Friday, November 25, 2011

Master the Possibilities

The now-famous phrase, “master the possibilities,” used by Mastercard in its promotional campaigns also applies to freelance writing. But with freelancing it’s less about whipping out your credit card than figuring out how to find markets for your work.

Before you go searching, however, you have to figure out exactly what type of writing you want to do. Are you planning to write articles for publication, either in print or online or both? Or are you more into business writing, preparing press releases, ghost-written articles for trade magazines, and such? While you can work in both directions, it’s better to chose one and stick with it. And while both require the same writing skills, each requires a different mind set.

It used to be that publication was more insular. As a freelancer, you’d send your pieces to publications that might print them and you’d get paid. Today, with the advance of technology, the publishing world has exploded with what seems an endless list of possibilities. Unfortunately, just as there are many more opportunities to get published, so are there many more, especially online,  that don’t pay anything. And you can’t live on those. With the ease of online publishing and self-publishing through e-books, many more would-be writers are finding it easier to get published, even if they have to do it themselves, thus by-passing the hurdles of the traditional route. So competition is fierce.

To begin with, you need to check one of the primary annual market guides—Writer’s Market or Literary Marketplace.

The first on the list, Writer’s Market, published by Writer’s Digest Books, has been around since 1921 and of the three is the least expensive with a list price of about $30. It features over 6,000 listings of newspaper and magazine markets, book publishers, including small presses, playwriting and screenwriting markets, and even those for greeting cards. Each listing gives you the information you need to see if your work will fit. And while there are many markets in which your work will be a good match, there are 10 times as many that it will not. And while the two-and-a-half-inch book has it’s good points, it offers a lot of markets that just don’t pay well or not at all.

Literary Marketplace claims it’s the “ultimate insider’s guide” to the publishing industry. For a whopping $339, it ought to be. It offers 54 sections in which it organizes publishers, agents, advertising agencies, associations, distributors, and events. It features twice the number of listings as Writer’s Market, but concentrates mostly on book publishing. Since its cost is prohibitive, you’ll have to use it at your local library.

Whether you use one or the other or both of these annuals will depend on how well you’re repeatedly tapping certain markets, how good you are at selling spin-off material, and where you wish to focus your publishing efforts each year.

As you progress in your freelancing career, you’ll find more markets that aren’t listed in the above annuals. Publishers of all kinds choose whether they want to be published in them. Many refuse because doing so opens them up to receiving tons of correspondence from too many wannabee writers who have neither the skill or talent to write well. They prefer to be more selective. Also, new technologies create new markets. In the last five years many opportunities have opened up for educational and recreational material for home and school computers.

Because editors play musical chairs and their requirements change regularly, it’s a good idea to use the latest version of each of the annuals. It’s important to know the exact name, spelling, title, etc., of a publication’s editor. If you’re going to impress editors, you must get their names right.

In the case of Writer’s Market, you can check out last year’s edition from the stacks at your library, find what publications look good, and make a list of them, then go back to the library and find those on your list in the latest edition in the reference section and note the changes. Because of the high cost of Literary Marketplace, you’ll have to do all your work on the reference edition at the library.

You can keep up with changes during the year by watching the market columns in Writer's Digest Magazine and The Writer, the only two magazines devoted exclusively to writing. You can also subscribe to the Writer’s Market online and catch up with changes there.

If you've decided on a specialty, you'll subscribe, I'm sure, to the best publications in your chosen field, or track them down regularly wherever you can. If you’re serious about book publishing and not just publishing a book, then reading Publishers Weekly regularly at your local library is a must.

Whether markets appear to be a broadening or a row of locked doors is entirely up to you, your energies, ambitions, and skills as a writer, promoter, and, most importantly, a salesperson.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Brushed by the Wand of Success

Any writer who has deposited a check signed by the treasurer of a publication has, at least for that point in time, been brushed by the wand of success. To me, success is relative. It’s that special feeling I get at a particular moment when I feel I’ve made it.

In the beginning, it was all about getting published. Once I did that, I sat back on my newly-found success and waited for the assignments to roll in. I waited and waited and waited. In fact, I ended up waiting for nearly six years. And in all that time, I didn’t publish another piece.

Success is a funny thing. It does things to me, as I’m sure it does to you. I feel a not only a sense of accomplishment but one of euphoria. When I saw my first article in print in a national magazine, Popular Mechanics, I couldn’t believe it. The article looked great. And there was my name in print, as bold as it could be, letting everyone know that I was the writer.

Notice I didn’t say “author.” I reserve that title for those celebrity writers, like Stephen King, Ann Rice, and Norman Mailer, among others, who appear regularly as guests on talk shows like “Charlie Rose” and late-night shows like “Letterman.” I’m just a writer who works hard, the kind that makes up the backbone of the freelance writing industry.

