Confidence in writing and valuing your words are so important, and today's interview with Carol Tice focuses on how you can develop that as well as some great tips about making very good money with freelance writing.
In the intro, I discuss Russell Blake's recent post about what he would say to his earlier indie self: “If you’re successful, you’ve bought yourself a job.” I also talk about the books I've been reading: How to fail at almost everything and still win big by Scott Adams and Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert. Plus an update on my writing: J Thorn and I finished the first draft of Risen Gods this week and now begin editing 🙂
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Carol Tice is an award-winning freelance writer as well as a non-fiction author. Her site, Make a Living Writing, has been voted one of the Top 10 sites for writers and focuses on specifically freelance writing which we're talking about today.
- Carol's origins as a songwriter and her shift into freelance writing and business reporting.
- The two universes of freelance writing and why being proactive about your freelance writing career matters in one of those universes, and the areas of the freelance writing world that are still paying well.
- The markets that freelance writers sometimes overlook and why the platform a writer appears on doesn't matter as much as quality work for a fair price.
- The writing business models that don't work.
- The rights that book authors own compared to the products of freelance writers.
- The balance of time freelancers can spend on writing articles for sale vs. books that can be sold again and again, and Carol's business model, where books are a funnel into her business teaching freelance writers.
- Creating excitement around the launch of non-fiction books and adding bonus value to the sale of a title during launch.
- Carol's sales cycle and why she focuses on selling directly to her community at launch, rather than through an online retailer.
- On fearlessness, ambition and confidence.
You can find Carol at MakeALivingWriting.com and on twitter @TiceWrites
Transcription of interview with Carol Tice
Joanna Penn: Hi everyone. I am Joanna Penn from the “Creativepen.com” and today I'm here with Carol Tice. Hi Carol.
Carol Tice: Hello.
Joanna: Hello. And just an introduction. Carol is an award-winning freelance writer as well as a non-fiction author. Her site, “Make a Living Writing” has been voted one of the top 10 sites for writers and focuses on specifically freelance writing which we're talking about today, which is very exciting.
Carol, start by telling us a bit more about you and your writing background.
Carol: I started as a freelance writer. I actually started writing as a freelance writer back in about 1989 when I won an essay contest that the LA Weekly was putting on and then I won an essay contest that the LA Times real estate section put on. And I was like wow, this is really fun. At the time, I was a songwriter, you know, like a classic starving songwriter. Paying for gigs, paying for band time and I was like, “Oh, a kind of writing they pay you for.” And I really like never looked back. I gave my recording equipment away to people and I was like, I won't be needing this anymore. I found the kind of writing where they pay you.
I kind of fell into it and both of those contest wins led to more writing assignments. And then I eventually got a staff writing job and then another staff writing job. So I was a staff writer for 12 years. And most recently, seven years here at the Puget Sound Business Journal. I did a lot of business reporting and then in 2005, I went back into freelancing.
So it's been a decade just recently of freelancing again. I started my blog in 2008 mostly just because of the Labor Union Organizer in me was deeply offended by what I was seeing online. What I call the underworld of freelance writing that had arisen of $5 articles and things. I wanted writers to know there were better ways to earn money from writing.
I just began sharing information about marketing your writing with people and I gather there was a lot of demand for that. I find that most writers, we have that creative thing down but the how do you connect with paying marketing for that, not so much.
That's been my main focus on the blog. I have been writing it since 2008 now, 7 years, 700 posts. In 2011, I launched a paid community, really because I kept getting a million emails, “Oh, my god, I have this client meeting tomorrow and I don't know what to say and I don't know what to do.” And I was like, people need a 24/7 answer platform for all these questions. So Freelance Writer Stand launched in 2011. My fantasy was that, it would grow to 500 members. It has 1400 now. And keeps on growing.
Joanna: You have some books as well, don't you?
Carol: Well, I just hit eight self-published e-books and my new one is “Fear not.” It's confidence building insight tips and techniques for freelance writers and it's a compilation of all of our best fear busting posts from the blog over all the years.
And I did two traditional print books, where actually, before a lot of self-publishing, I was approached by two different publishers. One I wrote half of their book and that's how they started and it's a bunch of big company startup stories, banks and Jamba Juice and all kind of brands. And then I was approached by Allworth Press to write a book in their pocket business owner's guide series. “Business Owner's Guide to Starting Your Business on a Shoe String.” It's a really long title. I told them to make it shorter. I don't even think that was right. I have to look it up for you.
