I used the 2016 New Year to shock my freelance writing career into full-time. I’d already been dabbling in freelancing for almost a year part-time, but I was being paid pennies and only just starting to realize it. In January of that year, I started this blog to vent some of my frustrations and to connect with others fighting to do what I wanted to do—just write, dammit! I still felt totally lost when it came to the actual business side of freelancing.
Luckily, I found Gina Horkey’s Horkey Handbook and Jorden Roper’s Writing Revolt blogs, and Kelly James-Enger’s book Writer for Hire, and those three badass ladies started inspiring me to reshape my business. It took me until May of 2016 to find and absorb those quality resources, get a business license, decide once and for all on a niche, set my business goals, and launch PurpleInkPen.
I’ve learned a lot in the two years since that 2016 New Year’s revelation. Am I rolling in dough? No. But I pay my bills doing what I love. I also don’t have to work a traditional 9-5, 40 hour week to achieve that status (something that’s been an exceptional blessing during my pregnancy over the past six months—no squeezing a baby bump into dress pants for me). Some of that learning came from great outside resources, some from trial and error, and some from downright failure. So, I wanted to create a sort of “Things I Wish I’d Known” post for any of you out there who are looking to either start a brand new freelance writing business in 2018 or kick a blossoming business into high gear.
Tip #1: Know Your Niche’s Standard Rates
This seems so obvious to me now, but it’s something I totally flubbed when I first started. When I googled Freelance Writing, the first thing that popped up was Upwork. I made a profile and started job searching, and I used the rates I saw there under the “beginner” job headers to shape my idea of what freelance writers were paid. That’s a horribly skewed perspective. Though you can find some gems hidden on Upwork in the “pro” sections, the jobs that come to you as a brand new Upwork recruit are pretty much all shit rates paid by people who don’t understand and do not value what writers do. The clients will tell you they’re giving you the best rates out there, but it’s bullshit. That’s how I ghostwrote my first two books in 2015 for $300 and $500. Don’t do that.
When I started finding better freelancer resources, I realized I probably wasn’t getting paid what I should be. I told myself it probably wasn’t bad for beginner rates, but it could be better. That’s why when I started reading Kelly James-Enger’s books and found Writer’s Digest’s rate chart, I was astounded. Professional, experienced ghosts can make $30,000 a project. My editing rates were a bit low, too, but nothing compared to my ghostwriting rates.
I boosted my editing rates to average immediately, but something held me back from raising my ghostwriting rates to professional standards (though I did raise them). More on that in Tip #5. But I will say this here. If I had properly done my research on standard rates in my chosen niche before diving in, I wouldn’t have started so low, and my climb to professional rates wouldn’t have been so slow and stunted. So please, do your homework, find reputable sources, and use standard pro rates to calculate your beginner rates.
Tip #2: Utilize Multiple Job Search Platforms
The second thing that stunted the growth of my business was that I fell into a pattern of how I landed my gigs. For a year, it was pretty much just Upwork. That skewed my view of rates and had me sending out proposals to spam-like job postings that never turned into anything. I wasted a lot of time and naively worked for far too little. Then, when I got wise about cold emailing thanks to Gina and Jorden, I started landing better clients (especially editing clients), but I fell into a different rut.
I was using Twitter to prospect for potential editing clients to cold email. It did work, and you can read my tips on how to do the same here, but I wasn’t branching out to any other platforms, and my potential pitch pool started drying up. For ghostwriting work, I was scouring jobs boards. Not a horrible strategy by any means, and highly successful for some niches, but not the greatest strategy for book ghostwriters. Book ghostwriting gigs are listed more sporadically on sites like Freelancewritinggigs.com, and sites like Indeed never seem to even know what you’re talking about when you type that into the search bar. I was sending out proposals, but mostly to people with Craigslist ads who, it often turned out, couldn’t match my rates (which still weren’t nearly as high as they could/should have been back then). It wasn’t a very effective strategy, but I stayed in that rut because that was what was working for lots of other successful writers. If it was working for them, it should work for me, right? Not necessarily. The problem wasn’t really how I was job searching, but the fact that I was limiting my job pool by sticking to only the tried and true familiar tactics.
Instead of checking the same sites day after day, branch out in your search. Just because something is familiar and has become an easy solution doesn’t mean there isn’t something better out there.
I started researching associations related to my niche. I joined one for editing, Publisher’s Marketplace, and landed two new editing clients within a month, and one of those clients gave me a small ghostwriting project, too. I also joined one for ghostwriting, and now I occasionally get the chance to vie for projects that pay $40,000-$60,000. I haven’t landed one yet, but they only come down the pipeline so often, and lots of ghosts want them. I’ll get one eventually. It’s nice to just have those sorts of projects showing up in front of me.
I beefed up my LinkedIn account and had an editing client contact me there (no pitching required on my end).
I eventually found a whole new writer platform dedicated to ghostwriting called Reedsy, joined, and immediately had ghostwriting work showing up in my email. Sure, not every project on there works out. By that time, I’d raised rates my rates significantly (a minimum of $15,000 for a full-length book), and not every client can match them, but the opportunities now come to me. And, my first accepted project on the platform netted me $900 for 3,000 words, coming out to a $160 an hour rate.
Diversify your tactics, and you’ll land upon a way to lessen the frustration of the daily grind.
Tip #3: Rethink Your Client List
Around the same time I started using other job search strategies, I began to realize that I’d also fallen into another rut. Because of my limited job search strategies, I was only seeking out very specific types of clients.
