When you’re a freelance writer, it’s easy to go on for years clinging to magical thinking about how your career will work.
It’s like believing in fairy tales. Usually, when you grow up, you realize there is no enchanted frog or beast that turns into a prince.
But with a lot of writers, these myths persist for years and years, leading to lots of wasted time and low earnings.
What are the big fairy tales freelance writers tell themselves? Below are my top three:
Myth #1: The Secret Website of Plenty
Did you ever feel that if you just found the right freelance platform or job-ad site, you’d suddenly discover a gusher of really great-paying jobs nobody else was noticing?
On a regular basis, I’ll see writers proceeding with their careers, year after year, earning peanuts because they’re in the clutch of this fantasy:
“I’ll become a well-paid freelance writer without having to do any proactive marketing. I’ll be able to find great jobs by finding a better online-ad or bid site than all the big, well-known ones like Craigslist, Upwork, and Fiverr.”
Yeah. That’s not going to happen. There isn’t a better content mill, or secret online job board no other writers know, where by amazing coincidence all the great-paying gigs are stashed.
By definition, online platforms drive prices to the floor. And any free site or board means you’re competing with thousands of writers for each job offered.
The reality is that good, functional companies rarely place ads for freelance creatives. They have a network. They ask around. They do a targeted search on LinkedIn and reach out to likely candidates.
Placing an ad means having to sift through hundreds of responses — and successful companies don’t have time for that. Yes, every once in a blue moon, a great company wanders onto Craigslist and leaves an ad, because they don’t know it’s a cesspit. But 99% of the time, mass platforms = junk offers. Stick with these places, and you’ll continue to see nothing but lowball ‘opportunities,’ mixed in with outright scams.
Myth #2: The Shy Author’s Bestseller Dream
A lot of us got into writing because we’re not extroverts. We love spending time alone, spinning our stories!
Which is fine. The problem comes when we think we don’t have to do anything but sit quietly writing, in order to become a successful author.
In this age of self-publishing, author platforms, and shrinking traditional imprints, you’d think it would be clear that the odds of getting ‘representation’ from a book agent and signing a fat book deal range from teeny to nonexistent. Yet, I still hear from writers who tell me that their success plan looks like this:
“I’ll write all alone in a garret and when I finish my novel, I’ll find a top agent to represent me, get a traditional book deal with a fat advance — and then the publisher will do all the book marketing for me.”
I want to cry when I meet a freelance writer who tells themselves this yarn, because it means they’re doomed. They’re writing in a vacuum, without any reader feedback, and don’t know anything about modern publishing success. Also, a typical first-book advance is about $1,000 these days.
At this point, sales by the big book publishers are tanking, and self publishing is growing rapidly. There are only two real scenarios left in book publishing:
- You build your own platform and audience, and self-publish to success (and maybe then a traditional imprint picks you up). Think Hugh Howey and Wool (make a movie of it, please!)
- You get a traditional book deal — and then you market your book, for them. They keep most of the money, but expect you to do endless book tours, guest blog posts, interviews, etc. Their first question to you when they consider signing you will be, “How will you market your book?”
As the author of two traditional nonfiction print books for two different indie publishers, I can tell you how that end works today. Traditional imprints have no idea how to sell books in the 21st Century. Not a clue. They know nothing of bloggers or influence marketing, or how to put on a successful live or online author or multi-author event. That’s all on you.
They’re looking for writers with a pre-built, proven online audience. When you write your book, and then emerge from your room to start learning how to market it, you’ve done the steps to author success in the wrong order. Now, you have a book no one knows or cares about, and have to try to generate interest. Good luck.
I know what you’re thinking — “But I plan to be the next J.K. Rowling, where my book just takes off on its own and becomes a mad bestseller, without my doing anything much.”
Sit yourself down and ask yourself what the odds are of that happening. Right.
This isn’t a plan for success. It’s a moonshot. Better odds buying a lottery ticket.
Be realistic about the work required to build author success, and you’ll have a far greater chance of turning out to be a well-paid author — like, say, Mark Dawson.
Myth #3: The Magical Idea Fountain
I meet loads of writers who’d like to write for magazines, and see their bylines in terrific glossies. There’s only one problem: They have no story ideas.
Often, they imagine there’ll be a workaround for that. Writers in my Pitch Clinic class often spin a scenario like this:
“My plan is to write for great-paying, big-name publications where editors will assign me articles, and I won’t have to come up with the story ideas.”
Well. Once upon a time, there were publications like that. Big consumer magazines had large editor staffs, and many of the story ideas would be pre-planned by those editors.
But as the world of print magazines shrank and reading moved online, those big editor staffs have been mostly dismantled.
Now, editors rely heavily on freelance writers to bring them fresh ideas. If you don’t have any, it severely limits your ability to get in the door at the better publications. Yes, there are trade magazines that still cook up a lot of their own ideas. But to get in the door, you’ll first probably need ideas of your own to pitch them, in order to stand out and get noticed.
Tell you a little secret: Editors’ ideas are often a nightmare to execute on. You’re better off coming up with your own ideas, anyway.
Fairy Tales Can Come True
Now, I don’t bust these fairy-tale myths to kill your dreams. This is to keep you from wasting time following white rabbits down holes.
Letting go of toxic myths can help you move ahead faster as a freelance writer. Once you get how the writing game is played today, you can play to win.
What myths have you bought into, as a writer? Leave a comment and let’s bust those, so you can earn more.