But that came out in 2013, I think. And my experience with both of those was so unhappy that it pretty much made me feel like, I really need to just focus on self-publishing and selling to my own audience that I have built. Because of my business reporting I have always had a foot in that small business entrepreneurship, franchising, that world. But I found it was a lot easier to sell to my own audience that I had built of freelance writers and sell on my own site and keep all the money, sorry Amazon. Especially now. I am increasingly happy that Amazon is a small part of my own self-publishing strategy and not at the core of my strategy. So we can talk about that if you want.
Joanna: Yeah. Oh, my goodness. There are so many things I want to talk to you about but the reason I wanted you on the show is exactly because of the thing about the making money. What I have heard about freelance writing mainly is people going, we get like two cents per article on these article farm places. People who are desperately sad because they can't get an article in a print magazine anymore. We'll come back to some of the things you talked about.
What are the actual options for earning money with freelance writing? What are some of the things that people can do?
Carol: The first thing to know is that there are two universes of freelance writing. There is the one I like to call the underworld of freelance writing. All of this you know; write 1,000-word article for $5 for me and all of that. A lot of people stumble upon that and then they become very confused and they think that is freelance writing and that is all there is in freelance writing. And you will see conversations on content mills like, “I don't even understand why anyone would pay a $1,000 for an article.” You know, that would be like piggy to ask for that, you know. It like, warps everyone's brains so that they don't think writing has any value anymore.
But the good news is that above the earth, above ground, still exists the regular world of freelance writing that was there before the internet and is still there and that is writing for legitimate publications that have a real audience and sell subscriptions or sell advertising. Reports of the demise of print magazines has been wildly exaggerated. I think, I saw a a stat that 345 million copies were sold last year or something.
I just wrote a piece for Forbes, got paid $2,800, two bucks a word and they flew me and paid every dime of my expenses to and from where I went to interview the richest man in North Dakota. Real assignments still exist. They are still out there.
They are a little bit harder to get and you need to know about more about how to reach out to editors. You have to be more proactive in your career, but basically there's two big pools of freelance money and one is writing for good publications.
A really overlooked market is trade publications. One of my staff writing jobs was writing for a home improvement industry trade publication and I have freelanced a lot for Nation's Restaurant News. A lot of people know, Daily Variety which is for Hollywood executives like entertainment industry and or Ad Age which is for advertising people. Those tend to pay pretty well especially as you get into subjects like could be oil and gas industry. They're always adverting, can never find enough people.
Trade pubs are a very overlooked print market and increasingly, there are online features and online exclusives that these magazines are putting online. For a long time, I was getting paid $600, $800 bucks an article to write a lot of online exclusive features for places like Allbusiness.com and for Entrepreneur.
I meet a lot of writers who say, I'm sick of writing online. I want to write for only for print in the coming year and my answer to that is always why? “Because I just want to write where they pay a lot of money. And they love me and they like my work and you know, it's exciting and there is a big audience and I am valued.” And I don't care where that is. I am very platform agnostic. Get more traffic on the blog channel than they do from their print subscription.
We, as writers, need to be a little bit less hung up and spun up in our heads about how people are consuming our words and more excited about just finding where the money is and earning. So the other big piece of it is writing for businesses which has never been bigger and is getting bigger all the time. You may know we're in the age of content marketing and that means white papers and blogging for business which, for a long time I made a ton of money doing at one point. I was making five grand a month just in business blogging for clients.
But you have to look for clients that want value posts that aren't asking you to write a 300 word post twice a day and will pay you $10 a day. That isn't your client, that isn't the client you want. You want the clients that understand that you're bringing a lot of value and driving leads to them and driving their business, that content drives their business.
I used to say, you're looking for a company that's been around since before the internet was invented, that sells a real product or real service in the real world. At this point, the internet has been around longer. So I don't quite say that anymore. But we like companies that have been around for a while and they sell a real thing and your writing is not the thing that they are selling.
E-zines, for example, where basically your writing is the only product they've got. And they're putting ads against that and hoping to make money. That's not a business model that works. We have all learned that the hard way. That almost nobody is making money that way. So if that's their business model, they're not going to pay a lot and you're not going to want it.
