Where commercial writers* hang out
* a.k.a. copywriters, business writers, corporate writers or marketing writers…


We 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" writing.

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 commercial writing?
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 decent clips.

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 then.

So, how much are you making now?
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?
Well, as 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 months). 

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?

Yes, I 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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