Friday, May 30, 2008

When You Have to Raise Your Prices

When I first started freelancing for companies--about four or five years ago, when I still had a full-time job--I really didn't know the first thing about setting my prices. I was a service provider on Elance, and I based my prices on what other people were bidding. At first, I tried to come out on the low end of the pack because I believed that would get me more work, especially as someone who didn't have a ton of experience or feedback. For those of you who've worked on Elance before, that tells you how low I was charging--even the high priced providers on Elance often don't charge market rates.

I never planned to be on Elance long-term--the fees were just too high. But although I was successful in moving my business away from Elance, I had trouble moving away from Elance rates. For a while, I priced myself quite low--simply because that's what I was used to charging and that's what I believed people would pay.

I had a wake-up call when I quit my full-time job. I realized I needed to make a certain amount to succeed--and I developed a strategy for setting my prices. Last year, all seemed well--I was charging enough to pay my bills, and I was thrilled to death that my business was thriving.

Then I got another wake-up call. My tax bill came due, and it was much larger than expected. I didn't put money aside for taxes last year, so it all had to come out of my savings. If you're a freelancer, you know how crucial your savings account is--it's your safety net against slow months, your secret weapon against emergencies. Without it, you're naked. I jumped into an onsite job--something I really wasn't thrilled about doing--that took my attention away from growing my business for two months, simply because it was a guaranteed way to replenish those savings.

In the wake of the Great Tax Disaster, I decided to re-evaluate my prices. I realized that if I wanted to make tax-paying painless, I had to account for it in my pricing--just like I account for all other expenses. That means I had to start raising my rates again.

I have a lot of repeat clients, and some of them have been with me since the Elance days. Last year I didn't get much resistance to my price hikes--but just yesterday I had a long-term client who drifts in every couple of months get back in touch. The quote I gave him was higher than what I've given in the past, and I got some resistance. It's not that tough to charge more to new clients, but with your old ones, I imagine this isn't uncommon. Of course, sometimes you just outgrow certain clients--but when you're first raising your rates, it can be tough to risk losing regular customers who give you a lot of business.

So I'm throwing the question out there to freelancers: how do you handle raising prices for regulars? What's worked for you in the past, and what hasn't? Do you take the "love it or leave it" approach, or do you try to hang on to customers who are used to paying lower rates?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Leslie Lomax: Follow Up

So far I haven't heard from Leslie Lomax, my deadbeat former client. The preceding blog post does come up first in searches of her name and on the first page for searches of "Zelda's Antiques" on Google, which I suppose I should be happy about--but to be honest I'm really not a vindictive person and I'd rather just get the money owed and call it a day. Here are some unfortunate things I've learned in trying to collect what's owed.

PayPal is absolutely useless. At the beginning of this mess, I contacted PayPal and spoke to a man named Renato, who told me that I could file a dispute through PayPal for unpaid bills. He led me to understand that if I submitted the contract and all correspondence with the scammer, PayPal would help me collect if it decided I was actually entitled to the money. I sent a bill through PayPal to Leslie Lomax with a warning to pay in five days or I would pursue the dispute process. When I called PayPal back (because of course she didn't pay), I spoke to another agent who told me that in fact PayPal has no dispute system set up for screwed sellers--only buyers who don't get what they order can file disputes.

So much for PayPal. They offer no protection for writers whatsoever.

Writers' Weekly may or may not be of help. I also got in touch with Angela Hoy of Writers Weekly, who suggested I take a look at this article. This was helpful, but not the "send me all the correspondence and we'll kick ass and take names" response I was hoping for. To be honest, while all the advice on Writers' Weekly suggests contacting Angela and posting your complaint in their Whispers and Warnings forum, when I tried to do that I found out that this forum is in fact frozen. Score one for the scammers. Still, I did send Angela all correspondence and asked that a warning about Leslie Lomax be posted on the website so the message gets out to as many people as possible.

Update: I just heard from Angela, who told me I followed the advice in the article out of order--I thought getting in touch with Writers' Weekly was supposed to be one of my first steps, but it turns out I need to get back in touch with her after I've posted complaints in all the other forums and sites suggested. Some of it I can't do until I find out Leslie's location, but I'll do everything I can and then get back in touch.

Whois is of limited use. A big piece of advice I got early on was to look up the URL of scammers using Whois. While this is definitely helpful, it's only helpful if the client uses her real address and phone number. I couldn't do this with Leslie because I didn't have a website URL for her, but I do have a nonresponsive client I'm starting to fear will turn into another deadbeat--so I thought I'd look him up on WhoIs and give him a call. The number was there, all right--but it was out of service.