But if they have a business model, where they sell healthcare consulting or advanced washing machine technology which I have actually written for a company like that. These people are desperate for good writers and pay real good money.
Joanna: When I hear you speak, I'm thinking, this is cash flow writing. What you are doing is cash flow writing. But you don't own the rights to that, do you?
Carol: Not usually.
Joanna: Compare writing articles for cash flow versus the books that you're creating that are more longer term assets.
Carol: That's definitely the difference. Most of the content that you write these days, because everyone wants to put your article on their website and it goes all over the world and where else can you sell it? That's one of the reasons it needs to pay really well is the world of PLR, where people used to resell and resell articles all the time and make a little each time.
I think that's getting tougher and tougher because everyone wants unique content. They've figured out Google is not going to award them for reprints and they want unique content.
The good news is that drives more and more demand for that $5,000 white paper that $1,000 case study for really high powered, 1,500 word blog posts that have a lot of content and a lot of value and those pay pretty nice.
Joanna: How does your own business work in terms of the money that comes from assets that you own, versus the cash flow from freelance writing? And what would you advice people to do in terms of a mix of what they spend their time on?
Carol: You need to make enough freelance money to pay your bills for starters. I do not like to see writers on the street. I have a big thing against that. That sort of why I got into this line of work was, I literally knew writers who were going bankrupt and losing their homes and they talked a good game on LinkedIn as editors and writers about their writing career. But if you talked to them privately, they were in a lot of trouble.
I always say the first job is to be fully booked and to know revenue is coming in the door. And that's always my first thing. To me creating non-fiction books is more of the retirement plan. It's more creating assets so that I could conceivably not work anymore and they could continue to maybe be on Amazon spinning out some revenue or on my sites spinning off revenue.
I guess I don't think of them as huge immediate cash cows, but that gets at the other big questions that people don't think about a lot which is why are you writing the book? What's the purpose of the book?
In my case, most of my books are really for me not the end of a road but the beginning of the road. I offer you an e-book for 99 cents or $9, which is pretty much my range of what I sell them in. Though I've been told I should sell them for lots more but you know, thanks to Amazon, I don't think that's real anymore. I know a few people who are selling e-books and they're $27 or a $100 is something but I think that's a pretty tough positioning. All of Amazon's data that they share is at the lower you go, the more you're going to make and I believe them. And that's been my experience, too, that you put a book on sale and copies fly out the door.
Joanna: Your books are leading into other products.
Carol: Right. I am hoping people will buy my e-books so that they'll subscribe to my blog, end up buying more e-books, they'll end up taking one of the classes you teach with Linda Formichelli which is the other leg of my business over at Useful Writing Courses.
I am hoping maybe they want to take Escape the Content Mills or Pitch Clinic, which is coming up. Again, our crazy class where if you do all the homework, you get your money back on the class. Yes. It's a fun class. And we gave out dozens and dozens of refunds last time.
I am hoping they will join the Den, they will join my Den 2X income accelerator which is my sort of mid-career writers mastermind that focused on doubling your income. To me they're handshakes. They're like, “Hey, let's get acquainted”. This is the kind of stuff I talk about, is this stuff you find valuable, you know? If so at the end of the book, we have got all kind of other resources for you.
And I think, a lot of writers especially in non-fiction, the book is the product and that's tougher. Because then you're worried about charging less for it because this is the whole product. The people I see who do well with that are people like Jonathan Fields who do amazing book launches where they sell…I'm trying to think if he just had a new book coming out or who else it was. But, no it's someone else, where if you buy enough copies, you get to come to his wedding that's coming up. I'm not kidding. It's almost like a kick starter launch with all kinds of levels of involvement and if you buy 1,500 copies of it, like a company might do for all their employees, I'll come give a talk and delivering huge value.
Joanna: Which is not what most people will do basically.
I think people need to think about how to create excitement about your non-fiction book.
One launch that I did well, my book launches don't tend to be that huge because I save my huge launches for Pitch Clinic. But one time, one thing we did with the Den materials is that we have taken four of the Den boot camps that were four-week boot camps and turned them into e-book versions. And so when we sold Freelance Business Boot Camp, we sold it with consulting, with a consulting hour. If you bought it in the launch week, you got to come to a call and ask more business startup questions. So I think that sort of thing really works. I see that make books move when people are like, I'll do a live Skype training with 100 of your people.
