Interview by Magdalena Ball
Magdalena: Talk to me about the relationship between the two books (Well Fed and Back for Seconds).
Peter: The Well-Fed Writer outlined a detailed step-by-step game plan for establishing a lucrative commercial freelancing business – writing for corporations (large and small) and creative agencies (graphic design firms, ad agencies, PR firms, marketing companies, etc.) and for hourly rates ranging from $50-125+. With 95% new content, Back For Seconds is NOT a revised edition, but rather, a companion volume to the first book. It builds on the original foundation with much more coverage of sales, marketing and cold calling. I demystify subjects that are often terrifying to “creative types.” In addition, BFS features dozens of firsthand accounts from commercial writers across the spectrum, sharing insights on building the business in ways and under circumstances very different than how I did it (as described in the first book). That includes small market and part-time business startup, along with freelance opportunities with not-for-profits, little-known corporate avenues, universities, the BIG small-medium-sized business segment and other unusual niches. The new book also has six appendices (90+ pages worth), including a solidly detailed encapsulation of The Well-Fed Writer, a dozen profiles of successful well-fed writers, a commercial writing case study, a business startup primer for the newly self-employed (business structures, taxes, retirement and insurance) and writing resources across the spectrum. Finally, I offer an overview of self-publishing – how I publish my books – as a teaser to my upcoming (2006) release: The Well-Fed Self-Publisher: How to Turn One Book into a Full-Time Living.
Magdalena: Why do you think that there is such a huge ongoing need for professional commercial writing services?
Peter: Companies of all sizes are operating leaner and meaner (emphasis on “meaner”…) these days and any way they can keep expenses low (i.e., by not hiring full-time staff), they’ll do. More importantly, hiring a freelancer just makes more sense, for a lot of reasons, economic and otherwise. No salaries, benefits or vacations to provide. You buy the services you need only when you need them. You get a wide range of talent. And you get fresh “outsider” perspectives.
Magdalena: The rates for commercial writing are on such a different dimension to other forms of writing such as writing for magazines or fiction. Why aren’t all writers doing it?
Peter: Well, actually, I’m glad all of them aren’t! Might make things a bit crowded out there. But, I think there are a few reasons why. I think there’s a perception amongst many that “commercial” writing is some “sell-your-soul” venture at worst, or just uncreative mercenary work at best. Neither is true, though I DO tell people you’re not going to get all your creative fulfillment from this field. But, if you can make the healthy rates ($60-125+ an hour), it can nicely free you up to pursue the writing that does light you up. I also believe many think that they need all sorts of specialized training or experience to write for the commercial field. And while it certainly helps to have had a business background (one you can leverage to find work related to your expertise), learning to write commercially is not beyond anyone. For the most part, it’s just not rocket science. If you’ve done no writing in this field, you will have to refine and channel your skills into a new direction, but it’s doable. And frankly – he said very self-servingly – I can’t think of a better place to start than with my books! (laughs).
Magdalena: You bring in a lot of experts in this book! How did you find them all?
Peter: I found most through my newsletter. I get a pretty steady stream of email from readers, sharing their experiences and expertise. I snagged many of the folks with a particular skill or particularly good story and had them write an article for the E-PUB (subscribe free at “Ezine” link at www.wellfedwriter.com), and many of those articles made it into Back For Seconds.
Magdalena: As a copywriter, you earn a high hourly rate. Was it difficult to turn down or limit that work to make time for the longer term goal of writing this book? Is this an ongoing struggle for you? (between the immediacy of your clients and your own longer term creative goals?)
Peter: Not really. I have a good network of colleagues here in Atlanta (the commercial writers group members I discuss in the book) to whom I can pass work when I need to. But I’ve still taken on work gladly, just not as much as I have in the past. I’m not committed to operating at full tilt boogie in both arenas – what’s the point of life if it’s all work? And thanks to the success of the books, I can more easily pick and choose the projects I work on.
Magdalena: In chapter 4 you touch on “The Attitude” from MFA students towards copywriters. But some of the world’s best fiction writers (such as Salman Rushdie and Peter Carey) started off as copywriters. Do you see a relationship between commercial writing and other forms of creative writing, or would you see these as entirely unrelated fields?
Peter: Actually, “The Attitude” comes mostly from faculty, not students. Students are usually quite intrigued by the field, but, too often, the professors poison them against it. But your question is an insightful one. I’d say that there’s definitely a relationship between the two, mainly because, as commercial writers, we’re trained (through experience) to always consider the audience and what’s important to them. And that skill can’t help but, in my humble opinion, make any kind of creative writing better, stronger, and more resonant with a reader. A few months ago, I had an article I wrote appear in a journal geared toward the academic MFA Creative Writing crowd, and if I do say so myself, it was a much more interesting article to read than most of the ones I’ve read in that publication, written by supposed creative writers! Too often, very creative people live in their own head and what they write is too self-indulgent and self-centered, and as a result, doesn’t land very effectively with a reader. Think about the most successful novelists who build large followings. Why do their readers continue to follow them? Because they give them what they want.