I've emailed Leslie with a link to the preceding blog post, as well as links to my blog in top search results for her name and her business name--just on the off chance she doesn't know it's up. I've informed her that I'm happy to take the post down when I'm paid. I still have a few more things to try, but they all involve finding her location and letting the BBB and Attorney General in her state know about her...which may or may not get my money back. Oh well--at least you know not to work with her, if she comes knocking on your door looking for someone to write her something.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Leslie Lomax: Scam Warning

This is the first time this has ever happened to me--but I guess it had to happen eventually. I'm posting this to warn other writers off working with Leslie Lomax, who owns an antiques company called Zelda Antiques. I contracted to work with her in March of this year on articles for a site on organic baby products, sending her a final invoice that month. She has not paid, nor has she responded to emails I have sent her.

My big mistake here was in not getting her address and phone number before starting the project. I've done dozens of one-off small-scale article projects like this without bothering, and it's probably surprising that this is the first time it's happened. So I pass the warning on to you: Don't work with anyone you don't have an address and phone number for.

If I knew where she lived, I could send letters of complaint to the Better Business Bureau and the Attorney General's office in her state, at the very least. Now I've sent a letter of complaint to the Writers' Weekly Whispers and Warnings forum, and of course I'm publishing it here.

If you want to help out, post a link to this post on your own site. I'd like the word to get out to as many writers as possible not to work with this person.

I will continue to do Google searches for the articles I wrote for her; so far they have not come up online, but if they do, I'll know where she's located and proceed accordingly. She'll also be using my articles without copyright, since I have a clause in my contract stating copyright remains with me until project is paid for in full.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Is Social Networking Overrated?

Is it just me, or is Twitter everywhere these days? I wasn't familiar with this social networking tool at all until I read this marvelous post on Inklit comparing Twitter to, Of course I was thrilled to come out looking good in comparison to a popular social networking tool, but I didn't know much about Twitter at all until that point... and then all of a sudden Twitter exploded all over my screen.

Over at Brazen Careerist, they've completely redone their design to incorporate Twitter posts. Penelope Trunk is completely obsessed with Twitter. There's a Twitter writing contest at Copyblogger. And that only scrapes the surface of all the social networking sites out there that people believe will bring them fame, notoriety, and business. Meanwhile Lori Widmer is doubting the value of all these social networks, and frankly so am I. Here's why.

Because social networking takes time. It takes time to build a profile. It takes time to connect to other people. It takes time to build a presence big enough to draw significant traffic. It takes time to be active in these communities--often a must if you want to get noticed. Why spend all that time on something that offers a very shaky ROI, when you could spend it on proven marketing strategies to clients who buy? And if you're not doing it to boost your business, why are you doing it? What's the point of all that time spent?

Because fame on a social networking site is like fame everywhere else. Many people half-believe that social networking sites will bring them some sort of notice. And some people actually do get that--look at Tila Tequila, a girl who got a Playboy spread, an MTV show, and a record deal from her activities on MySpace. But if you think you personally are going to wind up in Hugh Hefner's mansion--or on TV--just because you made a MySpace profile, well...I've got a bridge in Brooklyn you might be interested in. Maybe it does happen, but to one in a million.

Because many people on these sites aren't looking to buy. An interesting point John makes on Inklit is that people on Twitter are looking to be heard--not necessarily to hear others. And in my experience on social networking sites, I've found this to be true: most people there are interested in themselves. They're interested in making themselves heard. In connecting to their friends. In getting attention. In expanding their business networks. Most people are not interested in you, and most aren't looking to hire you--I would say the chances of that are probably best on a site geared towards professionals, like LinkedIn, but even so I've been on LinkedIn for a while and I can't say I've gotten business from it.

Because established markets don't go trolling for writers on social networking sites. Maybe those $5-an-article people do. But high-paying, established companies and markets don't--they don't need to. Writers come to them. If you really want to make progress with your career, maybe you should put yourself in front of them through marketing materials, direct contact, and so on instead of expecting them to come to you on a social networking site.

If you're into social networking sites to have fun and connect with friends, that's one thing--my problem with them comes in when people see them as a way to get business. I'm on FaceBook and LinkedIn. I originally joined FaceBook thinking I'd find clients there, but so many of my friends from college are on FaceBook that my profile has degenerated into something that's mostly social now. As for LinkedIn, I've connected to a small number of previous clients there, but I can't say it's given me a discernible boost in business. What's worked for me is doing a good job for my clients, getting referrals, and getting in touch directly with companies I want to work for. And this blog. I believe blogging and a great website can do wonders for your business--but social networks are generally not much more than a time sink.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Stuff I'm Working On

As you may already know, my posting in May has been a bit irregular due to some other outside commitments. But my life will get back on track soon, I promise. In the meantime, here's a sneak peek at some things I have coming up for this blog and for my business in general:

A whole new website. After attempting to design my own Wordpress site for months, I've come to the conclusion that I'm not a designer. I'm just not. And I'd really, really like to have a website that does my business justice. I'm in the process of contracting with a really top-notch design firm for design in trade for writing--sounds like a good deal for both of us, and I know they'll do a fantastic job. Stay tuned for a new website and a new home for CatalystBlogger soon.

