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

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Good Post on Business of Freelancing

The next time you get someone asking whether you lounge about in the morning before your two hour and 37 minute workday, point them to this post by Jen Miller. It's in the "X myths of" style, but a good collection that gets past the familiarity of the form. In fact, freelancers who find their businesses lagging might take a look and see if there is a myth or two to which they may have unintentionally subscribed.

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Getting "Real" Success Online

There's a profile of Michael Wolff on the LA Times entertainment blog I'd strongly recommend reading. You can get some good insights into making things work on the web. Wolff has been in the media business, has tried to be a media mover-and-shaker entrepreneur (is doing so again with Newser.com), and has learned some things along the way. One is that people want news more than ever, and yet journalists often are too self-involved to give that to people. That doesn't mean you can't add something beyond a vanilla recitation of facts.

For example, I've been writing my BNET blogging for a few months now. Site management asked people to consider doing news round-ups after some focus group or other. I started adding one on weekdays, only different from how many others do them. Instead of one or two sentences and then a link, I actually do a summary, having some fun in the writing. I might even use a couple of different sources to get some perspective in this short form. As a result, there have already been some days when one of these roundups has been one of the more popular items on the site for that period. The reason I do a full summary is that I've done enough work on the web, and monitored my own sites enough, to realize that very few people will actually click on a link. The links help with search engine optimization and generally raising awareness of the site, which is a marketing function, but only a small portion of people, on the order of ten percent, will look farther. I realize I'm working from a limited sample, but I suspect that the data is not entirely unusual.

Another thing to remember is that there's a difference between notoriety and a real business:
“‘Buzz’ doesn’t get you the kind of traffic that you want,” Wolff said. He’s comfortable, he said, with Newser’s incremental growth of traffic over the last year. “The businesses that make money are the ones you don’t hear all that much about. It costs too much money to get buzz.”

As he points out, a reader on the Web often doesn’t even notice the original source of what she’s reading.

Add that to the many challenges of a start-up Web operation: Establishing a name is fine, but without traffic to back it up, the money disappears.
His experience would tend to support my contention that people won't go farther than what is in front of them. In fact, the site's slogan is "Know More. Search Less."

It also suggests why round-ups can be so popular. I know I read them at various sites to quickly get a grasp on what is going on without necessarily having to wade in too deeply. People want some efficiency and yet they prefer it with some entertainment added. If you can start to generate that, then you stand a chance of building an audience that might indulge your interest in longer pieces, or in books and other media. But you have to first give them what they want, and that is going to mean hours a week in research and writing. That shouldn't be a surprise because whether a full-blown site like Newser.com or your own blog, we're talking about building a business. And if you don't have the funds to invest, you're back to sweat equity.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

Blog Ahead of Time

One of the big challenges in blogging is to keep it going day after day - or even day after every other or every third day. Miss frequency, and you don't gain readers. But posting more often means having time. Here's a trick that just became available in Blogger.com (which I use), and which has been around for some time in some of the other blogging engines: post-dated publishing.


What you're reading today I wrote on Sunday, when I had a bit of time and was knocking off some blog entries in advance. I write when I have a chance, and then set the date and time when I want the post to appear, and then publish. Voila! Instant literary (or not) time travel. It doesn't solve the overall issue of time commitment, but it does let you work on your schedule a bit more. Then, if something comes up that is timely and you want to cover that instead, get to the post before it goes up, change the date, and keep it for another time. In Blogger, you get to this by going to Blogger in Draft; that's the version with all the new features that haven't quite made it to regular Blogger. As for other blogging engines, you're on your own there.


