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
Thursday, April 2, 2009
Monday, October 13, 2008
Five Strategies for the Credit Crisis
- Consider a book. Book chains and publishers are looking to make money from consumer fears with financial titles. So now might be a good time to go to a publisher with a title that helps people either make sense of what is happening or find ways to lessen the impact.
- Talk to your editors now. They will also be reacting to everything happening and will likely be open to stories about cutting costs, reacting smartly with personal investments, and even getting into stronger position for the eventual recovery.
- Companies are likely to expand custom publishing even as they trim back advertising. They can't completely stop marketing, so they'll want what seems to provide a greater assurance of success.
- Those specializing in financial advice will probably need to repair customer relations and otherwise find a way to dig themselves out of a hole. So offer them some help in doing so.
- Take the load off clients. When everyone wants to cut costs, help them by providing additional services. For example, you might take on large aspects of a project, managing it for the company at an additional cost that is still lower than it would be to bring someone in-house or even hire a temp. That frees them up to shore up the business and increases your income. A warning on this strategy: do not give the services away, or you devalue them and now create the expectation that you should be doing it for free going forward.
Monday, October 6, 2008
Beware Ideal Deals
When people start setting the picture of how well you're going to do by them, it's almost a guaranteed red flag that you won't. Instead, that plan will get put off, then modified. When it goes to the farthest extreme, you're asked to do some free work for now to show your commitment, or to hang on while the funding comes in. At that point you should head out the door instead.
The best way to avoid such a lure is to remember the following points:
- Good clients want to check you out as much as you want to check them out. Anyone who is ready for a commitment at day one is someone who takes such an arrangement lightly and who is then likely to find it easy to break the commitment, whether now or later.
- A client or prospect can't push you any farther than you allow. Keep your business plan and strategy in mind. If you're adverse to letting a client become more than 20 percent of your income, then reject out of hand suggestions that you devote far more time to the client who walks in a dream.
- When you hear big plans, suggest phasing things in with a trial project and then maybe a second, larger one (should things get to that point). You'll get a chance to see what the client is like to work with and whether pay comes in a reasonable amount of time. Better burnt on something small than something large.
Friday, July 25, 2008
Emirates Airline Dumps Its Magazine
I'm not sure that it will be so long before other carriers consider the same sort of tactic; they're already charging for checked baggage. Also, the people who produce the in-flight digital material are probably different from those that create the printed magazines. Between these two factors, if you count on airline magazines for a significant amount of your business, it might be smart to branch out as quickly as possible and find other clients so you don't get caught in a change, should it happen. And if it doesn't, the worst thing is that you end up with more clients.
Thursday, July 3, 2008
Myth of the Long Tail?
But enough of them; let's talk about us. Does the long tail hold any hope for individual writers? Yes and no. The upside is that if you have some writing that will interest a large enough community, and you market hard, then you can make money. You can, that is, if you put in the work and don't sit passively, assuming that the long tail is going to bring your income to you.
I get the sense that many writers look to the long tail concept as a silver bullet that will bring money in without them having to do anything else. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Say that an Amazon sees 20 percent of its 2007 sales of about $14.8 billion in the long tail (though the study would suggest more like 10 percent). According to Anderson, the tail should be everything that you wouldn't find in a Borders or Barnes & Nobel physical location. That means every one of the estimate million book SKUs the 10 or 20 thousand you might find in a store. So be generous and call the remainder 9.8 million. Divide and you get ... $285 per year per SKU.
Even if there is an average of 2 SKUs per book (each SKU representing a specific version of the book you could buy), that's annual revenue of $570 from Amazon. Even if that is only part of what you get (and remember, physical book outlets won't even have your title, by definition of tail), what are you going to make total? Maybe $1100, and that's in total sales. The cut going back to the publisher is half, so you're back to your royalties on $570 a year, or maybe $60. Self-publish and you could get the number higher, but that's hardly the passive approach to the long tail.
The only hope the "long tail" offers the individual author is the old concept of niche audiences, marketing to them, and making money. Nothing new there, and nothing easy. In fact, I'd argue that the only writer who is really making money off the long tail is Anderson himself.
Monday, June 30, 2008
Time to Debut Magazine Mix and Match
Maghound.com allows consumers to choose titles from a variety of publishers for a mix-and-match “subscriptions” where they pay one monthly fee and have the ability to switch titles at any time. Unlike traditional subscriptions, members aren’t locked in their memberships and can cancel whenever they wish. [President of Maghound Enterprises Dave] Ventresca says that Maghound.com offers “flexibility, choice, control and personalization.”I think this has to be a relatively scary thing for publishers to get into. Until now, people I know would make a calculation regarding a magazine subscription: If you were going to spend more on individual issues than you would on the best discounted price you could find for a subscription, you went for the subscription.
The fear? That model pushes people into getting more subscriptions than they may want. Publishers like subscriptions, because they help guarantee that much more paid circulation, and that means being able to charge advertisers more.
But with Maghound, people can swap subscriptions at any time, and it doesn't seem to cost too much more than the "$12 for 12 months" approach, except you don't get locked in. So I'm betting there are going to be magazines that start to see their subscriptions numbers slip. That will translate into even more uncertainty at publications, which could drive even loonier and more desperate attempts to "attract" readers - a scary thought, because it usually involves some complex wishful thinking and not coming up with something that you know people want, even if they don't know that they want it. That would translate into stranger assignments and more hoop-jumping. You can bet I'll go to the site to sign up - and to see which magazines I might think of avoiding.
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
What's Black and White and Red All Over: the Newspaper Industry
On top of long-term changes in the industry, the weak economy is also hurting ad sales, especially in Florida and California, where the severe contraction of the housing markets has cut deeply into real estate ads. Executives at the Hearst Corporation say that one of their biggest papers, The San Francisco Chronicle, is losing $1 million a week.If you're still writing for newspapers as anything more than a hobby or outlet of self-satisfaction, it's time to rethink your business model - quickly.
