recently caught up with Peter Bowerman, author of the newly updated
2010 edition of The Well-Fed Writer:
Financial Self-Sufficiency as a Commercial Freelancer in Six Months or
Less. The new book includes the heavily
updated content of BOTH original WFW titles, the 2000 edition of TWFW(an award-winning Book-of-the-Month
Club selection, as well as its 2005
companion, TWFW: Back For Seconds (a
triple-award-finalist). We chatted about his new
title, which is billed as a detailed how-to for breaking into the
lucrative and surprisingly accessible field of freelance "commercial"
What exactly is
freelance commercial writing?
Commercial writing is writing for corporations or other business
entities on a freelance basis. That means marketing brochures, ad copy,
newsletters, direct mail campaigns, speeches, trade articles, video
scripts and about a zillion other types of projects. Because the
business world generally has a lot more money than magazines or other
organizations that might hire writers, the pay is considerably higher
than in those fields. Hourly rates range from $50-125, with seasoned
practitioners commonly making far more than that.
What sort of experience do
you need for commercial writing?
Well frankly, I had no industry contacts, no professional writing
background and no previous paid writing experience when I started out
and I was self-sufficient in less than four months - by
self-sufficient, I mean full-time and paying all my bills through
writing. I had a sales background, which helped get me going, but zilch
in the writing arena. If you've got freelancing credits, you're that
much further ahead of the game.
Why is commercial writing
a good field to go into now?
There are a lot of reasons, which I outline in my book, The
Well-Fed Writer, but probably the most important has been
the prolific corporate downsizing that's been going on since the early
90's, and of course, once again. Often, the first departments to be cut
were in the creative and communications arenas - and that means
writing. But the work still needs to get done. People would be amazed
at how much work is being outsourced by big companies like Coca-Cola,
UPS, BellSouth and plenty of others. Not to mention thousands of
smaller companies who have plenty of money but are less likely to have
the in-house resources to execute their projects, and hence, far more
likely to outsource that work.
Is the money equation in
commercial writing different from say, magazine writing?
Very different. If you're listening to this and you've done some
magazine writing, you'll relate to this. Imagine the editor of a
publication you've been writing for saying, "OK, for this next piece,
add up all the hours you think it'll take for research, background
reading, travel, brainstorming, interviewing, writing, and editing.
Then multiply it by $75." You'd think he lost his mind. But, that's
pretty much how it works in commercial writing. Project fees are
calculated based on those hourly rates of $50-100+ and all
time counts. Unlike magazine writing, it's not just these
flat project fees with potentially vast, open-ended commitments of time.
How good a writer do you have to be for
I'm glad you asked that. You DO have to be a decent writer. I mean, no
one's going to pay you $75+ an hour if you're lousy. Not more than
once, anyway... But, if you know you're a good writer - and you're not
the only one who thinks so - you shouldn't have much trouble making a
go of this business.
And here's more good news: There are plenty of
industries, such as healthcare, banking, manufacturing, insurance, high
technology that simply need clear, concise copywriting that just
doesn't have to be a work of art. If you are much more talented, you'll
get into the fun creative arenas like ad copy and edgy CD-ROM
scripting, amongst others.
OK, so how much money can
you make in this field?
With even minimal intelligence, ability and drive, I say you can
sleepwalk your way to $30-40K a year. If you're halfway decent and a
reasonably aggressive marketer, you should easily top $60K. Build a
good reputation, start getting referrals, and who knows? There are a
healthy number of writers in the business grossing $100K+ a year.
Part-time, $2000 a month is very do-able.
And that doesn't even factor in the incredible
freedom and flexibility you have in this field. I mean, for the most
part, you get up and go to bed when you want to, take vacations when
you want, take showers when you want to, no rush-hour traffic. It's a
pretty great thing. You can't put a price tag on that.
So, besides corporations,
what other types of companies hire commercial freelancers?
A lot of "middleman" entities, which means companies that are working
for an end-user like a corporation. Like graphic design firms,
marketing companies, ad agencies, PR firms event production companies
and others. These are great "bird dogs" clients, meaning they're out
there hunting work for themselves and because so few of them have the
full-time writing staffs, so they need to hire writers. So, they'll
find work for you while you're out doing other things. And as mentioned
earlier, the many thousands of smaller companies (which can mean
roughly $5 - 200 million in revenues).