Joanna: Do you think an event would add value rather than just, hey, here is my book. I think that's the important point. But can I ask you about what you said about Amazon. Amazon sales are only a small part of your revenue.
Can you tell us how you are selling direct to customers?
Carol: Sure. I want to say that I didn't start out with that approach. I started out thinking like everyone. Amazon, the magical land where we put our books on and poof, we'll be rich. I had the same dreams as everybody else that I wouldn't have to do any marketing and I could just pop something on there. Yeah, it doesn't work that way.
When Linda Formichelli and I did an early e-book in this whole long series that was 13 Ways to Get the Writing Done Faster and it was actually a Skype one-on-one call like this that we had done together that we had made a recording of. And then we were like, this would make a good e-book. So we cleaned the transcript up a lot and turned it into an e-book. So we were like, we're going to go all win on Amazon and do KDP where we get the higher royalties and this will be really great and it wasn't that great.
I sat down and I thought, why am I giving Amazon 70% of the revenue from my people who read my blog? That doesn't make any sense to me.
So then we started another launch cycle, which is now my routine, which goes like this. First, I sell it at half price to my people on my list through email. I use a digital access pass because I have a recurring monthly membership and it manages that. I have done some through ejunkie, but I think at this point, we base it all on DAP and PayPal. And it's nice because we can give you a password and protect a page. We all have concerns about how things get duplicated everywhere. And the other thing we have been doing is delivering through Mail Chimp where we upload it into Mail Chimp and then they click on and it's delivered by Mail Chimp and that's nice because then it's not on a page on the internet anyway.
Joanna: And they have paid by PayPal that way.
Carol: Right, they have already paid and the delivery email. They get onto that email list and then that thank you for subscribing message has the link and it delivers it and it's not on a page anywhere on the internet. We're liking that increasingly, especially for free giveaways, we want to do where there's an opt-in. But we don't want the world to get it for free, just the opt-ins.
And so, anyway, so stage one is, I sell it at half price to my people.
Stage two is usually I run a bundle sale for my people. Now you can get that book at the regular price but I'm throwing in this other book and a consulting hour or whatever I'm doing. And then at the end of that period of time -this is usually maybe a week 10 days between those two halves – it's going to go on Amazon and then so that builds early readers. I no longer do the here, I'm giving 200 free beta readers a copy of it. Because you know, they don't leave reviews. I don't know, my people don't.
Joanna: I get about 30 comments.
Carol: The other thing I do is often Den members get free copies of my e-books. And then we will do our sales cycle on it in the coming week or so. So that has built my whole base of people. I ask for a few reviews on email, so I can put them on my book page on my website. My point in that cycle is to make all my costs back. I usually spend about 1500 to 2500 dollars producing my books. And maybe people will be like that's crazy.
Joanna: That's about what I spend mainly editing to be fair.
Carol: The first four e-books that I did in this Freelance Writer Stand series were all transcripts of boot camps and I floated the idea of just kind of slapping the transcripts up and putting them out and and my community was like, “No, this does not represent your brand. This is horrible.” We actually were editing them. My own ad man was editing them, then I was editing them and then a professional editor was looking at them. It was like a three stage process to iron out all of the um, uh, long sentences blabber you get, repetitiveness you get in transcripts.
My goal is just to break even in that initial launch phase and then everything for the rest of my life is gravy. That's my general goal. Though I have actually started doing some e-books that are really more loss leaders where I really, I am not even caring.
Joanna: They are kind of like perma free, used to bring people into the funnel.
Carol: I should probably spend less making them than I do. But it's hard because once you've got a kind of a quality bar that you're doing, that's just what my machine is. That's what my team does and we want it to be a really great product. And actually, if you go on Make a Living Writing right now, I just switched my free product on Make a Living Writing to one of my e-books so now you get 100 Plus Freelance Writing Questions Answered for subscribing.
Joanna: After you have done that. Are you then putting it on Amazon?
Carol: Right. After I do my whole cycle and sell to all the people on my emailing lists, which between the Den waiting list which has 5,000 people on it, and my email subscription list, which is about 14,000. We actually segmented those to see where the overlap was. I assumed everyone on the waiting list of the Den were blog subscribers. No, only about 1,000 of overlaps. So between the two, there is almost 20,000 and so I am offering it all to them. I am sucking all the money out of them that I can get and I'm getting $4.99, usually for every one of those and selling hundreds of copies and then Amazon can go find people I don't know with its algorithms to sell my book to. Doesn't that make sense?
