David Taylor's "Business Guide to Freelancing"
Part One: Setting Project Fees and Word Rates
Part Two: Negotiate This! How to Get Everything You Want in a Freelance Contract
Part Three: The Check Isn't in the Mail: What to Do When You Don't Get Paid
Part Four: Finding the Time: Balancing Writing with the Rest of Your Life
Part Five: Generalist or Specialist? A Key Early Decision
Part Six: How to Write and Syndicate Your Own Column
Part Seven: Self Test: Am I Ready to Go Full Time as a Freelancer?
Part Eight: Query Letters: Myths and Strategies
Part Nine: How to Find the Right Editor Every Time
Part Ten: How to Write a Successful Nonfiction Book Proposal and Query
Part Eleven: Literary Agents: How to Find, Use and Feed Them
Part Twelve: Catch the Wave: Is Self-Publishing the New Model for the Book Industry?
David Taylor is a former executive editor at Rodale Press, where he worked on a number of magazines, including Men's Health, Prevention and Scuba Diving. His newest work, The Freelance Success Book: Insider Secrets for Selling Every Word You Write, takes readers behind closed doors and into the offices of editors and publishers as he reveals the insider knowledge and techniques for freelance success. The book provides a very different view of magazine publishing-warts, greed and all.
The Freelance Success Book is available at online bookstores. Or visit David's website: www.peakwriting.com.
Catch the Wave: Is Self-Publishing the New Model for the Book Industry?
Whether or not it's the new model, self-publishing is certainly part of the revolution currently underway in book publishing. To wit:
- R.R. Bowker, the official registry for ISBNs and unofficial registry for publishers, is currently averaging about 7,000 new publishers a year, with a current total of around 73,000 publishers.
- In 1994, Barnes and Noble, America's largest bookstore chain, reported that the top 10 publishers accounted for 75 percent of its total book sales. Five years later, those same top 10 publishers accounted for only 46 percent of BN's sales.
- Today, the majority of books are being sold by independent publishers, self-publishers and small presses.
- Indeed, 53 percent of America's books are not sold in bookstores.
These facts suggest a seismic shift during the last decade in the publishing world, of which self-publishing is a part. Consider, for instance, recent self-published successes Your Erroneous Zones, The Celestine Prophecy, Who Moved My Cheese? and The One-Minute Manager, all of which trace their tradition back to the 1970s self-published phenom, What Color Is Your Parachute?
Ardent self-publishers are quick to point to a literary heritage rich with kindred successes, from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, which critics sometimes call The Great American Novel, to Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes, James Joyce's Ulysses (considered one of the greatest novels in English) even Robert's Rules of Order and a Cornell University English professor's small tome, The Elements of Style. The list trundles on.
Also important: Our society has evolɶed into a group of readers perpetually hungry for information, especially specialized information packaged in books, tapes, e-books, e-zines, CDs, pdf special reports, and other formats that large publishers and their large economic models have had difficulty responding to.
Nature abhors a vacuum, especially an information vacuum. The giant sucking sound you hear is that of small presses, independent publishers, self-publishers and university presses rushing in to fill the void.
Should You Catch the Wave?
It's hard to ignore the advantages of self-publishing. One of the movement's champions, Dan Poynter, touts them loud and often in his various publications and appearances:
Royalty publishers typically offer 6 percent to 15 percent in royalties. Being your own publisher will get you 35 to 40 percent after discounting, even 100 percent if you sell directly from your own web site. Don't have your own web site? Then you must not Yahoo! The cost for having your own basic web site ranges from $0 to $25 a month these days, including hosting. Build-it-yourself web tools have become as common as pop-up ads on AOL.
Why bite your nails during a one- to two-year production cycle when an industrious self-publisher can have a new work out in three to four months?
From your book's title to how it is marketed. One of the big myths about big royalty publishers is that they promote the books they buy. Fact is, they do little promotion for the vast majority of books on their list, and the 80-20 rule is very much at play: 80 percent of the marketing resources are spent on 20 percent of the books. The rest are left to find their own audience. If you do rise from the midlist by virtue of luck or your own promotional bootstraps, then you might get some marketing attention. Without your own marketing or the publishing company's, your book is likely to become a statistic: only 1 in 10 books ever make back their advance. Believe it: "Promote or perish."
With 10 million manuscripts being submitted to publishers each year, even getting a reading is difficult. Calculating the odds of acceptance requires a Pentagon supercomputer.
- Personal growth
As a successful self-publisher, you must go beyond your writing skills to learn virtually every aspect of the book industry, from marketing to prepress, printing to distribution networks. With that knowledge comes greater control over your book's destiny and your own.
While the rewards of self-publishing are tempting, the personal commitment and sacrifice to realize those rewards deserve your careful cogitation:
1. Are You Prepared to Be An Independent Businessperson?
Here's where the "publisher" part of the phrase kicks in. A publisher makes a significant financial commitment to something that may or may not pay off. Got an extra $10,000 to play with? How's your 401(k) doing? You must be capable of casting a cold eye on what the reading public wants and compare that in an impartial way to your own manuscript.
Being a publisher also means doing work you've probably never done before: soliciting and choosing bids for cover and interior designs, printer quotes, wholesaler and distributor contracts, maybe even a publicist, if you've got the bucks, and certainly becoming your own tireless promoter. Each of those professions represents a world of knowledge-and jargon-that is likely uncharted territory for you. Are you ready to doff the writer's mantle and put on your business suit?
2. Have You Targeted a Sufficient Niche Or Vertical Market?
One important economic reality is that, unless you are Oprah or Budweiser, you probably don't have the resources to conduct an effective mass-market promotion and marketing campaign. You will be stretched enough to reach your smaller, targeted market. You must know that there are channels to your market and that your potential sales are large enough to support your book and your family.
3. Are You Willing to Stop Writing for A Substantial Portion of The Day and Start Marketing?
That's right: Once you've typed "The End" or ###, the fun has just begun. Unless you're willing to learn how to market and promote your book, then spend 50 to 75 percent of your day doing so, you may want to go back to being a wage slave.
4. Can You Sell at Least 1,000 Books?
Seriously. You'll run out of family and friends anywhere from 50 to 100 copies. And now your credit card-which you used to pay your copy editor, indexer, designer and printer-is racking up interest about 19.6 percent faster than you could ever make new friends or family. Most self-publishers do an initial print run of 1,000 to 3,000, which equals a total production cost of $5,000 to $10,000. If you net $5.00 per book you sell, you've got to push 1,000 units to breakeven on a $5,000 investment; twice that for the more common $10,000 investment.
5. Can You Sell Direct?
Because that's where the profit margin is. Wholesalers, distributors, bookstores, Amazon, UPS-all take a cut, often leaving you with a single-digit profit percentage. If you have your own web site and do your own picking and packing, now you can cut out the hungry hands in the middle and, maybe, make back your investment.
Still not sober? Well, then, you just might be self-publisher material. Let me share with you the online and print materials that have helped guide me through this long, wonderful, stressful, scary, enlightening, joyful, frustrating, life-altering, mind-bending, soul-shaking and genuinely fun experience that resulted in the publication of my first self-done book:
Warm up your printer and put in a fresh cartridge: You'll want to print out every one of the 40+ articles on how to market your self-published book and yourself.
1001 Ways to Market Your Books. John Kremer, 5th edition, 1998. Open Horizons. Considered the bible for self-publishers learning how to promote and market their works.
The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing: Everything You Need to Know to Write, Publish, Promote and Sell Your Own Book. Tom and Marilyn Ross, 4th ed., 2002, Writer's Digest Books. If the Rosses don't get you motivated, check your pulse.
Jump Start Your Book Sales. Marilyn and Tom Ross, 1999, Communication Creativity. The dynamic duo seems to know every trick. You'll learn something helpful on each page.
The Self-Publishing Manual: How to Write, Print and Sell Your Own Book. Dan Poynter, 13th ed., 2002, Para Publishing. One of the tribal elders and a pioneer of contemporary self-publishing.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
Literary Agents: How to Find, Use and Feed Them
These secrets about agents will help you land one who can make your writing life a whole lot easier and more rewarding. Agents are a good and necessary thing if you plan to make your living writing books, screenplays, teleplays or other major formats. They enable you to write while they go about trying to sell your work to the right people at the highest price and the most favorable terms.
Besides that primary role, agents can also be an invaluable source of business and professional advice, caretakers of the sensitive soul, and even the warden who can enforce the rules and provide, ahem, motivation to do what you should be doing. The agent is also your business partner, reviewing royalty statements and monitoring licensees' marketing of your work. That is, if they are a good agent. Here are some recommendations on separating those who are from the lazy, unethical, uninterested-and generally to be avoided.
