Monday, September 29, 2008

Business Terms: Are They Ever Personal?

Just recently I got an email from a client that I hadn't heard from in a while. I'd done some bulk work with them a while back, where I'd provided ten or twelve articles a month for two or three months. The work trickled out and the client and I parted ways, but just recently he got back in touch with a one-time article writing project. Following my normal business procedure, I sent over a contract defining the length of the pieces, price, and payment schedule. That's when the trouble started.

The client wrote back saying he was offended to be asked for a 50% deposit upfront, because he believed we were past the "initial stage" of doing business together. He also "refused" to define a length for the articles, saying he wanted them to be whatever length was needed to give a thorough accounting of the topic. He felt I was treating him like a first-time client and wasn't giving him the freedom he needed to get the articles just right.

This gave me pause, even though I've worked with this client before with nary a problem. For me, business terms are never personal; they're just the conditions under which I do business.

However, I do work without a deposit sometimes--only for clients I have a history with who are ordering regular amounts of work each month. A few of my clients use me as a "go-to" writer and will ask me for random work--sometimes small, sometimes quite large--consistently throughout the month. Sometimes I'll do 20 or more small projects for a single client in a month. In these cases, it's onerous to the client to have to contract and pay 50% up front for each project, and they sometimes can't predict what they need at the beginning of the month so I can't charge them up front for everything at once. When this happens, I draw up a general contract and bill at the end of the month. This client was operating on a contract like this, because for a while he was a regular. But once he returned for a single one-off project, I billed him under my typical single-project business terms--50% up front.

I would have considered waiving that requirement for him if it had been the only issue. However, the fact that he didn't want the length of the articles defined really bothered me. The thing was, I was perfectly willing to write with no consideration to length--and told him so. But if there's no limit on length, there can't be a limit on price either--and he wasn't satisfied with that arrangement. Ultimately, it seemed he wanted to contract for a longer work and pay the price for a shorter one.

Unfortunately, this client and I couldn't see eye-to-eye and parted ways. This can happen, even for regulars you think you know well. Very rarely, I've had a prospective client tell me he feels a deposit isn't a "friendly" way of doing business or it indicates mistrust, but I'm not in this business to make friends. I'm here to make money, and I tend to resist people trying to control me by telling me I'm not being nice. Nice girls don't make waves or stand up for themselves. Professional women do.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Clients to Target in a Bad Economy--And How to Appeal to Them.

It's all over the news--the economy is going from bad to worse. Stocks are plunging, the government is considering massive bailouts to financial institutions, and it's increasingly difficult to get a loan to start a new business, go to school or buy a home. Recently a family member looked at me sympathetically and said, "your business must really be suffering with the economic downturn."

Actually, it isn't. Copywriting is one of those businesses that can thrive even during economic downturns, if you play your cards right. The truth is that every business needs to market in good times and in bad--and they need writers more than ever to boost their bottom line. Here are a few clients to keep an eye out for in a failing economy, and how to ensure you get the job.

Resume writing firms. With all the layoffs going on, plenty of people--including C-level executives--are facing unemployment. And many of them know the value of a professionally written resume. Business for top-level resume-writing firms is booming right now, and many of them outsource their writing. Get in touch with some executive level resume-writing firms, or market on your own to individual clients.

Companies that usually do copywriting in-house. In an economic downturn, many larger companies tend to lay off and outsource wherever they can. It's bad news for in-house writers, but great news for freelancers. If you've ever been told "no" by a company because they do all their writing in-house, now is the time to get back in touch. They may have let go a lot of key writers, but that doesn't mean they need less writing done.

Entrepreneurs. You have to watch it with entrepreneurs; sometimes start-ups can be financially unstable, and I know some writers who generally don't work with them. But when the economy is winding down, many laid-off employees will be opening their own businesses. And although the economy isn't great, some of them won't be doomed to fail.

If you're going to work with entrepreneurs in an economic downturn, do a little investigation into their background. Do these people have a background in sales or in their industry that will give them strong contacts? Make sure your contract is iron-clad and consider taking 100% up front for smaller jobs. Start small with entrepreneurs to give working with them a try--if they prove to be good clients, move on to larger projects with them.

Now you know who to target--how do you make sure they hire you instead of the other guy? Here are a few suggestions.

