10 Ways to Cultivate New Markets
Don’t get stuck with just a single crop in your writing garden. Diversify.
Try these ten tips to let a thousand markets bloom.
In the spring of 1997, Montreal freelancer Helena Katz was earning almost half her income writing for the city’s English language daily newspaper, the Gazette. When the newspaper presented her with a contract demanding all rights for both new and old material, Katz did some soul searching. "I decided to walk away," she says.
Instantly stripped of 50% of her cash flow, Katz worked fast. She targeted half a dozen markets she wanted to crack – including a local university, several magazines, a major newspaper, a high-end corporate newsletter and a syndicate – and fired off proposal packages. By September, Katz was back at her keyboard with assignments from all of them. "I knew my business was back on track," she says, "when I went to my mailbox one day and found a letter from a magazine I had pitched. I nervously opened it and, to my incredible relief, found out that they had rejected my idea. I knew I just couldn’t handle one more assignment!"
The late science writer Larry Jackson put it simply: "You can’t negotiate a better deal unless you can afford to walk away." And you can’t afford to walk away if you don’t have other work on the horizon.
The answer is diversification.
I’m not talking about the perennial debate among writers about being a subject-matter generalist or a specialist. Diversification is about how many customers you have in how many business sectors. Diversifying your business means you are consciously and constantly searching for:
* more and better clients and
* more and better services to sell them.
Here are ten techniques to diversify your client base and marketable skills:
1. Exploit Your Specialty
About a year before Katz found herself scrambling for assignments, science writer Jackson had just returned to freelancing after several years as a staff writer in the civil service. "A client emerged before I’d really hustled new markets, so I hadn’t properly hung out my shingle yet," he said. "I found myself caught in the one-client trap." Jackson was making money-but his business was dependent on a single client.
What he had to build on was an ability to explain science in plain English. "Most scientists and engineers can’t write and a lot of them know it. Many hate it but can’t avoid it, because their business runs on proposals and grant applications and reports. The more competitive it gets, the more they need incisive prose."
He turned to the yellow pages to look for companies that could benefit from his expertise as a science writer. Exploiting his specialty, Jackson pitched promising companies until he had a greater diversity of clients.
2. Expand Your Horizons
Don’t be afraid to look to nearby cities or even nationwide for corporate clients. Use your local library’s collection of telephone books or search the World Wide Web. Clients don’t need to see you that often if at all; it’s the work that matters. Even before this era of fax and e-mail, I handled work for companies thousands of miles away, often without ever meeting them. You routinely work for magazine editors you never meet; corporate clients aren’t that different.
3. Harness Advertising Power
You can even advertise for clients. I placed a small ad in InfoWeek offering to write computer documentation. That $150 investment turned into a long-term relationship with a California publishing company. I made more than $35,000 over three years writing manuals for companies from Japan, California, Washington and New Jersey.
4. Build Relationships
Ottawa writer Barbara Florio Graham has taken the process of client development a step further: She makes relationship building a year-round activity. Once she has targeted potential clients, Graham makes an initial contact, then works slowly to build trust and familiarity. She recommends watching the business pages for anything that mentions companies you are trying to recruit as clients. She copies the story onto a sheet of her letterhead, writes a short personal note on it, and passes it along to the prospect. "It catches attention," she says.
5. Search for New Markets
Even when you think you’re well diversified, it never hurts to build and maintain relationships with new markets; you never know when you might need them. Heather Pengelley was doing regular assignments for a consumer magazine, a city magazine and a lifestyle magazine. She was also doing the odd assignment for a small medical publisher who was "printing my articles without verbs that I know were there in the first place," she says. Pengelley decided to "fire’ that market and dropped by the office to tell the publisher. He admitted he was overworked, had been using his secretary for copy editing and, by the way, would Pengelley be interested in freelance editing the publication for which she had been writing. It was a stretch, but "I love new challenges,’ so she took the job on.
Smart move. Within six months, all three of her other major markets "disappeared off the supermarket shelves, never to be seen again. Bang! My income deflated like a helium balloon on a winter day."
Pengelley now does much of her work in the medical field, which she says has been "recession-proof" for her. "However, demands within this market have shifted every few years," she adds, "from publications to videos to slide presentations in continuing medical education. I have diversified my skills again and again and again."
6. Cross Genre Boundaries
Los Angeles writer James Joseph, a successful freelancer for more than 40 years, uses his article and book research to pitch movie and television concepts. The reverse works, too. When he sells a screenplay, he promptly turns around and sends publishers a book proposal based on the script
"For those highly diversified, there need never be ‘tough times,"’ he says.
7. Spin off Story Ideas
In addition, Joseph has a keen eye for story possibilities that others have missed. He read a third-person story in one magazine and realized it would make a great first-person tale. Joseph contacted the person involved and spun the first-person story into magazine, television and movie sales. ‘That’s diversification," he says. "Magazine article + TV script + screenplay = big bucks!"
8. Synergize Your Skills
There is more to a diversified business than just a variety of markets. You can also diversify the skills you sell.
Toronto writer/editor Denyse O’Leary teaches a class in developing a business as a freelance editor. "I encourage students to diversify in writing, graphic arts, translation or any other business that has synergy with editing," she says. "By synergy, I mean that the two businesses feed each other clients naturally. I discourage diversification where synergy is unlikely – editing and running a day-care center, for example."
9. Market Computer Skills
In Seattle, Bruce Miller profitably set out to market the computer skills he learned doing his own word processing. "I began doing temporary word processing," he says. "That brought me into touch with the onerous process of creating business documents. I studied WordPerfect macro programming. That led to more lucrative consulting work."
Miller was soon able to drop the temporary word processing—and his consulting provided material for his writing. Now he writes about macros and technology management in business. "There were gains on both ends," he says.
Many of us have developed marketable computer skills. For example, in addition to the software and hardware manuals I’ve written, I’ve spun my computer skills into a small software company, two books, three columns, classes for the local school district—even an online writing school.
10. Sell Without Stopping
Perhaps the best piece of advice I ever received on multiplying my markets came at a Writer’s Digest Workshop in 1980. Veteran writer Arturo F. "Arky" Gonzalez told me two things. First, "Write and mail a query a day." It’s a challenging pace but it pays off. Second, Arky said, "Never sleep with your ideas." If a query comes back, send it out again the same day.
Follow this formula and in a month, you’ll have two dozen ideas out there selling for you. In two months it will be four dozen, in three months six. You only have to sell a few of them to stay profitably busy.
Diversifying is a constant challenge. There is always a part of us that wants the work to come in easily and go out even more easily. But without branching out in both markets and skills, you short-change your career.
"I believe that diversification is absolutely essential in this business," says medical writer Pengelley. "And it adds to the fun! What’s life without a few challenges? After all, as freelance writers, the job that we have chosen is one that changes on a daily basis. Isn’t that the very nature of diversification itself?"
Tim Perrin has been writing for a living in one form or another virtually all of his adult life. He has published several hundred magazine articles and five books, including one on writing (Better Writing for Lawyers, 1989). Tim has been teaching adults since 1975 for such schools as Simon Fraser University, the University of Victoria, several community colleges and in seminars across Canada and the US.
His passions are screenwriting and book-length "new journalism" non-fiction. His current project is a book on taking charge of your life. California born and raised, Tim has lived the last 25 years in Canada. He and his wife live by a little lake in the beautiful Okanagan Valley of British Columbia. Tim is the executive director of www.WritingSchool.com.
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