Finding the Right Literary Agent for You
First, virtually all literary agents are book agents or agents for manuscripts such as screenplays or television scripts. Very few represent short stories, articles, poetry, greeting cards or essays. So start your agent search (see Writer's Toolbox: Agent Sources) only after you've either completed your manuscript or you're at a point where you can write a winning proposal that includes sample sections. Never submit anything less than your best work to an agent. Most surveys indicate that literary agents reject 98 percent of everything they receive.
Although they are hard to get, a literary agent is becoming increasingly necessary for those wishing to sell to large publishing firms and production companies, who often will not consider unagented manuscripts. So your first job will be to identify a large group of agents who specialize in your subject matter.
Your next step is a commonsense one: Contact fellow writers, editors or publishers who produce the kind of works you'll be writing and ask for recommendations of agents. If you belong to any relevant professional organizations, its members may have recommendations. Same for creative writing teachers. You will have narrowed your search to agents who are having success in your field and who have managed to establish good enough professional relationships that others feel comfortable recommending them to potential clients like you. Lists of agents such as those in Literary Market Place can help you follow up this initial list with more detailed information.
Large or Small?
What about the block-buster, big-name agent who just landed an umpteen-million dollar contract for a client? Probably will not be a fruitful first contact for the unpublished book writer. Even if you make it past the mega-agent's receptionist, do you really want to be the newest pony in a such a luminous stable of fellow scribes? How much attention would you get? You'll likely end up with mega-agent's new assistant fresh out of grad school. You may be better off with a smaller agent, eager and hungry, who will go the extra mile for you because you represent an important part of his or her business.
When negotiations start and there's money on the table, you need to be in a relationship of mutual trust and respect. If you're looking for a first agent, your tendency may be to be grateful to anyone who will take you on. That could backfire if the chemistry isn't right to begin with. Try to find people you really like. When things get tense-and they will-you'll need a reserve of goodwill.
What do you do when the agent you desire wants nothing to do with you? Don't despair. Keep sending your work to publishers. Play the rejection game. Then, when you do get an offer from a publisher, return to the agent of your choice and put the offer on the table. It'll be one he or she can't refuse: a commission for taking you on.
How to Approach an Agent
Once you've narrowed your list of agent prospects, it's time to follow the etiquette of contacting him or her for the first time.
1. Use the Mail
That's right: put down that phone and walk away from the fax machine. Get your letter or email ready (not your manuscript) by describing your project and yourself much as you might to an editor to whom you're trying to sell your work. Don't go over two pages. Write or email the agent by name.
You can contact as many agents on your list as are appropriate, just don't overdo it. And make sure that each of the agents on the list is equally desirable to you. This isn't like applying to college where you have a few "reach" schools and a few "sure things." If you say yes to an agent, then get a call from a more desirable one, you may not sleep well that night.
2. What About Exclusivity?
There are generally two situations in which exclusivity comes into play. First, if you've met an agent, hit it off well and discussed your work, it would be of your benefit to follow up on this wonderful situation by offering an exclusive read of your work. Second, if you've been recommended to an agent by another of the agent's clients, by an editor the agent works with, or by another agent, this is again one of those special situations where exclusivity would benefit both parties.
Of course, if you already have a contract that promises an agent an exclusive look at your next work, you must abide by that, in the same way that if you promise an agent an exclusive read, professional ethics demand you keep that promise.
3. What About Emails?
Used to be verboten, but now they're as common as ego trips at a writers' conference. A majority of today's agents and agencies have welcomed the efficiency of email queries and opened up their inboxes. A few tips:
- Avoid attachments. Usually not opened for security reasons. Save those until invited.
- If you send multiple e-mail queries, treat each as a separate letter with only one name in the "To" line.
- Include a non-spam subject line with the words "query," "book proposal," "looking for representation" or something similar.
- Don't confuse instant messaging with e-mail.
- Don't refer an agent to your web site to "find out more."
Compose Your Letter
Your letter of introduction should contain three parts:
- Part One: Introduce yourself as a writer, giving a brief history of your published work, focusing on your books. No credits? Don't try to fake it. Focus on your professional experience that gives you the needed credibility to write this book.
- Part Two: Describe your book or script in detail. Use six to eight paragraphs: introduce its topic, unique approach, and its overall content. Writers of dramatic works call these summaries, treatments or "pages." Book writers call them synopses or summaries.
- Part Three: Sign off. Simply ask if they would like to take a look at it. If so, then they can contact you at . . . .
It's fine to include the summary, treatment, synopsis or whatever you call Part Two as a separate document and combine Parts One and Three as a cover letter. It's also usually OK to discuss two projects in one contact, but never more.
Then wait six to eight weeks. Don't make any contact before that. Hopefully you remembered to cover all your bases by including a SASE for those agents who prefer to write, an email address for the Internet-enabled, and a phone number for the chatty.
Because you conducted a pre-screening through other writers, editors and publishers, you won't likely encounter any of the below. If you do, cross these agents off your list, immediately:
- A fee to read your work
- A fee to take your submission
- A requirement for you to sign a written release
More Tips on Getting Your First Agent
OK, you're alone on your mountaintop writing away. No agents know who you are. Worse, no agents want to know who you are. What to do? First, stay on the mountaintop and keep writing. You'll see why in Tip #1 below. Next, pick up the mountaintop's phone and boot up the email; it's time to network and sell-yourself. If you got problems with that, stop reading here and, please, enjoy the rest of your life.
Tip #1: Keep writing!
Agents want to see a fountain of prose, a cornucopia of words, a blizzard of pages. The reason is obvious: the more you write, the more they have to sell. Prodigious output also indicates prodigious seriousness. It marks you as a writer with legs. The real thing. A steady income for you both.
Tip#2: Find friends
Get to know the people who know agents. Get plugged into the network. Nurture your relationships with producers, editors, actors, publishers and anyone else in your industry who works with agents.
Tip #3: Win a literary prize
Any prize will do, but the more notable and competitive, the better. Take that award and use it self-promotionally as a reason to contact your dream agent.
Tip #4: Keep dreaming
Keep reading the trades in your industry and keep track of the agents who are doing the kind of deals with the kind of literary properties you are producing. Don't get stuck on one agent or agency. Keep your list active and keep submitting your query to the new names that pop up on it.
When Do I Need an Agent?
"I have enough material for a book. Is writing the first few chapters then looking for an agent the best way to go, or should I write the whole book?? Also, how much does an agent get? Where can I find one?"
With nonfiction, you should do both: (1) Write the first two or three chapters, then send them along with a professionally done book proposal to an agent or a publisher. (2) Continue writing the rest of the book as you continue to look for an agent or publisher. If a publisher offers you a deal on your book, at that point you won't have any problem getting an agent, I assure you. (Submitting fiction to an agent almost always means the entire manuscript.)
How much does an agent get? Usually around 15 percent on books, 10 percent on scripts. But the most important thing for you right now is to write a great book that people will want to read. Where can you find agents? Tons of lists online and off (see "Writer's Toolbox: Agent Resources"). Read the descriptions in these listings closely to find one near you, someone willing to work with a writer at your level, and someone with experience representing books and scripts in your area (medical, diet, self-help, biographies, etc.).
Do you really need an agent? The answer is no, not right now. What you need first is a great idea, then execute it well on a topic that fulfills a clearly defined reader need. One of the crucial elements of any book proposal is the "Market Analysis" portion. In it, you detail what other works are extant in this field and how yours will be different. Without demonstrable knowledge of the major works in your field and without a different slant for yours, the proposal is dead in the water, regardless of whether you send it to an agent or directly to the publisher.
So, you don't have to have an agent. But is one recommended? Yes. They have contacts with publishers and want to help you make your book as saleable as possible. A reputable agent will be honest with you about your book's merits and shortcomings. Listen closely. Like a personal lawyer in a divorce case, they fight for your best interests in contract negotiations.
There are excellent online and offline sources for literary agents. After all, they're experts in marketing, right?
Association of Authors' Representatives, Inc. http://aaronline.org/
The premiere online resource for literary agents. The AAR was formed in 1991 through the merger of the Society of Authors' Representatives and the Independent Literary Agents Association. Members are screened, must meet eligibility requirements and pledge to abide by the Association's code of ethics.
Literary Market Place. www.literarymarketplace.com/lmp/us/index_us.asp.
The online version of the standard reference book.
Literary Market Place. The industry bible.
Writer's Digest Guide to Literary Agents. Annual edition; be sure you purchase the latest.
Writer's Guide to Book Editors, Publishers, and Literary Agents: Who They Are! What They Want! and How to Win Them Over. Annual edition; be sure you purchase the latest
How to Write A Successful Nonfiction Book Proposal and Query
Congrats: you've done the research, planning and written some chapters. Now, is anyone interested in publishing your masterpiece-in-waiting?
There's only one way to find out: a book proposal, an essential marketing tool. It should be given the spit and polish that will enable it to make a quiet but definitive announcement: "Herein lies the work of a professional."
That's your first goal in writing a book proposal: to look like a professional so that you avoid the slush pile—that stack of unwanted book proposals and manuscripts, which is large and growing larger. It is currently estimated that writers send in approximately 10 million submissions each year. That was not a typo: 10 million.