Offer better value for the money. No, you don't have to lower your rates--in our business, it's generally not a great idea to compete as the cheap option. But make sure potential clients know that they get more from you than the other guys. Do you offer free e-books and information products along with hiring? Do you offer value-added services like marketing consultation, connections with graphic design or SEO firms, or press release submission? If you do, now's the time to emphasize those in your marketing materials.

Position yourself as the economical choice. You are cheaper than an in-house copywriter. When companies hire you they don't have to pay a salary plus health benefits, sick days and Christmas bonuses. They just have to pay the cost of the project. This enables companies to buy what they need from you and save money where they have to. This is a big selling point, especially in an economic downturn.

Put a heavy emphasis on your past success. Selling is supposedly more difficult than ever--and that means results matter. Think back on past projects and consider what you've done to help your clients--concrete facts and figures are going to be very helpful here. Did you increase response rates by 25% in your last promotion? Increase click-through rates or have articles and content go viral? Boost your company's bottom line by 50% with your website rewrite? Check with past clients to see if you can get some to give you figures like this if you don't have any on hand; these will definitely set you apart.

An economic downturn doesn't have to be bad news for your business. Emphasize how great of a deal you are by saving the company money and boosting their bottom line, and you're sure to do well no matter the state of the economy.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Ghost in the Portfolio

I recently had a question from Diana over at Indigo Inkwell about how to use ghostwriting projects in your resume. Peter Bowerman wrote recently about how he doesn't generally ask permission to use client pieces in his portfolio, and I think this is a pretty sensible approach--the worst that can happen is that they ask you to take it down. This isn't true in all instances, however. Sometimes the writing sample contains sensitive corporate information. And sometimes it's a ghostwriting assignment.

Ghostwriting projects can be a little more difficult, because the client is publicly saying that he is the author. If it comes out that the client isn't actually the author, it could conceivably hurt his reputation in some industries. Because of this, it's best to be careful when you use these projects in your portfolio. Here are a few of my thoughts on the issue:

First: be aware of what is and isn't "ghostwriting." I've heard all sorts of strange definitions of ghostwriting; one of the funniest recently was from someone who wanted to use articles from one of my clients' sites on his own site, and thought "ghostwriting" meant "anyone can put their name on the piece." Not so. When you ghostwrite an article for someone, you write it. The client gets all the rights to it, and puts it out under their own name.

Ask before you start the project. Check with the client beforehand to make sure they won't mind if you use the work as a writing sample. If they have a heads-up before they start, the client may be willing to work it into the contract.

If you can, get it in writing. It's generally best to put in a stipulation that says you can use the project in your portfolio, post it online, and discuss it with prospective employers.

Notify the client before you post the work. If you don't have permission and you didn't tell the client you want to use the project, tell him before you post it on your website. If he doesn't object, go ahead. If he does--or if he doesn't respond, and you have no correspondence that proves he gave you permission earlier--don't chance using it.

Anyone else have experience using ghostwritten projects as portfolio pieces? If so, I'd love to hear your advice.

Friday, September 19, 2008

My Message to $5 Article Writers

I went over to Web Writing Info the other day and saw an interesting post--It's Okay to Start Low, where Courtney admits she started as a $5-an-article writer.

I got my start article writing, too. I liked it because it wasn't salesy and I really wasn't comfortable with the idea of selling when I first started out. I charged $15-$20 an article off the bat. I just couldn't stomach charging $3-$5 for what I knew would be an hour job, or longer--I've never been able to churn out articles consistently in under an hour, although it happens sometimes when I'm really focused. I thought that if I was going to get paid that little, I might as well do it for free--because I sure wasn't doing it for the money.

I've always thought that people who work for that little were probably coming from other countries where the cost of living was lower, and they could afford to undercut writers in the States. But (and maybe I'm the last person surprised by this) it seems a lot of really fantastic English-as-a-first-language writers are doing the same thing. If this is you, I'm not going to berate you with accusations that you're ruining the copywriting industry or anything like that. But I would like to see you earning more--I feel you deserve it--and I have a few things to say.

