get a check. And now instead of staring at an empty bank account at the end of February despite having some quick-and-dirty projects completed, I'm looking at a really nice pay day and I'm feeling good about heading into March's busy season with some financial cushion. Time invested - 2 hours of preliminary research and 8 hours interviewing/writing. Payoff - $4K. Let's compare that to a blogging job I turned down recently that offered $5 a post for 5 posts a week. Assuming about 30 minutes to write and post a day.... yep. I made the right decision.

Don't let your immediate desperation force you into taking something that's beneath you. You'll regret it, maybe not immediately, but when you realize what a few more minutes of concentrated effort could have accomplished instead. And you'll be stuck in an endless cycle of working your tail off for peanuts because you're overworked and underpaid and you've got no free time to spend looking for something better. If you're truly stuck, get a temporary position outside the house and stick with it until you're able to shore up the bank account or secure enough project work to get you back to the home office. Don't settle for less than you're worth. We've all done it at one point, but it's no way to run a successful business.

What project did you take on for quick cash that you regret?

Monday, February 16, 2009

You're Looking at a Twit-iot

The Great (?) Social Networking Experiment, Chapter 5

How many weeks now into my Twitter experience - three? I still don't get it. Maybe I'm truly not cool enough, as my son would say. Or maybe I'm not working it correctly, but so far it's proving to be no more than another attention-stealing reason why I need medication or less technology in my life.

I threw myself out there as your guinea pig (or is that Twitterpig?). I've followed a few hundred people. I've tried being "business-y" when that's not who I am. I've tried being myself (yep, that fell flat, too). I've tried logging on twice a day for five minutes each. So confusing! I've tried following threads of conversation, but they're not really threads - they're more like fabric swatches from hundreds of different stores. One's ranting on about why women are from Venus. Another is sharing financial news. Still another is wondering where his socks went. There are lunch updates, weather updates, and political banter that I normally try to avoid. Am I the only Tweeple who doesn't get what the hell is going on? I get the impression if I screamed "Fire!" in Twitterland, no one would notice or tweet over a hose. Is it too much noise to be effective?

Truth is it's not. Others have found connections with clients there. Some have built a huge following, upping the credibility factor with clients. Others have promoted successfully their blogs or their businesses. I'm doing something wrong - I'm sure of it.

But that begs the question - if it's such a mystery to me, is it really the social networking tool or is the fit not right?

What SN tools have you used that have left you confused or unimpressed? What's worked for you? Feel free to sing the praises of Twitter - I've not given up. I'm just at a crossroads and I need some direction.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Wow Me!

You're a creative soul, right? You put yourself out there as a professional who can craft excellent prose, mind the grammatical details, and fine-tune existing copy. So why is there so little creativity in your attempts to secure work?

Once I had to hire some subcontractor work for a massive project. I put out an ad and asked for very specific information. I sat back waiting for other writers to dazzle me.

That's when I realized just how easy it would be to steal work from more-qualified writers. The responses I got were shocking - everything from "I'm responding to your ad" (there's excitement!) to a one-liner: "What do you need?" In all but one case, every writer got it wrong. There were no clips. There were a few who didn't include anything but a "Here's my resume. Call me." note. Others were clearly qualified, but didn't follow simple directions. The one who got the job did it all correctly and had enough experience and enthusiasm in her note to make me choose her over a guy with 10 years of industry experience. And she rocked the project, as I suspected she would.

You want a magic bullet to put your query or proposal at the top of the heap? Take a little time to get noticed. Seriously. Write that magazine query like you're beginning the article (isn't your editor your first, most important reader?). Wow the hiring people by putting both personality and creativity into your responses. Read that ad or study that publication and note the tone, the requirements, the intended audience, and any other information that shows you've done your homework and that you really understand what that client wants.

Do you put your best foot forward? Do you feel confident enough to put your creativity out there every time?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Things I Won't Do for Cash

Quick Twitter update - I've learned to be picky about following people who follow me. In a few cases, the followers were spewing out pitch-after-pitch on their businesses/websites, etc. In one case, the dude was begging, constantly, for people to republish his notes (or retweet, as it's known) - so much so I quickly bored of his need to be number one in the Twitter ratings that week. Annoying people is not acceptable no matter what social networking tool you're using. And whining like that - fast track me to annoyed. I un-followed him.

