Why You Should Write for Fewer, Smaller Clients

One of the tips in a list post I have going up in the next week or so is to concentrate on a core group of clients instead of trying to garner as many clips and bylines as you can. I think this deserves further discussion.

I was reading through old journal entries last night, and several years ago in my journal I made a list of all the clients I needed to stay in touch with. There were 30 or 40 on the list. Coincidentally, at that time I was feeling scattered and burned out on writing.

Then, about a year and a half ago, I made a vow to myself to stop accepting work that had red flags or that came from clients who had proven to be PITAs. After that, assignments from easy-to-work with, well-paying magazines started flowing in. Now, I work with just 10 or 12 clients ranging from single magazines like Writer’s Digest to entire custom publishing groups like The Magazine Group. As you probably know (because I’m always writing about it here), I now make a full-time living working part-time hours, and I’m not feeling at all burned out. In fact, I feel energized.

One mistake many new freelancers make is they set the goal to get their names in as many magazines as possible. On top of that, they focus solely on newsstand magazines because (1) the newsstand magazines may be all they’re familiar with and (2) the writers are under the mistaken impression that the newsstand magazines are more lucrative for freelancers. So they send out query after query and get rejections or no-replies, and they start to wonder if they suck.

A problem with the newsstand magazines (also known as consumer magazines and glossies) is that not only are they difficult to break into and difficult to write for, but in my experience, every time you pitch them it’s like starting from scratch. I’ll write an article for a consumer pub that the editor loves, and the next time I have an idea I have to go through the whole rigmarole again: Write well-researched query, wait weeks or months for a response, write an outline for the editor, revise the outline for the editor, and finally get the assignment. While early in my career I did have ongoing relationships with magazines like Family Circle and Fitness where I didn’t have to go through this process every time, I’m sad to say that the industry has changed and it’s become more complicated to sell ideas.

In addition, while consumer pubs pay a high per-word rate — often $2 per word and up — they require so much work that the per-hour rate can be dismal. On the other hand, I usually make at least $250 per hour when I write for magazines that pay less (typically 50 cents to $1 per word) but don’t require a lengthy query process or multiple revisions.

The goal of pitching dozens of glossies is fine if your aim is simply to see your name in lights. But if you want to make an actual living and need a steadier paycheck, you need to find markets that are easier to break into and easier to work for — and when you score a good client, you should nurture that relationship instead of having a “one and done” attitude and moving on to the next target.

I consider trade magazines and custom publications to be my main meal, and the consumer pubs to be the occasional fun but fatty dessert. While I used to spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas for and pitching dozens of newsstand magazines, these days I pitch a newsstand mag only if I happen to come up with an idea that would be perfect for one — which is how I came to be writing a reported essay for a women’s health glossy this month. (And by the way, I pitched that idea in the summer and got an acceptance at the beginning of December — and was required to write an outline first.)

The benefit to focusing on a small group of “workhorse” clients is that you can really concentrate on building relationships with them. It’s hard to build meaningful relationships with 40 editors, but 10-15 is doable. In addition, when you’re considering who to pitch, you won’t be overwhelmed by the hundreds — thousands — of magazines out there that you could possibly write for. And the benefit to choosing pubs that may be less glamorous than glossies is that once you get into their stables of writers, they come to you again and again with assignments, so you can spend less time pitching and more time earning money.

I don’t ever want to discourage anyone from pitching newsstand magazines. They make great clips and it’s exciting to see your name in a magazine that all your friends read. Also, not every glossy makes you go through outlines and revisions and wait months for an acceptance (and a paycheck). Many of my e-course students and mentoring clients want to break into consumer magazines and I can help them do that. And there are people who get multiple assignments from these magazines — it can be done. But in my experience, they’re typically not reliable income generators if your goal is to make a good living as a freelancer. Instead of madly pitching dozens of glossies and hopping from one client to the next — each with its own learning curve — you could use that time to nurture relationships with a few editors who give you regular work with less hassle. [lf]

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24 comments… add one
  • “…and they start to wonder if they suck.”

    Yep. That’s me right now. Great advice, Linda, thanks so much.

  • This is great advice. I don’t often write for publications but I like to develop strong relationships with my clients. It’s the best way to get repeat, steady work.