Over all, ad revenue fell almost 8 percent last year. This year, it is running about 12 percent below that dismal performance, and company reports issued last week suggested a 14 percent to 15 percent decline in May.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
Outlasting the Amateur Onslaught
- Amateurs give away their work.
- Amateurs have "regular" jobs that let them give away their work.
- Publishers trying to reduce their operating expenses turn away from pros.
- Photographers are seeing rates plummet, at least in the lower and mid-tier markets.
- Many photographers are frustrated and don't know what to do.
I'm one the amateurs you describe and I'm surely not gonna give up just because of a rant of an unsuccessful pro.There is a lot of smart observation in that remark. Complaining won't make the problem go away, and complacency will wind up in your professional diminution and possible financial ruin. You need to find ways to accomplish a few objectives:
I earn my living elsewhere, can afford professional equipment, can take pictures that get published, and enjoy doing it. It's not about what you studied or whether you decide to describe yourself as a "pro" - it's about the photos and about contacts with people.
> They will work for discount / free or the honour of having their work
Yes, that's me. Face it or go play somewhere else.
- Know that value delivered begets success. People do business with service providers because they are trying to gain some value from the exchange of money for work. If you cannot deliver quality - that is, what the customer expects in the way the customer expects it - then you cannot succeed. Business is a series of exchanges in things valued, and you can only do well if you have something with perceived value.
- Improve your quality. I know many writers take umbrage when I or others have suggested that quality was the root of success. I certainly don't hold myself out as the be-all and end-all of writing. I'm constantly trying to improve my craft, my reporting, and my business practices. But over the years, that effort has turned into more extensive word-of-mouth among clients and prospects, better clips, and greater ease in delivering what clients are really looking for. Everyone - but everyone - can get better, and if you find that the concept stings, you should take a cold, hard look at how you write and how you run your business. I've never known a person who was successful beyond luck or birth to operate in any other way.
- Improve your markets. Amateurs have a difficult if not virtually impossible time in cracking top markets - or in staying there - because they don't have the abilities, experience, and willingness to deliver consistently what those markets require. Conversely, amateurs will gravitate toward lower-end markets because there are lower barriers to entry. In short, the bottom feeding clients want something for nothing, and they see writing as a commodity. You should drop such customers because they keep you from moving forward and destroy a sense of satisfaction in the work.
Monday, June 2, 2008
What Your Hourly Rate Isn't
- Double-check your calculation of a minimum hourly rate. I've seen writers assume that they will bill a much higher percentage of their time than is realistic. Calculating a minimum hourly charge involves tallying all the money you need to make for a given time period, say a year, and then dividing it by the billable hours for that period. Most consultants and freelance businesspeople will do reasonably well if they can charge for half of their time. However, I've seen writers assuming that they would be able to charge for 70 percent or more. That is great if it can happen, but it's a terrible idea to assume it will. The higher your number of billable hours, the less money you have to make per hour to hit your financial goals. The problem comes when you find that you don't bill that many hours but have been charging as though you would. Suddenly you wind up with less money than you need. Do yourself a favor and figure that at best only half of your time is billable.
- Don't focus on the hour and forget to look at the bigger picture. If you want a sobering number, take all the money you actually make, not need to make, for a year and then divide that by the total number of working hours, not just the amount you can bill, in that year. Taking two weeks vacation, holidays, weekends, sick time/personal days out of the picture, but leaving in marketing and administration time, that should leave you with 1,840 hours. So divide a year of income by 1,840 to find out what you actually made per hour for a typical 40 hour work week. Here's a hint: if you grossed $100,000, that would be just over $54 per hour. If you're grossing $40,000, that would be under $22 per hour. When you think you're satisfied because you made $100 per hour on a given job, remember the big picture. You have to aim higher in revenue because you have to pay yourself for all those unbilled hours.
- Remember to aim high. The previous couple of calculations should suggest that it is all too common for writers not to be charging enough. Remember that when setting your pricing. If your current clients pay far lower than you need to make per hour, it is time to find some new ones.
- There is a fallacy of "market" hourly rates. There are too many variations on markets to come up with a number that is really representational; rates will vary by company size, industry, type of writing, needed expertise, and so on. You might ask another writer what he or she makes for a certain type of work, but is that what you can make? Do you offer enough value to match that number? Or is the writer charging too little, and will you leave yourself in someone else's economic hole? Focus on what you need to make as well as the value you can bring, because you can't get away with charging more than what clients perceive you to be worth.
Wednesday, May 7, 2008
New Magazine Launches - Up and Down at the Same Time
So what does this mixed bag of numbers mean? Not much. Since I have started tracking new magazine launches, I have witnessed a two or three years’ declines after a very healthy and busy year. 2005 was a very healthy year. 1013 new magazines were launched. The decline started in 2006. We are in our third year of decline. In 2006 we have seen 901 new launches, the number dropped to 715 last year, and if the trend of the previous years continues, we will see another drop again this year before the numbers bounce back. Call it market correction if you please, but definitely it is NOT a sign that print is on its way out. History will tell us otherwise. So enjoy this quarter’s crop and look forward to more titles to come next month.I must agree and disagree. On one hand, no, magazines aren't going to disappear overnight. However, even counting downward economic pressure, this is hardly something to make you feel comfortable. You have to find where the magazines are still strong and forget about any old mainstay that is being hit badly.
Monday, April 21, 2008
Daring to be Wrong
Although I do believe in the adage that no question is too foolish to ask, I think we all have to temper that with another: if you're going to ask a question, understand why you do. The answer for many writers, including a number who have many years of experience under the belt, is that they ask questions because they're afraid of making even the slightest mistake. That in itself is close to the biggest error you could conceive.
There is no way you can ever come close to complete certainty. As in any activity, you cannot just read how to do it. The only way to learn is to try and to make mistakes. There will be times you say or do the wrong thing. Don't worry so much. So long as you're not doing something like making up a story or delivering excremental effort to a client or insulting people, you're not going to do irreparable harm to your business.
It's as though people want a set of rules and checklists to follow that will guarantee success. But the more specific the prescriptions, the less flexible they can be and the more certainly you will settle on something that cannot work all the time. In other words, the more you try to get the complete and exact list of steps you need to succeed in business, the more you set yourself up for failure.