But back on topic here. We've all come across jobs or situations that have either gone against our beliefs, made us uncomfortable, don't impress us with pay, whatever. In the past year, I've learned what I will and will not do for money any longer. They include:

Ghostwrite books. Don't get me wrong - I've had two great experiences at it. But two out of close to ten experiences, the odds of a successful project outcome are not great. In fact, one of those successes went on to end in disappointment at another stage in the process. I don't welcome the idea that the author is coming to me for ideas that friends and family are going to rip to shreds and question my credibility, nor do I welcome the notion of navigating that gawd-awful conversation about working for royalties or future profits. For some reason, people seem shocked that I'm not all that into working for free on their dream.

Working for pennies a word. I took one job that paid a whopping ten cents a word. Why? I wanted to break into the industry. But the mistake I made was writing more than one assignment for this publication. One shows you're in the industry - four shows you didn't think when you signed the agreements. Dumb, dumb, dumb.

Work for unknowns who won't reveal terms up front. It happened once last year. She contacted me because I had the experience her client wanted. I asked for terms three months ago. She has yet to provide them. And she thinks I'm still waiting to hear from her and her client.

Continue once a posse is introduced. Those of you who have been with me for a while know how passionately opposed I am to having third parties of my clients go over our work. I had this happen once last year. The client was a good soul who paid me despite going with the posse's edits. But that client was the exception. Most clients who bring on others to "read through and offer suggestions" end up wanting to please those closest to them, ignoring the advice of the one they're paying to write or edit. I now have a clause that voids the contract the moment any third party (including spouses) gives an opinion that the client expects me to heed.

Work for anyone who doesn't provide authentication of purpose. Never thought I'd have to face it, but one of my clients turned out to be an alleged scam artist (said client is now facing arraignment). A warning flag went up, so I asked for proof of charitable status. I did get proper filings sent to me, along with other "evidence" that this was an upstanding citizen. Even the Google search turned up nothing heinous. It wasn't until the cops called that I realized I'd been duped into helping someone whose sole intent appeared to be to lie and cheat money out of people. Oh, and same went for the dude who called shortly after this all came down. He'd pay me a huge retainer to write for him - just send over your bank account info. Despite his checking out on the Internet, I knew better.

How about you? What jobs won't you take anymore and why?

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Carrie Bradshaw Wanna-be

It takes just one rerun of Sex and the City to get my blood boiling. Loved the show. Hated the message that a writer living in one of the most expensive cities in the country and writing ONE COLUMN in a freakin' newspaper could afford $800 shoes, a Manhattan apartment, and be blessed with designer outfits and rent control. Sorry. I'm not buying it. It's urban legend, and it can never be real.

But that's the image we freelancers are cast in, isn't it? We lounge around coffee shops, listen to Beatnik poetry, and make tons of money in our slippers. We barely have to lift a finger! We show up and we're showered with accolades, cash, and the glamour that comes with a writing life. Pardon me while I let the sarcastic laughter die down.

Truth is we work our arses off for a paycheck, and rarely do we see the kind of money that would afford us much better than a cardboard box in an alley on the Upper East Side. Some of us struggle to make $30K a year while others would kill to make that much. That's not to say we don't do well - when we hustle and market, we do very well. I've known writers who pull in $100K or better annually. That's the exception.

The rule is this - if you're just starting out in this business, you have to understand that the reality is much different than the myth. We do work in our slippers, but it could be because we can't afford shoes. And we certainly aren't buying Manolo Blahniks or Jimmy Choos. How about Keds and Payless? The job is tough, and if you're not willing to work hard at marketing, learning your business and perfecting your craft, it's never going to pay off, and certainly not in the glamorous life it's portrayed to be. And that's a side beef - why do writers who know better paint such a glowing image? Where's the counting pennies to buy milk or the debate over whether to pay for the doctor visit (no insurance, you see) or the phone bill?

Newbies, please. Take a hard look at this life before jumping in and hanging out your shingle. You may have talent, you may have grand notions, but do you have the ability to hang in there by your toenails when the checks are late and the bills are due? Can you market yourself constantly? Can you live on the edge and love it? Can you live without a steady check or a Mark Jacobs jacket? If not, get out now while you still have your original hair color.

Eventually, Carrie Bradshaw sold a book. Wee. That paid for her $40K in shoes. Or did it?

Writers, what are some of the toughest things you face as freelancers?

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Starvation as Motivation

If you're not starving, are you really an artist? I say if you're not starving or threatened with starvation, where's your motivation?

Jennifer at CatalystBlogger had a great post about contingency plans in the freelance world. Jen was inspired after reading Ben Stein's musings in the New York Times about uncertain economies and freelance scriptwriters. The inconsistency of our existences (all freelancers, not just scriptwriters) forces us to be on our game all the time.

