Erik Sherman's WriterBiz

A spot about the business of writing as seen by a freelance writer. That includes marketing, sales, contracts, copyright, planning, research - in short, the business end of writing.

Name: Erik Sherman
Location: Massachusetts, United States

I'm an independent writer and photographer who covers business, food, technology, books, media, general features, and pretty much anything appealing that results in a signed check. My work has appeared in such places as the New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, Newsweek Japan, Fortune, Inc, Fortune Small Business, the Financial Times, Advertising Age, Saveur, US News & World Report, and Continental

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Picking Favorites to Improve Social Media Skills and Build Audience

Don't let the opening throw you, because while I start with a Twitter-related service, I'm going to end someplace different.

Someone I follow on Twitter mentioned a site called Twibes. On going to the site, you enter your Twitter user name. Twibes fetches your follow list (for those who don't use Twitter, the list of people whose 140-character messages you elect to receive). You click on the "10 people who you think deserve more followers." I stopped after that, because next it was going to send messages to all of them, asking to sign up in turn and put me on their lists.

Although it seems like another form of virtual mutual admiration society, in the process of trying the site, I realized something: It was pretty easy for me to choose the top ten. And as I picked the first few, I noticed the criteria I was using:
  • Doesn't send out dozens of tweets, but sends out enough that I'm not surprised to see something from them.
  • If mentioning something personal, is at least witty about it.
  • Might provide links to material that I find particularly interesting.
  • If provides links, gives enough of a description that it makes me want to read.
  • Doesn't limit links to their own writing.
  • Represents a person, not a company or organization.
  • Shows some personality in their tweets, not lines that could come out of a text book.
That's when it hit me. By picking a list of favorite Tweeter feeds, I had to pull together the characteristics that made something appealing to me. But then, those criteria should apply to what I wrote on Twitter.

Yes, there are lists of the things you "should" do on Twitter, or Facebook, or in a blog. But forget about the often repeated didactic collections often espoused by those who are trying to promote themselves as experts in social media. Not all people have the same tastes, and you're never going to satisfy everyone. What you can do is start with understanding why some things appeal to you. When you do, you're probably on the way to knowing how to attract kindred spirits, who might enjoy your work.

You could apply this "list of ten" (or 20, or 30, but not too many) to anything else in social media. What are your top favorite blogs and why? Not the blogs that you monitor for a beat or another professional purpose, but that you actually enjoy reading? What web pages are your favorites? It's a human and genuine way to distill the qualities that you might want to emulate.

I suspect there's another level any of us could take this. Are any of your list of favorites one of the "big" names that gets many followers? (Alas, my own tastes seem to run to the relatively obscure.) If so, then you might spend a little extra time seeing what they are doing, because not only are they reaching you in an authentic way, but they're pulling in a lot of different people. That might be due to notoriety of one form, but other factors could aid in the process.

This approach won't guarantee you more traffic or attention. However, it might help you improve the aspects of your online work that tend to make people want to read and come back, and that's a foundation of building an audience

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Friday, March 27, 2009

More on When Someone Asks You to Take Less

Today in my blog, The Reluctant Negotiator, I covered the question of what to do when a client asks you to take less. I'm making a note here because it's an important topic for writers, and also I had an additional exchange with Peter Bowerman that might also prove useful.

Someone had pointed Peter to the negotiation post and he left a comment and referred back to a post he had written on the same subject back in January. He was wrestling with the issue of whether to lower pricing on a job to a client new to him, because he had noticed business slowing a bit this year and wondered if people weren't becoming more price sensitive.

I just left him a comment that I think could be useful to other writers as well, because it's easy to run off-course when making these decisions. Here's my response to him:
Peter, I saw your comment on my blog and so checked out this link to your earlier post. Given the way you described the situation, I think you might be off in the way you're approaching this, for the following reasons:

1) Yes, economic times are bad, but not everyone is doing badly, and not everyone has a smaller budget. If you drop your price in advance, especially with someone you haven't' worked for before, you weaken future negotiations and might even be doing so for no particularly good reason. Don't judge someone else's bank account by loud sounds of panic from third parties.

2) If someone is primarily motivated by costs, then the person will keep looking to cut costs, extending the pricing negotiation throughout the length of the project by asking for more of this or that, being slow on payment, and so on. It's not necessarily the type of business you want.

3) Don't let the mention of other writers bother you. Clients are almost *always* looking at various solutions and providers. To bring it up is a negotiation tactic in which the person thinks he or she will get a better price. So send your regular price and they will still think they're getting a break because they don't know what you'd normally charge.