Joanna: It really does. I mean, obviously, what you don't get there is the ranking which many authors would say, if I get a big ranking then more people would find me which I think is more of an issue in the fiction niche than the non-fiction.
I think, what you're doing for non-fiction makes a lot of sense, cash flow-wise.
Carol: I find some of my books are ranking pretty well and I am getting a few hundred bucks every month from Amazon still with this method. Like I said, it's not a big. I am not one of those people who are making $5,000 a month on Amazon. That's not me.
Joanna: But you don't need to because it's coming in another way.
Carol: And it's partly because that's not my goal. That's not what I'm trying to do. And I don't know, I like doing what I want to do. I found that I felt very hamstrung by KDP. Anyone with a platform of their own and an audience that they've built. I hear people who are like, “I'm all in on Amazon,” and I always kind of feel like, why? You make less on Amazon, but the question is how much you are going to make on Amazon anyway especially now in the age of only the longer e-books pay better and all the free stuff they're doing. And you know, I don't know, the way they're changing their platform, I guess, I feel like it's not so much of a happy place for all of us anymore, you know.
Joanna: It's good to have that perspective and I also want to ask you something. I want to ask you about that fear not. Because one of the things I know, as people are listening to you, they're like, wow, she's so confident. She really knows what she is talking about.
This ambition, this confidence in your value, where does this come from and how can other people foster that in themselves?
Carol: Here's the secret. I was basically too stupid to know I was supposed to be scared of to do all these things. And I also left a lot of my major phobias in songwriting and live performance, which I had major problems with. My throat would close up and I couldn't get anything out. Really, really bad stage fright.
For me, transitioning into print where I could write something and then I didn't have to be there when someone else experienced it, I just thought that was so great. I was just like, “That is awesome,”. I'm just like, “I'm going over there,”. I was just like, whee! I got into it so by accident. I'm a college drop-out. I do not have a degree in journalism or anything else and I learned. I'm like the last person who learned it the old fashion way, writing for papers every week, every week and going into my editor and saying, “You changed my lead from this to this. Why did you do that, tell me?”
And so to me, it's all really a crazy adventure and I highly recommend you adopt that approach, instead of, “No, what if I make a mistake and everybody laughs at me?” Yes, that will all happen. I have misspelled headlines that were like this big, wait, I need to make sure you can see how big they were. This…I will crush your head, crush.
I was editing this paper in San Pedro and they were all, they're like Croatians who smoke and I'd be walking down the street. They would be like, “Oh, there goes the girl that can't spell requiem,” you know, all these horrible things they laugh at you. But it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter. There are a million markets in the world, you can burn bridges. I have made mistakes and blown up relationships and there are a million markets in the sea and there is not a universal editor network that will go, beep, beep, beep, you know, “Nobody hire Carol. She's terrible.”
Doesn't happen. Actually at one point, I blew up a relationship with a major national magazine on the print side and I then proceed to immediately earn about $60,000 over the next three years writing for the online side of that same publication. Different silo. They didn't know. I finally took them to lunch because I was really curious about it. I said, I'm curious about the interplay between the online side and the print side and they just started laughing. They were like, they don't know what we do, they don't care what we do, we're like second class citizens here.
And I was like, oh okay well I guess that explains it. There is so much writing opportunity out there and you don't have to be an expert in anything. That's another big fear and big myth: I'm not qualified enough. One more masters degree and I'll be qualified. No, no. Your skill is writing.
I have written about ratio analysis of your balance sheet and I was not a math major in school. You find experts and you talk to them and then you write up what they told you. And that is it. Your skill is telling a great story in business everywhere. That's what they're looking for at the core of it.
If you work in fiction, you're a story spinner. Think about writing case studies for people where you tell the little story of how a customer had a problem and along came this fabulous solution. You've no idea how far that storytelling skill can go with paying markets.
Joanna: Well that is an inspirational point to finish on. So tell people where they can find you and your books and all your stuff online?
Carol: A good place to start is just at makealivingwriting.com
Joanna: Fantastic. And all your e-books and all your courses are all there. That's brilliant. Thanks so much for your time, Carol. It's amazing.
Carol: My pleasure.