When I was cold emailing folks on Twitter, I was reaching out to a lot of beginner authors who had never hired an editor before (the established authors usually already had editors). I’d have to convince them of a need for an editor before ever selling my services. Not a bad thing, and many of my pitches were successful, but that wasn’t the only type of client available to me. Small publishing companies outsource editing in many cases. I’d been afraid to target them. It was intimidating. When I decided to start looking through publisher and writer association listings, I started cold emailing a whole new type of client: companies, not just individuals. I landed myself two different jobs with publishing companies as a result.
When I was using job boards to find ghostwriting gigs, I only came across individuals. Mostly Average Joes with a very limited concept of what a book could do for them and what it takes to produce a book. Negotiating rates with those clients was like pulling teeth, and they often got scared and ran off. When I finally boosted my rates to professional level in early 2017, my email turned into a ghost town. As soon as I said one word about my rates or directed these folks to my services page, I’d hear absolutely nothing back. Necessity caused me to diversify, and Kelly James-Enger once again gave me a solution with her book, Goodbye Byline, Hello Big Bucks. I used that trusty friend cold emailing, but I used it in a new way. I learned about book packagers and how they outsource to freelance ghosts, and I started pitching. I’m on over a half dozen lists now, just waiting for them to match me with a project. I also found Reedsy late in 2017, and landed my first two gigs at my new rates, just on smaller projects.
You’ve probably realized from my examples that switching up your client pool and your rates takes time. You have to lay new groundwork every time you shake things up. That’s why I’m giving you these tips now, when you’re starting. If you stretch your thinking, charge solid rates, and make a solid list of every type of client who might want your service from the beginning, you won’t have to deal with so much rearranging. Your business will grow into exactly what you want/need it to be from the beginning.
Tip #4: Set Tangible Goals
Goals are great motivators, and I believe every freelance business owner should have them, but they only work if you know how to properly set them.
A good list of goals should:
- Be Realistic: Don’t set a goal to make $100,000 your first year. Unless you already have some great connections and a past 9-5 career that aligns perfectly with your new business, it ain’t gonna happen, no matter how hard you work. Instead, calculate what you need to make per year to pay all your bills, feed and clothe yourself, and still have extra cash for fun and vacation. Make that your income goal. It will feel far more attainable. As you start to see your monthly income grow and get closer, you’ll be far more motivated to keep pressing on than if your numbers are only creeping toward that ludicrously high, unrealistic goal.
- Be Measurable: Don’t set a vague goal like, “Have a successful business by the end of the year,” or “Be an awesome writer.” Uh, that’s great, but how will you measure that? Based on how you feel at any given time? How are you going to strive for that throughout the year? Your idea of what a successful business and an awesome writer are may change. Instead, set goals like, “Have five recurring clients by the end of the year.” Or, “Boost my beginner rates within five months.” Or, “Have _____ blog subscribers.”
- Be Actionable: The goals I’ve mentioned thus far are big-picture goals, or Outcome Goals. They are what you want to happen. But you must pair them with Production Goals, which are the steps you will take to make those outcome goals a reality. You want to have five recurring clients by year end? Some of your production goals might be to send out twenty pitches every week or to get yourself a profile in three niche-specific association membership lists.
Tip #5: Prepare for Self-Doubt
As I mentioned earlier, once I figured out what writers in my selected niches make, I had no problem boosting my editing rates, but I still held back in ghostwriting. Why? The gap between my old rates and the new rates I’d found were so drastic that they frightened me. I felt like an impostor. I felt I wasn’t worth that much; those were crazy numbers. So, for a year, I did boost my rates, but I still kept them too low. I was paid around $5,000 for my next book project. Much better than $500 but still not really adequate compensation for how long the project took. I stuck mostly to editing gigs for my income because I didn’t even know how to find the types of clients who would pay me ghostwriting rates any higher than $5,000. I significantly lowered my rates for another client because they were going to allow me to have my name on the cover. That was great, but I still wasn’t paid enough for the effort put in. I was letting myself be pushed around.
I kept telling myself that if I raised my rates to professional heights, I’d never land another client, and then I really wouldn’t be making enough money. If this sort of self-doubt starts eating at you, I encourage two things:
- Look back at what you have already achieved. List out the projects you’ve worked on. Read your first few testimonials. Having all of that in one place is very encouraging. You’ll begin to see that you are worth those rates you’re afraid of. You’ll begin to see that you have what it takes to pitch that client that intimidates you.
- Just take the plunge for a month and see how it goes. In early 2017, I said screw it, and raised my rates to $15,000 minimum for a full-length ghostwritten book, and $7,500 plus royalties minimum for a full-length coauthoring project. Doing so helped give me the push I needed to start diversifying my job search platforms and my client pool. Did I land a full-length book ghostwriting project this year like I’d wanted? No, I did not. But you know what else I didn’t do? I didn’t accept a job at crappy rates that took up my time for other projects. I made more in 2017 than in 2016, even though I had fewer projects, because I waited for the jobs that paid better. And I did land brand new ghostwriting jobs, just not full books. I landed an outlining gig, a chapter-length gig, and a rewriting gig. And I was paid fairly for them. I also got myself on a large number of publisher and packager lists, and at least one of them is going to pay off eventually. It’s a matter of patience. Things move a bit slower in my niche. Books take time, and they require clients willing to make a large investment. By holding my breath and taking the plunge for an experimental month, I realized I wasn’t going to crash and burn because of my new rates, and best of all, I felt that self-doubt crumble away. It’s incredible what refusing to settle for sub-par rates will do for your self-esteem.
Everyone’s business is different, and you’ll need to find your own exact methods for carrying out these tips, but the key is heading in the right direction from the start. And I hope my personal examples have given you a few ideas to get started. You will stumble here and there along your path (it’s only human), but my hope is that with these tips you can get up from those falls faster than myself, and craft a business doing what you love.
To readers old and new, I wish you a Happy New Year and freelance writing success!