The Business of Writing

Ah, the allure of freelance writing. The creative freedom. The flexible work hours. The intellectual stimulation. The grinding poverty.

Consider freelance business journalists. While no one expects them to earn as much as the people they cover, you might think given their field they had made a financially sound, strategically minded career decision. They typically earn about $25,000 a year (and no benefits or pension, of course). That’s according to a survey by Society of American Business Writers and Editors, which also found that three quarters of respondents made considerably more when they had salaries.

There are fewer of those full-time jobs in journalism, of course, with the outsourcing of the writing trades, and the technological extinction of the newspaper and magazine business. Their replacements, online content mills, do need copy of course … they’re just not willing to pay much for it, if anything. They’re inclined to interpret that “free” part of freelancing literally.

So do you really want to be a journalist today?


OK, not all freelancers are suffering. Specialized music writers can make $70,000 a year, according to research by Berklee College of Music, so biz writers might want to follow that Pied Piper.

And there is further hope, if only by way of analogy. Smartphones with their high-resolution cameras have pretty much obviated the need for traditional point-and-shoots. But sales of more powerful cameras like SLRs have increased nearly 29 percent since 2009, according to research firm NPD. Independent writers might think of themselves SLRs and market themselves accordingly, offering something that can’t be duplicated by some mug in Bangalore or Kiev cranking out keyword-laden ad bait at $5 a day.

Or look at the ongoing popularity of wristwatches. People surely don’t need them to tell the time (their smartphones do that too, and usually more accurately). They’ve gone from a necessity to an anachronism. But against the odds, against all reason, they go on and on. Maybe quality journalism will go that route.

Regardless, those freelance business writers probably don’t care. Two-thirds of respondents to that same SABEW survey said they’d never go back to a full-time job. You gotta do what you love. Food, shelter, and health insurance can be overrated.

Inspiration Is Bunk

What does it take to do great work? Whether we’re talking about writing a novel or building a successful company, the answer is the same: Focus and persistence. Being in the right place at the right time (a.k.a., luck) helps, but inspiration has little to do with it. It’s mundane plodding that wins the day.

“I think inspiration is nonsense, actually,” famed author Salman Rushdie told interviewer Max Miller for

Writing, he says, requires deep attention – definitely not inspiration. Concentrate on your characters, he advises, live in their world and tell their story. Stick with it until you finish.

“Every so often, I mean like one day in 20 or something, you will have a day when the work seems to just flow out of you and you feel lucky,” Rushdie says. “I wish there were more of those days, but most of the time it’s a lot slower and more exploratory and it’s more a process of discovering what you have to do than just simply have it arrive like a flame over your head.”

You can develop skills of concentration, which is something that strengthens over time (unlike, say, energy level). That’s good news not just for artists, but for careerists and entrepreneurs.

Fail, fail, fail … until you succeed. That’s the story of art and technology, of social progress and individual success – in every walk of life. Keep your focus. Concentrate intensely. Be persistent and never give up

Simply keeping one foot in front of another is how many walked their way to fortune. “A surprisingly large number of people have made fortunes because … they just have unbelievable focus on accomplishing what they sent out to do,” says Peter Bernstein, co-editor of All the Money in the World (Knopf, 2007), a book about the richest people in America.

As you slowly propel yourself forward with your art, business, or life, what’s the most important thing to keep in mind? “No. 1: Don’t look back,” Harold Hamm, the 13th child of sharecroppers who made himself an oil billionaire, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “You can never get good direction from looking backwards. Just know that you’re going to make mistakes. Learn to survive those errors and hope they’re not so critical that you can’t survive them. Learn and go on.”

The key is to move forward, forward, forward. “Persistence is everything,” Hamm says. “Very few people have the persistence that they need to achieve the great things. I can’t say hardly enough about that. It’s so important to have persistence to see something through.”

Wouldn’t Mr. Rushdie agree?


In the groaning aftermath of Thanksgiving, the nation is already casting its insatiable eyes to the biggest shopping day of the year, Black Friday, the official kick-off of the year-end Hail Mary consumerama sometimes quaintly referred to as Christmas.

Shopping isn’t just the central transaction in an economy that’s rapidly evolved from manufacturing to consuming. It’s at the core of our identity. Get the best thing, get the best deal, but by all means get something. Throw out the old stuff and repeat.

It’s trite to be overly judgmental about this – we’re all complicit in this frantic paddling in the shallow end. We might be grateful instead that this relentless materialism has provided amazing prosperity no only to ourselves but to people around the world who labor to make and ship the objects of our restless desires. Our retail, marketing, and advertising industries depend on people buying more sweaters and iterations of gadgets than they know what to do with.

Like all marketing gimmicks, Black Friday is no longer enough. It isn’t even true anymore, in terms of being the day when retailers’ bottom lines finally go into the “black” for the year – we buy like crazy all year long. So now we also have Virtual Monday, for deal-seekers who don’t want to leave the warmth of their computers. And under consideration: an American launch of Boxing Day, the traditional British holiday that gave the servants December 26 off since they had to man their employers’ parties the day before. It could be a great way to goose those all-important after-Christmas sales, proponents argue.

The Devolution From News to Newest

The news media has fallen under the boot of “the forces of entertainment” said a prominent senator this week. Huh? Was this a battle that we missed somehow on one of those 500 specialized channels we can’t find the time to watch? Kiddo, that war is long over. Entertainment won.

“Instead of a watchdog that is a check on the excesses of government and business, we have the endless barking of a 24-hour news cycle,” scolded Jay Rockefeller in a hearing that was supposed to be about retransmission rights between broadcasters and cable operators. He stayed on point, however, with his argument that consumers shouldn’t have to pay (and dearly) for hundreds of channels they don’t care to watch and that swamp the mindscape with bread-and-circuses triviality and ideological hokum. He noted the average monthly cost of cable service increased at triple the rate of inflation between 1995 and 2008, according to the Federal Communications Commission.. []

In any event, the yapping is going to just get more intense. Any day now expect to witness the debut of the The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s newest creature, eager to show its 24/7 social media pedigree by being available only on tablets like the iPad (a “game changer” declared the savvy old mogul during an earnings call in August).

“We think it’s a great format because the tablet in general lends itself to a type of journalism that is really new,” said News Corp. heir James Murdoch.

So just what is this new type of journalism? Reports [] have it that The Daily is experimenting with an investigative secret weapon called a “quadricopter” — basically a drone with cameras that can be operated with an iPad touch screen. No celebrity will be safe. Just another example, Senator, of how the newest thing (a.k.a., technology) trumps news.

Making Pate from the Golden Goose

Where would Google be without people scouring the neighborhood and the world for news and information, writing and editing and packaging that information at great expense, so Google could then share it for free and score billions in ad revenue? But just because Google gutted journalism as a business doesn’t mean it wants to kill the golden goose. It wants the old bird to evolve.

Google says “it’s crucial to encourage innovation at the grassroots level.” So the multi-billion dollar goliath is donating $5 million to help nonprofits develop “new approaches to journalism in the digital age” – $2 million to the Knight Foundation, and $3 million will go to unspecified journalism projects outside of the U.S. All Things Digital called it Google’s $5 million “Get Well Soon” card to media, noting that Google had net profits last quarter of $2.17 billion.

Google closed out its blog post announcing the grants with a few words from that old innovation standby, Thomas Edison: “Stop experimenting and you go backward.” Look for publishers to experiment with Google Maps and YouTube Direct to make news websites more engaging for readers.