I get questions quite often from aspiring writers and freelancers who want to know about what I do and how I do it and is there any chance in the world they can do it, too?
So I usually email them back with brief answers. But I thought it might be interesting to post some of my answers to those frequently asked questions (and other questions) here on the blog. Maybe you’ve long been harboring a writing-related question. Maybe I can answer it.
I’m impressed that you’re making a living as a freelance writer. I want to do it, too. What’s your secret?
My secret is that I don’t just make a living as a freelance writer. I get paid for a lot of different things. Here’s a top-of-my-head breakdown of my annual income by percentage, based on nothing but flat-out estimates and no real fact-checking:
• Income from books and speaking engagements (20%, though this varies year-to-year)
• Income from writing articles for magazines, etc. (9%)
• Income from corporate copywriting, like newsletters, flyers, TV scripts & advertising (35%)
• Income from graphic design (35%)
• Diamond heists (1%)
So while, technically, the majority of my income is from writing types of services, there’s also a big chunk of design income in there. You’ll notice how very little of my earnings come from the books and magazine articles — and I’m not a newbie writer or anything. I could probably write more magazine stuff if I wanted to (I end up turning down quite a few assignments when on deadline for a book manuscript, for the sake of simplicity), but I doubt I could write more books than one every six months or so.
The conclusion? It’s very, very difficult to make a living solely as a freelance publication writer. I do that stuff to keep my name out there and maintain a platform, in hopes that someday one of my books will hit big. But I write the client-based stuff so my kids can eat. It pays better, and it pays more regularly. That’s my secret.
How do you get the place where magazines will assign you stories?
It’s difficult. Here’s how it worked for me. First, I got to know a magazine. Read it. Saw what kinds of articles it ran and how they were written. Then, I came up with an idea for an article that would fit within the mag’s framework. Then, though the magic of networking, I got myself introduced to an editor there. (This is key: finding someone who already knows the editor and can introduce you, so when you pitch them an idea, it’s not coming from someone they’ve never heard of. Unfortunately, it helped in my case that I had written some books, because that means they’re not taking a risk on an unknown writer.)
Then, once you’ve met the editor, you pitch your article idea, usually via email. Maybe they like it and assign it. You do an awesome job with it, turn in a crisp and publishable article ahead of deadline. They like it and think, He’s good. We should work with him more often. And then your name pops up from time to time when they are brainstorming article ideas for new issues. So they ask you to write more stuff.
That’s how it works. You have to get their attention and then deliver on what you’ve promised. You earn their trust. Only then do you get invited back to the dance. It’s the initial getting-their-attention part that’s hard, because unless you can get an introduction or already have quality work to your name, they hesitate to take a risk on an unknown.
Will you introduce me to a magazine editor?
Maybe. But probably not. The only way I’ll introduce you is if I know you are a good writer and a good fit with a particular magazine. I can’t risk introducing a shoddy, unproven freelancer. If I do, I am wasting the time and resources of editors with whom I’ve worked hard to build a good reputation. So I’ll only introduce you if I think you’re a sure thing.
So based on the income breakdown above, you’re not a millionaire from writing books?
Yes, of course I’m a millionaire. What you don’t know is that my annual income is $100 million. Around $20 million of it comes from my books.
Silly rabbit. The reality is that, even for someone like me who has written 10 books and had a moderately successful sales record (which pretty much means I sell enough that publishers are willing to continuing taking a chance on me from book to book), it’s hard to make a full-time living just by doing this. Unless you’re a big-name who has hit the best seller list — and can coast on those royalties and the notoriety for a few years — you’re probably not going to make a living solely on book royalties. That’s why most authors also do a lot of speaking engagements, or are on-staff at magazines, or teach at the college level, or plan and execute diamond heists.
Will you write a review of my new album for Relevant Magazine? You’re on-staff there, right?
No. I am not on staff at Relevant, though I do write for them pretty often. They’ve been republishing a lot of my old stuff among their online articles, so it seems like I’m always writing something for them. But it’s a lot less than you think.
Either way, I have only written one music review in my life. It was for Andrew Osenga’s album The Morning. Which was awesome. So unless you’re Andy, I don’t do music reviews.
(You’d be surprised how often I get asked about this. Everyone wants to be in Relevant.)
I saw you on the History Channel the other day talking about the Apocalypse. Will you please read my 10,000-word manifesto about the end of the world in 2012 and my theory that Barack Obama is the Antichrist and the Jonas Brothers are the prophets spoken of in the Book of Revelation?
No, crazy person. I do not want to read your insane scribblings about the end of the world. Perhaps this wasn’t clear in the documentary you saw, but I wrote a book making fun of people like you. And anyway, Obama isn’t the Antichrist. That’s way too obvious. The person you need to be focusing on is someone like Oprah.
Though I admit the Jonas Brothers idea is intriguing, if only because skinny jeans have long been considered a sign of the coming apocalypse.
Has anyone ever told you that you look like Bob Harper from Biggest Loser?
No. That’s news to me.
If you have a writing-related question for me (or any other kind of question), leave it in the comments. Maybe I’ll answer in an upcoming FAQ post.