I'm still experimenting with this, and the feature doesn't seem completely solid yet in the way it works. But, hey, it's free, so I'm not going to argue

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Tuesday, December 4, 2007

Two Dozen Literary Blogs

Book blogs have become a significant tool in book marketing. Get major bloggers to look at your book and review it, and you could start reaching a bigger audience than most major book review sections of newspaper (the ones still left). Here are a few that I picked up from a variety of sources. All had to be mentioned in at least one other high profile place, so if you have a book blog, don't take offense - mine certainly didn't make the cut.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Using Blogs to Find People

Ever try to find a high-profile person? One technique that often works is to search on Google for the person's name in quotes along with the word blog. With some luck, the person will have a blog that will, in turn, have a way of contacting him or her. If not a blog, see if the person has a web site with a contact form. Over the years, I've directly reach people ranging from Scott Adams to Susan Orlean using similar techniques.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Practicing Your Craft Though Blogging

I've mentioned before that blogging seems a good way to work on your craft. I'm more convinced than ever before. I've found that the process of forcing myself, multiple times a week, to set down something that I don't have time to edit and refine is providing much of the benefit that I've heard working for a wire service or daily newspaper can confer. Although I've been a fast writer, my grasp of structure, direction, and construction is firmer. I'm not saving the same amount of time in my assignments that I spend in blogging, but I wouldn't be surprised if I took at least an hour less time per major piece at this point.

It all comes down to practice. Say that you're writing four features a month. That would be one a week, except you're not writing all week long. Instead, on the average, you're probably spending a day on the writing, several days on the research, and time for selling, invoicing, chasing down payments, and other administrative tasks.

That means you're actually in the writing process at most 20% of your week. It's a rare musician who's any good that doesn't spend hours practicing every day, even though there may be only one or two evenings actually playing music for a living. Jazz great John Coltrane was said to practice upwards of 12 a day, and lesser names can easily put in three, four, or six hours. Painters sketch to develop the sensory connections between their hands and eyes, and do so constantly. Chefs spend years working long hours doing the basics in food preparation and cooking. Why should writers be any different?

The more you practice, the stronger you can build your craft. When the mechanics become second nature, it's easier to listen to the story and to tell it in your voice, instead of struggling with how to get to the next part of a narrative. If that's not enough, getting better and more assured means being able to improve the quality of your work - making the acquisition of additional assignments easier - and shortening your day, making everything more profitable.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Blogs and What's In It For Me?

I saw a writer on a board ask about blogs and focus on the question, "What's in it for me?" It seems logical enough: you only have so much time for your marketing, and you have to decide what to pursue. But I think the logic quickly breaks down, because the question is wrong.

There is a fundamental flaw when you look at marketing and keep asking what the benefit to you is. Marketing doesn't provide a dollars and cents bottom line that you can bank. In marketing, you reach out to people that you can help and offer them products and services that they would want. The activity should be focused on the customer, not on the provider. The profit you make is a byproduct of how well you serve the needs of your customers. If you do that well, you can make money. But if you want every conversation to be about you and your needs, it gets a lot harder. It's tiresome to talk to someone who is that narcissistic.

In a blog, you can't count on getting sales or anything else. You might as well say that you write books only to promote yourself and to make more money in other activities. While a book might become part of a platform, if you've written a single one you know that that must be more to it than that.

For example, blogging about finding a topic you care for, writing about it, coming across other people who are also interested and want to hear what you have to say - and who want to say something back. It's building relationships with people in the context of the one topic.

If that turns into business, fine. If not ... well, then it doesn't. Blogging can make sense as marketing if you think that real marketing is building relationships. If that is your focus - if you want to find people and reach out to them because you have something to offer - then a blog can be marvelous, though it takes time to establish. You have the perfect opportunity to become your own publisher, to avoid large media as intermediary, and to find your own audience.

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Thursday, August 9, 2007

Blog Links and Responsible Writing

While looking at stats for this blog last night, I had a minor revelation. The article I wrote about SPJ's support for National Geographic in its law suit was fairly popular popular, but with two links in it, not even 10 percent of the readers went beyond what I wrote. That got me thinking about statistics for all my blogs, and I realized that many people never click on links that lead off the blog page.

It was a depressing thought, in a way. It could be a result of a skewing of my audiences, and this is a small sample, but I'm now wondering to what degree people actually use links. In other words, if you provide links for additional information and to back up what you claim, very few people have a practical care. They just read what you wrote and go on to something else.