  • Just as dealing with individuals/small businesses as a consumer leads to more productive relationships, so does being on the other side of that table and having those types of businesses as clients.

  • I agree with Leigh H. – I’m starting to wonder if I suck. But I’m not giving up!

  • Thanks for your comments! Karen and Leigh, I don’t think you suck — you may just be aiming for markets that are extremely difficult to break into.

    P.S., I agree — I develop strong relationships with my clients by doing a great job, touching base every so often, sending cards at the right time (promotions/births/holidays/etc.) and generally being nice and acting like a professional!

    Devon, good point!

    • I like the idea of sending cards and have done so at Christmas. But did you just come right out and ask them for their birthdays? I also plan to get some Starbucks cards and include them in a card.

      • Hmm…I’m not sure how an editor would react to my asking for her birthday. Have you tried it, and if so, how did it go? However, if an editor mentioned her birthday was coming up, I would definitely send her a card.

  • Hi Linda,

    Great post today! I think so many writers struggle with getting into Consumer pubs, so this was super helpful. A few questions for you:

    1. Where do you find trade magazines and custom publications? Do you have any great databases or resources you’d be willing to share?
    2. “sending cards at the right time (promotions/births/holidays/etc.”– How do you go about getting your client’s home address so that you can send them cards and other gifts, etc?

    Thanks for sharing!!

    • Hi, Kate — just rescued this and your other comments from the spam folder! I’m sorry about that. To answer your questions:

      1. Check the right sidebar for the post on where to find markets, My favorite resources are in there.

      2. I actually send the cards and gifts to my editors’ offices!

  • Daisha

    I couldn’t agree with this more. In fact, I had an incident this week that perfectly illustrated the difference between under the radar yet lucrative clients, and PITA glossies: I got an assignment last Tuesday for a trade publication I have written for before. On the same day, I got an email expressing interest in a brief front of book item I had pitched to a big glossy. By Friday, I was completely done with the trade pub assignment – and had a nice size check coming for my work. That same day, the ed from the glossy was still asking me questions and wanting more research and stats to back up the relevance of the FOB piece – which they finally declined this morning. Guess who I will want to get more calls from in the future?

  • Amen! I often feel like I’m being pulled in a million different directions because I’m trying to build relationships at SOO many different publications at once. One of my New Year’s resolutions is to be more focused so that hopefully I can maintain (or even increase) my current income without stressing so much.

  • Susan, yes! In 2010 I was all about simplifying — not only did I cut out some groups and obligations that were making me feel scattered, but I focused on just my best clients. SO much better.

    Daisha, call me and tell me about which magazine that was! I think I know…

  • Thank you for this fabulous post. Just what I needed to read at the start of 2011. Happy New Year, Linda!

  • I totally agree. My core group of clients are smaller, and it’s copywriting, not freelance “glossy” writing. It’s good work and it feeds me and mine. 😉

    Not to say I wouldn’t love to write for a national glossy at some point. I also know how hard it is to crack the market, however, and for now, choose to put my energy in other places.

    Great advice, Linda!

    • I’ve been doing more copywriting myself, though I do have an article in Women’s Health this month! I like to work on a mix.

  • I’d rather work with a steady (ethical) client base. Being a ‘freelance writer ambulance chaser’ doesn’t appeal to me. I ‘shifted’ my beliefs and thoughts around being a freelance writer. I really love creative and ghostwriting and am pursuing that line of work as well.

  • Hi Linda!

    I just wanted to let you know how helpful and insightful your blog has been for me. I also really appreciate your down-to-earth language and detailed examples. Your site is an entertaining and useful reference. Your excuse buster columns cut right to the heart of the matter. I have been making excuses about my writing, and that has got to change. Thanks for everything!

  • If I could just get an idea where to start. That’s mainly the problem I have right now, and since it’s quite hard getting freelance work for someone who’s just started, well… Self-pity is about to set in. Heh

  • Aldwin

    Building relationships with your client is a one vital concern. You may not feel it but clients love making more than the conventional relationship with you. Especially if you’re someone who does really excellent jobs. just my one cent. hehe 🙂

  • DJ Craig

    I mostly write for my website and various blogs but breaking out of that now seems doable. I am going to look at some trade mags in my industry- thx for the tips!

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