The following interview with Peter Bowerman is excerpted from How They Did It by Diana Bocco, a collection of Q&A with 25 writers on how they earn a living through their writing. Peter Bowerman is well known in the writing world for earning a six-figure income from his writing for more than a decade. He’s the author of The Well-Fed Writer.
The most you’ve ever made from a single piece of writing: As a commercial freelancer, my most lucrative project was an ongoing web site update that paid me $12,500+. Coolest ongoing gig for a six-page monthly internal newsletter for a telecommunications giant that paid $4,500 a month for a year. Sweet. As for books, the original edition of The Well-Fed Writer has earned me hundreds of thousands of dollars since its release in 2000.
Your background before becoming a writer: I was in sales and marketing for 15 years prior to starting my writing business. Sold everything from books door-to-door (for two summers while in college), to computers to timeshare property with Marriott to ad specialty/incentive items to dating club memberships. A checkered past.
How you made the jump to freelancing: In the months before taking the plunge, I wrote a few columns for some local weekly rags, earning (if I was lucky), peanuts. I soon realized I‘d never make a full-time living that way. I‘d always wanted to be a writer but had no interest in struggling (15 years in sales will have you get used to earning decent money). I came across a book on commercial freelancing (writing for companies of all sizes and for healthy $50-$125/hour rates) that gave me a eureka moment. This is how I’d do it.
[I] went into it cold turkey: no part-time job to pay the bills; just saved enough for about six months’ worth of expenses and jumped in. Made about 1,000 phone calls the first two months (to every ad agency, graphic design firm, marketing company and PR firm in Atlanta, for starters), and before four months were up, I had more work than I could handle.
Areas of specialization: Roughly equal parts commercial writing and self-publishing-related efforts (i.e., writing books, ebooks, ezine, blog, coaching, speaking, etc.).
Typical workday: No such thing as typical. Sure, too much time in front of the infernal machine, but every day has a different docket. On any given day, I might be working on the latest round of direct mail postcards for that utility client; brainstorming possible book titles for a novelist client (part of my Title Tailor business, an offshoot of my self-publishing coaching service); on the phone with a commercial writing or self-publishing coachee; working on pieces for my ezine or blog (or guest posts for others’ blogs).
How many hours you work: I feel like I’m lazy, but then I’ll catch myself putting in three-hour stretches at 10:00 p.m. more often that not. Probably 35-40 hours a week, maybe more.
How you land assignments: I get commercial writing work through repeat business from clients, and referrals, and through general marketing efforts (cold calling, networking, etc). I get coaching clients with little effort or outreach. Most find me through my books, plus I advertise in my newsletter and on my site, and get a decent flow of work that way. And often people find me through searches.
Your clients: On the commercial writing side of things: Coca-Cola, IBM, UPS, Cingular, Georgia-Pacific, BellSouth, American Express and tons of others. Working with the big boys makes for an impressive resume, but truth be known, I vastly prefer working with small-to-medium-sized companies. Not so corporate (i.e., creativity-killing) and bureaucratic; they value your contributions more than big companies, making the whole process more fulfilling in general.
Most important qualities for a freelancer: Resilience, persistence, determination, willingness to market yourself on a consistent basis (you never have to like it, but you do have to do it), tolerance for long, grueling, life-out-of-balance stretches, comfortable with yourself (because you‘ll be spending a lot of time with you), sense of humor, intellectual curiosity.
But most importantly, you need to be a better-than-average writer. Brilliant isn’t necessary (though it sure helps), but middling skills will make it tough to land repeat business and referrals as a commercial writer, which is how you really grow your business. And, needless to say, go where the money and work are. And these days, for those starting out, magazine writing (an arena which has gone through a veritable bloodbath in recent years), is an exceptionally tough row to hoe.
Long-term goals: I don’t set goals. Seriously. Never have. Except general ones in the early years (e.g., make a full-time living at this and make a full-time living plus a little more). Past that, I’ve simply followed my interests and let things (i.e., new products, books, ebooks, coaching, ezine, blog) unfold organically.
I say the very idea of creating five- or ten-year plans is dumb. You focus too much on something down the road, you‘re going to miss out on things right in front of you.
More importantly, since every experience you have makes you a different person, expands your perspectives, and opens your eyes to new avenues and opportunities, how in the world can you know, today, who you’ll be in, five or 10 years down the road, and by extension, where you‘ll want to be?
Saw a great chapter heading some years back in a book called Goal-Free Living by Stephen M. Shapiro that addressed this. It read: “Use a compass, not a map.” Know the general direction in which you’re headed, but don’t have your nose so stuck in a map and so fixated on following some pre-set path that you miss opportunities along the way.
Words of advice: Many people considering commercial freelancing or self-publishing believe you need to be some natural-born marketing genius in order to succeed. To those folks, I’d assert this: Success is far more about a process than a personality (i.e., a marketing personality); it’s far more about a lot of things you have to do, rather than some way you have to be. Keep believing you need special skills and you limit yourself out of the gate.
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