That puts a great burden on the writer. You can't reliably use links as a way to help explain a story. You can't use statements that are cryptic unless understood in the context of a reference you provided. In short, we may all need to assume that for many people, what we write could be it.

Let that sink in. Posts really need to be thorough, recap all the necessary information, and be able to stand on their own if necessary. Most need to have the discipline of miniature reported articles. That's just on the craft and writing side. How about marketing? Getting a link to your piece in someone else's story is probably going to draw a lot less traffic than you might otherwise want.

We all have a lot of learning facging us when it comes to these new media. No one can give you certain answers because they don't know them. The experience does suggest that paying scrupulous attention to the usage numbers of your blog are important for writing quality and responsibility in addition to better controlling your marketing.

Here's to finding out that this "easy" form of writing is a lot more difficult than one might think.

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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

A Smart Use of Blog Search Optimization

You can find a lot of advice on the web of incorporating common search terms in your blog to help drive traffic. That's fine, if seeing a parade of uninvolved bodies is what you seek. But if you're a writer, you want to engage people. However, the advice can still stand: incorporate search terms. Just do so in a way that makes sense for what you write.

In my food blog, I've recently found an uptick of of traffic coming in from web searches. What surprised me was that they were all for a product called Vacuware. This device is a system for storing food in a container or bag and then removing all the air to preserve it better. I had reviewed the product, but then I had reviewed many products. Yet people kept coming in for this one.

I went to the Vacuware site to see if there was a new model. Instead, I noticed something about seeing the infomercial. The company was pushing its products on television, and some number of people were going to the web to look for reviews - like mine. In fact, I just did a Google search for "vacuware" and "review." My blog listing was literally the top match.

This wasn't good for Vacuware: I had panned a bad feature that they had admitted to me had serious shortcomings. But it did help me me realize how to write what would normally fit on my blog in a way that uses advertising and other aspects of popular culture to drive more readers. Find what's happening in the world that connects to what you you cover, and then anticipate what an audience will need and search for. In my case, I didn't know about Vacuware's television campaign, but I could have and then asked to see a review unit as a result, figuring that someone would want to know whether the device worked.

I set up the headline in the blog entry when I first wrote it to improve searchability. It says "Review: VacuWare Fresh Food System." I wasn't adding search tags at the time, but I'm going back to add some to those reviews, at least: vacuware, system, review, product, vacuum, and storage.

The idea isn't to become the literary equivalent of a prostitute, but to think from the view of your intended audience and anticipate its needs. That helps you provide what they want, which means they'll be heading to your site.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Business of Blogging - Stream of Micropublishing Consciousness

Many writers are interested in starting blogs: to bolster a "platform", interest book publishers, or connect with an audience. But how about to make money? BusinessWeek has an interesting article on blogs that have made it big, and it has a number of lessons for writers:
  • Write for love, not money. Well, maybe love is a bit strong, but write something you feel a connection to. Most of these bloggers didn't go into a particular area because they thought it would lead to bucks. They wrote about something they wanted to write about, and the audience found them.

  • Be patient. Most of these bloggers spent time developing their sites. They didn't generally see overnight success. Instead, they kept working and interest built over time.

  • Audience is everything. Yes, you want all the marketing tips to make your blog huge, but the biggest tip is having content. If you do, and it's something that some group of people connect with, then you and the audience will find each other. The most important type of marketing is having something customers want.

  • Monetize after attracting people. When you start a blog, don't worry about selling ads. It's clutter, and no one is going to be interested - and you won't make anything, because you don't have the traffic. Wait until you've actually got something going.

  • You're in the fashion business. No matter what the topic, people are looking for both content and entertainment. Any oddball topic that takes off shows that a good part of the blogging business has to do with fad and fashion. Keep an eye on the business practices in fashion-based industries, whether clothing designers or consumer electronics. Learn that you need to keep things fresh and be ready to experiment with the next idea.