The important thing is to learn the underlying principles, not their specific applications in all circumstances, because what will work for you will not necessarily work for me. Just try to practice the following:
- Put your client's interests before your own.
- Do your best and then keep trying to surpass it.
- Remember what you need out of your business and don't dishonor it.
- Acknowledge all the help and luck you have had and do what you can for others.
- Say no to the unethical and odious.
- The business is about relationships, not about words.
- The sooner you make the first 5,000 mistakes, the sooner you can learn and improve.
Monday, April 7, 2008
More on HarperCollins Move Away from Advances
To be headed by veteran publishing executive Robert S. Miller, the imprint also likely won't pay for more desirable display space in the front of bookstores, a common practice. Instead, the as-yet-unnamed unit will share its profit with writers and focus much of its sales efforts on the Internet, where a growing portion of book sales are shifting.There's been some discussion in the writing community about whether the huge advances to a few end up causing the problem - and they may trigger it. But most publishers try to gauge advances by expected sales in the first year or two and the attending royalty payments to authors. If a book doesn't earn out its advance - and most don't - then perhaps it's not even selling enough to pay for the advance. Assuming that, then is splitting profits going to be better for authors? ON reflection, I just don't see it. This is part of a cost-savings measure designed to lower risk, so why would the publisher do this if it were going to pay out more money on the average? I suspect that most authors would end up with even less than usual under the arrangement.
Now consider that the publisher is going to focus on Internet sales, and not sales from stores. Oh? As in, let's depend on all our sales from Amazon, B&N, and Borders online? Sure, it's an important channel, but, alone, not enough. Amd then they'd also be changing the return policy to those resellers as well, so figure that they might have the same reluctance to do business that way.
Trachtenberg also points out that Harcourt Brace Jovanovich tried eliminating returns in 1980, offering higher discounts instead: "Orders fell off, however, and the publisher reversed itself." Then again, he notes that B&N CEO Steve Riggio said several years ago that he'd rather be able to mark down books than return them - whatever that means. Retaiers in other industries do that, like clothing, but they also get much higher discounts on products and, so, have more room to discount without an absolute loss.
All this will depend on the economic market in the book industry, and where that comes out isn't completely clear, even though the Journal article tried to paint an overall negative picture. On one hand, Borders has put itself up for sale, and the WSJ noted that Hyperion's operating income (pre-tax profits) is down a bit. B&N saw a 9 percent drop in its earnings in its fourth quarter in comparison with the previous year, but that's only half the story, as it earned more and paid out more dividends to investors than analysts expected and also said that its first quarter this year would be profitable, rather than the loss that analysts had predicted. Then again, many on Wall Street are ambivalent on Amazon. In short, there is too much going on that could be written off to a shaky general economy, I think, to get resellers to embrace big change in the way they operate, which means that the new Hyperion group could find that sales will be largely limited to the Internet. In short, even if dropping an open return policy could cut by 30 to 40 percent the number of book copies they have to print, I'm betting that the overall hit on sales would more than make up for that, meaning that the prospects for authors just don't seem that hot.
Thursday, April 3, 2008
Steady Clients: Passion or Passivity?
Most people in business assume that a steady client is a good client. From some views, that is absolutely correct: you lower your cost of acquiring a new customer while increasing the customer's lifetime value, or the amount of money the entity spends with you over the span the two of you do business. In short, the more money you make over time from a customer, the more efficient your marketing becomes, the more time and resources you can invest in building the future of your business, and the greater return on your previous marketing time and money investment.
Not all steady customers are the same:
- Some like doing business with you. They will seek you out, at least for the types of work they perceive you as doing well.
- Another group does business out of convenience. They have experience with you, so you become the devil they know, rather than the one they don't. That's not to say that all clients in this category consider you a devil, but we all have our weaknesses. On the balance, they find that doing business with you is a reasonably move on their parts.
- Third comes clients that work with you out of habit or inertia. They may not particularly like your work, business model, or style, but it's not enough to drive them off immediately.
- Fourth is the captured group that does business with you because they feel that they have no other choice, but they are actively interested in finding a replacement.
I know we'd all like to think that all of our clients love us, but it's simply untrue. Look back over your career with some honesty, and you'll remember companies that flushed you out, or that took some work but didn't seem overly interested in having you do anything additional. There may have been some companies that kept a relationship only to get through a project - they were captive at the time - and beat a hasty retreat at the first possible moment.
Looking at your clients this way isn't to enter the land of blame, but of assessment. It may be that you and a client were or are simply incompatible, and that further business would run counter to either of your interests. The client might have been so unrealistic that a reasonable business effort would never have sufficed, and that there would never be enough forthcoming compensation to justify the exertion. Or it could be that you need to improve something - writing, business practices, areas of knowledge, or so on.
It generally takes time to know yourself well enough to begin making these judgment calls. I remember many, many years ago screwing up royally on some work and trying to blame the other party, but in my heart I knew that I was at fault. In a case like that, all you can do is work like hell to get good at what you do. Over time, the better you are, the more business starts coming your way, and the more you are able to command in the market. If you can get better faster, more power to you. If you're behind, why not work at getting better? Over time you might be able to increase a client's enthusiasm, and the chance that it will be around tomorrow.
Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Newspapers Fold Sections, Drop Coverage
Newspapers went through their glycogen a long time ago, with huge profits that would make pharmaceutical companies envious. Then came the fat. Now we're down to burning muscle and bone. Look at the signs:
- Late last month, the Boston Globe sent a note to advertisers saying that Living/Arts will get combined with Sidekick and Food, depending on the day (with weather moving there as well). Business&Money gets mashed in with Careers. In other words, they don't have the ads to support all the pages.
- The Village Voice recently fired 40-year dance critic veteran Deborah Jowitt for economic reasons, along with film critic Nathan Lee. As the New York Times story noted, "Lichtenstein, a spokeswoman for the paper, said in an e-mail message: 'Financial constraints force us to convert two full-time positions to freelance jobs. Both Deborah Jowitt and Nathan Lee have been asked to continue writing for The Voice.'"