A new ebook. I get a lot of questions about how to start a freelance writing business, how to price, how to get out of the $5-an-article cycle, and so on. I'm in the process of writing an e-book on getting started as a freelance writer who works primarily with online clients.

New clients. For the past year or so, my business has relied on two large regular clients who have come back to me with regular work. While those clients are still around--and I still love working with them, and plan to continue--I'm starting to expand my business a bit, and I've just picked up two new regular clients in a brand-new vein. Here's to hoping for a long and productive partnership for everyone.

Law copy? My mom is a lawyer. And she's a really excellent writer. She loves the writing aspect of law--writing briefs, and, um...other things that lawyers write. She's expressed interest in handling marketing materials and web copy specifically for law firms--and I'm open-minded enough to consider developing a wing of my business (she'd be the wing) that focuses on copy for law firms. It's still something I'm considering--especially after I get my awesome new website developed.

Thanks for sticking with me during this time--and I hope your businesses are booming. Mine is moving steadily onward, and every day is a new challenge.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Why You're Worth More

Just learned on Words on the Page that today is "Writers' Worth" day. Look, writing is a notoriously underpaid job. Everyone thinks they can do it. Everyone thinks it takes you two seconds to do it. Lots of writers want to do it so badly they'll completely debase themselves to do it--working for free or next to free and bringing the job market down for everyone. If you're stuck in the cheap-writing death spiral, here are a few things your writing does for clients--and why you're worth more.

It makes them money. This is the absolute first thing you must realize about what you write. Your writing makes people money. Otherwise they wouldn't pay you to do it, right? This is true across the board, no matter what industry you're writing for. Newspapers and magazines wouldn't get subscriptions without your writing. SEO's wouldn't get ad revenue without your writing. Affiliate marketers wouldn't get clicks without your writing. Businesses of all shapes and sizes wouldn't land half so many customers and clients if your writing didn't clearly explain the benefits of their service or product.

Look: don't just consider the time it takes you to write something. Consider what it's worth. Back when I used to work on Elance, I saw hundreds of writers offering to write ebooks for $500 or less. That's whole, 100-page or bigger ebooks, folks. And you know what the clients do with those ebooks? Sell 'em to niche markets and make thousands of dollars. For something the writer valued at a couple hundred. Don't be the idiot who doesn't know his worth and who gives away the farm. You're smarter than that.

It makes them look good. Your writing makes your clients look good. When you ghostwrite an article or an ebook or a report for them, you show their expertise--but the expertise you're actually showcasing is yours. Charge for it. Your writing makes your client look like an expert, increases his credibility with customers, and builds trust. That's crucial to your client's business. Don't think it's nothing--and don't charge nothing for it.

It gets them noticed. Especially online, your writing generates traffic. Even humble keyword articles generate traffic and bring your client's site up in the search engine rankings--a benefit that's worth thousands. If you write them a press release, you'll get them publicity. If you write blog posts for them, you'll get them noticed in the blogosphere. Plus all those blog posts generate ad revenue--for the client, not for you.

It lands them clients. Your writing in brochures, websites, and other marketing materials explains much better than your client could all the reasons why the client's product or service is worth buying. As a writer, you get inside the prospects' heads; you find out what their problems are; and you convince them that your client has the key to solving their problems. Think that's worth a couple hundred bucks? Think again--it's worth a couple thousand at the very least. Your clients can't do this themselves. They'd land a fraction of the business they would with a clearly stated USP and compelling copy.

Your writing is pure gold to clients, no matter what kind of writing you do. Be aware of what you're worth. Know the value you bring to clients. Charge for it. People who pay $5 for an article are counting on you not knowing how much they need those articles--or how much they benefit from them. Know your worth and charge your worth, and you'll have a great career--not a work-from-home sweatshop job.

Other posts on Writers' Worth:

The Urban Muse
Irreverent Freelancer
Chaos in the Country

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The End is In Sight

Well, my on-site commitment is set to end at the end of May, and I just had my regular evening commitment come to an my life is getting a bit less hectic now. Posting will still be a bit more irregular than usual, but in June my schedule will pick up again. Once again I am sorry for the lag in posts, and thank you for your tolerance!

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Done to Death: Does it Matter?