However, both large and small publishers combined print about 120,000 books per year. That wasn't a typo either. Some quick math suggests that your literary effort has a .012 chance of being accepted and published. And you thought getting a date in high school was tough.
How do you increase those pathetically miniscule odds? Simple: Find out what they want, then give it to them—good. The first step in doing so is to request a copy of submission guidelines from the agent, agency or publisher that you are targeting. The discussion of queries and book proposals that follows should be considered only general guidelines, because each publisher or agency may have its own set of specific requirements outlined in their submission guidelines, from the font they want you to use in your letter, to the order of materials in a submission packet. Know before you blow it.
Next, make absolutely sure that the agent or publisher wishes to see books in your genre or topic area. Surprisingly, publishers and agents continue to bemoan the number of manuscripts and proposals they receive for perfectly fine books in categories they do not handle. Lastly, determine if the agent or publisher wishes to see a query first, then the submission packet. Some prefer to skip the query and want your entire proposal.
Your query letter will probably be about 3-4 pages long. The most accepted format for the query letter is paper. Email is sometimes acceptable but a fax is almost always unacceptable. Your query letter should include these components:
- Brief statement of purpose. In other words, why you are contacting this person.
- Synopsis. Also called a summary. It is a 300- to 500-word condensation of the entire work written in the objective third-person (do not try to hype your work). Remember Cliff's Notes that you cribbed from in school? Like that. If you've never written a synopsis before, get help, practice, and show yours around before sending it in. Writing a good synopsis requires special skill and practice. But sure to get them both.
- Genre. Never say yours is a unique genre that can't be classified. Agents and publishers must know how to market and sell your work within established categories of the book industry.
- Brief writing biography. In no more than a paragraph, establish your writing background and expertise for authoring this book.
- Marketing info. Here you must demonstrate that you have done your homework. How many books similar to yours are currently in print? How are those books selling? How will your book be like those others? How will yours be unique? Emphasis on this last one: Your work must offer some new value that will make readers cough up the cash.
- Graphics, illustrations, photographs. These not only increase the value of your book, they also make it more complicated and expensive to produce. Indicate any of these elements that are a part of your book, their number and size, and in what format you will provide them: line art, transparencies, electronic images, etc.
- Copyediting. Indicate if your book has already been professionally copyedited and, if not, your plans for doing so. Agents do not provide this service.
- SASE. If you don't want your materials back and aren't including a SASE for that reason, be sure to say that your materials are disposable.
If your query is successful, or if you have targeted someone who accepts unsolicited submissions, you are now ready to compile what is usually considered the traditional book proposal.
Nonfiction Book Proposal
- Cover page. A block containing your personal information (name, address, contact info) goes in the upper left. In the page's center goes your book's title in all caps, with any subtitle double-spaced below it in caps and lower case. Your byline is double-spaced beneath the title and "by" is in lower case. Ten lines below your byline comes the word length: "Approximate length: ____ words" rounded off to the nearest thousand. Nothing else should appear on this page.
- Writing biography. Approximately one single-spaced page providing more background than in your query letter. Highlight your strongest points: previous publications, especially books; professional experience related to your book's subject; relevant professional affiliations.
- Table of contents and chapter outlines. How you format the chapter outlines (as descriptive paragraphs, bulleted points, numbered outline) is far less important than the meat. Use 100 to 200 words to give a clear picture of the compelling content in each chapter.
- Sample chapters. Most want to see at least two chapters, and some prefer sequential chapters, not random ones.
- Graphics, illustrations, photographs. In addition to what was submitted in the query, include specific location in the sample chapters of any artwork.
- Marketing. This section should represent considerable research and thought on your part. There is no faking it here. Either you've got a good concept or you don't. The only question is whether or not you write this section well enough to convince someone else that this book can be marketed successfully. Its four parts
1. Logline. Distill the concept into a TV Guide-type of sentence. Example: "Band of Angels tells the inspiring, sometimes horrifying story of American WWII nurses in the Philippines captured by the Japanese—the only group of women ever held as prisoners of war."
2. Rationale. Why this book is important and to whom it is important.
3. Market position. Why this book is different from and better than all other books in print on this subject. Avoid saying "there are no books that compare to this one." First, it's likely to be untrue, therefore indicating poor market research. If such a statement is true and there are no other books written on the topic, maybe there's a good reason—lack of consumer interest.
4. Competition. A list and brief annotation of competing titles (author, publication date, a descriptive sentence).
- Ancillary materials. Although not required, these can be helpful: They include a meaningful introduction, preface or foreword written by you or by someone with significant credentials. Having the right person write front matter not only will give your work more credibility, it will also show your willingness to help market your work. And don't forget prepublication reviews and endorsements.
Put It All Together
Assemble your materials just as you would the pages in your book, with cover page on top and ending with your sample chapters. Binding methods vary according to agency and company; check their guidelines. Most prefer large butterfly clips or loose pages in a box. Place all materials either in a pocket folder (no fasteners or rings) or in an appropriate-sized manuscript box or paper box, according to how many pages you have. Affix a plain white label on the folder or box that contains (centered) your book's title and your byline.
Play the Waiting Game
Send it, forget it. The tendency will be to have a letdown after a large project is finally in the mail. So you probably won't get any heavy-duty creative work done for a few days. Be prepared to fill your time with other essential duties: organizing, researching, writing follow-up letters on other projects. Keep your writing business moving forward and, above all, don't be a pest. Forget about your submission for four to eight weeks before you think about bugging someone about it.
How to Bullet-Proof Your Book Proposal
In case you haven't had your daily dose of reality yet, take a swig of this: Editors and agents will look for reasons to reject your submission. Sounds cruel but it's natural: You've got 25 manuscripts sitting on your desk and one hour to sort through them. Such initial sorting must done by applying two threshold criteria: those proposals that followed submission guidelines and those that didn't; those that look professional and those that don't. According to agents and editors I've worked with, the following are the lowest-common denominators for getting past those hurdles. Clear them and at least your work has a chance of being read.
- It looks like a proposal. Agents and editors have read thousands of them. As a result, they have a clear set of expectations about what a professionally-done proposal looks like on the outside, regardless of what is on the inside.
- It's addressed to the right place. In other words, the writer has bothered to consult a copy of the pertinent guidelines or has used an up-to-date directory to determine the correct person to contact, the categories being accepted, and the procedure for submissions. Failure to follow their rules can doom your chances of even being read. After all, if you can't comply with these simple instructions, what's it going to be like to work with you over an extended period of time on a book project?
- It doesn't contain red flags. Such as misspellings, bad grammar, incorrect word use. If the writer didn't bother to get it right here, he or she probably can't be trusted in book-length form to be accurate, fair and honest.
Resources for your Book Proposal
How to Write a Great Nonfiction Book Proposal
The Fast Track on How to Write a Nonfiction Book Proposal.
Stephen Blake Mettee.
How to Write a Book Proposal. Michael Larson.
Nonfiction Book Proposals Anyone Can Write. 2nd edition.
Write the Perfect Book Proposal: 10 That Sold and Why.
Jeff Herman, Deborah M. Adams
Written by David Taylor
How to Find the Right Editor Every Time
Time for the payoff: printing out a final copy of your story, sticking it in an envelope, sealing it with a kiss. But wait — did you address it to the right editor?
Getting your manuscript in the right hands lies at the heart of the freelance game. Sending your article on the latest sex moves to ensure orgasm to the nutrition editor won't help your credibility. The best you can hope for is that the nutritionist feels sorry for the hapless freelancer and passes the story on to the right desk.
Don't count on it.
It's just that kind of mistake that lights up an editor's WEWS: Wannabe Early Warning System. Take some time to investigate the staff and their jobs before submitting to that publication, publishing house or production company.
How to Read a Masthead
Newspapers, magazines and most newsletters have mastheads — a nautical term that found its way into journalism and refers to a section of the publication (usually up front) that lists the publication's employees, job titles, place of business, circulation and other business details. For larger publications, mastheads may be divided into the editorial masthead and the publishing masthead (business and marketing folks).
Hierarchy is one of the few things mastheads have in common: the higher your level of responsibility, the higher up your name appears on the masthead. This bit of information is critical because job titles vary significantly from company to company. For instance, sometimes the top person is the executive editor, sometimes editor-in-chief, sometimes just plain editor. But the hierarchy will accurately display the pecking order.
Unless you have a prior working relationship with the top person, you will probably send your story to sub-editors down to the assistant-editor level. Below that level are editorial assistants, copy editors, production editors and manuscript editors who lack the power (or interest) to read your submission and make a recommendation on it. The larger the publication (usually indicated by the number of names on the masthead as well as the circulation figure given), the lower down you should stay. And vice versa for smaller publications. A last clue is any specific information given in the editor's job title: training editor, book review editor, nutrition editor, features editor, departments editor. Look for information that will help you target the most appropriate person for your submission.