You DO deserve more. I think a lot of people get started charging low because they feel they're inexperienced and don't deserve more. But anyone who can research well, not make grammar and spelling mistakes, and string together coherent sentences deserves more than $3-$5 an hour. People who work at McDonalds get paid more. The minimum wage is more. You're an educated, skilled worker, probably with a college degree, and you didn't go through college to get paid less than minimum wage on anything. You are offering a service that someone else can't do--and you deserve to be paid a fair and realistic price for your skills.

Writing is a job. I think a lot of people fall into the trap of getting paid less because they get all precious about writing. They feel honored and flattered that anyone would pay them anything at all to write. But let me tell you, what you're writing isn't glamorous. It's not going to make you famous. It's not even that creative. You're writing articles that are basically grist for the search engine mill. You're not writing poetry or memoir or the great American novel. People may insist that they "have to" write; that they'd do it even if they weren't getting paid. And maybe that's true if you're a poet or a novelist. But would you really write fifty 500-word articles around the keyword "diamond engagement rings" because you felt the call of the muses? No. You wouldn't. The kind of writing you're doing is a job, not an inspiration-fest. Even if you're treating it like a hobby, it's better to get paid more than less for it.

Ask for more and you'll get it. Believe me, this is true. I started out working on Elance, where people regularly pay less than a penny per word. I was asking $25 and $30 per article--and getting it. You can do it too. If you don't believe me, give it two weeks. Quote a price you'd like to get paid for an hour's worth of work to everyone who asks. I'll bet you'll get a few takers. If you don't, you're looking in the wrong place.

Your market isn't paying? Find another one. Now here's the key. You don't want to be working with affilliate marketers. In my experience, this is the group that expects to pay dirt for articles. However, getting a few professional SEO firms as clients isn't a bad idea. These folks tend to pay more because they can then turn around and charge their clients for it--and they're regular work. Right now I do ongoing article writing work for several top SEO firms and I charge $45 an article and higher. If you're not getting any leads when you charge more, it's not because you're charging too much. It's because you're in the wrong market. Check out this post I did on clients who will pay good rates for the same articles you'd write for $5 elsewhere.

If you're getting paid $5 per article, believe me--you can get paid more. Just ask for it. If the client balks, there are all kinds of things to say to justify your prices: that you do high quality, well-researched work; that their articles are a projection of them and need to make a good impression; and that great writing will make their articles stand out from a sea of sludge, among other things. And guess what? They'll all be true.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

AWAI: Should You or Shouldn't You?

If you've been freelancing for a while, you've probably heard of the American Writers and Artists Institute. It's a correspondence school for copywriters and graphic designers, and it includes courses on copywriting, travel writing, photography, desktop publishing, and even romance novel writing. The courses are expensive--around $500 each--and I've heard a lot of writers question whether they're worth it. I've taken the Accelerated Direct Mail copywriting course, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on the program here for those who are curious.

The website copy is a tad overblown, but the product is good. One of the reasons why some writers are skeptical of the program, I believe, is the really hype-y sales copy throughout the site that promises you'll earn a six-figure salary working two hours a week from your vacation home in Cape Cod. Overblown? Yes. And a lot of that is probably due to the fact that AWAI is backed by a lot of big names in the direct mail business: Bob Bly, Michael Masterson and Don Mahoney among others. Painting a picture of the big dream and trying to tug on the prospect's heart strings are all proven tactics in the direct mail business, but I know that for me personally, my defenses go up when I see people promising me the world. Give me facts, figures and proof instead of appealing to my emotional side, and I'll be more likely to buy--and I suspect a lot of other writers feel the same way.

Still, I did get a lot out of the copywriting course--it provided detailed, step-by-step instructions on how to write an effective sales letter, and I learned a lot not just about writing in this format, but about writing to sell. These are skills I've used a lot in my client work since, even if I didn't wind up concentrating on direct mail sales copy.

The fringe benefits are mixed. The school advertises a lot of extras when you buy into their program--including a newsletter, ongoing business tips and access to their job boards. I still get the newsletter and I find a lot of useful tips there. The job boards, however, aren't that exhaustive--and a lot of the employers seem to be looking for spec work. I've never gotten work from it, but I'd love to hear from someone who has.

The company just came out with a new class on web copy, and I'm considering ordering it as soon as I have time. I'd love to hear from others in the comments section who have had experience with AWAI.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Freelance Don'ts: Do You Break the Rules?

