7 steps to thriving in a tough economy
How one veteran freelance writer dug himself out of a hole
Published: August 25, 2008
|Whether you freelance full time or part time, how can you maintain your income in today's slow economy? Advertising revenue has recently declined for many magazine categories, leading to budget cuts and—from the standpoint of writers—fewer freelancing opportunities.|
Magazines have been responding to the budget cuts in different ways. Most magazines have reduced page counts to cut their printing costs. Some have decreased the frequency of publication and reduced their editorial staffs. These magazines have continued to rely on freelancers, although the total number of articles commissioned is reduced. Other magazines, particularly those maintaining their publication frequency, have maintained their editorial staffs, but have begun relying on editors to write more articles while reducing their dependence on freelancers.
My personal recession began in January 2008 when a trade magazine publishing my monthly column ceased publication. Soon, other magazine editors began buying less work from me, citing the economy. The experience galvanized me to take seven steps tailored to a recessionary (or near-recessionary) economy. These have already resulted in increased sales.
1. Query current customers more frequently. It is easier to make a sale to an editor who already likes your work than one with whom you have no previous working relationship.
2. Query magazines less likely to be hit by decreased advertising. Keeping up to date on business news can help you learn which industries are doing well and which are not. Unless you've written for them before or have a really great article idea, don't spend a lot of time querying magazines that are likely to be publishing substantially fewer freelance articles.
For example, declining home values have resulted in decreased sales at home-remodeling supply stores. In response, these stores have cut back their advertising. Peggy Walker, president of Vance Publishing, notes that some of her firm's publications are tied to the housing industry. Budgets of these magazines have been reduced.
Conversely, magazines for government and nonprofit organizations are impacted less by business conditions. Examples include Government Executive and Law Enforcement Technology. So are magazines published by membership organizations such as Boys' Life, The Elks Magazine and The Rotarian. Such magazines generally rely less on advertising revenues. The number of their subscribers is unlikely to drop precipitously in response to adverse business conditions. The same is true for college alumni magazines. So these magazines could be good targets for our queries.
Not all industries are having problems. Local economies in some cities are well positioned to ride out the current business climate, according to Forbes Magazine. The list of what Forbes calls "recession-proof" cities includes Oklahoma City, Dallas and Houston, which all are heavily dependent on the currently booming energy industry. As a result, freelance opportunities at city and state magazines in these areas, including Oklahoma Today, Texas Monthly, Texas Highways and Fort Worth, Texas: The City's Magazine, are less impacted by the struggling national economy.
Query trade magazines covering industries less affected by current business conditions. These include energy and health-care magazines such as Public Power and Managed Care.
Publishers cut expenses in different ways. Some assign less freelance work and have editors write more articles. Others cope with reduced editorial staffs by commissioning more freelance manuscripts. For instance, Cynthia Good, the editor and CEO of Pink, says her magazine is spending more on freelancers.
3. Target magazines that are accepting queries tied to spending less money on things people continue doing despite a recession. Examples are wedding magazines such as Modern Bride and Today's Bride.
4. Diligently follow up on queries. Follow-ups often result in sales. Often I would wait for an editor's response to one query before submitting another. I no longer wait for a response before submitting a second query. Often I would wait until I heard back regarding one query before I submitted another. Because some publications have reduced editorial staffing levels, they may be slower in responding to queries or may only respond if they are assigning a manuscript.
5. Increase the number of queries you have circulating at any one time. One way to do so is by preparing queries based on re-slanting your previously published articles. Scheduling time for querying in your weekly work schedule can help provide the discipline to do this.
6. If you own the rights, consider selling reprints of your previously published articles. [For more on the art of selling reprints, see Kelly James-Enger's article in the November 2008 issue of The Writer.]
7. Develop new specialties or return to old ones less adversely affected by the economy. For instance, during the 2001 "dot-com" meltdown, science e-zines that provided me with $42,000 in freelance income the previous year shut down. Others accepted fewer of my queries. One way I compensated for this was to resume writing human-resources articles on job-hunting and achieving career success.
Find effective strategies that work for you and pursue them all, rather than being wedded to a single strategy. As actor Gregory Peck said, "Tough times don't last; tough people do." My personal recession is over. How about yours?
Houston freelancer John K. Borchardt has published more than 1,200 articles in magazines, newspapers and encyclopedias.
--Posted Aug. 25, 2008