4) Rolling back pricing because of the economy only makes sense when you get the client to appreciate the value of the concession on your part. If you haven't done business before, they don't know they're getting a break. You'd need to get them to understand what you *would* have charged and that you're only doing this because of the economy. And, as I think about it, that argument sounds really weak to me. Better you offered it as a one-time discount for a first project.

5) If you are giving in on price, is there something you can get in return? One writer on Freelance Success who had responded to my post there noted that she had gotten a guarantee of work over a year from an existing client that needed a drop in rate. Guaranteed work has a specific monetary value that you can calculate and then weigh as part of your decision process.

6) The answer to slow business is not to drop prices, because then you are branding yourself a commodity by the action. Instead, significantly increase the amount of marketing. This becomes particularly important for writers who are established because it's easy to get used to an incoming flow of business from referrals and repeat clients. What is happening is that your converstion from marketing to assignment ration is decreasing. To avoid losing income, increase the pool.

7) Also remember that many clients will complain about the economy because they're hoping to get more for less. It's not that they can't afford your usual rates. They just want to see if they can get you to drop them. Do so, and you'll never get them back up again.

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Thursday, March 26, 2009

Craigslist Scams and Other Cheap Ass Lowlifes

If you've ever looked at Craigslist posts for writers (and, to be fair, they're not all scams), you've probably seen calls for writers to send in sample content to show how well they write. Before even considering sending a sample (and I'm sure the experienced pros wouldn't get as far as consideration), check the following web post:
Heyya peeps, haven't been on in a long while since the hack attacks, but got into this AC thing. So far its shit cause they're real big bloody assholes about what kind of articles they want; kinda like a little kid who picks at his food.

Well I guessed they couldnt turn professionally written articles down so here's what I did short and simple. I went to craiglist put up a job listing in suburbs and shit like that (since the cities cost $25), it was for a writing position on how-to's and guides. I instructed them to send me a newly written sample 500 word article on a topic that I chose for each ad. I also asked for a resume to make it look more authentic.

Took about 4 days, but I got maybe 10 to 20 articles on good subjects that I submitted to AC and got paid a good $35 bucks total for the articles since they were very nicely written.
Yup, there are people who put up such notices just to get articles and then to resell them. The best way to avoid such crap is to ignore the postings.

But that's not the real problem, because this is so obviously a scam. The real problem is all the businesses and organizations and individuals that want every writer to take a flier with them because they think they have some God-given right to impose on anyone who seems even remotely literate.

Not long ago, the -- get this -- National Endowment for Financial Education, a freaking non-profit "that helps Americans from all walks of life gain the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve their financial well-being" was emailing writers to see if they were available to work, but wanted two articles rewritten so they could decide which approach they liked best and choose the writers they thought were a fit. Do free work for the possibility of maybe getting some work. Is this their idea of financial well-being, or even borderline intelligence?

Screw that. I'm absolutely sick of it. In the words of Goodfellas, "Fuck you, pay me." You're not sure that you'll like what I do? Fuck you, pay me. Not sure what you really need, but figure you'll know it when you see it? Fuck you, pay me. Want to be able to sample everything on a restaurant's menu and then decide afterward what you'll actually order? Fuck you, pay me.

Most of us try to be pleasant, polite, and profession. But there's no getting through to people whose skulls are as thick as the Earth's mantle. To such people, I say:
  1. This isn't a pastime. I actually have to work for a living.
  2. Do you get paid? If not, do you own a piece of the company? No? Jeez, you really are as stupid as you look, aren't you?
  3. You want a guarantee? Pay extra money at Best Buy.
  4. Do I look like a trust fund baby?
  5. If you can't say it with a straight face to the electric company, don't try me. I have less money and understanding than they do.
  6. Maybe you can live with yourself in asking people to do free work for your convenience, but not in my office or on my dime.
  7. Have you ever read The No Asshole Rule?
When some moron who thinks you were born yesterday suggests this kind of bullshit, because there is no other word for it, say this:
Don't tell me about getting exposure to a bunch of deadbeat bums like you. Don't tell me that I can get enough money for hours of my work to buy a pack of gum. Don't tell me that you might pay me at some time in the future. Pay me for the work you're asking me to do or go fuck yourself, because I'm certainly not going to let you fuck me.