As a new freelancer, you'll hear all sorts of advice on things you should never, ever do while you're in business. Much of the time, it's perfectly sound. However, there will be times when following this advice becomes impractical--and you may actually lose business if you do. Here are a few freelancing rules I've broken that have brought me more business.

Don't work for free. I work for "free" every time I write a post on this blog, but I am getting valuable exposure and making connections with colleagues. For me, that's invaluable. I've definitely written for free before, but I've always made sure I've gotten something out of it that I needed. For more info on when to work for free, check out this prior blog post.

Don't do unpaid "training assignments." I did an unpaid training assignment once, years ago, for a client to whom I was referred by a colleague. At the time I didn't know any better, and they became a lucrative regular. Today, I might have turned that project down and missed out on all that income. But I don't advocate doing this for any company unless (a). you don't have much to lose and (b). they are a fairly stable company with a good reputation.

Don't work without an upfront payment. A handful of times I've accepted projects without an up-front deposit of some sort (usually 50%). All of those times, it's been with organizations that work with a lot of writers and have a routine down. I would never do this for startups. I usually have known other writers within the organization who have never had problems with payment. And I've also known it's pretty futile trying to negotiate a deposit, as it's not the usual for the industry they're in (e.g., print).

Don't bend on your business terms. After you do this enough, you get inflexible. I've heard a lot of very experienced writers say they don't compromise on business terms. But I've made some compromises--some I was comfortable with, and some I was a little leery of--and gotten a lot in return. Make sure you know which of your terms are privately negotiable and which you can't live without when you go into negotiation.

What freelance writing rules have you broken?

Friday, September 12, 2008

Computers...Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Throw 'Em Out the Window

OK, anyone out there with any computer-related skills, I need your help.

I've got a client who needs documents returned with precise formatting. They're on a PC. I'm on a Mac. I use the Mac version of Windows 2004. I have no idea what they use.

I write the document. The document looks just peachy on my end. I send it over, and on their end the last line of the first page invariably rolls over onto the top of the second page. It happens sometimes, and sometimes it doesn't--even if I leave two spaces between the last line of the first page and the top of the second.

I've been poking around online and in help forums, but haven't seen mention of this particular problem. If you have any idea of how to fix it, your input would be most appreciated.

Have a great weekend!

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Signing Client Contracts: When Negotiation is Futile

This is part three in my series on signing client contracts. In the first two, I talked about terms to watch for when signing client contracts, as well as how to negotiate changes. In the third installment, I'm taking a look at two times when negotiating is probably not going to work.

Some freelancers refuse to change their terms at all for client projects. Personally, there are a few things I insist on, but I can also be flexible in certain situations. When you find a client like the two below, be warned: you will probably have to be flexible.

First, just to be clear: if there's something you really can't live with in the contract, bring it up. No matter what. Worst case, they'll say no and you'll have to turn the project down. If you don't say anything, you could find yourself stuck in a contract with unworkable terms.

When it's the usual in their industry. If you're doing magazine writing, you're going to get kill fees. It's that simple. If you're working with a middleman client like an ad agency or a web designer, you'll probably have a non-compete clause of some type. It's just what's done for those particular clients, and you are probably not going to get a good response if you try to take those clauses out entirely--although you can ask for minor changes. In these cases, it's still possible to ensure rights revert to you if the project is killed, or loosen the restrictions on the noncompete agreement if it's too tight.

When the client works with a lot of writers and has a routine. Some clients work with a ton of writers, and they've honed their contract to what works best for them and what receives the least complaints from writers. These clients often don't want to bother with a different contract for each writer they work with, and they'll tell you so if you try to make changes. You may or may not know you have a client like this until you ask. But if you do, you'll probably have to take the contract as-is.

If you get a client like this, it will probably come down to your instincts to decide whether you should stay or go. Read the contract carefully, and decide to negotiate only over clauses you really can't put up with. When it comes to unflexible contracts from clients whose business you want to keep, you have to be careful when choosing the hills you're willing to die on.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Signing Client Contracts: Negotiating Changes

Last week I wrote about what to watch for when signing a contract given to you by a client, rather than one you wrote yourself. Some clients will want you to sign their own contract instead of signing yours, and there's nothing wrong with this--but bear in mind that contracts are usually written to protect the people giving them, not the people receiving them. It's important to read the fine print carefully and know what you're signing on for.