Know what? To me, that's a huge benefit. What better way to become smarter at marketing than as a way to avoid starvation or failure of some sort? How much lazier would we be at our business if work came to us? I know in just the last two years I've learned so much about how to market my skills and how to expand into new areas. Did I think six years ago when I started on this roller coaster that I'd come to write for nursing magazines, CPAs, emergency physicians or financial engineers? Hell no! But here I sit, having done all that. It's called survival. Maybe it diverted me from my goal of having a few published books by now, but it has helped me channel money to the college kid, pay off the car, and expand the business base a bit.

We don't wait for layoffs - as Jen pointed out, we're laid off all the time. For us, it's no great shakes. We're simply on to the next project. But there's the rub - no one is there handing the projects to us. We have to come up with ideas (marketing or article), develop them, find a home for them, and sell them. And then when that's all done, we have to deliver the promised goods.

And after a while, aren't we all going to be looking for, devising, and selling ways to earn more income with less output? Would we do that if there wasn't the constant pressure to keep the bank account liquid or to pay down the bills and keep the kids in braces? It's why I'm glad my better half and I keep our finances separate - why rely on someone else to shore up my financial bottom line?

How about you? How much better have you become at your job thanks to the constant pressure of finding new work? What are some of your success stories?

Monday, February 09, 2009

Why Proofreading Should Matter to You

I spent a lazy weekend (first in ages) lounging and napping and spending time outdoors on what was one of the nicest winter weekends. Also, I started (and finished) reading Carrie Fisher's new book Wishful Drinking, one of the better autobiographies I've read. No, let me restate that - it was a compelling, funny, fast-and-furious look at addiction, bipolar disorder, family, patterns, obsessions, and how she turns men both bald and gay. All in under 150 pages. That's what I like - tell it like it is, but don't dawdle. It was one of those books that left a deliciously odd feeling of seeing inside someone's brain and liking her view.

What I didn't like was the obvious absence of true proofreading. Oh, someone did the obligatory spell check because there weren't glaring errors, but somewhere around page 135, there it was - the use of "then" when the sentence clearly called for "than." Those of you who know me know that's enough for me to toss a book aside and call it rubbish. Alas, it was near the end and I'd already devoted time and emotion into this. Let's press on. I overlooked the "internet" spelling instead of "Internet." Some people just don't like capitals (e.e. cummings was a perfect example). And I'm aware that someone who writes compelling stuff like Carrie Fisher doesn't usually require a proofreader. But there it was, ruining my day - a misused word.

The point is we all need proofreading. If you look at any of my posts here, you'll find oodles of errors. I do my best, but I've yet to memorize ALL of the Chicago Manual of Style (or any of it, for that matter). I proofread, but often I miss stuff. And given the fact that I type these posts in the middle of my first cup of tea, I beg you to understand my pre-caffeinated state.

These days editors are ultra-busy, proofreading departments are ghosts from the past, and mistakes get into print. When they do, I go on my tirade about how proofreading is dead, and eventually I move on. But if it's your stuff? We have to ask ourselves how those mistakes made it that far in the first place.

Do you proofread your own work? If so, is it a quick spell check or a line-by-line edit? Whose job do you think it is to proof your copy? Have you had an error appear in print? If so, was it one you made or one that was introduced?

Friday, February 06, 2009

Creating Value and Loyalty in a Sucky Market

Now that I've pounded it into the freelancing world's collective brain that we deserve to be paid what we're worth, maybe I should talk about how to give value and inspire client loyalty when everyone is bargain shopping. You've worked hard to build that list of clients. Why not help them increase their own brand value and awareness by offering them services they may not have considered?

Before you say, "But Lori! How can I convince them to part with their cash now?" remember - you have to be convinced yourself that what you offer will matter to them. If you approach it with a "Gee, I know the market is tough and you probably don't have the money, but..." just forget it. You've shot your own foot, put a noose around your own neck, and talked your client out of anything before you've even started. You have to trust that what you propose is going to help them. Think of yourself as the creative equivalent of the cavalry. You're there to save your client's business, one fantastic idea at a time!

But how? Here are a few projects that will give your clients more face time with their customers and will make you look like a genius:

1. Email blast. Whether twice a month or twice a week, your clients should be turning up the volume on their marketing efforts. By offering helpful email tips (along with say a discount offer or free consultation), they're going to build something with their clients that's almost as good as revenue - trust.

2. E-newsletter. Maybe your clients want to look a little more in-the-know than the average company. By providing their clients with topic-centered - not advertorial-centered - copy (written by you, of course), your clients up their level of expertise with the very people they want to impress.