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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Gawker's Slowest Payers List

The information is not scientifically gleaned, but it's still worthwhile to look at
Gawker's list of the ten worst late paying offenders in print. This is just another example of why it's worth doing a little research and digging before approaching a new client. Who needs the headache of waiting for -- get this -- two years for a lousy $40. You'll have to check the link to find the name of the corporate miscreant.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

Moody's Warns on Media Companies

Debt rating agency Moody's has come out with a "bottom rung" list of the 283 companies that it thinks are most likely to default on their debts in the coming year. David Weir, a colleague of mine on BNET, covers the media and put together the media companies on the bottom rung list. I went through and found the ones more likely to be using writers (I'm including links so you can check to see if they own any of your outlets):
  • Cumulus Media (operates radio stations in mid-sized and smaller markets)

  • Freedom Communications (many daily and weekly newspapers and eight television stations)

  • GateHouse Media (big newspaper publisher of dailies, free and paid weeklies, and shoppers)

  • MediaNews Group (operates 54 dailies in 11 states, a television station in Alaska, and radio stations in Texas)

  • Morris Publishing Group (13 dailies, 28 weeklies, four city magazines in Georgia and Florida, and Skirt! magazine)

  • Radio One (various media focused on African-American audiences, including radio stations, a television cable channel, GIANT magazine, and online/interactive media)

  • The Reader's Digest Association (besides the obvious, many magazines, online properties, and book publishing to boot)

  • Spanish Broadcasting System (radio stations, television programming, and online)

  • Univision Communications (Spanish-language television, radio, and interactive media)
As far back as I can remember, this sort of broad warning from a rating agency is unprecedented. Moody's was one of the companies smacked about for not having given a more honest appraisal of the various collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) that have become a financial plague.

Continuing the bad news, if you write for newspapers, you need to click on that link to David's piece, because he also has Time's deathwatch list of ten major metropolitan dailies, including the Boston Globe and the Miami Herald.

Doing work for a company in dire financial straits is a gamble. The company could become increasingly slow in paying, might go into bankruptcy (tying up any invoice you have outstanding), or might even simply go out of business. In writing for such a company, you have to go in with your eyes open and treat the income as "extra," and not something critical to keeping food in the fridge and a roof over your head.

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Monday, March 9, 2009

Complaints on WritersWeekly About Absolute Write

As the saying goes down South, I've got no dog in this fight. But some writers are claiming that Absolute Write either owes them money now, or did and took a long time to pay. In the first case, MacAllister Stone apparently admitted to being late. There is no response on the second situation yet. But if you're thinking of teaching a class there, you might want to consider the time it could take to get paid.

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Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Supreme Court to Hear Electronic Database Appeal

Those of you who have followed the trials and tribulations of the electronic database class action filed years ago by ASJA, the Authors Guild, and NWU may remember that the last news was that settlement objectors had been successful and a court had tossed the agreement as it stood. Each side had its points, and I'm not going to rehash them here (other than to note that my reluctance about the objection was not on principle but on pragmatism and what I feared it might effectively do). Now the Supreme Court is hearing an appeal on whether unregistered works can be part of the agreement.

It's pretty rare for the Court to take up any issue, but figure that their interest is not in freelance writers or publishers so much as clarifying issues of copyright or of class actions. The issue is whether those with unregistered works can sue, because under U.S. copyright law, you must have registered a work (even if after an infringement) to bring a legal action. At the same time, a contract is actually a form of private law. Because the lead plaintiffs had registered copyright, their suit was legal. So do the non-registered, who technically may not have had the right to sue, get bumped? Does the whole settlement go out the window? Or is a settlement agreed to by both parties acceptable? It certainly will be interesting to watch - I'm ready to sit down for oral arguments with a bowl of popcorn.

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Monday, March 2, 2009

Asking for Work Isn't Marketing

Yes, the economy is down. Yes, a good number of publications have been cutting back and even going under. Yes, you have to market harder to get work. But, no, simply asking people for work is not marketing.

One of the topics I"ve seen in the writers' newsgroups and forums is that of sending out letters of introduction (LOIs) and the disappointment that comes from not getting a response. But think about it for a moment. A letter of introduction should be just that: an introduction of the writer to the client. It's nothing more than knocking on the door. To expect work to immediately come from one is to expect that, to the potential client, you are important. You're not.

You need to be ready to follow up on an LOI, particularly at a time when everyone and their writing siblings are trying to nail down work. Even if you've found some approach for LOIs that seems to turn into assignments for you, be prepared to go further. And if you've never had much luck with them, don't expect more today.

That goes for asking for assignments from editors. It's one thing if you have a strong relationship that you've build over time (meaning that you have been marketing, particularly by satisfying the client's needs through your work). But if you haven't, then you're just another yelping writer outside the door, asking for a handout. Instead of doing the usual, try something different. Send an idea or two with an LOI to show that you're capable of taking some of the burden off an editor. Make a sharp observation or two (diplomatically put, of course) about a company's latest marketing campaign to show a prospect that you have paid attention to what it has done. Show that you can provide some value. That will help you stand out from the gimme crowd.

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