If you aren't comfortable with your ability to narrow the field from a masthead, call the magazine's general number. At large companies, you'll likely have to ask to speak to someone in the editorial department. When you reach someone in edit, describe the type of submission you wish to make ("a 500-word sidebar on new butt-firming scams") and ask who would be the most appropriate editor to send it to. Confirm spelling of the editor's name while on the phone in case it isn't on the masthead.
Use print resources like the Literary Market Place and Writer's Market carefully. Even books that are updated yearly can lag behind personnel changes in the fluid job world of publishing. The most reliable books of listings are, by far, the various resource books by the Writer's Digest people, including market books for fiction, poetry, art, children's works, photography and more. However, because it's a book, the lag time between information collection and its publication can be a half year or more — plenty of time for some staffing musical chairs. Try to confirm names and positions via a web site or, better yet, a phone call.
A Writer's Guide to Editors
Seeks, develops, evaluates and likely buys manuscripts from freelancers
Duties range from gopher to copy editor, to department editor
Usually has significant editing responsibilities
Usually a freelancer hired for a specific project
A trusty freelancer who has been rewarded with this honorary title
Responsible for proofing and editing stories in the prepublication stage
An assistant, associate or senior editor with overall responsibility for acquiring and developing stories for a specific section
Sometimes on the editorial staff to perform a variety of duties, but most often a freelancer
Top editorial position
Maybe, if you're acquainted or it's a small pub
Editorial Assistant/Editorial Associate
Usually will not have responsibility for interacting with freelancers
Top editorial position when listed first on the masthead; otherwise functions as a sub-editor
Responsible for the day-to-day editorial production process and copy flow; doesn't necessarily interact with freelancers
Focuses on the physical product as a liaison to ad folks, prepress house and printer
A higher-level position, below managing and executive, usually with responsibility for working with freelancers
Often the same as managing editor
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
and CNW's Master Reports for Success
Query Letters: Myths and Strategies
Few topics in freelance writing have received more ink than the query letter-and deserve it less. New freelancers in particular seemed fascinated by the query letter. Maybe it's the obscure, insider name: query letter. Surely that's something only writers know about. Maybe it's the promise of a quick payoff-heck, anybody can write one or two pages. Maybe it's the fact that writing queries can easily substitute for the harder work of writing articles.
No surprise: I believe far too much has been written about query letter strategies, query letter models, query letter workshops, query letter do's and don'ts. Far too many writers spend time on queries when they should be researching and writing manuscripts. Novelist and freelancer Bob Sassone calls it the "query letter trap." Maybe it's also a "query letter pit" filled with procrastinators and the terminally timid.
Are You Telling Me Never to Write Queries?
There's no doubt query letters can serve a legitimate purpose:
- By gauging an editor's interest before slanting your material for that publication, you keep yourself from getting overdrawn at the Psychic Reserve Bank, whose currency is used for dealing with rejections.
- Queries certainly can prevent the inanity of "blind submissions," where you add to slush piles with unsolicited stories that haven't been asked for, probably haven't been slanted, and end up making you look like an amateur.
However, let me hasten to add that there are times when blind, multiple submissions make a lot of sense: to noncompeting newspaper dailies and weeklies, shorties, fillers and humor columns are just a few examples.
Big Old Hoary Query Letter Myths
MYTH 1: A well-written query proves to the editor that you are qualified to write the piece. The only things that prove you can write the piece are (a) the piece itself; (b) closely related clips, and I mean really closely related. Don't send a terrific travel story clip if you're proposing to write a how-to. It'll have just the opposite effect: "Oh, this writer has never published a how-to before; otherwise, she would've sent it."
MYTH 2: A formal, detailed query gives you the opportunity to do preliminary research for a piece that can be quickly converted into an article. Ah, perfect example of the query letter trap: If you've done enough research for a "formal, detailed query," you probably should write the piece and not waste time on the formal query process, which can take a month or more.
MYTH 3: Short informal queries will often not be read or may be given less weight by an editor if the editor is a stickler for the formal process. Huh? Editors don't judge query letters by their length. If the query gets the job done, length is not an issue. There's only time I know of when length, not content, becomes an issue:a query letter that's too long.
MYTH 4: A good query letter often begins with the article's actual lead in order to give the flavor of your writing and the article.
Writers who do this are in the query pit and need to get a life and a manuscript. If you're spending time polishing a lead for a story that hasn't been written or fully researched, you're wasting time. If the story is written, polish its lead and send it to an appropriate market, pronto.
Query letters with the article lead as the first paragraph often seem laughably out of place to me. You're writing a letter, for crying out loud. Make it sound like a letter. The lead-as-letter opener delays getting to the point: What story are you pitching? Is it right for this magazine?
New Query Strategy: Short 'n' Sweet
If you've got a good idea for an article but haven't written it yet (or it's been written for another market and you're considering repurposing it), then write a query letter that is:
- Highly targeted
Not only should you read and study back issues of the publication you wish to write for. You should also target a specific feature or department type:
No: I'd like to write a feature for your magazine.
Yes: I'd like to write one of your popular make-over how-tos.
No: I have an idea for a short piece for your magazine.
Yes: I want to write a 500-word piece for your "Seaviews" department.
Show the editor you are writing for that specific magazine and that you've studied it.
- Addressed properly
Find the specific editor on the masthead who handles freelancers or, better yet, handles freelance submissions for the kind of feature or department story you're writing. (See the article "How to Find the Right Editor for You").
- Pitched in the first paragraph
Don't monkey around. Get to the point in two to three sentences, max:
No: "As Richard did his giant stride off the back of the dive boat and splashed into the popsicle blue Caribbean, little did he know that the dive buddy coming in behind him was a lawsuit waiting to happen. When the dive started going bad, his buddy didn't have a clue. Richard had to provide help he wasn't qualified to give but, as he found out too late, he was legally obligated to perform."
Yes: "Dear David: Several of your recent 'Scuba Law' columns have focused on the legal obligations of dive operators. As a divemaster and lawyer I see something just as bad every weekend: Divers who have no idea that agreeing to be a dive buddy implies serious legal risks. I want to write a 750-word article for your 'Scuba Law' department that details for divers what those risks are and how they can be managed."
Both of the above examples have the same number of words (73). After the descriptive loveliness of the first one, I still have no clue what the writer is proposing. After the second one, I have everything I need to give an assignment, including the writer's qualifications.
- Attached to clips
But make sure they're relevant. Otherwise they signal that you've never written this kind of article before, thereby inserting a significant question mark in the editor's mind at a time when you really don't want to. If you don't have relevant clips, mention previous publications your work has appeared in. If you don't have clips, simply talk about your other qualifications and experience for writing this piece. Don't try to fake it.
- Presented professionally
That means a proofread letter that conforms to business-letter format and includes a SASE, if it's not an email query. Now, get back to work! Write more articles, fewer queries.
More Query Letter Faux Pas
- Mentioning how long and hard you've worked on this piece.
- Crowing about others who have liked the idea you're proposing.
- Asking for feedback and making clear your "willingness" to revise.
- Hoping that the editor will like the idea because you'd be thrilled to be in their magazine. Editors rarely care about a freelancer's hopes or other feelings.
- Discussing pay rates and rights. You don't have the assignment yet!
- Pitching too many articles in one letter. Two or three is the max, I think.
- Including qualifications that aren't. The only ones that count are related directly to your subject matter and your experience as a writer.
What's the Best Way to Submit a Query?
"What's the best way to submit a query by mail? How soon after submitting should I follow up to see if the editor liked it?"
The best way to submit a written query is to observe the etiquette for making your letter look and sound professional. At this stage, when an editor is asking himself/herself if you're an amateur or a pro, trustworthy or not, appearances count. Make sure your letter is:
- Printed on your own unpretentious letterhead
- Addressed to a named editor on the masthead
- Addressed to the right editor. Make sure you have researched the publication and found the appropriate editor for your query
- Folded neatly in thirds
- Accompanied by a SASE (self-addressed, stamped envelope) if the query is made by surface mail
- Supported by relevant clips, if you have them for the type of article you're proposing
Then wait up to two weeks. Then wait some more. Don't phone unless it's a timely story that needs a timely response. If an editor hasn't responded in month, send a brief follow-up, wait a bit more, then forget it if there's no response. Obviously, he/she wasn't interested. Don't take it personally. Move on.
- Many editors consider fax queries unappealing-cheap substitutes for a professionally done letter.
- On the other hand, email queries are becoming popular. I love email queries. They can be efficiently dealt with in a few keyboard strokes. No paper cuts are a plus, too.
- Resist querying by phone unless you've been invited to.
- Query only one publication at a time with your story idea. If you ever send out simultaneous queries selling exclusive rights and receive two acceptances, you've got a problem. If the two editors find out what you did, you'll likely not get that assignment or any others from them. An editor's willingness to trust you is more important than your writing skills.
