Tag Archives: freelance writing

Practical business strategies for freelance writers

home office

  Photo courtesy of Louis J. Hall

If you want to make a living as a freelance writer, then you’ll need a realistic perspective of the writing endeavors that pay best in relation to the amounts of time they require. Having recently faced financial reality when filing your income tax return, you ought to know exactly how much money it takes to support your household for 365 days.

I’m in the midst of reading Chris Higgins’ $2.99 ebook, The Blogger Abides: A Practical Guide to Writing Well & Not Starving, but it’s not too soon to recommend it as a primer for anyone who wants to make a profession of freelance writing. Based on the author’s experience as a paid blogger, the book is filled with succinct advice that’s logical and easy to understand.

The markets for different types of writing will fluctuate, but the laws of supply and demand remain predictable. Lower barriers to entry (digital publishing and online distribution) enable and increase suppliers (writers). If the demand (from readers) for the product (written work) remains steady (it has!) and does not increase along with the supply, then prices for the product (written work) will decrease. Whimpering and wallowing in self-pity will not change this.

In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky makes the point, “If everyone can do something, it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital.”

Advances in free or inexpensive web editing, blogging, or content management software have all but removed the technological barriers that existed when the Web was new. Now that virtually everyone can publish their written work, publishing per se gradually is shifting from a professional to an amateur endeavor. Some say the transformation already has occurred.

Web-based content is distributed globally and is more easily retrievable than printed materials, which means the best and the most widely discussed writing on the Web can be reproduced and shared with few obstacles. If “published” no longer distinguishes the professional from the amateur writer, then perhaps “widely read” and “paid” have become the new criteria. How to find readers and get paid are the problems a freelance writer needs to solve now. It should be some consolation that being a good writer matters as much as it ever did.

Additional resources on this topic

Taxes and the business of a writing career

It’s early in the year, but the financial squeeze exerted by holiday gift buying and spring travel planning is enough to make anybody cry. February is when I start to avoid finalizing the previous year’s cash flow statement, because it might be a confidence killer. The numbers tended to look better when I was a freelance writer and editor, but I get more joy out of my job as an agent. It’s a reasonable trade-off. Representing writers is work I feel I can master. My author clients have much more complex challenges.

I’m always looking for reliable sources of career advice to share with my clients. Late last year, I noticed the new blog of Gary A. Hensley, whose expert advice on accounting practices, auditing, and income taxation is tailored for freelance writers. Taxsolutionsforwriters—the name of Hensley’s blog says it all. I’m glad that I’ll be able to link to his posts to help answer some of my clients’ basic questions about U.S. income taxes.

But… let me say that there’s nothing comparable to the ecstasy of sorting out international tax treaties.

Years ago, I hired my accountant to prepare my income tax returns. Eliminating those excruciating annual headaches was one of the smartest business decisions I ever made. However, I still need to know precisely which forms and data to give my accountant. I’m still insanely disciplined about maintaining records and receipts. A freelance writer needs the same self-discipline when it comes to the business of a successful writing career. It’s a mark of professionalism.

On a tangent

Wikipedia cites several ways in which businesses can beef up their cash flow. Among them: “Wait for the product to be proven by a start-up lab; then buy the lab.” Sounds like established trade book publishers waiting for self-published titles to start selling exceptionally well before acquiring the rights in them.

Point me to Tycoonsolutionsforagents when you find it, OK?

Writers, Christina Katz’s new book isn’t for slackers

Christina KatzBack in the ’90s, Christina Katz chose the life of a freelance writer. Now, after twelve years of seeing her work published, she’s sharing the nitty-gritty of what her career choice has entailed. Her third guidebook for freelancers, The Writer’s Workout (Writer’s Digest) comes out this week. On Thursday, December 8, 2011, she’ll be here at Treated & Released to share three of my favorite chapters. Get ready to take notes!

Following is a copy of my Amazon Customer Review of The Writer’s Workout:The Writer's Workout

Christina Katz is a friend. Permit me to say at the outset that I’m biased. Having recommended her book about author platforms, I was eager to read THE WRITER’S WORKOUT, which is intended to help a writer sustain productivity and creativity for the duration of a healthy career.

THE WRITER’S WORKOUT is a compilation of concise instructions for self-editing, narrowing a topic’s scope, pitching projects to editors, making money, professional networking, meeting deadlines, and other practical matters dear to my heart. Creative writers, however, may warm to the book’s segments on coping with competition, criticism, disappointment, and burnout. New writers who aren’t confident of what to write about will pull out the pages offering gentle prods and examples of how to brainstorm.

Telling writers to toss out the grammar handbooks seems counterintuitive and cringeworthy, yet it’s exactly what this book suggests. Though I’m reluctant to admit it, faulty grammar won’t prevent a writer from being published—a tidbit of truth that should please plenty of aspiring authors.

Christina Katz tells writers who are in search of inspiration, “Everything in your life is trying to communicate with you.” She believes that responding is a writer’s vocation. Her new book outlines simple daily methods to clear the way for the intellectual and emotional engagement that produces good writing.

Another of the author’s lessons that writers should tattoo somewhere: “Take 100 percent responsibility for your writing career. Don’t ever expect it to be as important to anyone else as it is to you.” It’s easy for writers to lament the solitary nature of their work. Expressing the concept of professional independence as empowerment is much more constructive.

Yes, there’s a challenging amount of information in this book, and it’s directed at the pro who will exert the effort required to have a career as a writer.