- As the Times notes in a separate story, movie critics are also on their way out - "laid off, reassigned or bought out in the past few years" - at a dozen dailies.
- If things weren't bad enough with ads, newsprint prices are risingas the Wall Street Journal notes. "The drop in supply has pushed prices up $60 from their October 2007 low to $620 per metric ton, raising yet another hurdle for newspaper publishers already grappling with declining circulation and advertising revenue." Paper manufacturers, long beneficiaries of their association with newspapers, are trying to keep their profits up for now, because they know it's only a matter of time until they're in major trouble.
I understand the sense of professional grief that can arise in writers, but you have to get over that quickly if you're making your income from newspapers. They aren't going to last. You need to find other ways of making a living now. It might be magazines, at least for a few years longer. It might be corporate. Or have you considered working with others in your area, maybe putting together a review site for local activities, maybe with some of the other writers getting squeezed out, and eventually looking for ad money to support it?
It's painful to think that you must give up what you love. But the end is coming, and you have to think about yourself on a very practical level. If you're not eating, you won't be writing for long.
Whatever course seems good to you, if you've been putting off walking away from newspapers, what you're seeing is the bow of the ship dipping beneath the waves. There are lifeboats to the side, but for them to do you any good, you have to walk over and climb in.
Friday, March 28, 2008
Watching the Writing Markets During a Recession
Traditional media gets hurtThere's something you could have predicted easily. The credit markets are down as is consumer confidence, and there are "lower sales in the automotive, technology, and packaged goods categories." That means pressure on ads and ad agencies - and the places that the ads run:
TV and consumer magazines should be able to hang tough, say industry observers--but it's not a pretty picture for radio and newspapers.
TV limps alongThere might be a little loss of ads on television, but not overwhelming. Not like most freelance writers get directly affected by that.
Magazines are a mixed bagSamir "Mr. Magazine" Husni, chair of the University of Mississippi journalism department, and one of the leading experts on the magazine market, thinks that successful titles targeting luxury markets will probably be fine. (UPDATE: I added the successful with the intent of noting that some luxury market magazines simply won't make it. And here's a blog post at the Wall Street Journal making the same point.) Mass market magazines will see a drop in ads and might well increase news stand prices - meaning a 6 to 12 month slump in news stand sales, which, I'll note, can affect how much advertisers are willing to pay. So, expect many titles to get thinner or push shorter article lengths. However, in an interesting twist, Hasni expects new titles to launch. Surprised? Apparently Fortune, Esquire, and Entertainment Weekly all launched during recessions. It's easier for new publications - if they have the funding, I'd think - to compete with established titles. Then when the market improves, the new magazines float upward as well. But I would emphasize my well-funded addition. If ad markets are soft, it's much harder to bootstrap to success. Be sure that new titles are from well-heeled companies.
Newspapers in painThey were having trouble before, and the recession is just going to make it worse. I'm already hearing stories from some writers who are finding that their newspaper clients are reducing freelance budgets and even asking the writers to reduce their fees. This will only get worse with the ascendancy of Internet publishing and ads. If you've been doing work for newspapers, now is really the time to reconsider your business model and see whether there might not be a better way for you to go.
Radio markets sound badThe market for freelance writing on radio is pretty poor normally, so as radio stations take a downturn along with papers (though maybe not as extreme), it's going to get worse. Funding for NPR is tighter as well. I'd classify this as a "
OnlineAnalysts figure that the Internet is going to scream along even more strongly during a recession. According to Jupiter Media, so says an Ad Age story, alternative media spending has jumped 22 percent over last year. The analyst firm is forecasting another 20 percent jump by next year. Part of that is because advertisers have less confidence in traditional media - and part of that is because marketers cannot easily show how effective particular outlets or campaigns are. However, what the heck does alternative markets mean? That gets tricky: interactive marketing; banner ads; behavioral targeting (following someone's activities on the web); and even branded entertainment, which includes "event sponsorship and marketing, paid product placement, advergaming and webisodes." As MediaDailyNews notes, it's unclear exactly where any of that money will end up - and so, it's unclear how much will translate into sponsoring content that needs writing. Much of it goes into search advertising, and that only drives content indirectly. But it's important, and even people doing straight editorial online need to understand the basics of search engine optimization as it applies to writing. That means a lot more than "stuff in as much keywords as you can."
Thursday, March 27, 2008
Cry Me A River: Musician Billy Bragg on the Internet Underwriting Creatives Provide
In our discussions, we largely ignored the elephant in the room: the issue of whether he ought to consider paying some kind of royalties to the artists. After all, wasn’t he using their music to draw members — and advertising — to his business? Social-networking sites like Bebo argue that they have no money to distribute — their value is their membership. Well, last week Michael Birch realized the value of his membership. I’m sure he’ll be rewarding those technicians and accountants who helped him achieve this success. Perhaps he should also consider the contribution of his artists.I agree with Mr. Bragg that there is a significant problem for creatives of all stripes. Also, anyone who's been reading my posts for any period of time knows that I'm not a fan of giving work away, whether for "exposure" or not. (Bragg points out that he gets exposure from radio stations; the difference is that they pay for the use of his music.)
However, the Internet issue is also a thorny one because of "monetization." Companies that own sites must find ways to make money not just from their sales, but from their operations. This is a situation that has many CEOs biting their nails late into the night. On one hand, they pay a whopping amount to acquire the social media sites because they're sure that if they don't, their companies will be left behind. But on the other hand, they can't figure out how to make money online.
I don't mean to point this out by way of excusing the system, but rather as a form of explanation. Many of the now hot Internet sites depended on investors for enough money to operate. When they sell, the investors get the money, and there are still those jobs that were created. But the real elephant in the room is that making money is far more difficult than any of the Internet cheerleaders want to admit.
So, do you give a cut to the musicians, particularly "the fledgling songwriters and musicians posting original material onto the Web tonight" whose "first legal agreement that they enter into as artists will occur when they click to accept the terms and conditions of the site that will host their music"? It would seem fair, but how do you calculate it? What is the value compared to, say, the amalgamation of posts and profiles that draw people to sites?
