The author of The Enterprising Writer talks about making a living with writing, setting up a business, obtaining clients, self-publishing, e-publishing, commercial writing, his online store, and his books in this very detailed interview.
Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: Tell me about the origin of The Enterprising Writer.
Michael: I got the idea to write this book a few years ago after working with a number of professional writers. In my 20 years as a professional writer, I have spent half that time in my own business, hiring both full-time and freelancer writers. Some, like me, had a newspaper and magazine journalism background, others had come from TV and radio, and others from corporate marketing. In many cases, I hired people who had 10 or 20 more years more in the industry and, with that, far more experience and skills. Some writers had worked on well-known Australian and overseas titles, and one had enjoyed six-figure salary with a large corporation before working for me. The point is that most of these professional writers had the credentials, the track record and the ability to be a major success in their own writing business. And yet, without exception, none had risen to great heights working for themselves. This got me thinking . . . “what am I doing that they are not doing?”, and so the germ for ‘The Enterprising Writer’ was born. There’s some conjecture whether great writers are born. Whichever school of thought you belong to, I believe writers can develop the skills needed to become enterprising writers who are not only prolific but profitable.
Magdalena: You earn a reasonable living from your writing. Did you have to make the big decision at one point and just stop everything else and focus on the writing career to get to where you are now?
Michael: Yes. Put simply, I think that if you want to be a success at anything, you need to focus on what works and discard what doesn’t. In my case, it wasn’t a matter of just focusing on writing but focusing on the right kind of writing. When I got my first full-time job as a reporter on a regional daily on the Gold Coast, I also became the paper’s film critic. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t mind seeing and reviewing a few films a week in my spare time. But that experience led to other opportunities to review videos, music and then books. Before long, I was spending a good portion of my spare time, ‘researching’ and writing weekly reviews. This didn’t worry me at the time, because I was learning my craft, enjoying the fruits of my labor, and also interviewing celebrities and attending gala events. But, when I took a job as a sub-editor for a group of newspapers in Melbourne, I also continued my moonlighting as an entertainment critic. By then, I was working a 40-hour job as a sub-editor and spending at least another 40 hours a week writing reviews for this group of newspapers and freelancing for other newspapers and magazines. The hours were long and the pay abysmal. But it took me several years to work out that my time could be better spent elsewhere. Once I finally cut the ties, I was able to move on to a better job and focus my freelance energies in more profitable areas.
It can be difficult to let go of things that have been a part of your life, even when you see them as a waste of time. That’s why it’s important to have clearly defined goals. To be a success in anything, you need to know what you truly want and what you are prepared to do to get it. You need to acknowledge your dreams by breaking them into bite-sized chunks ~ goals ~ and attach a deadline for their completion. That’s the only way I know to stay on target and to make it happen.
Magdalena: Can anyone earn the sort of money writing that you do?
Michael: Let me begin by saying this. We all know there’s big money in books. Celebrity authors, like Stephen King, can command $40 million a year or more. We also know that there’s just a handful of writers in this stratosphere, and that the bulk of mid-list authors scramble to make a decent living. But how many writers realize that behind every message they hear, read or see, be it in a newspaper, on radio, TV, the Web or even product packaging, is a writer. Someone has to come up with that memorable slogan or that catchy phrase or even the media invitation which attracts journalists to a press conference. And that someone is a writer. The whole point of ‘The Enterprising Writer’ is to show others what I believe is the most lucrative area available to writers today. Writers can generate a higher income from writing newsletters, brochures, ads and sales letters than they can from writing for newspapers and magazines. And, once you have a number of clients, you have ongoing work for months or for years. The same can’t be said when you freelance for magazines. Having said that, commercial writers are a little like novelists, in that there’s a small echelon who are earning good money and there is a larger community who are getting by. The difference is that there is a lot of work available in commercial writing, if you know where to look, if you know how to target prospects and snare clients. So, to answer our question, yes any writer can earn a good living from their craft if they know not only how to write but also how to manage their business. And that’s what I address in my book.
Magdalena: You spend a fair amount of time in the book focusing on the need for an appropriate business plan. Do you think that this is an area that writers tend to be particularly lax in; not treating their work as a proper business?