Several years ago, I sent a short story of mine to a friend who had gotten accepted into a prestigious creative writing MFA program. I wanted her to look it over and give it a critique, something she and I had been doing for each other all through college. Before, her critiques were always thoughtful and thorough--she always weighed the pros and cons of whatever I'd written and gave insightful, practical advice. This time, she simply ripped the story apart. Her main critique? That it wasn't original. The concepts had been "done to death," she said.

I'm really not one to argue with someone who's trying to help, and I didn't argue with her--I thanked her for her comments and told her I'd take them to heart. However, I definitely disagreed. My short story was not centered around an overly familiar concept--I'd never read one like it before, to be honest. True, it had a few universal themes--grief, love, tension between in-laws, blah blah--that crop up often in short stories. But that's because they're universal. If they weren't pretty common in the human condition, the story wouldn't speak to many people.

And I started to think about the value we place on "originality." Is it really that important that your short story--or your novel, or your website copy, or your salesletter--to be completely original? And by original I don't mean written from scratch by you--because of course these things have to be. I mean not influenced by anything else you've ever read, ever. Not speaking to some sort of theme that comes up regularly in this type of writing. I mean something completely new, that nobody's ever done before.

When it comes to creativity, I'm starting to believe that true "originality" may be a myth. It certainly wasn't always valued as highly as it is now. Look at how much eighteenth-century British literature strove to emulate the ancient Greeks, for example. And look at how Shakespeare came up with his plots--by basing them on common legends and myths, popular short stories of the day, and even historical occurrences.

The truth is that creativity doesn't exist in a vacuum. It takes inspiration from other authors, from life, and from art to create something that's new in one sense, but in another it's a reflection of the world around it. If we didn't look outside ourselves for inspiration, our work would be flat and one-dimensional--and chances are it wouldn't be too appealing to an outside audience.

And what about copy? Is it really important to come up with concepts that are totally novel and original? Maybe sometimes, with some gigs, that's important. But I'd say that the vast majority of the time, it's not. What's important, with commercial copy, is that it works. And if that means following the same formula over and over again--because that's what's been proven to work--then that's what you should do.

The thing is, good writing is more than originality. It's presenting an old idea in a fresh voice. It's reaching an audience on a level that's beyond words. It's giving voice to things that people often think--but never say. Good writing does a lot of things, and my firm belief is that it doesn't have to be "original" to do it. In fact, much of the time, it's better if it's not.

Monday, May 5, 2008

What Makes You Unique?

I can't do things by halves. I planned to redo my blog and migrate it to my website. Instead I've entered into an attempt to redo my entire website, again, to make it more effective. And I've been thinking about how I want to define my business--and about my USP.

If you're a freelancer, you know what a USP is. You probably also know that it can help your business to have one, as well as the businesses of your clients. But how many of us actually have one? Looking around at the websites of some of my fellow writers, I've noticed that many of us don't really have a clearly communicated USP--and we're writers.

For us, finding a USP is often difficult--and I think the reason for that is your USP has to be something beyond what you really feel you're good at. For us, that's writing. We all love writing. We all know we're good at it. But it doesn't make an effective USP--because every single other writer out there claims to be good at writing. True, not everyone is. But if you've been in business for any length of time, chances are you can hold your own.

So how do you find a USP for your business? Here are some ideas I'm wrestling with:

Your experience. If you have experience in an industry, that will naturally set you apart from other writers who don't when it comes to certain projects. I've won projects because of my experience in education, the arts, and modeling. If you have twenty years of experience in the aviation industry, you're more likely to be hired by airlines large and small than someone without that experience. In addition, people with former sales careers also have a leg up on the rest of us when it comes to experience that sets you apart.

Your education. Especially in technical fields, your education can set you apart as well. Not to generalize, but in my experience many people I've met who are brilliant at science aren't the best writers. f you have a degree in engineering and can write coherently, you definitely set yourself apart.

What you're good at. Do you love writing taglines and headlines more than the rest of the copy? Or maybe you're really great at breaking complex technical topics down into concepts anyone can understand. All of those are skills that set you apart from your peers.

The type of writing you tend to do. While I've done all sorts of projects, for the past year or so most of my projects have been for web writing of one kind or another. I've got a lot of regular clients who design websites for clients of their own, run SEO companies, affiliate and e-commerce businesses. These people need website copy, SEO copy, and more. Because of my experience, I've picked up quite a bit on writing SEO-optimized copy. (Granted, I don't always follow that knowledge on my blog--notice I haven't really linked out to anyone on this post!). I'm considering marketing myself as an SEO-savvy web writer. If you find yourself handling a certain kind of project often, you can definitely use that as your USP.

A good USP can take some time to develop. It's a process, and it may take you months or even years to figure out your true strengths as a copywriter--and how to market those to clients. I'm not quite ready to settle on mine yet--but I'm hoping to by the end of the year. I know that when I do, my marketing materials will be much stronger.