- Keep it short. A half page is better than a full page. Editors value compression in writing and love freelancers who can say things in as few words as possible without a lot of "gee whiz" attitude and breathless prose.
How Much Should I Research before Querying?
"How much research should I do before sending in my query? A lot? Just enough?"
Ideally, you should do just enough preliminary research to ensure that you can deliver the story you promise, no more. If you get the assignment and begin the research only to discover the story isn't there or has changed substantially, you've got some "s'plaining" to do, putting yourself at risk of losing the editor's faith and trust. Good research is never a waste of time. It's money and facts in the bank, ready to be withdrawn for that story and possibly others.
Do I Always Have to Query First?
"Should I query an editor first or just send in the completed manuscript?"
No, you don't have to query first, but if you're just starting out, it's probably a good idea to try a short query letter after a thorough study of the magazine and the editor's needs. Two reasons:
- Doing so signals your professionalism. Editors know that, in most instances, professional freelancers don't write stories and send them to people they don't know and who may not be interested. It's a waste of everyone's valuable time.
- Querying first shows a respect for the editor and an understanding of his/her job. An editor needs only a moment to read a query letter and make a decision. With a full manuscript, the editor must spend time to figure what's going on, then worry about whether or not the manuscript was requested (we forget!), if there is a legal obligation to return it and any artwork accompanying it. In other words, a pain in the hard drive.
During nine years as an executive editor, I can count on one hand the number of times I read an unsolicited manuscript and decided I could use it. Both times, it was luck.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
Self Test: Am I Ready to Go Full Time as a Freelancer?
Tired of being a wage slave? Ready to spread your wings and fly free? Without medical benefits and guaranteed paydays, it can be a long way back down to earth.
I forget the exact moment I suffered an entrepreneurial seizure and decided that, for now and forever, I wanted to own the products of my labor, set my own hours, write what I wanted to write and answer to the only boss who mattered—the one inside my heart.
It must've been during one of those blurry, post-Ayn Rand moments late at night or early in the morning, because giving up tenure, retirement plan, paid vacations, family-emergency leave, tuition assistance, expense account and a sabbatical every few years was definitely a decision that came from the gut, not my certified financial planner.
Oh well. What's done is done, and if you don't believe me, just look at my bank account.
But here I am, writing what I want to write, free of that spiritual jail called a corporate office. Is it worth it?
Without a peso of doubt.
Only one regret: I wish someone had made me complete the following checklist first.
Full-Timer Self Test
Please note: The results of this test will definitely appear on your permanent record.
Answer "yes" or "no" to each of the following questions.
1. I write five or more days every week, without prompting, without fuss, and I find doing it significantly more rewarding than my current job.
/ /yes --- / /no
2.I can write at least one feature article, one book chapter or one well-researched query letter per week.
/ /yes --- / /no
3. Currently, my work is being accepted at least as often as it is being rejected.
/ /yes --- / /no
4. I work regularly with at least one editor.
/ /yes --- / /no
5.At least one editor has called me to initiate an assignment.
/ /yes --- / /no
6.Last year as a writer, I earned at least one-third of my present salary, or $6,000, whichever is higher.
/ /yes --- / /no
7.I have set up a writing business that includes an accounting system, office equipment, tax filing and business stationery.
/ /yes --- / /no
8. As liquid financial reserve, I have saved at least one year's salary that is not invested in a tax-exempt retirement account.
/ /yes --- / /no
9. I have written a one-year business plan that includes a full accounting of projected expenses, revenues and contingency plans.
/ /yes --- / /no
10. My family/significant others are fully aware of my desires to work full-time as a freelancer and have pledged to provide their moral and emotional support.
/ /yes --- / /No
If you answered "no" to any items other than 7, 9 or 10, it is my opinion that you are not yet ready to go full time as a freelancer. Here's why.
1. If you're squeezing in time during a hectic schedule to write, that's wonderful; it shows discipline and commitment. But doing it full time is going to mean sitting in front of a computer screen researching, composing and editing for 8 to 12 hours a day, often more. You had better find it not just rewarding, but the very lifestyle you wish to lead.
I knew I was ready to go full-time when I started stealing time from my job obligations to write, when I would rather write than work out, when I would rather write than, well, almost anything. If writing is something that you're having to force yourself to do, you should wait and see how that situation resolves itself. It's probably just a matter of time before you hit your stride, get some bylines and all the confidence that comes with them.
2. This item is about productivity. A cruel calculus is at work: When you first begin, if you take the number of hours you need to produce a finished piece and market it, then divide that number by your payment, you'll get your new hourly wage. Don't be surprised if it's $15 per hour or less. When you're working at those rates, you had better be able to crank out copious amounts of copy. One feature article, chapter or query per week is probably a minimum if you're going to be financially self-sufficient.
3. Rejections will always be a part of freelancing. There will forever be reasons beyond your control why your work was not selected by that particular editor, on that particular day. But before you go full-time, your rejections should be well within the acceptable range: For most full-time freelancers, the rejection rate is lower than 50 percent. The reason why is contained in the next two items.
4. Before making the leap, you need to have at least one foot planted firmly inside an editor's door. Working regularly with an editor means you've found a home for your expertise, your style, your personality. You fit. You belong. You've got everything it takes. And if you can do it with one editor, you can do it with others. Also, by not sending in cold queries and manuscripts, you will lower your rejection rate significantly.
5. Of course, one sure-fire way to reduce rejections is to get an assignment directly from an editor. And that's exactly what happens once your name begins appearing regularly in print within a specific genre — one more argument to focus on being a specialist when you're starting out.
6. If you're making this much money doing it part-time, you've got the skills and the contacts that will enable you to take your business to the next level. Don't cheat on this number. There are going to be good years and lean years. Be ready for one, surprised by the other.
7. OK, so you're a sloppy accountant and you don't have business cards. That doesn't bother me because I know that once you start writing as a full-time professional you'll treat it as a business, not a hobby — or you won't be doing it for long.
8. Plans and promises — When you're a self-sufficient businessperson you'll be shocked by how empty the promises of others can be. If you're like me, it's going to take a few hard lessons before you learn to tell the frauds from the real thing, and to develop the hard edge it takes to be an independent businessperson. In the meantime, I bet you'll count on projects and people who fail to come through for you. Guess what? Your mortgage company doesn't take excuses or sob stories.
9. Same as 7. I highly recommend the free resources offered by the Small Business Association and on the Internet (see below).
10. I debated whether or not to make this a requirement. If I had written this while still a corporate slave, it would've been required. But now — hey, if you gotta do it, you gotta do it. In the meantime, hope for their acceptance, praise and support — sure does make things easier. Bottom line: nice but not essential.
Online Business Resources for Freelancers
• www.allbusiness.com — The self-styled "Champions of Small Business" provide 10 info-rich sections of articles, tools and forms—all for free.
• https://www.bizmove.com/ — Their "Small Business Knowledge Base" is a comprehensive free resource of small business information with guides, tools and techniques.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
How to Write and Syndicate Your Own Column
If you've got the knack, the voice and the discipline, a regular column can be one of writing's sweet pleasures and money-makers.
For seven years I wrote a regular monthly column in a consumer magazine, which translates into about 84 pieces of writing, all entitled "Behind the Lines." The column was short (600 words), but it was also some of the writing I enjoyed the most. Being a columnist offers a set of pleasures and challenges rarely found together in other formats. And the regular paycheck of being syndicated can't be beat.
Please, Come In
One of the best pieces of advice given to me when I started was by an old hand named Phil Trupp, who said that when writing a column, "You can never be too personal or too controversial." He was right. A column really must become your living room, bedroom and bathroom into which you don't mind inviting readers. In a column, readers want to spend time with a person, not an AP reporter. Column readers are seeking someone with a distinct voice and point of view. Most of all, a columnist often must be willing to talk about the things he or she feels deeply about on a personal level.
It's this unique personal take on the world, as well as the authentic and passionate voice, that builds a column's audience. However, "personal" in this context only occasionally means the actual details of your life. When building the personality of the column, you are actually building a persona for yourself, an alter ego who becomes a fictional character you create for readers: William Safire, the prissy linguist; Studs Terkel, the gruff sentimentalist; Dave Barry, the hapless baby boomer. Threads of those traits are in all those men; but the real Dave Barry cannot be found in his humor column, only the persona he has created.
Stand for Something or Fall for Anything
One way to see a column is in direct contrast to the publication it appears in. The main purpose of a newspaper or magazine is to present information and news, while the column provides analysis and opinion of it. Indeed, one of the conventions of column writing is its sometimes idiosyncratic point of view. Returning to that column means that readers are seeking out its specific point of view: George Will's conservative take on the latest development in the Middle East; Ann Landers' middle-class orthodoxy on the latest outrage committed by in-laws.
