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]