Michelle Goodman is the author of The Anti 9-to-5 Guide: Practical Career Advice for Women Who Think Outside the Cube and My So-Called Freelance Life: How to Survive and Thrive as a Creative Professional for Hire. She’s a workplace columnist for ABCNews.com and writes Entrepreneur’s Startup Finance column. Other credits include NYTimes.com, CNN.com, Salon, Seattle Times, The Bark, Bust, and several anthologies.
Ebyline asked Goodman for her take on digital journalism, diversification, and more.
What changes have you observed in the freelance landscape over the past several years?
Online assignments have gotten shorter. Many national media outlets that once asked writers for 800-1500 word web stories are now asking for 300-600 word blog posts. This has decimated pay rates for freelancers writing for these sites. Online aggregation has become the norm, too, with many leading sites heavily relying on partner content (for example, msnbc.com routinely using stories from sites like Forbes.com and Entrepreneur.com). This also means fewer opportunities for freelancers.
But not all hope is lost. Freelancers who want to write for mainstream web outlets just need to fold in more lucrative assignments to supplement their income. Consumer magazines, trade and custom publications and copywriting remain a good bet, as do editing, teaching and coaching. And diversification, staying on top of publishing trends and following the money is perhaps more important than ever before.
A few other changes that seem to be the norm now thanks to web and mobile publishing:
- More freelancers are expected to provide links, photos, videos, audio and/or HTML tags when filing their stories, as well as promotion via social media outlets when the story runs. Depending on how well you negotiate with editors, this will either mean a bit of extra work per assignment or a bit extra of pay.
- Given all the aggregation that’s happened in recent years, all-rights and work-for-hire contracts are fairly standard for online writing these days. That’s not to say you can’t negotiate or can’t find an outlet that will let the rights to your work revert back to you at some future date. It just seems that these deals are more scarce.
- Many online startups have no qualms asking freelancers to write for free or close to it. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of new, hobbyist or exposure-hungry writers willing to take the bait. For this reason, I advise inquiring about the rate in the first conversation you have with a new-to-you outlet.
Is there anything you did early in your freelance career that you’d do differently now?
Where do I start? My first year of self-employment, I broke almost every rule of savvy freelancing. I didn’t negotiate for enough money. I took multiweek jobs without getting a deposit up front, a contract, a cap on revisions or even an end date. I let project scope creep drive my profit into the ground. I caved to any distraction, be it a relative calling bored at work or an unemployed friend inviting me to spend the day hiking with them, even if I had a pressing deadline. This was in the early nineties, before the web existed; I hate to think how I would have wasted entire weeks on Facebook if we’d had it then.
Back then I didn’t have the financial and personal obligations I have now, so it was easier to let my lack of professional boundaries get the best of me. Fortunately, this phase didn’t last long. After getting burned by a couple of difficult clients and frying myself on a couple of 30-hour-long writing marathons, I quickly got wise to the fact that I needed to get my act together if I wanted to stay in business.
What’s the wackiest freelance gig you ever had?
This is another one of those “Where do I begin?” answers. Years ago, I wrote catalog copy about things like vacuum cleaners and nose hair trimmers and sex toys endorsed by Dr. Ruth, ghostwrote multimedia content for one of those “101 Ways to Drive Your Partner Wild” (not the actual title) authors, did PR for the most god-awful eco-conscious experimental dance performance (complete with flute-playing trees) and probably half a dozen other goofy projects I’ve since blocked from memory. Of all the quirky assignments I’ve taken, writing the text for a puppy journal (“My first trip to the park!” “My first time swimming!” “My first accident on the living room floor!”) was my favorite.
Anything you’d like to add about this brave new world of online journalism?
Despite the discouraging stuff I said earlier, I do believe it’s a great time to be a freelancer. For the resourceful, determined freelancer, there is work out there. Not just bottom-of-the-barrel stuff, but great-paying, high-profile, interesting work. You just have research which markets pay the best, entice them with relevant samples, use all the resources available to you (from social media to in-person events) to meet editors and project managers and be persistent and professional. Don’t try to go it alone either. The more freelancers you meet online and in person, the more allies, tips and job leads you’ll have.
The landscape’s also ripe for entrepreneurial journalism. Many of your peers are making an enviable living by incorporating coaching, multimedia production, money-making blogs, products like ebooks and apps and other new business models into their repertoire. In many ways, these freelancers are ahead of the game. If you’re just creating content for editors and clients, your income is limited by the number of hours you can work in a week. But if you create a self-sustaining product, website or business, you have the power to increase your revenue exponentially.