  • You're in the information business. Fashion, in the broadest sense, is a big part of a blog, but people are motived by the particular expression of ideas. They don't care about your personal takes on the world. They want something that relates to them.

  • Give readers a way to take part. These bloggers give the strong sense that it's important for readers to have a conversation. Read comments and email, respond to them, and even come up with ideas that will encourage more interaction.
An addendum: these blogs are examples of micropublishing - small ventures by most commercial publishing standards, and they're run by the people who write them. I'm becoming more convinced that micropublishing is the future in this industry. Look at this story from Forbes. Even as the tech companies do well, the tech media struggles because advertisers have found that specialty blogs, search ads, and more general media do far more for their businesses. Are you developing your niche publishing plans now, or are you waiting until lack of ads drive your current editorial clients out of business and force you to find an alternative?

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Blogs: the Writer's Weight Room

Many people spend hours a week on treadmills, in front of weight machines, and traveling to and from the gym. They don't get paid; on the contrary, they pay with both their money and time because the experience itself provides a benefit.

I've seen many writers take up blogging and then drop it, or only do so sporadically. My own experience over the last six months would suggest that even when you are busy, it can make sense to set aside time to blog.

To write well, you have to set words to paper. Lots of them. The more you write, the better and faster you will get. But there are only so many assignments you can land. So unless you're writing constantly and getting paid for it, try blogging. Not just a quick line pointing to something that has appeared somewhere else, but actually writing.

I'm currently maintaining four blogs with new posts once a day, Monday through Friday. At even a few hundred words a post, that adds up to well over a quarter million words a year. No, I'm not getting paid for it (although I've had at least one assignment come from an editor I knew looking at a topic I had pointed out).

But it's like intellectual weight lifting. My writing feels stronger and faster just in the last few months. There is always room to improve, if you're putting in the requisite work. Concert musicians will practice hours a day to keep limber and to stretch their abilities in new ways. The same applies to writing. If you're a pro, you should still be writing every day, doing the equivalent of scales, putting one letter after another. You can write non-fiction, write up material that you couldn't otherwise use, work on a novel section at a time - anything you want. The important thing is to sit and write, whether you feel like it or not. You'll get the direct satisfaction of improvement and the indirection one of being able to more easily impress editors. It's a long term investment, but one that seems to me worthwhile.

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Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Bill Would Offer Shield for Bloggers

This is an important story for journalists in the U.S.: CNet reports that a Congressional bill would offer a reporters' shield for bloggers without them having to be associated with a traditional news gathering organization. That would help strength the protections of writers and their sources that becomes particularly important when you may not have the backing of a well-funded client for a traditional assignment but are effectively your own publisher.

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Monday, April 30, 2007

Contract Review: BlogBurst

The blog synidcator BlogBurst.com (owned by a company called Pluck) came up in conversation at FreelanceSuccess.com. The idea of getting some entity to help promote a blog and possibly, gasp, generate some revenue sounds intriguing to most writers, myself included. So I headed over and read the mandatory license agreement. Here's a walk-through of some of the sections according to my understanding (though remember I'm not a lawyer and this isn't legal advice):

1.2 In the definitions section, notice that a Publisher is any entity that has an agreement with Pluck to license material. That means potentially anyone, and you have no control over who uses what you write.

2.1 This includes the wording "you grant to Pluck and its affiliates a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free, license to reproduce, distribute, make derivative works of, perform, display and disclose the Work (and derivative works thereof) for the purposes of (a) adapting the Work to fit within Publisher web sites without substantially changing its original meaning, and (b) distributing the Work (and derivative works thereof) to Publisher electronic web sites"

Non-exclusive is fine on the surface, because you can also do something with the material. But "make derivative works of" means that the company can change what you write. Yes, it has some limitations, but what does "substantially changing" mean? If you cite a news source that you like in your blog and another one runs the piece, could it replace that reference with one to its own site? I suspect so.

2.2 Pluck can give other publishers the same rights that you grant it, so you could go into competition with others licensing and selling your work - because it's royalty-free. There's another consideration that we'll catch under section 3.