I don't have an easy answer. If I did, I'd be making a whole lot of money from knowing it. The one thing that is clear is that the start-ups, even as they get big, don't have the cash resources to pay everyone, and the corporations that buy them do so assuming that the business model of free content is going to remain. Otherwise, they would need to see enough cash to pay people.
We can draw a lesson. Your work may be wanted on the Web, but you can't depend on others to make a living for you. You must do that yourself. If you're going to use a site to promote yourself, either be comfortable with the thought that you'll never see a dime, or start developing business models now that will let you make money. Perhaps you need a link to an online store. Maybe you need people to come to your own ad-supported site. But certainly you cannot depend on others to make your business work for you. That is your job.
Friday, March 21, 2008
Taking Low-Paying Work
Your latest email is great. I think there’s a #10 issue to address: whether to take on work that pays less than your normal rate because some money coming in is better than none. This is an issue that we go around and around about online, I know, but it’s a very real one, especially in this economic climate. Yes, taking lower-paying work will take time away from my marketing for better gigs, but I need to pay the mortgage, too. I know I’ve seen you opposed to doing this, in general, but you might want to revisit the issue and examine it from both sides.Happy to oblige. What I oppose is taking low-paying work when that becomes a reflex action to any business difficulty. The problem is that you set yourself up in a few ways:
- You generally have to work more with low-paying work to make a living, which means that you end up cutting down your marketing time and reducing the chance of getting something that pays reasonably.
- Often writers point to an effective per-hour rate that seems reasonable. That may be true for the off-piece, but those who do significant amounts of such work don't generally seem to do that well overall. That's because you still have to spend time getting the work in and managing the flow. Now your marketing needs increase, because an increased set of assignments means you must bring them in. So you're cutting down on the time available for that lower-paying work and putting a ceiling on what you can earn.
- It should take about the same amount of time to do a competent job on a given length assignment; it's independent of the pay. To decrease the time and increase the hourly rate, you cut corners. Read the writers' boards and you'll see how many people complain about having the do the extra interviews, concept planning, rewrites, etc. That means, to some extent, you must do less than your best, and certainly less than would be required with a higher-paying and more demanding client. You end up turning the writing into factory work. Those who want the commodity writing excuse their lower pay by lowering their expectations. However, if you do this all the time, you end up with a lot of work samples that, to a more discerning client, will speak of such factory work. To put it bluntly, when you skimp, you make yourself appear like a hack to the clients you really want to attract, who then are less likely to use you and you do more of the low-end work. It's like the old concept of company-provided housing and a company-owned store; you never get to make enough to get out from under.
- Don't discount. You want to preserve the ability to charge more, because that makes a living easier to get. So don't drop your rate with regular clients in a hope to attract more work. If they are regular clients, then they know what you're capable of doing. If you start taking less, you will continue to take less, because you've said through your action that what you do is actually worth less.
- Limit the exposure. Treat lower-paying work as something literally to make your nut. Keep marketing fiercely to make it as unnecessary as possible. Continue focusing on getting better-paying work.
- Balance the value equation. As I teach in my various classes, business is a value equation. You provide value and expect value in return. I don't believe in cutting corners. If you get paid less, still treat the assignment as seriously as you would any. But try to balance the equation to get enough value back in one form or other. Low paying assignments will have to turn around cash quickly enough, be limited in the rights they get, or possibly sit on research you've already done. If you can't make it a naturally more acceptable assignment, then you should pass on it.
- Incorporate it into your business model. Low-paying work can be a distraction when you just react to it. So don't. Make the lower paying work part of your business model, even if only while economic times seem tough. Have a strategy for it, set boundaries for how you deal with such work, and stick to them. That way you reduce the possibility of losing a grip on your higher-paying "real" work, and increase the chance that the two work streams will harmoniously co-exist.
- Don't buy someone else's PR. Economic downturns are funny things. They don't affect everyone and everything evenly. Don't go into lower paying work from a panic. Instead, watch how things are going in your usual work. Are you sure that any problem isn't a result of your letting up on your usual marketing? (That can happen too easily to any of us.) Try doubling up on marketing first, unless you're in a cash crisis and the turnaround on such efforts will take longer than you have.
- Don't buy someone's negotiating tactic. Sad as it is from a view of humanity, there are people who will try to use a recession as an excuse to reduce what they pay, even though they don't have to. But it's not as though you can find a way to work more cheaply as manufacturers often do. Maybe you can to some degree, but be wary of any client who tries to strong arm you into what is unwise for your business. Another way of putting it is that there are poorly-paying clients, and then there are cheap clients. The latter are generally ones to avoid, because they're not providing value in other ways. They just want something for nothing.
- Don't panic. Douglas Adams had it right in the Hitcherhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. The biggest mistake you can make is to freak out. Take a deep breath and consider all your options in dealing with an economic crisis. Some of those might include borrowing money, negotiating with creditors to spread out payments, or reduce expenditures. The more creative you can be on money, the more space you can make for smarter business decisions.
Wednesday, March 19, 2008
Nine Tips for Writers During Recession Fears
- Market more - a lot more.
- Don't be picky about topics. You can focus on the "but I *love* to write about XYZ" when you can afford to.
- Look not just at the clients (and advertisers), but the industries. For example, the legal industry is often considered to be virtually recession proof, because companies need lawyers to do the deals when things are good, and bankruptcies/restructuring debt when things are bad.
- Read trade press and talk to other writers to see if a given publication shows any of the signs of financial trouble. Ziff Davis just went into bankruptcy, but the signs were there for a while - one reason I didn't try to get work out of them.
- Look for signs of trouble in your own clients. If checks start taking longer to get to you, start looking for other people to work for.
- If you have a knowledge/experience niche that gives you a strong in with certain types of stories, strengthen it. If you don't, develop a niche. And keep adding niches as you can.
- Don't put all your eggs in one client type basket. If you cover a topic for consumer pubs, see if there are things you can do for trade pubs as well, and vice versa.
