Early in my freelance career, I wrote a few articles for Demand Media Studios (DMS), so I still have access to their forums. And what's going on there is really sad. Looks like Demand is using its new First Look program to effectively lay off about 85 percent of its writers.
Whether we're fans or foes of content mills, I'm sure any of us who have lost a major client can feel their pain. Some of those being downsized have worked there for years, and many of them earn the bulk of their income from the studio.
One thing seems clear from the forums -- the writers who are about to be downsized would love to diversify, but they're not sure how.
DMS writers, please believe me. If you play your cards right, getting cut lose from Demand could be one of the best thing that ever happened to your career. Once you pick up a few high-paying clients and leave behind the clueless CEs, the scorecard and the 412 pages of nitpicky, ever-changing style sheets, you'll wonder how you ever survived there.
It's not improbable for a solid freelance writer with basic clips and experience to work for $.50 to $1.00 per word, $50 to $75 per hour -- and even more. It just takes time to seek out and cultivate those high-paying clients.
Some thoughts for writers looking to thrive in a post-Demand world:
1. Stay away from cheapskates.
There's a lot of chat on the forums and members' blogs about jumping ship to other content farms. Job boards like CraigsList and eLance are frequently mentioned.
Why should you avoid these? Because each job posted on teh Interwebs attracts hundreds to thousands of applicants. That's why 99 percent of the time, freelance job boards pay third-world wages.
2. Approach clients directly.
To find clients that pay real wages, skip the job boards and reach out personally. Send query letters to paying magazine markets. Contact health systems, universities, marketing companies, web service providers and other businesses who work with writers.
3. If you've never queried before, it's time to learn.
Queries are one way to sell your work to magazines, websites and trade publications. A great book on the subject that really helped me out is Make a Real Living as a Freelance Writer by Jenna Glatzer. And here's a link to Diane Benson Harrington, a great coach whose querying classes I'd recommend.
4. Business writing pays the bills.
When I started out in 2010, I thought I'd mostly write for magazines. However, a year later, I find I get the bulk of my income from business writing.
It takes a lot of time and effort to locate steady, high-paying business clients, but once you get a few, it's like it's your birthday every day. They hand you regular assignments, pay fast and on-time, and you get paid for the time you put in -- even if the project gets killed.
This entire blog is actually about my personal quest to seek out and win over those rare, high-paying business clients. I did it through cold calling, which worked fairly well (and fast). And yup, post number one is from cold-calling day one -- the most terrifying day of my freelance career. (Don't worry, after I made about ten calls, it got way easier.)
To plan my cold call campaign, I closely followed the advice from this book: The Well-Fed Writer by Peter Bowerman.
Cold calling isn't for everyone. Others prefer to network in person or send "Letters of Interest" to prospects. Here's a transcript on the subject from the International Freelance Academy.
5. Hang with the pros.
DMS has a great social writers' community, with forums (and now Meetups). However, it's pretty rare that I see anyone posting advice who seems to be a high-earning freelancer. That's not a slam on the DMS writers at all, and I'm sure there are exceptions. But in general, it's not a place where folks making $60,000, $75,000 and even $100,000 a year hang out.
If you want to make a real living freelancing, it helps to connect with people at the top of the business. In my experience, successful writers are super generous souls when it comes to helping each other up to the next level.
Where can you find these folks? Local writers' groups and classes are a good start. Also, you can Google around to locate freelancers near you. If you like the work they're doing, shoot them an email and take them out for coffee.
Another idea: check out Freelance Success (FLX). It's a pay site, but I've found it to be a great investment in my own career. You'll get access to forums, newsletters, job leads, career advice, etc. aimed at writers targeting high-paying markets. You can even get a free trial.
Another networking idea: If you've got the clips, consider joining ASJA.
6. Learn new skills.
If you want to survive and thrive as a freelancer, it's good to invest in your career. Successful writers teach classes in copyediting, book proposals, magazine queries, grant writing, green writing, blogging, social media, and you name it. The more kinds of writing you're trained in, the more assignments you'll generally land -- and the more financially secure you'll feel.
Just a few writing classes that have worked for myself or folks I know:
Crafting the Query/Kickbutt Queries -- Diane Benson Harrington (link above)
Grant Writing -- Diane Silver
Book Proposals (nonfiction) -- Jennifer Lawler
Back when I was a newbie, I also took a nonfiction course from Writer's Digest University that was very helpful.
A caveat: Before you sign up for a class, it's a good idea to check out the instructor's credentials and talk to former students. Because frankly, any dumbass out there can get online and offer a class.You want to be taught by the best, someone who's had success in the kind of writing you hope to break into.
Well, dear DMS writers, I hope that's been helpful, and sorry again that it's turned out this way. I'm hardly the most seasoned writer on teh Interwebs, but having spent awhile in the studio, I really feel your pain. So if you need marketing help or advice (for what it's worth), hit me at sarah (at) zipline agency (dot) com.