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

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Writing for a New Media

I had a post today on BNET called How the Media Can Save Itself. And I'm convinced that the Internet doesn't mean the end of journalism or story telling or a place for those who can do them. And even with the plethora of outlets for people who want to approach the topics as amateurs, and I mean nothing derogatory in using the term, that's not going to replace professionals any more than the mass of people who have learned to play instruments and sing has ever replaced professional musicians. Even King Henry VIII was an amateur musician and composer, but that hardly meant that he banned those who made their living creating music.

But it does mean that there's going to be a premium on ability, quality, and learning to use and mix new combinations of media in ways that no one ever considered. Text will have to call out to video to integrate it into the point someone is making. Video will need links to background and amplification that can't happen in that medium. Audio can provide an intimate narration as something looks as images and graphical devices that neither video nor text can provide. All of them will be glued together in new ways. Look at the links I mention in the BNET piece, or listen to NPR's Planet Money experiments in presenting financial information or how illuminates campaign finance information. Not all the tries will work, but some will. Those who want a spot in the future must become part of the attempts to forge a new approach to what they've done in the past. Those new to the endeavor have one big advantage of not having the same number of fixed associations. But those with experience, if they can break free of even some of the assumptions, can add immense depth.

Maybe your efforts will involve merging analysis, opinion, reporting, and commentary in what I'm finding to be an exciting and liberating format in blogs. Or you might find yourself reaching for a video camera, or dusting off pens and drawing paper. Don't assume what technology you need to use or what the results might be. We all have time to ourselves, so invest some of it to try something different. As my drawing improves, I'm hoping to start incorporating it in various ways in my work. If you're a musician, consider composing something that supports the emotional mood of a report and running it in the background. Or create a photo essay loaded with linking hotspots that offer context for the image that someone is seeing. Maybe the old media won't be willing to shake loose, but it's the glory of working for yourself. Try something different. Who knows? You might end up creating a new genre.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

What Webcast Would You Want?

Apparently the technology that Columbia's J-School uses for webcasts is free. I'd like to try it out, along with dialed-in questions and the lot, and am wondering what topics readers might find of potential interest. Marketing? Business planning? Writing technique? Markets? Technology? I'm looking for suggestions and will put together something appropriate as part of my testing the system. Feel free to email me, or you can post a suggestion as a comment.

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Sree Sreenivasan podcast of Twitter for journalists online discussion

For those who don't know about him, Sree Sreenivasan teaches at the Columbia School of Journalism and is highly regarded as someone who gets how to use technology well in the pursuit of journalism. He does occasional webcasts now - I just got an email about one on LinkedIn for journalists today at 3:30 to 4:30 pm Eastern (at the link and available afterward). But right now I'm listening to the archived version of the webcast on Twitter for journalists. It's got an interesting set of speakers, and it's free. One reason to catch the webcasts as they happen, though, is that you can dial in (instead of coming in over the web) and ask questions. In today's economy, who can't use a good deal?

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Friday, August 8, 2008

Potential Cost of Online Apps

I know lots of people are enthralled with online applications and services, particularly when they are free. The attraction is clear: you get leading technology, don't have to do much to make it work on your end, and you save money. But there are some downsides, and you can read about a big one in a blog by Chris Brogan. When you depend on online services, you can become stuck with little recourse.

He tells of a colleague whose account was abruptly cancelled by Google:
Suddenly, Nick can’t access his Gmail account, can’t open Google Talk (our office IM app), can’t open Picasa where his family pictures are, can’t use his Google Docs, and oh by the way, he paid for additional storage. So, this is a paying customer with no access to the Google empire.
The colleague eventually was able to get his account returned, but it took "a lot of work." What if you were on deadline? What if you expected an important email from a client? The more you allow others to control your business systems, the more they control your business. This is the reason that I use desktop apps, keep extra physical storage on hand for backups, maintain an old-fashioned wire phone line. When things go wrong, I usually ahve a way to work around the problem, so I lose neither sleep nor business.

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Tuesday, July 1, 2008

A "Champion" Disagrees with Views of Kindle

I got the following as a response to my post Some Additional Views on the Kindle. However, as it eventually seemed to border on the self-serving, I thought I'd address the anonymous remarks in parts on a post.
I, myself, am a Kindle champion as well,
And as you were trying to point people to what appears to be an Amazon-affiliated (not owned) site about the Kindle, I have to wonder what "champion" really means.
and I think that there are a number of intangible "cost" savings and benefits to consider for you skeptics out there.
Ah, yes, intangibles - often the last refuge of the businessperson who cannot point to a concrete benefit.
First of all, think of the convenience the Kindle provides you. Now, you can read all of your favorite newspapers, blogs, books, magazines etc. anywhere and everywhere. You do not have to worry about the weight and size of your reading material and about how you will transport it on the move.
Yes, I always travel with a Sherpa carrying my newspapers, magazines, and books. Realistically, when I do travel on business, it's one book, and I find that airlines are terrific about having magazines that I needn't schlep.
Second, you can do and learn more with what would have been wasted down time while you wait for this or that. You can just pull it out whenever you have a few minutes here and there.
How about the educational use of contemplating what you have already read and heard, or even looking around to see where you are? Not every minute of every day needs to be "productive," in the limited sense of the term.
Third, think of the environmental cost savings. If we, as a collected whole, begin to do more and more of our reading from "paper-like" digital devices, we will be cutting down less trees, maintaining and even increasing oxygen levels and perhaps even fighting global warming.
What of the environmental costs of the semiconductors plants that run through tens of thousands of gallons of water daily? The non-replaceable minerals and metals? The energy costs of manufacturing the whole thing? The energy costs in keeping the acres of servers running to make the "environmentally-friendly" reading available? High tech does not translate into green.
Fourth, you begin reading content that you may have otherwise missed and will become more and more educated/cultured as you seek out new and different reading materials.
Wait, you're going to read it just because it's on a screen, although you wouldn't on paper? That seems like one of the most far fetched arguments I've ever heard for anything.
All in all, while $359 for this device plus the cost of the books etc. seems high, you are getting a great deal of value out of it, be it value from convenience, value from supplementary education, value from environmental protection or other value.
In other words, pay no attention to businessman behind the curtain. And, sorry, I won't be listing your Kindle-centered web site that is "in association with," even if you do end your exhortation with an environmentally-friendly electronic exclamation point.