Michael: Absolutely. Being an enterprising writer is about maintaining a sustainable living as a writer. Seeing writing as a business in every sense of the word. That appears obvious on the surface, but I wonder how many writers truly see their craft as a business and work it as such. That means not waiting for the muse to take you. That means doing something about writer’s block, even if it’s prospecting for new business or administrative work. The first step is to determine whether you are cut out to work for yourself. If so, lay the right foundations by developing practical, business management skills, writing a business plan and so on. Most writers I know fail to do this, and consequently fail to succeed in their own business.
Magdalena: At the back of your book you have a number of templates, including a few for direct marketing a person?s own writing business. Do you think that direct marketing is a good strategy for beginners?
Michael: Yes. I think DM is not only a cost effective way of attracting and maintaining business, it’s also a simple way to show rather than tell prospects how well you can write and how much your skills and services can benefit their business. It stands to reason that if you are going to promote your commercial writing services, you should use the very skills you are promoting.
Magdalena: What sorts of responses have you had from direct marketing?
Michael: Direct marketing is one of the core marketing tools I use to attract new business. Word of mouth still out-ranks all other promotional activities I undertake. But, particularly in the beginning when I was building the business, I would issue prospecting letters to a dozen companies a week, and follow them up religiously a few days after receiving them. In the beginning, like any sales activity, it’s hard work and it can be a little frustrating when you’re not getting past the first phone call. But it is a far better approach than straight cold calling from the phone book, as some writers do. In this line of work, I see cold calling as less than professional, and I think the results speak for themselves. DM, as mentioned earlier, gives you a chance to introduce yourself, your services and your skills to a prospect. So that when you follow-up the letter and brochure with a phone call, the prospect is ‘warm’, meaning they are already familiar with you. That makes it easier to gain an appointment compared with cold calling from names in a directory.
Magdalena: Did you find that it was difficult to get work until you had a few clients to list? How can a writer just starting to do commercial work get these?
Michael: Yes, in the beginning it’s a little hard. Not just because a writer hasn’t got the clients, but they probably haven’t got the confidence to sell themselves nor the ability to provide marketing solutions on their feet. When starting out, the goal is to develop a folio of work. This is chicken-and-egg stuff. You need a folio to gain work and you need work to develop a folio. So to get started, approach people you know in business. These can be family or friends, and offer your services at a low cost or, if you have to, at no cost. I am not suggesting you make a career out of working for free. I am only suggesting this approach if you cannot find paid work. If you don’t know of anyone in business, try various volunteer organizations, churches and social groups. It’s important to remind yourself that you are in a training phase, and that usually comes at a cost. In this case, the cost could be working for a reduced rate. Once you have completed one or more jobs, seek testimonials from your clients. This will help support your growing folio and give potential clients confidence in your work. Once you have been in business for a while, you may find that you receive referrals and testimonials without even asking for them. That’s what happens to me. This is generally far more powerful than asking for them, and it’s a great vote of confidence in your abilities. Now it’s time to check out the job classifieds – not just for journalists, freelance, PR or marketing writers — but for any sales and marketing roles. If a company is expanding its sales force it will more than likely need marketing collateral, an ongoing PR program or maybe just some overload services. Be proactive, write to the Marketing Manager, CEO, Managing Director or Sales Manager (whoever is more appropriate), offering your services. But don’t wait by the phone, call them within a few days of mailing the letter.
Magdalena: Your book is self-published (and an e-book). Did you try the traditional route first?
Michael: Not with this book. I had decided to launch an epublishing business last year, and this book screamed to be heard. So it was my first ebook and first self-published work.
Magdalena: Do you think e-publishing is easier for writers to break into, and does that reduce the kudos associated with it?