- Don't end up using a recession as an excuse: "I can't do any better because of the economy." When most everyone is marching in one direction, go in the other to find opportunities.
- Look for companies that are more likely to keep producing written materials. An association magazine is one of the better examples, because if they're not sending something out to the members, it's probably because they're out of business. A custom publisher is a lesser example, because when companies feel the pinch, the custom publishing projects may be some of the first things to go, unless not having the publication is unthinkable for their businesses.
UpdateA reader emailed, asking me to address the issue of taking lower-paying writing to fill in cash needs. Here's my take on it.
Tuesday, March 18, 2008
Newspaper Publisher Facing Interesting Economic Times
Last week, [hedge fund Harbinger Capital Partners] said it is nominating a slate of candidates for the company's board because Media General "has lost strategic, operational and geographic focus in recent years," according to a filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.When a hedge fund wants to place directors on a board, it's generally because it doesn't see enough short term profits from the company, which could turn into return on its investment. The changes the directors might push for could run from smarter strategic directions to cost cutting and even selling off properties.
Media General owns The Tampa Tribune; the Richmond Times-Dispatch; the Winston-Salem Journal; 22 daily community newspapers in Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Alabama and South Carolina; and more than 100 weekly newspapers and other publications. If you are writing for a Media General paper, then I think it would be prudent to assume that there will be continued belt tightening, incluidng smaller freelance budgets and all the joys that brings to people like us.
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Content Strategists, Not Editors
But before getting into more of the article, again look at that quote. It indicates so much in perspective. The focus is on content, not writing. That means everything - words, images, sound, graphics - is part of the mix. The "strategists" part? These people are responsible for coming up with approaches to make money for the company. Once the strategy was pretty much taken for granted. Meredith, in this case, would find a demographic, devise an appropriate publication, put it together, and sell ads while trying to build the reader base. But the new concept acknowledges that a single direction, set by the top, won't work. Strategies that work for one group may not for another. The view also says goodbye to the concept of editor: someone who is focused mostly on getting articles from writers and getting them prepared for print.
Griffin was giving a talk at Folio's annual publishing conference. As part of this new role of content strategy comes a recognition that many of the assumptions that have ruled magazine writing for decades are going out the window:
Griffin, on crutches and hobbled by a recent emergency surgery to repair a broken leg, said the change American consumer demographics—specifically, the spike in Internet usage and the emerging “white minority”—forced the Des Moines-based publisher to evaluate all aspects of its publishing business.Meredith has spent about $600 million in the last six years in developing its online, interactive, and integrated marketing businesses. If you're longing for the days that you could make nice money writing for major consumer print publications, then you're in danger of becoming a dinosaur. Now's the time to move in new directions.
Meredith, Griffin said, was “founded on the social construct of Dad at work, Mom at home, Chevy in the driveway.” For a company that publishes “white-bread” magazines, he said, “the change has been quite provocative.”
Monday, February 25, 2008
Martha Stewart: Side of Emeril to Go
So, why the deal? Remember back with me to late last year, when the Food Network decided to stop filming the show Emeril Live. Here you see an example of real platform. The EL show was fairly popular, got lots of people saying "Bam," and turned Lagasse into a very hot commodity. But while he would still have had the Essence of Emeril show, it was a low-key affair with no screaming audience members and, presumably, a lot less mojo. No inside info here - just what I've seen on the Food Network and from being a food fan.
But I'd argue that this makes business sense, and it shows you the Essence of Platform: screaming fans that want what you provide. Not expertise; the Food Network has been cutting out a growing number of the show hosts that were actually chefs. But when that driving force is taken away, the whole kit and kaboodle is suddenly a lot less desirable on its own.
However, MSLO has the television distribution and already deals with magazines, books, and products. This was a natural match, and a very smart one. Because while MS has platform, the company needs more than her as a brand, or it could literally live or die on her mortal existence. Suddenly they had an opportunity to snag another personal brand that was a compliment, and so they paid a good amount. When an editor talks to you about brand, understand that this is the type of grand notion he or she really wants. Having a blog alone won't do it. Earning a special degree or certification won't do it. Those are the barriers to entry to seem credible. Then you have to get people wanting you. If you can do that, the publishing world will look far more kindly on you than you thought was possible.
Now, if someone can only get Rachel Ray off the Wheat Thins cracker boxes.
Thursday, January 10, 2008
It Can Happen To You
There was a clause in my contract that let the company cancel the contract should it decide that the book wouldn't sell in advance of its actually coming out and selling, and my legal remedies were limited to getting the parts of the advance that had come due. And I singed it, because the chance of losing the project was low, and even if it occurred, the advanced owed me would reasonably cover the blow. And, to be fair, my editor let me know, but said that I wouldn't be asked to pay anything back. I now have to look around for some replacement work, but it's only inconvenient, not a disaster.
I went into this with my eyes open, and only agreed because I had inherently limited any damages. That's because I've been around the block enough in life to know that any given unexpected event may be unlikely, but when you add all the things that can go wrong, chances are that something will. Many writers go into projects holding their noses at some unpleasant clause in a contract, but tell themselves that the situation can't happen. But of course it can. Look at all the news you've heard about the sub prime credit meltdown. Sophisticated and highly-paid managers at prestigious financial institutions told themselves that they were getting their organizations into easy money. After all, what could go wrong? Oops.
If you see a clause in a contract that makes you uncomfortable, be realistic about how safe you might be. If you're writing an essay about how you did something foolish and embarrassed yourself and don't mention anyone or anything else, then, sure, you aren't going to have a problem with libel. But if you tell yourself that you're only writing a small article and that who would take offense at something you said, then you are out of making a realistic analysis and into the realm of rationalization. You've crossed the line and aren't thinking, but coming up with ways to excuse your behavior to yourself.
You can't eliminate all risk from doing business. Risk is an inherent part of business, because it is the risk that also offers the opportunity. But do avoid foolish risks, and make sure that for the ones you take, you've got enough protection to keep yourself from taking an unexpected bath.