So if you do find something you don't like in the client's contract, what do you do? It can be tempting just to walk away--freelancers learn the hard way to trust their instincts, and we can be a skittish lot. But many clients are perfectly willing to renegotiate contract terms. Here's how to approach the situation.

Know before you go in. First, be aware: is this a problem you're willing to leave the project over, or is it something you'd just like to see changed? I'm pretty flexible, but there are a few things that will make me leave a project. "Payment upon acceptance" clauses are a no-go for me, as well as noncompete agreements that are too restrictive. I'm willing to tolerate kill fees under certain circumstances, but I'll usually bring it up with the client before I get started to see if it can be changed.

Explain your position. If you do find something you don't like in the contract, explain to the client why it could be a problem for you. I spotted a clause in a recent client contract that said I could do no business with the client's competitors--any SEO or web marketing firm--while I was working with them. I explained to the client that a large percentage of my business came from companies like this, and I'd be hurting myself financially if I agreed to it. The client understood and took out the clause.

I sometimes take a harder line with certain clauses, like "payment upon acceptance." These stipulate that clients must pay only if they find the work "acceptable" (and "acceptable" is rarely defined in the contract). I generally explain that I require a 50% deposit and final payment after delivery of the last draft, and ask if I can change the contract to reflect that. The few times I've had to do this, the client has agreed.

If they say no, trust your instincts. The client might be understanding, or they might refuse your request. If they do say no, give yourself a gut check. Does the client seem trustworthy? Have they been responsive to all your emails? Have you checked them out online and are they fairly established? Do you know any other writers who've worked with them, and have they had a good experience? If so, it may be safe for you to stay.

Freelancers can be skittish, but so can people who hire freelancers online--they've been burned just as much as we have. Be willing to work with clients, know where you draw the line and where you're willing to negotiate, and trust your intuition. It's always okay to walk away from an inflexible contract. But if you walk away every time, you could be missing out on some great regular clients.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Signing Client Contracts: What to Watch For

Over at the Irreverent Freelancer today, I spotted a discussion on client contracts: do you insist on one? Will you sign a contract given to you by a client? If so, do you go through them with a fine-toothed comb, and is it OK to question the terms?

I usually give clients a contract of my own to sign--it's really more of an informal letter of agreement laying out my terms (and if you want to know what should go in your own letter of agreement, look here). But occasionally I get a client who wants me to sign their contract--either instead or in addition. I'm fine with this, but I definitely think it's necessary to go through it--and I have made change requests to clients before. If they refuse, it can be a dealbreaker. Here are a few things I look for in contracts clients give me to sign.

Non-compete agreements. Many clients will ask you to sign some sort of non-compete agreement. Much of the time, this simply states you won't give away company secrets to competitors. If they're a middleman client--like a web design company, ad agency or SEO firm--they may ask you not to work directly with their clients for a set length of time.

Once I was signing on to work as a copywriter for a web design firm, and the contract's non-compete agreement said I could work with no other companies that did work similar to theirs--this included web design, SEO, e-commerce of any sort--while I was working with this company. Obviously, this was a dealbreaker for me. I explained my situation to the client, and they were willing to take that clause out.

Payment only upon acceptance. Sometimes clients will put a clause into the contract stating they won't pay you if they review the work and find it "unacceptable." This is dangerous for writers. What constitutes "unacceptable" is hardly ever spelled out. Theoretically, it allows clients to simply decide not to pay you no matter how good a job you did. I will never take a project when the client insists on this clause in the contract.

When and where you can use samples of the work. This isn't a dealbreaker for me, but it's a good thing to be aware of. Every so often, a client won't want you to use samples from the project on your website or in your portfolio. Once I had a client ask me to sign a contract saying I wasn't allowed to advertise, list them as a client, or put them on my resume. I didn't really mind this--it was a well-paying, possibly regular project and I didn't see this as a reason to walk. But still, you need to be aware of it. Like Peter Bowerman, I often use samples without getting written permission first. If I had missed the fine print on the contract and then posted that particular sample, I could be in trouble.