As a columnist, you must clearly establish your personal take on the world and filter experience through it for your readers. That filtering becomes the take-away for the column. It sets up a clear expectation in the reader's mind: "I want to know what my columnist thinks about this." Creating and fulfilling that expectation satisfactorily over and over is the essence of successful column writing. The point of view can be humorous, serious, sentimental, moralistic, conservative, liberal, hectoring or polite. The only thing it can't be is weak or unclear.
The Role of Research
Only inexperienced or unemployed columnists believe that the short, personal format of a column provides an excuse not to do research and develop sources. One of the duties of the column is to provide research, behind-the-scenes access and other non-mainstream details not easily found elsewhere. Washington-based political columnists are known for their "insider sources" and their own research staffs. Their proprietary info may be presented in a highly slanted or even personal way, but it is often the bedrock and jumping off point for the column.
The overall slant for my column in the scuba diving magazine was the unvarnished "truth"—about equipment, marine environment, dive operators, destinations and the industry itself. One of my goals each month was to find some information that would not be printed elsewhere in the magazine or even in the industry. (According to the magazine's sales reps, I succeeded far too often.) With that proprietary research, I could give readers another reason to return regularly: to get not only my unique point of view, but also unique information—sometimes even behind-the-scenes stuff they could not find elsewhere: thus the column's title, "Behind the Lines."
Getting to Know "Your" People
Another of your goals as a columnist is to build a loyal following. The larger the better, of course. Loyalty is what gives a column legs, enabling it to outlast changes in editors and publishers. Creating that loyalty requires one more important element: identification of your core.
Your core is that group of people, often not even a majority of a publication's readers, who identify most strongly with the column, who will read it even if they read nothing else. As a columnist, you expect and hope that your point of view is strong enough that it will rule some readers in and some out.
Knowing who those readers are—their demographics and psychographics—is part of your job as a columnist. Only if you can see the color of their underwear can you hone your topic selection, research, even style. Whatever you do, hang on to your core readership; let the other folks come and go. Only by writing to the core can you fulfill the column's most important convention: the need for a distinctive voice and point of view.
Example: I knew from research that 75 percent of scuba divers are male, average age of 39, average income of $81,000, college-educated professionals who go on 2.5 overseas dive vacations per year. But the core who read my column was shown by additional research to be those who had as one of their primary diving interests the preservation of the marine environment, were an even mix of males and females, younger than the average diver, and considered themselves advanced or professional divers. They, not the general all-purpose scuba diver, were my core: serious divers, males and females, concerned about the marine environment and about significant developments in the sport diving industry. No surprise: My column became known for its strong environmental slant and its serious take on industry issues like safety, truth in advertising and other "core" concerns. I did not speak to the beginning diver very often, and almost never to the casual diver. I stayed focused on the hard-core.
This last piece of advice seems oddly contradictory: Write in a personal but compressed style. Personal usually means breezy and chatty; compression just the opposite. It's this contradiction that makes the style of a column one of the hardest and slipperiest. Hard like Pete Sampras' backhand or Tiger's tee shot: Both seem effortless and simple. But both represent a level of achievement that belies their simplicity. Writing in a tight conversational style is similar to a good athlete's skill: there is the illusion of ease, but getting there is a matter of working your way there and being an unforgiving editor of your own prose. Tight and right. Rarely is compression in writing more important than in the column format with its constricted word length.
More Tips for Your Own Column
- Read, study and read some more. It's like getting down your chops in any genre: you first must master the basics and internalize the conventions and formats. That means collecting your favorite columnists and studying them. Chart every aspect: column length, topics, use of sources, typical structure, opening and closes, level of personal detail, etc.
- Be specific. Research your targeted readership, their interests and, most of all, how your column will attract readers by fulfilling an essential need. Use that research to help sell your column to an editor. Convince him or her that you are meeting a significant need of a strong core of that publication's readers.
- Provide a take-away. It's the thing—insight, information, laughter—that you want your reader to have after they put your column down and walk away. As a columnist, you have a contractual obligation to provide a specific take-away that fits your readers.
- Write samples. After you've answered the basic questions about topic, point of view, readership, format and style, write the first five to eight pieces, not just one. Columns aren't like features: once and done. Columns are a series of pearls strung together. To get a sense of a columnist, your potential editor must see at least this many.
- Syndicate. Besides self-publishing on the Internet, there are basically two steps to becoming a syndicated columnist in print:
• Self-syndication. First, be your own syndicate and market your column to non-competing magazines or newspapers. Do this for a small amount of pay or even for free, if you're comfortable doing so. Why? Your ultimate goal is mass syndication, not just one or two outlets. When your column is appearing in multiple outlets (at least two), you are ready for the next step.
• Syndicate submission. Prepare clips of at least five columns and begin the submission process to appropriate syndicates. You are looking for (a) the largest syndicates for obvious financial reasons; (b) syndicates open to new writers; (c) syndicates that handle your type of column.
Links to various syndicates
• Successful Syndication. Michael Sedge
• The Complete Guide to Syndication. Barry Kipnis.
• How to Syndicate Your Own Newspaper Column. Lincoln B. Young
• You Can Write a Column. Monica McCabe-Cardoza.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
Generalist or Specialist? A Key Early Decision
The age-old question for freelancers: Should I be a generalist or a specialist? Strong arguments exist on both sides. Consider them carefully, make the decision that's right for you, then feel free to change your mind. Here's why.
On the one hand is the familiar admonition, "Write what you know." On the other is commonsense, "Why limit yourself?"
What does reality say? Basically it says, "Be both." Of course, no one wants to close off lucrative markets. Yet, in this age of specialization, with the number of general-interest magazines shriveling faster than appendages in cold water, writing nonfiction usually means being a specialist. Listen to these arguments and see if you agree.
Be a Generalist!
- "As a generalist, I'm constantly learning new things, constantly being challenged."
- "Diversification opens up more markets for my writing."
- "By publishing in a variety of fields, I demonstrate my versatility as a writer, my ability to handle whatever an editor throws at me."
- "I'm able to enrich what I write with a variety of perspectives."
Be a Specialist!
- "Specialization allows me to write about what I really know, the prime directive of freelance success."
- "My current expertise is a natural place to begin and will provide the shortest path to a byline."
- "Specialization provides a foundation on which I can build."
- "Since I'm writing about what I have experience in, I have pre-established contacts, credentials and I will be seen as an expert by editors.
- "As a specialist, I am already familiar with many of the publications I want to write for."
- "Writing nonfiction today almost always requires special knowledge. Why start from scratch with each article?"
- "The research I do for one project can often be carried over to the next, saving me time and resources."
- "As a specialist, I can combine a number of separate articles on a single subject into a book, or they could become the basis of a regular column."
Like most dichotomies, this one is also an either/or fallacy. You don't have to be either a specialist or a generalist. There are no Freelance Police who will arrest you for doing both. And, in truth, you'll most likely end up with several areas of expertise, making you a...TA DA!...generalist who specializes! Don't you love it when a plan comes together?
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
Finding the Time: Balancing Writing with the Rest of Your Life
When starting out, few problems are more difficult or important for a writer to face than making space in life for this new, demanding thing called writing for publication. Finding time to write can be difficult for three reasons:
- It requires us and others to change, yet we are creatures of comfortable habits.
- It requires giving up some things so that we can have another thing—this dream of a writing life.
- It requires commitment and discipline, forcing us to look inside and come to terms with what we really want and to decide if we're willing to sacrifice to have it.
So, never underestimate the struggle you'll sometimes undergo when transitioning from the nonwriting you to the new you. It's a struggle we all continue to share.
Now for the good news: At some point you're going to look around and realize that there is a "new normal" in your life, and at the center of this stasis that everyone has adjusted to (well, more or less) will be a professional writer—you.
Five Timely Tips for Achieving Balance
1. Beware of False Choices
You'll always be able to conjure up things to do instead of write. Important things: laundry, weeds, groceries, trapping vermin under the house (editors can fit into the smallest places). But don't fall into the trap of believing you must choose between writing and your other duties. That's your guilt and fear working on you. Your goal is to make room for writing, not to let it take you away from your responsibilities. There will be plenty of other reasons not to write besides guilt and fear.
2. Question Routine
With this new thing in your life, it's important that you evaluate daily routines like the morning paper, evening news, laid-back lunches, bunco clubs and other consumers of your non-obligated time. A one-hour lunch can translate into a solid 45 minutes of speed writing the first draft of an article you gathered material for instead of watching TV the night before.
3. Think Small Time
To be successful as a beginning freelancer, all you need is an hour a day, which usually translates into 45 minutes of actual work. The key isn't the amount; it's the frequency. Tell yourself that if you simply sit down often enough, whether for one hour or for half that, eventually you will produce a finished something. And then another. And another.
Hemingway used to aim for two pages of useable copy per day. And he wrote very short sentences. Two pages a day, 10 pages a week (if you bullfight on weekends), 40 pages a month, and [reaching for calculator] a novel about every 7 to 8 months—if you want it.