Monday, December 3, 2007
Part of the answer is to realize that there will be an ebb and flow. There are times I'm flat out with work and can't do anything else. Then there are times I goof off, hang out with my family, cook dinner, work on personal projects, and generally enjoy myself. The question is where things are on the average, and not having what I want at every minute, which is unrealistic.
But if you find that you feel overwhelmed too often, you might want to consider a few ways of analyzing your situation a bit more:
- Be harshly honest with yourself. Generally when you find yourself in a situation over and over again, there is something you like about it. Now, there may be stretches where one thing tips into another and upsets what you'd really like for months, or even a year or more. But if you've been in the business for a number of years and still find that you end up in the same situation, you have to realize that you're probably trying to solve a problem doing more of the same, and you have to ask why you're so attached to what you have always done.
- Really look at the trade-offs. What is it that you get from the business? Do you really need the amount of work/money you're bringing in? If you do need it, then maybe you have to reevaluate the balance you might reach. Or it may be that you're driving yourself to meet a requirement that actually isn't there.
- If you're working too long and too hard, then you should reconsider the statement that you love the mix of clients. Sounds like it's time to do a profitability analysis - not just revenue, but dollars per hour - on your clients to see how they really stack up. If there is any way to quantify a PIA factor, then do that as well. Maybe, without thinking about it too much, give a ranking from 1 to 10 of each in terms of how much of a pain it is. Then you could find the average PIA number and see how far each deviates from that average, or maybe divide profitability by the PIA number. It might be that you need to get some different clients that are less demanding, or that pay so much more for the demands that you can afford to do less work overall.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
Newspaper Industry Boasts Online Ad Growth
Monday, November 26, 2007
Amazon Kindle and Controling Electronic Rights
- Although journalists are saying that 90,000 books are available, that's not how Amazon phrases it. Instead, it's over 88,000 books, with 100 of the current 112 NYT best sellers. (Who knew there were that many on the various NYT best seller lists - something that is interesting on its own.)
- The screen uses reflected light, and not a back-lit approach, and it only uses power to change the image on the screen, so it should have far longer battery life than other devices.
- It's $400 bucks to the user. Add in the 65% of the sales price it gets, and that seems like a lot. But, the device uses a cellular phone network for browsing and shopping, and there are no monthly fees, so some amount of that money has to go to the carrier providing the service, and has to potentially last a long time. That might explain some of the economics, and why publishers/authors aren't likely to get better deals going forward. Amazon may not be able to afford to give them.
- NYT best sellers and all new releases are "$9.99, unless marked otherwise," which is like saying everything is a dollar unless it's not. That low a level of pricing has two effects. One, it potentially hurts the preceived value of books, and, should this take off, puts competitors into some pretty serious trouble. Do they start more heavily discounting? Because even with the lower price, Amazon makes a bundle. Figure a best selling paperback costs $15. Amazon, or one of its normal competitors, gets maybe a 55% discount, but probably knocks off 30 to 40% of the cover price, so it getting 5% to 15% of the cover price. That's $0.75 to $2.25 a a copy as gross margin (money left over after they pay for the copy). But 65% of $9.99 is $6.49 - a heck of a lot more in their pockets. They say that it takes less than a minute to download a title, so take out, what, 50 cents at most to the cell carrier, figuring that they have to cover all the times that someone doesn't buy? That's still profit to make them drool, and it lowers warehousing and processing costs.
- If Amazon is making out like a bandit, what happens to the publisher/author? They get 35% of $9.99 (for that category of book), or roughly $3.50, rather than the $6.75 they would have received. So take out $2 for printing and warehousing, and that's still $4.75. Guess what that means? Publishers will want to pay authors even less for these rights. It becomes smart business to insist on keeping the electronic rights - probably difficult without some leverage of good sales history, but important to try anyway, because with contracts going the way they do, that means the author will get 12% of the new lower price (that paperback trend of getting royalties on money received), or a whole 42 cents per book. Sell 100,000 copies electronically, and you see $42,000, which is chicken feed given the popularity.
- Some money must be split with newspaper publishers, because you apparently get wireless copies of the NYT, WSJ, Washington Post, Time, Atlantic Monthly, and Forbes. No mention of subsciption costs to these. And you get international newspapers, as well. Guess what? That means more pressure on costs - including writers fees - across the board.
- There are some significant drawbacks to the business model. You don't sync the machine with a computer, so how do you store the titles you aren't keeping on the machine? It's also a proprietary system, which means it could leave people with the feeling of being locked in. Then again, I used to think that about the iPod, but I was clearly wrong there. So there is a chance that the publishing industry will get locked into this, whether it wants to or not.
Wednesday, November 21, 2007
When Were They Going to Tell?
Read that number again. And he expects to get far bigger audiences to make far more money.
When I wrote about questions I had on newspaper readership, it was clear from the numbers in the Newspaper Association of America-sponsored report I cited that newspapers are getting millions of visitors a month. I still think that in the long run they are not going to be monetarily valuable clients for freelancers, but how much are each of those people worth in annual advertising revenue?
And if you look at this Mediaweek article, Time Inc. apparently has been doing very well on the web:
John Squires, executive vp, Time Inc., said that while he’d like the company’s sites to “crawl up in terms of scale,” he’s happy with their rank in engagement and revenue per user. Speaking today at a Time Inc. Digital Showcase, he noted that according to Time Inc.’s own ranking, the company’s sites come in 15th among media companies in terms of time spent per visitor.Happy with revenue per user? To me, that generally means that someone is making a good amount of money. Newspapers and magazines see pretty serious revenue from the web. So when were the publishers going to admit it to the writers?
Never. They don't want to pay more. They're very happy to have driven down the cost of content, because that means they have higher margins, which are the difference between what products and services sell for, and what they cost to produce or acquire. And I suspect they're not telling the editors, either. Why? Because right now the editors for online work are also making less than their print colleagues - which is also fine with the publishers, because that pushes margins up even higher.