After my initial bout with success, I realized I hadn’t handled it very well. While I managed to get something published, what good did it do me. I had my 15-seconds of fame. What I failed to do was build on that success which stopped me dead in my tracks. What actually happened was what I call a “happy accident”—a good thing that just happens but the chance of repeating it is slim. Some writers go through their whole carriers having happy accidents. I soon learned that I had to take control of my success or I won’t have any others.

I had written an article on building a modern “chuck wagon” box for my hatchback so that could travel across country camping while still eating home-cooked meals. The idea was a practical one, so the magazine's editor thought his readers would benefit from it. However, the subject was far from what I wanted to publish—travel articles about exotic places. It was only remotely related to travel, and the writing wasn’t anything like what I wanted it to be. In essence, this became a dead end piece, an article that couldn’t really help me get anywhere. That’s why I didn’t move on in publishing for six years.

The next big success for me was my first book, a book for teens on solar energy. I learned a lot from that book, but it, again, wasn’t in my field of expertise, just a field of interest. Because it wasn’t about travel or by this time history, but science, I didn’t get anywhere with that project, either. I couldn’t promote the book to publications because it wasn’t what I was writing regularly.

After that bit of success, I began to pay attention more to what I was writing. I focused on several different subject areas and made a point of not writing in others that wouldn’t advance my career.

My next book, called Amish Country, was a big success, and showcased my travel writing skills. The Amish live less than an hour from me, so it was easy to write about them. My future articles and books all moved my career forward, and successes became more frequent. Soon my successes outweighed my failures, and at that point I considered myself a professional freelance writer.

Friday, November 11, 2011

What is Your Profit Motive?

As a freelance writer, you’re in business to make money. How much is up to you. You can write a lot and get paid little or write a little and get paid a lot. Chances are you’ll fall somewhere in between. But one thing is for sure, there are only so many hours in a day, so the amount you make may be limited, especially if you’re writing books or articles for magazines.

If you’re writing books, you can only work on one at a time. The amount of time it takes to research and write a book is staggering while the advance you may receive pays for only a fraction of that time. If you’re a good multi-tasker, you may be able to pound out an article or short story or two while working on your book, but most writers put all their energies into such a massive project.

Writing articles actually pays better in the long run. If you have acquired some steady markets, you’ll be writing constantly and the money will pour in regularly.  If you’re just starting out, you may find yourself strapped for cash between assignments.

So what is your profit motivation? Are you content to make a little while pursuing other creative projects—for this you’ll need a working spouse or a rich benefactor? Or do you need to earn a living to help support a family or yourself if you live alone? Many married women writers claim they’re making a living just like any male writer, but what if they weren’t married and couldn’t depend on their husbands’ paycheck to take care of most or all of the bills? While it may be okay to do this in the beginning, after a while your spouse will grow tired of paying the bills by himself.  The opposite it also true for husbands taking up freelance writing while their wives work at a steady job to pay the bills.

Even if you’ve been publishing and making a modest living at writing, you may be guilty of practices that hinder you from making more money. Maximizing your profit requires you to budget time and money carefully. Will you be able to live on say $12,000 a year or less? Perhaps you had better decide if you love your daily Starbucks latte more than writing!

You need to budget everything. Leave nothing to chance. Periodically review your bills to see if you can lower any of them. This will mean not having the latest smart phone or that big-screen Plasma T.V. that your neighbors have. And while you’re at it, better decide to move from the McMansion you live in now to a more modest house.

But budgeting isn’t all about sacrificing the things you love for your writing. It just means that you need to prioritize. List the things that are most important to you. If that cup of Starbucks coffee or that giant SUV that you drive is important to you, then perhaps you better give up on your dreams of becoming a writer, unless you want to write press releases or advertising copy.

As much as you need to learn about writing to improve your skills, so you should learn about the business of business if you expect to keep your profits growing. You’ll be running a small business. Don’t kid yourself into thinking it’s anything else. Talk to other small business owners. What do they do to make sure they stay in business? While your business may be slightly different than theirs, the procedures are the same, even down to what to deduct on your tax return.

Set up daily and monthly schedules and stick to them. Self discipline is very important in freelance writing. It’s not all about spending leisure time at the café reading Twitter messages from your peeps on your smart phone. It’s about working hard and enjoying your time off, knowing that you’ve done the best job you could getting pieces finished and sent in on time.
Review your methods periodically. Weed out the bad habits. Are you allowing too many interruptions to devastate your schedule? Are you letting too much time slip by before you get an idea and propose it to editors or your agent? Are you learning from your competition?

To be a successful freelancer, you have to periodically review your assets and liabilities. You  can’t afford to imagine there isn't room for improvement. Above all, freelancer writers don't believe in giving things away for free. If a publisher isn’t willing to pay for your work, pass them by. You can’t pay for groceries with a freebie.