3. Weblog. This one's great for you both, for your client gets to build a solid reputation as a technically-savvy industry leader and you, well, you get a regular gig out of the deal. It works, too. I just pitched this idea to my favorite clients and they fell in love with it.

4. Ghostwritten articles for trade publications. I've written them for major companies and for sole proprietors. Many industry magazines are itching for free articles written on industry-related topics (and free of all horn-tooting advertisements) by experts in the industry. You can offer to pen the articles for the "author" for your regular fee. If you have connections, you might even help the client come up with the topic and find a home for it.

5. Brochure/website update. Your clients are looking for ways to bring in new customers in a mighty tough economy. A fresh brochure and website is a great way to look current.

6. Executive profiles. This one will require a bit more work from you, but it could pay off well. Lots of trade publications publish profiles of companies/executives in those industries. Mind you, you're not going to be able to collect twice (that's just unethical), but you can offer your client a freebie in terms of PR by pitching a profile of their company to a trade magazine. What a great way to win a client over - with free publicity written by their favorite writer!

7. Ask what projects they'd love to see completed. You'd be surprised what they're holding back on thinking it's better left for another day. Why not take one more thing off their desks?

How about you? What extras do you propose to your loyal clients? How do you create value (and work for yourself) these days?

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Your Aching Image

I'm about to try proving a point about your rates by taking you through France to get to New Jersey. Bear with me - it's relevant. Somehow.

Image and brand - in some cases, they're the same thing. Don't think so? Ask Michael Phelps right about now. And Miley Cyrus? Both her image and her brand are hurting. Wells Fargo - fairly similar, but their image is as a wealthy financial institution - spending money lavishly (and yes, stupidly) is somewhat expected of them. Okay, maybe not so lavishly or stupidly as was revealed recently, but the idea is that they've built a brand of trust (there's the root of their current problems) and an image of a strong financial foundation. While paying for a Las Vegas producer junket was an all-time asinine move just after posting $2.3 billion in losses in the last quarter of 2008 (and taking our bailout money), the image may not be as harmed by it because we are left with a sense that the bank is still strong despite all evidence to the contrary. The brand? Now I'm worried because if my money were with them, I'd not have faith that the decision-making process was trustworthy.

So why are Phelps and Cyrus hurting a bit more? Because their brands ARE their images. See, they've been promoted differently - Phelps as a hero, Cyrus as a wholesome Disney teen by-product. Phelps picking up a bong and taking a hit has a huge impact on his audience - young kids who want to be like him someday. Cyrus - not so wholesome to be making slanty eyes, especially when her audience is much younger and looks up to her.

That's why I say be careful how you package yourself, including your rates. If you promote yourself as someone who is an exceptional talent, reliable, and worth the money, guess what? The work will come without you having to offer any across-the-board rate cuts. If, however, you put yourself out there as an exceptional talent, reliable, but not so sure in this economy if you're worth what you think you are, there goes your image and your brand. This is a recession. What goes down will, eventually, go back up. If you were so eager to be the bargain in the bad times, how do you expect to convince clients that you're worth much more in a strong economy? And if you join others who want to lower in order to pull in a couple extra bucks, how are any of us going to command the fees that we are worth when the industry has adjusted to suit lower rates? Worse, what if those lower rates are based on 50-articles-for-$5 jobs that plenty of uninformed freelancers took? Insert shudder here.

Is any of this getting through? Are you more willing to at least consider how this will affect freelancing? If not, can you at least see how it will hurt you? And it will. We've already seen evidence of it in the past few years as these crap jobs become more prevalent. They exist because writers who don't understand the value of their skills take them. (If I had a rubber hose and enough time, I'd straighten them all out. Alas, I am only one soul with a peeve. And I'm kidding. Sort of.)

Last year I started the Writers Worth Day. It's in mid-May and it's just my little exercise in helping others value themselves and start valuing the industry they're part of a bit more. For the second Writers Worth Day, what can we do to improve our industry and our own businesses? Any ideas?

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

What's Your BATNA?

Sometimes you're going to have client issues that you're just not going to be able to resolve. It sucks, but it's life. I dealt with one recently that left me feeling unheard, unappreciated, and unwilling to continue with the status quo. Unfortunately, it was a situation that had been quite lucrative in the past. But for reasons I can't disclose, my attempts to find a solution to the situation were unsuccessful. And I had to make a difficult decision.

So what happens when you and your client cannot come to mutually agreeable terms? In my old PR courses, we were taught to approach each negotiation with our BATNA in mind - that would be our Best Alternative to Negotiating an Agreement. If you haven't read "Getting Past No" do so. It's an excellent guide to how to approach each business situation and either get what you're after or be content with your alternative. And you've probably already used a BATNA.