Beyond mere freelance business strategy, THE WRITER’S WORKOUT addresses the writer’s soul, strength, and stamina. In other words, its lessons are heartfelt. For a creative person without a supportive entourage, the one-a-day reminders that fill this book make a nice stand-in. What writer, no matter how successful and well connected, couldn’t use 366 pieces of encouragement and advice from an energetic and devoted writing coach?

For an example of a gracious author’s media page (part of a media kit), take a look at ChristinaKatz.com. If you’re a freelance writer, does your media kit look as good?

Thinking about New Year’s resolutions? If you’d like to meet Christina in person, then check out her 2012 appearance schedule. And come back here on Thursday for a peek at some of the best parts of her new book.

Calculate how much you need to earn as a writer

You can put in an incredible number of hours to establish yourself as a writer, so I hate to be the one to point out that there ought to be a payoff… in dollars… eventually. Sadly, because you’re human, you’ll probably get into the zone, because human beings crave repetition, and you’ll forget about the money part until the rent’s overdue and the cat needs his booster shots. If your comfort zone starts getting a little uncomfortable—say, too much like a rut—and an irritating little voice starts whispering to you that the benefits just aren’t there, then maybe it’s time to sort out how much you need to earn for your work. Yeah, I know. This part isn’t fun.

Tax season is the perfect time to assess whether your writing will remain a hobby or sustain you as a career. While the calculator is still switched on, punch in some numbers that will give you, if nothing else, some realistic goals for your writing in 2010. Goals are good.

Start by determining the annual income you’ll require to satisfy your financial obligations. I’m assuming you already have a budget and know roughly the net income you need in order to stay financially afloat.

Next, pick a hypothetical figure as your gross income target and work backward by subtracting income taxes, business expenses (including computer hardware and software, Internet service, professional development, subscriptions, membership dues, travel, office supplies, postage, etc.), health care coverage if you need it, and retirement savings. This should give you a figure that represents your target net income. Adjust the hypothetical gross income figure until you get the net income figure you need. I made these numbers up, they are not reliable, but results might look something like this:

$40,000 gross income
  -7,000 income taxes
  -3,000 business expenses
  -3,000 health care coverage
  -2,000 retirement savings
$25,000 net income

Your target might seem easily achievable if you’re able to take home a regular paycheck for a corporate writing gig, because every hour spent in your cubicle equals money in your pocket. But if you want to work for yourself, as a freelance writer or a novelist, the income you’ll be able to generate in exchange for your work isn’t so easy to predict.

Assume you’ll be able to spend a maximum of 240 eight-hour days hard at work as a freelancer. Half of that time, or at least a third of it, will be spent marketing yourself and your writing, seeking free publicity, designing and producing marketing materials, and doing the bookkeeping. That leaves between 120 and 160 eight-hour days (a total of 960 to 1,280 hours) of actual writing time—or billable hours, if you’re sending bills to clients who pay for your freelance writing or editing services. You can’t ignore the facts. If you don’t do the marketing, then you’ll need to pay someone to do it for you, and without publicity, you won’t be able to exploit the market for your work.

Take the net gross income figure you were aiming for and divide it by the number of hours of actual writing time that exist in a calendar year (somewhere between 960 and 1,280 hours). This will give you the hourly rate you’ll want to be paid for your writing.

Of course, you can’t stop there, because most freelance writing gigs don’t pay by the hour. They pay by the project, based on an estimate you provide to a client, or based on the licensing of publication rights to creative work. Or they pay by the word.

After a little experience, you should be able to calculate how much you receive per hour for various types of writing assignments, even if you’re actually paid by the word or by the project. Just keep track of how many hours you spend on a project and divide that number into the dollar amount you receive for it. (Eight hours spent writing an article for which you’re paid $200 equates to $25/hr.) When research is involved, you’ll obviously need to include the time devoted to research as part of the total time spent on the writing assignment. However, you won’t need to factor in the amount of time spent getting the assignment, because you set aside time for marketing your work when you calculated how many hours of actual writing time you’d have in one year.

If your calculations indicate you’re aiming for a certain average hourly rate of pay for writing and you’re actually pulling down something far less per hour, then you need to change your game. You can do that by taking more writing assignments that pay higher rates, or you can subsidize your creative writing with a job in a different sector, as many writers do.

Don’t wait until someone offers you a writing project to figure out what you should be charging, because you won’t have time to take all of these factors into consideration. It’s difficult enough to estimate the amount of time an article or a book should take to write. Facing economic reality will help you determine what to charge clients for your writing services and what to aim for when licensing the rights to your creative work. The math can also show how prolific you’ll need to be to make any headway financially.

Peering into a few novelists’ bank accounts

Following are a few candid accounts of what some novelists have been paid for their work or what they know an author can expect to receive. Keep in mind that genre fiction typically sells in quantities far greater than literary fiction.

Jenny Rappaport: Royalty statement anatomy, which refers to…

Lynne Viehl: The reality of a Times bestseller

Justine Larbalestier: Average first novel advances and A few more words on first novel advances

David B. Coe: Business realities for the beginning writer

Jennifer Jackson: advances – what they are really made of

How the proceeds are shared

Here’s more on how receipts are divided among publisher, author, and agent:

J.A. Konrath: Kindle numbers vs. traditional publishing, and also take a look at JA Konrath Kindle Sales: 30k Ebooks in 11 Months (Note the SEO.)

Nathan Bransford: Book revenue breakdown

Mike Shatzkin: Times book review on advances and related thoughts

I’ll try to expand this list as I come across more of these kinds of posts. Feel free to post links to similar items in the comments section.

Additional links

Kristen King: What Exactly Is $70,000 in Freelance Income?

iLeopard Icons courtesy of Muhammad Syahmi bin Ismail