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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Learning What You Need to Know

If I talked about the freelance business and said, "writing aside," you might think that wouldn't leave much, other than the usual business activities. But there is at least one other thing: what you need to do the job. You might have experience in a half dozen or more different types of writing, in a few industries, and with a set of software tools. But what do you need tomorrow and next week, month, and year? Requirements of clients change over time, and the best way to keep the business coming in is to anticipate them:
  • By the time most writers have heard of something, such as blogging or wikis, you start to face significant competition.

  • When few people can provide a service that comes into demand, they can generally get a premium price, thanks to the law of supply and demand.

  • Keeping ahead of trends gives you the appearance to clients and prospects of someone in-touch and knowledgeable.
That's all well and good, of course, but how are you supposed to get the inside line on what is coming up? Simple - you do some research, and here are some places to start by seeing what people are talking about early on:
  • Job Sites Whether you choose, Craigslist, or anything inbetween, you'll find at least some entries from technology adopters that mention things you've never heard of before. Do a web search for the terms, and pay attention to the ones that are a technology, particularly when mentioned only a handful of times in ads. That means they are past the curiosity stage but not yet in wide acceptance.

  • Tech Blogs Forget magazines, as by the time they cover something, it's usually old hat. is a great place to see what the technical literati are looking at, as are Ars Technica, Boing Boing, TechCrunch, and Techdirt.

  • Industry Sites If you write about a given industry, whether as a corporate writer or doing consumer or trade journalism, check the online sites devoted to it. When you first start seeing mention of technologies, that's evidence of the beginning of the adoption curve, which means it's time to move into high learning gear.

  • Conferences If you have a chance to hit a technology trade show, go and chat with people. Ask what they find interesting, even if there is little being done commercially with it yet. Also look at the exhibits and see who is touting cutting-edge technology, which may also be a clue.

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Wednesday, June 11, 2008

An E-Paper Roundup

Technology can have such an impact on the world that sometimes you need to keep in touch with new developments if you want your head to stay above water. I think e-paper is such a technology for the publishing business. This Kindle is just the beginning: these low-power, high contrast screens can start putting content anywhere:
E-paper displays are already showing up in consumer applications, even though consumers may not recognize them. Jennifer Colegrove, an analyst at market researcher iSuppli Corp., identified several product categories in addition to e-book readers, including displays for wearable and carryable products like watch dials, cell phones, credit cards and security-system cards; instrumentation applications like the capacity meter on Lexar JumpDrive USB drives; and signage. Point-of-sale devices like electronic shelf labels can be updated remotely, Colegrove explains, or promotional signage can be updated by time of day -- breakfast specials in the morning, for example, and dinner in the evening.
That means almost anything could display content, possibly creating entirely new markets. Can you imagine writing marketing copy to wrap around a product? I'd recommend taking a look at this Computerworld article.

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Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Review: Docupen Handheld Scanner - Gift Suggestion

If you're a journalist that travels, the idea of having a portable scanner is enticing. Instead of shelling out for photocopies, you could move information from pages right into a laptop and cut the weight of dragging paper around. You could also email the files back home so should something happen to the computer, you have the information you need. (When on the road, I do this with interview files and any material I've written.) And the Docupen offers a good deal of promise.

I've used handheld scanners years ago, and the results were terrible. You'd have to practice a lot to get even scans and keep from having erratic hand motion stretch images and text in some cases and squash them in another. And then they took up some space. But when I received the test unit of the Docupen, I found these problems largely vanishing. Oh, you need some practice with it, but not much more than a few minutes. At that point I could get a fairly good scan. The unit itself is just over 11 inches long, as it lets you scan a full page, yet it's only a bit thicker than a pen. It comes with 8MB of memory onboard, which is completely inadequate if you're scanning in color (which the pen does). The company claims "up to 200 pages," but one page would take up at least a third of the memory. You can buy a small type of standard flash memory to greatly boost the amount, and I'd strongly suggest it. You connect the Docupen through a USB cable to your PC to charge it.

At $349 for the current special price, it's not cheap, but it's the best potential solution I've seen for the writer who needs to keep research without making his or her arms any longer from carrying a lot of paper.

If you don't want to spend the money but have a digital camera with high resolution, you can try bringing along a page-sized sheet of clear plastic. Put it on top of a page you need and, making sure no lights are reflecting off it, take a high resolution picture of the page. It's clumsier, but probably better than carrying paper.

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