3 Pluck's responsibilities are to ensure that you get a byline (though the size and placement of which - maybe far after the blog entry in a round-up of bylines - it and the publisher determines). You also are supposed to get at least one link to the web site on which your content appears. Now remember 2.2. What happens if the publisher starts sublicensing? It's not clear to me that Pluck guarantees that any further use down the chain of permission will get the same.

4.1 You can get royalties "subject to Pluck's then-current policies." But what will they be? Maybe you won't get any? (Check the site and you'll see that at the time I write this, only the top 100 blogs get any compensation.) And the agreement clearly says that you don't expect payment. It may be that Pluck wants to pay people - at least the current management team does. But what happens if they sell the company down the line? The generosity might be less obvious.

5.1 Trouble here, because we're talking about international publishing over the web. How are you doing to guarantee that your work won't violate any of the list of rights under any legal system in the world? You can't, because what may be legal under one law - take US federal law, for example - may not be under, oh, the libel laws of the U.K. or Canada. There are people who travel to other countries to sue writers because it's a lot easier than doing it in this country.

6.1 If Pluck or some of its licensed publishers do you wrong, you say that $1,000 will be the cap of what you can pursue in court - and that will barely get your lawyer out of bed in the morning.

6.2 This indemnification is not only tied to the overly broad warranties of section 5, but it has the following dangerous clause:
(b) any claim or allegation that the Work infringes in any manner any Intellectual Property Right or any other right of any third party, is or contains any material or information that is obscene, defamatory, libelous, slanderous, or that violates any law or regulation, or violates any rights of any person or entity, including without limitation rights of publicity, privacy or personality, or has otherwise resulted in any consumer fraud, product liability, tort, deceptive trade practice, breach of contract, injury, damage or harm of any kind to any third party.
According to this wording, if anyone should so much as charge you with infringing on any of his or her rights, or that something in your writing is obscene or defamatory, of that what you write violates any law or regulation anywhere in the world, you pick up all the expense tabs for Pluck, all of its affected publishers, and all of their managers.

7 The agreement stays in effect unless you terminate it - and you can only do that "by using the Terminate Account feature in the BlogBurst software." Ever try to end a recurring charge, or to stop a series of marketing emails, or anything similar by clicking the appropriate link? 'Nuff said.

8.3 "The parties consent to venue and the exclusive jurisdiction of the state and federal courts located in Austin, Texas" means that if either you or Pluck has a problem with the other, you have to take it up in Austin. That's an expensive proposition unless you live there.

8.7 Pluck can change the agreement as it wants so long as it provides you "notice," and if you send in anything new (and that might be virtually automatic since the company is syndicating your blog), you've agreed to the change. Even if it calls for retroactive changes.

8.8 Any of Pluck's affiliates gets to be included in the indemnification section, and so they could directly sue you.

It takes pluck to come up with some of these conditions, but it would take foolhardiness to agree to them.

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Blogs - Backdoors to the Minds of Clients

Want to get to the inside workings of clients? Try a blog. Oh, sorry - not yours. Theirs.

I just read a story in a publishing trade magazine called Circulation Management. The topic was how many publishers are running blogs on their sites. According to a study, three-quarters of all newspapers run blogs on business-related topics.The Magazine Publishers of America has an online list of 400 blogs of member companies - go there, click on a publication title, and you get a list of at least its top blogs (though possibly not all). Highlight the blog and you see recent post headlines with a first paragraph available by selecting that story. Blogging is also a rapidly increasing trend for many companies that are trying to communicate with their customers.

I'm sure some people think immediately of how this might turn into a regular assignment, and while that might be a possibility, it's actually not the big payoff. What blogs - particularly those written by prominent staffers and top editors - provide is a window into the interests of the publications. You get a real-time clue as to what they think about and what trends they see, by virtue of the content. Forget about only looking at back issues that may or may not represent old editorial regimes or discarded concepts. As things change, you'll see it on a daily or, at worst, weekly basis. Use it well and you'll have a head start to a winning query.

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