Michael: Yes. Today a writer only needs to put pixels to screen and they can be published. In the ‘old days’ there was a series of gate-keepers, called editors, who allowed just one in one thousand submitted manuscripts to see the light of day. But, even though those it’s easier to be epublished, there is already a great deal of competition in cyberspace. Writers will need to do a lot more of their own book promotion and marketing to get noticed. But once noticed, if your work is worth reading, the public will vote with their wallets. There has always been a perception that self-published works do not come up to the standard of traditionally published books. This stigma is accentuated with epublishing because it is seen as a new and unproven medium. It’s important to remember that many best-selling works, like ‘Celestine Prophecy’, ‘What Color is Your Parachute?’, ‘The Joy of Cooking’ and ‘The One Minute Manager’ started life as self-published tomes before being picked up by major publishers. I do not look down on ebooks. I have purchased a number of them and some I refer to regularly in my business. Writers need to remember that the greats of our industry ~ King, Forsyth and Kootnz ~ to name a few, are also epublished and doing well out of this new medium (King sold half a million copies of his first e-novella in three days). Thankfully these name authors are validating the industry for all of us.
Magdalena: Are there types of books which work better than others for e-publishing?
Michael: Yes. With few exceptions, fiction does not sell well as ebooks. eBooks, particularly those commanding $20 or more, tend to be instructional manuals or reference guides. The best areas for ebooks, in my view, are Health, Hobbies, Lifestyle, Philosophy, Business, Wealth, Success. If you can show people how to improve their personal or professional lives in a simple, cost effective or time efficient manner, you have a good chance of doing well in epublishing. But, as I said earlier, be prepared to become your own publicist.
Magdalena: Your book is oriented towards commercial writing, and I imagine that this is where the money is, but what about writers who write fiction and poetry? Do you recommend that all writers diversify in order to make a living? Can writers who aren’t commercially oriented still make a living with their work?
Michael: There are ways writers can improve their living without resorting to commercial writing. Again, it all comes back to how you structure your business and how you promote yourself ~ two areas I cover in my book. But, it’s still going to be hard for the majority of writers to make a solid living out of fiction and poetry, in my view. My advice would be to find a balance in your writing between what you enjoy (poetry and fiction) and what is profitable for you to write, such as commercial writing. I am like all other writers. There are some things I like writing about and some things I don’t. But I try to involve my own personality in whatever I am writing. This makes it more interesting to me and, hopefully, to the reader. There are enormous opportunities and choice in commercial writing. You can choose to everything from PR and feature stories, newsletters and brochures to ad copywriting, DM sales letters, scripts, speeches. Also, there are a plethora of industries out there needing writers’ services. So you have a choice of working with a few writing disciplines in various industries, or a range of disciplines in select industries, or you can become a generalist.
Magdalena: You’re writing a few novels yourself. Do you find that the more urgent and more lucrative commercial work interferes with the time you have for more personal writing?
Michael: Yes, it does. When I started preparing to write ‘The Enterprising Writer’, I was working almost seven days a week for my commercial clients. I needed a break from the stress, and I also needed some variety, so I started to farm out work to some trusted freelancers. Now that I have produced three ebooks and developed an ebookstore, I can ease back into my commercial writing business. I have enjoyed the break away from it, but it’s nice to get back into the day-to-day interaction with clients and the media. I have two novels I want to complete. One needs a rewrite, the other is only half written. But I haven’t touched either in two years. So, yes, commercial writing pays today, so it gets first preference.
Magdalena: Tell me about Meanwell Store. How did that come about? Are there plans to carry other books?
Michael: The web is not new to me. I have been an active user since 1995 and I have had my own Web sites since 1997. The Meanwell Store is one of two sites I maintain, and it’s the ebookstore for my growing range of ebooks. When I decided to write ebooks, I considered working with an established epublishing or going solo. I have actually done both. One of my ebooks, ‘Writers on Writing’, which is a compendium of literary quotations and original positive affirmations for writers, is available at my site as well as Booklocker.com. Ultimately, I hope to publish a wide range of both reference material and fiction by myself as well as other authors. I hope to offer other writers some of the traditional publishing services, like editing, book promotion and marketing, that are missing with most epublishers. Most are content just to post ebooks on their site and leave the promotional work up to the writer. I don’t think they can justify taking 50% or more of the royalties merely for providing a glorified web hosting service.
Magdalena: What’s next on your agenda?
Michael: Well, apart from getting back into my commercial writing business, I am researching a new ebook for writers which, like the others, will help make life a little easier. I don’t want to say much more than that. But I will say that this new ebook will give writers more inspiration and hopefully more motivation in their work. With a name like mine, what else would you expect?