Does it take a mental
adjustment to write for this field?
Writing, for the most part, is writing. If you know how to assemble
information and build a story, commercial writing will be similar in
structure and format to magazines. The big difference of course, is the
higher fees. That may seem like a wonderfully easy adjustment, but it
can be tricky to shift your perception of your value on the open
market. What is your time worth? If your experience is with magazines,
then you're probably not used to thinking in terms of hourly rates. But
that's the first question you'll be asked. And in this world, your time
is worth a minimum of $50 an hour and probably more if you have any
If you don't have any experience writing for
magazines or in any other venue - which was basically my situation when
I started - it's less of a disadvantage than you'd imagine. Sure,
you'll have to get into the rhythm of writing, and assembling the
components of a piece in a logical flow, and do it on deadline, but if
you're a quick study and reasonably intelligent, it's just not that
tough an adjustment.
And in one sense, you'll even have an advantage -
a psychological one - over those who've written for magazines. Like my
situation, I didn't have to reprogram my thinking to get used to higher
fees, which, as we've discussed, can be a tougher adjustment than you
might imagine. We're talking about your self-concept of what you're
worth and it's only human to sell ourselves short in that department. I
had nothing to compare it to, so in my world, the $50 hourly rate I
started out at - and for every hour worked - was
just what the job paid. Of course, it's gone up considerably since
So, how much are you
Depending on the client and the job, my hourly rate now is between
$85-100 or more. I say, "or more," because often, you'll end up in a
situation where you've quoted a flat rate for a project and you end up
finishing it in less time than you first calculated. So, you've
effectively bumped up your hourly rate. Which, incidentally, is a
strategy I talk about in The Well-Fed Writer: if
you know you work fast, go with flat rates.
What do you like most
about the business?
Well, the money's great, but I have to say the freedom and flexibility.
I'm a night owl and I can be one in this business, and not be subject
to someone else's idea of what the workday hours are. Last year, I took
off the month of October and went to Asia. Just shut down the office
and wasn't even in contact for almost 30 days. I think I can safely say
that most people can't even imagine that. Oh, and I came back and
within a week, had several projects waiting for me. You just simply
can't do that in most jobs.
What can people be doing
now, while working at other jobs, to lay the groundwork?
Good question. People could be creating a portfolio of pieces, which I
did through doing some pro bono projects. And I
outline all sorts of strategies in The Well-Fed Writer
for doing just that. Also, people should be tapping their network of
any business contacts, getting a feel for what sort of work there might
be out there. And especially in the industry you have experience in, or
even with your own company.
Is it true you were
working at a dating service just before you started this business?
Yes, I'm afraid so, and I actually mention that in my book. I had been
in several different sales careers over the years, had been successful,
and took some time off. Well, the money was running out and so, yes,
for a brief period, I worked in sales for a dating service. And I
suppose, that more than anything, spurred me to do something more and
bigger. And there's a lesson in all that: even from very humble
beginnings you can make a go of this business. I don't care where
you're coming from or your circumstances: if you're a decent writer and
you want it badly enough, you'll make it.
How does this new edition
of The Well-Fed Writer differ from the original?
mentioned up top, the new book includes the heavily updated content of
BOTH original WFW titles. The original WFW
(2000) was a detailed how-to of starting one's own commercial
freelancing business, told through the lens of MY personal story (i.e.,
NO writing background, paid experience, training or contacts, but I
still built a paying-all-the-bills writing business in less than four
The companion volume, TWFW: Back For
Seconds, with 95% new content, built
on the original foundation with dramatically expanded sections on
sales, marketing and cold calling, demystifying subjects often
terrifying to “creative types.” In addition, it
featured dozens of firsthand accounts from commercial writers across
the spectrum, sharing insights on building the business in ways and
under circumstances very different than those described by me in the
first book. That includes small market and part-time business startup,
along with freelance opportunities with not-for-profits, little-known
corporate avenues, universities, the BIG small-medium-sized business
segment and other unusual niches.
The new one includes both (with some of the
original content off-loaded to the web site)!
You've self-published all
your books, haven't you?
have, and it's been great. In fact, the first two books provided me
with a full-time living for seven-plus years and I'm on track to have
that continue. And all the how-to detail of how I pulled that off is in
my award-winning 2007 release, The Well-Fed Self-Publisher:
How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living (www.wellfedsp.com).
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