Not into novels? Writing two pages a day, you could also produce a major feature per month in the following realistic scenario: one week for research; one week for drafts and revisions; one week for a final draft proofed, polished and fact checked; then one week as a buffer and for mailing.
An article per month, 12 articles per year at an average sale of $500, and [calculator, please], you've now got $6,000 of extra income by devoting one hour per day to writing. As Woody Allen is quoted as saying, "80 percent of life is just showing up." I firmly believe that 80 percent of writing success is simply being in the routine of writing. The rest is marketing (19 percent) and talent (1 percent).
4. Speed Write
Remember school writing, especially the night before the paper was due? No more putting it off. No more phone chat or trips to the library. You plunked butt in chair and wrote, watching the clock, writing fast, not worrying about quality but only about getting it done. After it was done, as the rosy fingers of dawn reached into your room, you would think two things: (1) Next time I swear I won't put it off to the last moment; (2) If I had more time to work on this, it could have been a lot better.
Let's put those lessons to use: You wrote best when a deadline forced you to overcome your fear and your self editing. You couldn't stop to rephrase the sentence; it was 3:00 a.m. and you weren't even halfway done yet. And the "If I had more time..." is now called the revising and editing stages that are built into your overall process of creation as a professional.
Point: one of the most important things you can do during your regular composing time—when not researching, marketing or polishing—is to write fast. Use speed writing liberally during the composing stage: to think through a problem, to get a grip on a nebulous idea, to make a list of character names. Then use the revising and editing stages to shape and polish.
As a writer, use speed; it is your friend. Write fast, then revise. Please don't try to creative and evaluate at the same time. That's a bad habit that is the result of bad writing instruction in your younger years. Divide creating (finding words and thought) and evaluating (editing and revising words and thought) into two separate acts performed in sequence.
You can make your writing time more productive by thinking about what you're going to do during your next scheduled writing block—in other words, if you prewrite the session. Then you can hit the keyboard with fingers flying. Just be sure to carry a notepad and pen with you at all times and never be tempted to believe: "No need to write that down; I'll remember it." Famous last words.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
The Check Isn't in the Mail: What to Do When You Don't Get Paid
And you thought writing was the hard part! Sometimes getting paid is harder than pinching mercury, and not nearly as much fun.
When I became the person who had to ensure freelancers got paid, I made a promise to myself: They would be paid on acceptance (not publication) and within 15 days of that acceptance. It wasn't about money. It was about respect. If you worked hard for me and the company I represented, you deserved our respect. I endeavored to honor freelancers by bestowing upon them one of the most respected things in our society-money.
Unfortunately, corporations don't always see it that way. The current trend in many large publishing companies is to hold off paying invoices for as long as possible. In the last company I worked for, new managers had instituted a de facto accounting procedure that stipulated freelancer invoices should be sat on until the freelancer screamed – longer if possible. I became the first editor with a phone block put on him by the accounts payable department.
As a freelancer, you will also get to experience the frustration, the living Hell, of corporate accounting offices. Here's what to do:
1. Make Sure You Have a Contract
Please say this aloud with me: "Never work without a written contract." Sorry. You weren't loud enough. One more time: "Never work without a written contract." If an editor refuses to give you a written contract, you should do two things: (a) submit one yourself; (b) don't work until it's signed. Samples of contracts can be downloaded at the National Writer's Union site and the Science Fiction Writers Association.
2. Include an Invoice with the Completed Manuscript
Do not wait on anyone to invoice you. Your invoice should include all information necessary for payment, a clear statement of the work performed, the terms for payment (usually 30 days net, meaning all of it within 30 days of receipt of the invoice). Microsoft Office has an invoice template that you see a lot of these days. Included in the sample downloads on peakwriting.com is a copy of the one I use. Feel free to steal it. You can even leave my address on it if you wish. I promise to forward your checks. Really.
3. Send It Again
Make multiple copies of your invoices and fully expect to send in an invoice more than once, both to editors and to the accounts payable department. A common delaying tactic by accounting departments is to claim your invoice was "misplaced." And the dog ate their homework.
4. Keep All Documents
E-mails, love notes between you and the fact-checking department, contracts, invoices — everything that pertains to the assignment. Make and keep notes of phone conversations, especially when they include discussion of pay and rights issues. You'll need them at some point to resolve differences of, uh, memory.
5. Expect to Be Paid
Translation: Approach this aspect of freelancing in a professional and, if necessary, persistent way. Don't get huffy and rude. Calmly and pleasantly inquire about what is owed you, be helpful in resupplying needed information, get the check, then decide whether it's worth partnering with that outfit again.
6. Report Abuse
When all else fails, send professional letters of complaint to higher up officials at the publication, and if that doesn't work, your next step is the National Writers Union and similar advocacy groups.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
Negotiate This! How to Get Everything You Want in A Freelance Contract
Who writes the contracts that publishers send to you? Uh huh. And whose interests are those corporate lawyers looking out for? Hint: Not yours.
Keep that point in mind whenever you sit down to read a publisher's contract. You have every right to discuss the terms of it. Whether you want to negotiate or not is your option and should be exercised wisely, but you certainly have the right to negotiate.
As an editor who had to acquire freelancer signatures on contracts (and who supervised other editors doing the same), it didn't bother me that a writer questioned certain clauses and wanted further information. Matter of fact, we had more respect for those who did and especially for those who knew how to ask for certain changes in the boilerplate contract. Knowing how to ask and what to ask spells the difference between an amateur and a pro when it comes to contract negotiations.
Another secret: An editor will almost never offer you what he or she can actually afford to pay you. It's called low-balling and editors play such games as well as rug salesmen. After all, this is business: The editor's/publisher's goal is to get the best writing and most rights at the lowest cost possible. Your goal is to sell the fewest rights at the highest cost. Meeting somewhere in the middle is called negotiation. Some tips on doing it:
Tip #1: You Got to Believe
You've got to believe that you are worth what you'll be asking. That belief should be based on an up-to-date knowledge of the marketplace and what other freelancers of your experience and reputation are receiving for similar work. Do your research. Find out what the going rates are. Establish your own rates. Ask for them, without shame or timidity.
Tip #2: You Got to talk the Talk
Editors and publishers deal with contracts every day. Their companies perhaps provide seminars on contracts and negotiations. What about you? You've got to understand the terms and clauses in a contract at least as well as the person you're dealing with. This means getting the information you need. The National Writer's Union publishes an excellent book on the subject: the NWU Guide to Book Contracts. Much of the information is also applicable to journalism contracts. See the resources listed in the article, "How Much Should You Charge?" in Part One of this series. The writer associations listed there provide most of the information that you need.
Tip #3: You Got to Know When to Hold 'Em & When to Fold 'Em
One of your most important tasks is to determine the lowest fee you will accept, the point below which you will not go. That point is going to change during your career. When you first start out, you'll be willing to take less and give more in order to get the byline. That's understandable and acceptable. Along the way, your goal is to continually assess what that bottom line is. Above that line is your comfort zone where everything is negotiable in a collegial way. Once you hit the bottom line, you're looking at a decision either to walk or to work for less than is normally acceptable to you.
Tip #4: You Got to Get Ready
Although it's probably not essential to write out a script to follow before negotiating with an editor or publisher, at least jot down on the contract the points you wish to make and the order in which you wish to make them. Negotiations require as much care in word choice and tone as any situation does when delicate subjects are on the table.
No: "That's not enough money for my work."
Yes: "At first glance, I have to tell you, that seems just a bit on the low side to me."
And what if: Editor says, "Sorry, that's the best I can do."
No: "To make it worth my time, I must have..."
Yes: "I understand totally. You've got a budget to work with and I appreciate that. But what I had in mind was..."
The point is not just that you get more flies with honey than with vinegar, although you certainly do. Such verbal gymnastics signal that you are reasonable and flexible, that you are unemotional about this issue, that you understand the importance of money and the delicate nature of talking about it.
Such language also invites further conversation about the subject instead of putting the other person on the defensive. One of the first things you learn in marriage counseling; oops, I mean in basic psychology class, is that if someone perceives they are being attacked, the natural and nearly unavoidable reaction for them is to become defensive and to fight back. Use language that allows you to avoid confrontation, not instigate it.
And what if after such politeness, the editor once again refuses to budge? Now load up the detail and put it on your side:
Editor: "Sorry. That's all we're offering for this type of article."
No: "I don't understand why you expect to pay so little for so much."
Yes: "Right, and I remember reading that exact figure in your writer's guidelines. That's perfectly understandable. But remember, I had to do some special digging at the mayor's office for that data you wanted on the homeless numbers in Allentown, which added a lot to the article and was a good call on your part. And there was the quote you wanted me to get from the shelter volunteer. So, I just think, considering the extra time and research put into this, that we should agree on something like 10 percent more. What do you think? That's doable, isn't it?"
Good luck. Never let 'em see you sweat.