In some cases, your BATNA is going to be a simple one - if we can't get a workable contract, we part company. If the contract changes midway, we either renegotiate a new one or we agree in writing on an additional fee. If we butt heads and can't communicate well, we wave goodbye to each other. If the working conditions somehow become unbearable, one of us walks away. Your BATNA is your last resort - that outcome you're choosing should the goal not be reached.
Just because you try to get your point across doesn't mean you will. It just means you've done what you can to alert your clients to a potential situation. If they don't want to listen, you don't have to continue, or you can choose to continue with things as they are. Your choice. Either way, if it suits you, it's the right one.

So when you approach client negotiations, do you have an alternative to your desired outcome? What is it?

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Your Brand and Why You're Killing Me Here

Oh come on, you have a brand. You do. Didn't know that, did you? Well, each time you interact with a client, you leave an impression. You also build a little more credibility in an industry or a niche, which helps define your future projects and clients.

That's what I want to talk to you about. Remember that post I had last month on pricing your skills in a tough economy? Let me tell you why lowering your prices - and doing so publicly - is hurting you (and me).

Too many writers are openly discussing lowering rates and working twice as hard just to maintain their own status quo. But that's going to come back to bite them. Instead of changing their marketing methods or approaching a class of clientele that can afford them, they're slashing costs like a retailer attempting to avoid bankruptcy. And that slashing? It's going to lead to some serious fallout long term. For all of us. And what gets me is that they don't even see it. They see this as an opportunity to beat the system - to secure long-term work that defies the recessionary climate. In actuality, they're being sucked in to the center of the storm. For the standards we lower today become the hurdles we have to leap over tomorrow and for many tomorrows to come. If we could work for less now, why on earth do we need to raise our rates when times are good?

If you lower your rates across the board in an attempt to attract business, guess where the industry rates will go? See, the market bears what it can afford, but it also adjusts to respond to pricing trends. If the trend in the writing industry is to drop rates by say 15-20 percent, how long before all rates for writers follow? You may attract a few bargain shoppers now, but two years out when this recession is just a bad memory, you're now facing a clientele that cannot justify paying you what you're really worth because you were so quick to devalue your own work. Why should they see you in any way other than the way you packaged yourself?

I know the easy thing is to offer discounts in hopes that the clients you've won will stick around. But it's not the best thing - not for you, and certainly not for the writing industry. Creating a market of bargain hunters hurts everyone and the effects of that will ripple through our industry for years if allowed to go unchecked.

So what do you say? You willing to take a firmer stance when it comes to rates? Like I said before, lowering them on a case-by-case basis and only after careful consideration - more power to you. But do you guys think lowering them for everyone is really the answer? Why? Why not?

Monday, February 02, 2009

Diversity

Back when I was on staff, I remember my first intro to this new company. They did everything right - they blitzed the media, made personal contact, attended the conferences, spent money to build the brand, and secured some pretty impressive client business. A year later, they were sponsoring conferences and being quoted in various publications. Two years later, they closed up shop.

Wait - didn't I say they did everything right? Let's make that almost everything. There's one mistake they made - one that turned out to be the deal breaker for the company's bottom line. They place 80 percent of their business with one client. You guessed it - the client backed out, leaving them without a way to cover expenses, let alone salaries. The death was quick, but not painless.

Mind you, the big client went elsewhere not because the company was screwing up. It was a tough time in the insurance industry - post-9/11 there were a lot of companies cutting back. This company's client decided to take the work in-house to save a few bucks.

So looking at your client base, are you able to safely say that this won't happen to you? If your most lucrative client disappears today, how's tomorrow looking for you? I ask because I myself have a pretty good connection with one client - amounting to about 40 percent of last year's income. If this client disappeared, would I survive? Short answer - yes.

The reason - I've diversified. Last year was phenomenal, but I have conservative expectations this year. I don't see that big client as a constant. I see it as a gift and as something that could go away just as quickly as it came. For that reason, I have a number of other regular work outlets that I call upon - frequently. And I'm always looking for more should any of those disappear. That's because I have been in the position where I've had 4 regular clients and all but one goes away.

See, you can't expect one client (or any client) to be your salvation. I've seen this happen way too often in freelancing - clients, for whatever reason, don't stick around. It happens. A lot. Get yourself a stable of regulars - three minimum - and make sure you're always looking over your shoulder. It's not enough to work for today. You have to assume - no, expect - the bottom to drop out at any minute. It's what'll keep you hustling for more clients and more projects. And it may just save your business.
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