Magdalena: How would you leverage a creative writing background (e.g. fiction, poetry) for commercial writing?
Peter: If someone is a published fiction writer, chances are excellent, their skills are more than adequate to transition to the commercial field. And if they have some actual published book credits to their name, that can make a solid door-opener to a company. But, that said, they’ll still have to build up a portfolio of work through different means (pro bono, start-ups, etc.) that is closer to the kind of work they’d be hired by commercial clients to write. Again, books like mine can give them a good sense of both the field they’re considering and how to develop the “marketing mindset” for it (hint: it’s not that difficult) and classics like Bob Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook can give them a good sense of the actual nuts and bolts of writing for the field. And of course, any good marketing books can only help the learning process along. In my second book, I have a solid appendix listing tons of commercial writing resources (books, ezines, Web sites, organizations, groups, etc.).
Magdalena: Why do you think cold calling works better than say, e-mail or postal based campaigns?
Peter: I’m not sure I‘d say cold calling works better than the rest (though it may); for me – and many others, it’s been a proven way to build our businesses. But ideally, you’re doing a mixture of all three plus some good networking as well. But cold calling has some immediacy to it – you’re right there, talking with your prospect, which, in my mind, makes it especially effective. But, if you’re the type who’d rather poke your eye out with a pencil than call a stranger on the phone, know that you aren’t necessarily doomed to failure in this business. The more comfortable you can get with it, though – and I work overtime in the second book, to do just that – the easier your business-building will go.
Magdalena: Tell me about the mentoring that you do for commercial writers and aspiring self-publishers. Why do you do it, and what does it involve (briefly).
Peter: The mentoring really sprang out of my lack of time but has grown into something bigger. When the first book came out, I was inundated with emails, asking tons of (usually detailed) questions about the field. I just didn’t have the time to answer them all after awhile, so I started this fee-based service. And interestingly enough, those questions also drove the creation of much of the content of the second book – part-time or smaller- market biz building, marketing concerns, etc. So, now I offer my expertise to two sets of folks. The first are those starting a commercial writing business and needing guidance in any number of areas: creating a portfolio, building a web site, how best to leverage past experience, etc. And also of course those wanting to self-publish their books, something I’ve managed to do fairly successfully. I get into much more detail about what I can offer on my “Mentoring” link at www.wellfedwriter.com.
Magdalena: If you had to pick the one most important piece of advice for FLCW’s just starting out, what would it be?
Peter: A few things. You may be new and inexperienced, but if you’re reliable, do what you say you’re going to do, show up when you say you’re going to show up and deliver when you say you’re going to deliver, you’ll set yourself apart from about 90% of the pack. No kidding. Those are areas where you can start out on top. And secondly, don’t put corporate America – or any business for that matter – on a pedestal and think you’re not smart enough to make a difference for them. Chances are good you have what it takes. That said, leave your ego at the door and learn as much as you can. Magdalena: What are your own long-term goals for your writing?
Peter: Good question. Not sure. I’ve done very well just letting things unfold, not deciding that I definitely would or definitely wouldn’t do this or that book, but moved towards things when they felt right. The book on self-publishing is a definite and maybe one of these days, I might even try my hand at fiction. Watch out! (laughs)
Magdalena: Tell me about The Well Fed Self-Publisher (no phone calls from Clinton for the sequel?). What will differentiate it from existing key books on the topic such as Poynter’s or the Ross’s?
Peter: I’m not even trying to compete with the Poynters and Rosses of the world. They’re the gods in this field and really have created a phenomenal body of work. And in fact, I’ll be recommending their books highly in mine. What will set mine apart are a few things. There are many books that can take you through the nuts and bolts of self-publishing. Mine will show you how to make a good living at it. The second point actually hit me the other day. As a successful and, I believe, quite competent commercial writer, I bring my intimacy with marketing principles to the table. In Back For Seconds, I talk about the three fundamental principles in developing a marketing mindset: “Who’s the Audience?”, the Features/Benefits Equation and the USP (Unique Selling Proposition). Knowing the crucial importance of all three to ANY marketing endeavor, I keep the marketing focus front and center – where it absolutely needs to be. And, finally, but not trivially, my writing style – which is fun, accessible, and irreverent – will further set it apart. Peter’s website is www.wellfedwriter.com