On Spec: Once and Done
Here's the pickle: You've already written one article for this editor on spec. She liked it. You got paid. Great, you think, a productive new market for me. So you submit another query. Ouch! She wants to see it, but "on spec" again. Should you or shouldn't you? No, you shouldn't.
Do not write a second article for this editor on spec. If the first article was turned in on time, at the right word count, required minimal rewriting and editing, you should not be expected to write on spec again. There is only one purpose in giving an "on spec" assignment: one for which an editor does not provide a contract or any promise to compensate you, not even a kill fee.
That purpose is to test the waters with a writer for the first time, especially when that writer lacks substantial clips. Once you've proven yourself, you should be given contracts with kill fees — the promise to pay a percentage of the article's agreed upon price if the offer is withdrawn or the article doesn't make it to publication.
As someone trying to make a living, you cannot be expected to provide your services on speculation. Can you imagine a plumber or auto mechanic doing so? "I'll fix your pipes and, if you like the job I do, you can pay me." Writing for a specific magazine can often mean producing a piece that has little marketability elsewhere. If the on-spec assignment doesn't work out, you've not only wasted your time, you've actually lost money that you could have earned by writing something else or fixing someone else's pipes.
My advice: Give such an editor one more chance. Simply say, "I'd really love to do this article for you. I thought the last one worked out great. But, I'm sorry, I can't write a second assignment on spec."
Then pause. Wait.
Put the onus on the editor to respond, whether you're talking on the phone or corresponding by e-mail. If you get a contract, great. Put this behind you and chalk it up to business: Many editors (and I was one of them) will always try to negotiate the most favorable terms for them. No big deal. Part of the game. But if this is the kind of editor who can't make contractual commitments to qualified freelancers, run like hell. To the editors who can.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book
Setting Project Fees and Word Rates
What are you worth as a writer? Hopefully, it's something between "a penny for your thoughts" and "the moon." Determining how much you should charge is one of the most important exercises you will ever perform as a freelance writer. It causes you to think deeply about your personal financial plan and commit to an annual salary target.
Like it or not, as a freelancer you're no longer just a writer. You're also a businessperson. Businesses succeed or fail based upon how well they are managed. The very essence of good management includes a realistic analysis and a conscious setting of clear, attainable financial goals — the proverbial bottom line.
A financial spreadsheet has a top line (revenue), a middle line (expenses), and a bottom line (net income). The number on the bottom line is either black (a positive financial result) or is in parentheses and sometimes red (a negative result). Just because you are no longer a wage-slave and corporate 'ho, don't think you can escape the tyranny of the bottom line. Matter of fact, you're now the one responsible for it. You're the boss. How does it feel so far?
"How much should I charge?" is really another way of asking, "What are my financial goals as an independent businessperson who is responsible for the profit of this company?" That's a serious question which deserves your careful thought and analysis.
Writing for Periodicals
Normally, if you're writing for a magazine or newspaper, you'll find fixed pay rates that vary somewhat according to what you're writing, your status (first-time contributor, regular, etc.) and your reputation in that field (credentialed authority, national-level clips in prestigious pubs, etc.). You can usually find out what these pay ranges are from market books, the publication's own writer guidelines, and by asking. The National Writer's Union also maintains a members-only database of pay rates of many periodicals. And don't forget your ability to negotiate those rates.
Depending on the field you're writing in, you may be asked to set an hourly rate or quote a project fee. This is true in a number of fields open to freelancers: advertising and PR copywriting, TV scripts, business and technical writing, and a number of jobs related to book publishing (proofing, indexing, ghost writing, etc.). When determining what to charge as a contract writer, consider these four factors:
- Client attributes
- Project Requirements
Overhead refers to all expenses related to running your freelance business and includes: rent and utilities (if any); connection charges (phone, fax, Internet); office supplies; equipment purchases and maintenance; travel; postage and shipping materials; subscriptions to professional associations, publications and books. The total of these expenses comprises your fixed overhead. To break even, you must earn at least this amount.
Calculating Hourly Rates and Net Income
The overhead figure provides a starting point for determining your hourly rate. If you are writing for a periodical and receiving a per-word rate or set article fee, you should also perform these calculations to determine the pay you require in order to accept or reject such an offered assignment.
The next factor is your net annual income, which is your gross income minus expenses and 35 percent for taxes and benefits: health, life, dental and disability insurance, retirement fund contribution, etc.
If you have fixed expenses of $8,000 per year, and you want to net $50,000 a year via freelance work, you must gross $78,300:
– 8,000 (overhead)
–20,300 (35% taxes/benefits)
Now comes the calculation of how much you should charge per hour to achieve that goal of $50,000 net. Consider basing your calculation on a typical, Monday to Friday, 40-hour work week, giving yourself 12 weeks of non-writing to account for holidays, sick days, bank and bookkeeping days, marketing and other non-writing days, family emergencies, etc.:
40 hours per week x 40 writing weeks = 1,600 billable hours $78,300 ÷ 1,600 hours = $50/hour (rounded up)
Keep in mind the overall economics of freelancing: $50,000 per year is a lofty goal for many; the National Writer's Union reports that only 15 percent of freelancers make more than $30,000 per year. And now for the good news: The NWU also reports that pay rates are either stagnant or declining!
Other Hourly Formulas
In her article "An Inside Look at Consulting," Anne Wallingford provides a valuable way to see yourself from an employer's perspective. This example is created by comparing a freelancer's rate to that of a corporate employee earning $50,000 annually.
Step 1. Determine daily labor rate
- Multiply your desired annual net compensation by 1.5 to account for life, health, dental, disability and retirement benefits. This reflects the real cost to a company of an employee.
Example: $50,000 x 1.5 = $75,000 annual labor rate
- Divide the annual labor rate by 180. This is the standard number of billable days in a year once 365 is subtracted by a total of 185 non-work days (104 weekend days, 8 holidays, 10 vacation days, 5 sick days, 24 days for administrative tasks, 34 days to market yourself and your business).
- Daily Labor rate: $75,000 ÷ 180 = $417 daily labor rate
Step 2. Determine Expenses
- Statistics show that overhead for a self-employed consultant averages 44 percent of labor.
Example: $417 x 44% = $183 daily overhead expenses
Step 3. Factor in Profit Margin
- As a business, you are taking risks and providing a service and/or products the same as any other business. Each consultant must determine a reasonable profit margin; this can range from 15% to 40%, with 20% being considered fair in most markets.
Example: $417 x 20% = $84 daily profit
Step 4. Determine daily billing rate
- Add daily labor rate + daily overhead expenses + daily profit
$417 daily labor rate
+$165 daily overhead expenses
+$84 daily profit
- Divide by 8, the typical number of hours in a business work day: $684 ÷ 8 = $85 hour
Best Source for Fee Info
The yearly edition of Writer's Market includes a report on current hourly rates and flat-fee rates for a variety of industries and publishing formats. It is the best source of information I've found on current practices in the freelance industry. The book also includes its own simple formula for figuring an hourly rate that results in the same $50 per hour rate as mine:
- Required annual income + 30% expenses + 30% benefits ÷ annual billable hours = hourly rate
- Thus: $50,000 + $15,000 + $15,000 ÷ 1,600 hours = $50/hour
Experience & Talent
The more of each that you have (and can prove it), the more you can charge. One of the best ways of getting a handle on where you fit is to talk to other freelancers, locally, nationally, and internationally. The online forum at www.freelanceonline.com provides one of the most active congregations of fellow scribes. You can also check your local Yellow Pages for writing consultants, writing groups, PR and advertising consultants and firms.
Several factors come into play:
- Client location: In general, clients on the two coasts (especially in the big cities) expect to pay more than clients in Rocky Top, Tennessee.
- Client size: Larger and more affluent clients usually pay more, and if you try to charge noticeably less than what they normally pay, you will raise their suspicions.
- Client regularity: A client who gives you steady work deserves a lower rate than a one-timer.
- Client special needs: The most common is a client who needs a job done on a "rush" basis — one that will require you to work "overtime" or otherwise alter your normal schedule to accommodate the request. The Code of Fair Practice from the Editorial Freelance Association recommends a 20 to 50 percent surcharge be added to your normal hourly rate.
- Client dependability: This raises the question of "kill fees" and "cancellation fees." These come into play when a client engages your services, you begin work, but the job is cancelled prior to delivery. To account for this scenario, it is recommended that your contract include a kill fee for articles or a cancellation fee (usually the number of hours worked to that point times hourly rate) for contract work.
Finally, before agreeing to any contract work, it is essential that you perform a thorough analysis of the amount of time you estimate the project will require. Writing a tri-fold sales brochure for a company that has compiled all the materials for you on its products and even has solicited customer testimonials is a much different project than one for which you must do the legwork and research to generate those materials. Besides obvious factors like word length and research, there is also travel required-if you're traveling for a client, you are most likely not working for another. Travel time is usually billable. Ask any lawyer.
Written by David Taylor
Author of The Freelance Success Book