That's what gets me angry - the con game. Just when were writers supposed to be able to redeem the promise of more pay for concessions made? Again, the answer is one word: never. I do understand the publishers, but don't like what I often hear, and I'm not going to buy the line anymore.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Another WGA Lesson
Read the LAT article carefully. A number of recent movies that have done well were financed by outside money people - and largely in control of the writers:
Being entrepreneurial isn't for the faint of heart. If you want a sweet upfront paycheck, you may not have the stomach for it. But after seeing studios bowdlerize their scripts, many writers will swap a big payday for more control. [Writer-director David] Twohy says that after Relativity read his script, "They told me, 'Script approved as-is.' I've never heard a studio ever say that."I don't mean to be insulting or to belabor a point, but are you getting this yet? Writers can find ways to control their own work. The reins are slipping out of the fingers of those who traditionally controlled them.
What does this mean for the type of freelance writing you do? It's time to consider what you might create that a major publisher won't buy. No, you probably cannot afford to go off and do it full time without an investor. But what if someone did invest? Or what if you did it on the side, much the same way that some popular novelists who make boatloads now started by writing in the mornings, before heading to their 9-5 job?
Maybe you start with a blog and begin building an audience. Maybe you write something really good and go after book clubs to pick up your self-published title, sending free samples to those willing to consider it. Maybe you develop a site that will eventually support advertising. Don't expect that the money will roll in from day one. If you are going to be an entrepreneur - which, by the way, you already are, whether you realize it or not - then you have to start thinking like one. Real payoffs don't get offered up front. You invest your time and energy and take the compensation farther down the road. Some things you try will be a bust. Maybe some won't. But it's a hell of a lot better than passively griping about bad contracts, low pay, committee editing, and one-sided contracts.
Realistically, very few writers will start down this route. Most will look for safety. But it's the safety of a cage left on the beach, and the tide is coming in. The only safety in the long run is breaking out, building a boat, and learning to sail.
Wednesday, November 14, 2007
More Market News for Magazines and Newspapers
So take a look at this Media Life article, reporting on its own survey of media buyers. In particular, look after the discussion of House & Garden to the categories of magazines perceived as most in danger, where some titles might end up closing:
- business and general interest
On the newspaper front, we have an article from Rich Edmonds, a media analyst, at Poynter Online. He notes that while newspaper online advertising revenue growth has been the bright spot of the industry, it has been feeling a significant slowdown. As he notes, part of it owes to the calculations of growth percentages: as the total gets bigger, the percentage any addition represents is smaller.
But this so-called “law of large numbers” is not the whole story. As for the rest, "it is all to do with classified upsells," analyst Paul Ginocchio of Deutsche Bank Securities, wrote me in an e-mail. Classifieds are the leading edge of the bleeding in print advertising, with losses substantially worse than even pessimists had forecast for 2007. Unfortunately, as Ginocchio notes, classifieds typically make up about 70 percent of the typical newspaper site’s online ad revenue.In the view of Edmonds, newspapers will need some significnatly new strategies - not more porting paper to pixels. He has some observations and recommendations worth reading. As always, no single piece of information should determine your business strategy. But, put together, they help to give some view of the near and mid-term futures of your industry.
Friday, November 9, 2007
Shuttered Magazines and Their Running Web Sites
The difficulty for writers is that the publishers have set an expectation of lower pay on the web, as they constantly complained about having to invest all this money into it. Well, of course they did, just as tradtiaional big consumer magazines can lose tens of millions - otherwise known as investment by the publishers - until finally turning a profit. Only, writers are getting suckered into underwriting what the publishers are doing. That can't last; if it does, we're all going to be out of the editorial business. Now is the time to push for treating the web and print as equals. Wait, and you'll contribute to the industry "standard" of paying web writers - a.k.a., you, in the future if not now - less than print writers.
Thursday, November 8, 2007
Newspaper Web Sites Reality Check
I still say that newspapers are cheap, no doubt about it. At first they were because their profit margins literaly made pharmaceutical companies pale by comparison. Now they are becaue their revenues and circulation keep dropping. However, they have been a traditional market for freelance writers, so it's important to know how they are doing in the new media of the Internet.
Check this set of visitor statistics for top newspaper sites. Nielsen/NetRatings is a standard supplier of traffic measure, although many people wonder how accurately they count traffic. So, apparently the top newspapers, at least, are getting a good amount of traffic.
But this is traffic that is going almost as quickly as it arrives. Look at the amount of time per visitor per month for each paper - and realize that includes all visits. Even at the New York Times, that means 5 minutes per person per visit, or a total of 20 minutes per person per month. That's close to the top end, and it goes down from there. That means hardly anyone, on the average, is spending enough time to do anything other than read a few headlines. They aren't digging into the content.
It jives with something I've seen, when one of my business blog pieces gets listed via Sphere (a content connection service) next to articles on the Wall Street Journal's site. When that happens, I'll get, oh, three or four visitors from there. According to this study, the WSJ is getting 9 million people a month, and they're staying for maybe 3 minutes a visit. Even if you have something featured next to a story, virtually no one - as in a tiny, tiny fraction of one percent - will pay attention.
All writers need to be looking at such information constantly. You are your own CEO. You are your own CFO. Only you will be the person to acquire the information and do the analysis to figure out how and where to steer your business. If newspapers cannot keep people for any length of time on their sites, then their advertising, other than, maybe, a major banner or display ad, will be doing little. Advertisers look at numbers like how much time people spend on a site. If they don't see decent stays, they're going to figure that the people won't be there long enough to see the ads, either.
Yes, Mr. Kromer is correct in saying that there are big numbers getting to the papers. However, there is still little reassuring about the results. It's not that "people don't want long stories on the internet...unless they have plenty of relevant information and perhaps in a different (table? bullet point?) format from standard newspaper fare" as he said, but that they won't be there long enough for advertisers to really get value, and that means the advertisers will be less keen on paying a general rate to appear, and not something based on click-through proof of effectiveness.
That problem obviously isn't unique to newspapers, but it's one that the publishing industry will have to address. In print, you claim that people read your publication and charge for ads that always remain on the page. Online, advertisers have the upper hand. What will it take to change things? I don't know. But I do know that at 5 minutes or less per person, advertisers will not be satisfied with the money they spend.