A payment schedule that doesn't match with yours. I do 50% up front and 50% at the end of the project. Exceptions are rare--for a handful of regular clients I bill at the end of the month, and for some very large projects I'll spread out the schedule to three or more payments. But I almost always insist on an up-front payment. Client-given contracts rarely spell that out, so I make sure the client's fine with me adding the payment schedule into the contract.

Weird terms. Once I had a client give me a contract that said I wouldn't get paid unless I posted the sample of the work on my website, with links back to the client's site. The kicker? The client got to specify what anchor text I used as links. I didn't like giving clients this much control over what's on my own business site--especially in my sample section, where everything has to be just right in order to showcase my writing ability to best effect. I asked to take that clause out of the contract, and the client complied.

Lack of clarity about third parties. Sometimes you'll be working with a middleman--a web designer or SEO firm that works with clients of its own. If this is the case, it needs to be clear who you're working with. Some of my middleman clients ask me to talk directly to their own clients--and with others, I never speak to the third party. Other complications arise when your web design firm doesn't want you to give the client a direct quote, or when it's not clear who's actually writing your check. These are things that may need to be written into the contract, if not at least explained clearly to you.

Kill fees. These are more common in magazines and newspapers, but I had an online news site once that insisted on it. A kill fee clause states that the client has the right to pay you a percentage of the original fee--something like 20%--if they decide not to use your writing for whatever reason. I generally don't accept contracts with kill fees unless the project is an article that I would be able to sell to a different magazine--and I make sure the rights revert to me if the client decides not to use the piece.

Clients who don't want to give you their contact info or sign the contract by hand. This is just something to watch for whether you're using the client's contract or your own. Clients who won't give you their address and phone number, or who try to convince you that their typewritten name is just as good as a real signature, are definitely questionable.

There's no reason not to sign a client contract if your client is more comfortable with that. But you do need to read over it to ensure the contract covers your butt as well as theirs. I usually don't sign client contracts without some sort of change to ensure my terms will be honored--and I also make sure the project scope, timetable, cost, and other basics are clearly spelled out. Don't be afraid to ask for changes. If the client says no, listen to your gut. It may be OK to go ahead with the project anyway--I've done this before. But if you can't get your client to change a clause that really worries you, it may be best to pass on the project.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

What's Your Recurring Nightmare?

Over at Lori Widmer's Words on the Page, Lori mentions a recurring client issue: clients bringing in groups of outside people to edit her work. Over at another of my favorite blogs, the Irreverent Freelancer seems to get a lot of clients who try to find excuses not to pay after the project is completed. I've rarely had this happen (knock on wood), but I do have my own recurring client issue: clients who disappear after the first draft.

Most of us have some sort of client issue that happens over and over again. If you find this happening, here are a few actions you can take.

First, ask yourself: Is it you? If a certain situation keeps happening, it's not unreasonable to think you might be inviting it in some way. For those clients who disappear on me, I've definitely done things that have made the situation worse and may have led clients to believe they can get away with it--like not insisting on having a working phone number and address on file for every new client. It's a danger when you're a basically laid-back person and you communicate with clients primarily by email, but the problem with having only an email address is a). it's easy to ignore and b). it doesn't always give you a hint as to where the person's located in case you get in trouble. It helps to know where people live.

Know the signs. For me, there are two types of clients who are likely to disappear after the first draft: clients who take forever to get started on the project, and clients who need it yesterday. The first type can take weeks to get your signed contract back; you'll think the project is off after a while, and then you'll hear back weeks later. It's pretty common. The second type, in my opinion, is likely to be disorganized and gets all anxious about not having a certain type of copy that some marketing guru probably told them they needed. Then once they get it, they aren't thinking about you anymore--they move on to other things--and you've got to push for feedback and payment.

Have a procedure in place. My procedure for nonresponding clients involves letting them know up front that if I don't hear back from them after a certain time, I'll invoice them. I also make sure I have all the information I need in place to pursue payment, if I have trouble getting it. While nonpayment has been very rare in my experience, delayed payment isn't unusual.

Nip it in the bud. Getting a certain type of client problem over and over means you get plenty of practice dealing with it--and eventually you'll learn how to spot the signs and prevent problems before they happen. With time, you may be able to make that recurring issue a non-issue.

What's your recurring issue?