Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Futher (mis)adventures in today's freelance marketplace.

Had a meeting this morning with a woman who's looking to have a few radio spots written for a new service she's adding to her existing enterprise. I've got an extensive background in such work; some major success stories to tout. I always bring examples.

She professes herself to be blown away by my work. "My God," she says at one point, flipping a second time through my portfolio, which includes actual produced ads/sound clips (as well as press releases for which I engineered primo placement, annual reports ghosted for NYSE-listed conglomerates, et cetera.) "This is wonderful stuff, Steve. I never thought I'd have the opportunity to work with such a pro. Not on my budget."

Recognizing my cue, I segue into pricing. I quote $750 for the three spots...which is to say, for all three of them as a package. Now, it behooves me to point out, there was a time when I wouldn't have touched such work for under $1000 per spot. Even if the spots were thematically related, I'd ask for, and get, a minimum of a grand apiece. (Which is still pretty far from the high end of what some agency types charge.) Now, you'll always get cheapskates and naysayers who'll trivialize the amount of work involved. They'll point out, correctly, that a typical 30-second spot contains maybe 75-90 words. Using as a benchmark today's highest magazine rates of around $2.50 per word*, a 30-second spot would fetch at most just $225. But magazine work is different. The goals are different. The underlying expertise is different. The presentation environment is altogether different. In a 30-sec radio ad, every...single...word...matters. There's no time or room for build-up, there's no filler, there are no digressions, qualifiers, or side notes. There is only the impeccably structured progression to a call for (immediate) action.

What's more, I've always tended to go more by the importance of a given writing project in the company life cycle. A radio spota well-conceived ad that's on-message, on-brand and psychologically powerfulis a major piece of marketing artillery. The right radio campaign can put a fledgling company over the top in short order, while the wrong campaign can sabotage even an established market leader. Which is why you can't just go by the sheer number (or dearth) of words. I'll often make an analogy here to what Twain said about literary stardom:
"All the words for the great American novel are already in the dictionary. They just need to be rearranged some." 
That's what good radio copywriters do: rearrange the words "some" for maximum impact in a highly compressed and challenging setting...a setting where listeners are also likely driving a car, arguing with their spouses over who's supposed to pick up the kids from practice, and so forth. Quality work deserves to be highly compensated. So my $750 quote was chickenfeed. Still, as regulars know, I've been humbled by life in recent years, and the market is also softer than it used to be, so I price more conservatively than I once did.

Which brings us back to my story.

I quote $750. She pauses a beat. Then she says, "I can get it done for less than half that." 

You can get IT done for less than half that? Less than half of $250 per spot?? Define IT, please. Can you get IT done by someone capable of producing a portfolio like the one that just, by your own admission, blew you away? Someone with a decades-long track record of doing exactly this? Someone who didn't just sign up for after he lost his job at Sonic?  

We left off awkwardly. 

It's remarkable to me how businesspeople think. Too many of 'em, anyway. Writing is just writing. Words on a page. All writing is created equal...thoroughly fungible...even the writing that you just praised as superlative and transcendent.

Helps explain why the small business failure rate is as high as it is, perhaps. 
* a rate that's increasingly hard to get, even though it's less than the top rates from, say, 1990, when gas was around a buck a gallon.


RevRon's Rants said...

I feel your pain, Steve. I'd be tickled to death to receive the level of compensation I got as a freelance copywriter back in the '70s, when the "Awl Bidness" was flourishing in Houston, and money was literally no object. Never pulled down less than a grand for a single double-spaced page of as copy.

We're firm on our fees, with some consideration given to repeat clients with whom we've found it easy to work, and we have no problem sending someone on their way if they continue pushing for a "discount," especially when they throw the fact that they can get "it" much cheaper at

Being semi-retired, we have the luxury of taking on projects that we feel good about, but also the quick & dirty jobs that pay a little less. Of course, we aren't candidates for a new Mercedes (or even an older one) every couple of years, our desires are pretty simple, and our needs pretty modest.

Anyway, wishing you fewer frustrations, and a hearty "illegitimi non carborundum."

Steve Salerno said...

Semi-retirement! Dude! I'm happy for you (and Connie) because it sounds like your semi-retirement was voluntary, whereas mine was more or less imposed on me. Nonetheless, we forge ahead, though I do keep my trusty Beretta .40-caliber beside me just in case... ;)

Be well, my long-distance/virtual friends.

Cosmic Connie said...

I miss our conversations here, Steve. I need to come back more often. But yeah, Ron is spot-on about our own experiences.

I wouldn't say that our semi-retirement is entirely voluntary, though it mostly is. We rarely get the big book jobs we used to get. That kind of fell off during the depths of the recession a few years ago, and post-recession, self-publishing finally came into its own, with so many deep-pocket businesses (including Amazon) available to help self-published authors crank out books regardless of quality -- and for a lot cheaper than our prices. So yes, we do take the quick and dirty jobs too.

But as long as we can make a living slinging words for other people we will continue to do so, one way or the other. And there's always the possibility of monetizing our own creative writing talents...

Steve Salerno said...

Yeah Connie, there are days when I miss the sizzle of the old thriving SHAMblog. And I certainly miss the mix of personalities, both individually and in the way we all played off each other. (There'll never be another DimSkip, for one.) But then there are other days when I think of all the time and energy I put into the blog, and I what end? How might I have better served myself and my family if, instead of coasting along on the reasonably solid workload I had going then (and running back to SHAMblog at every opportunity), I put out the kind of single-minded effort I've been forced to expend over the past few years?

And I also ask myself: What was changed? What was the upshot of all that banter? Did we really make a difference? I do get appreciative notes now and then from people who say I "helped save" them from this or that, but it all seems so disproportionately small compared to the investment. I dunno. I guess every writer who isn't Grisham or whoever asks himself at some point, why am I doing this? Maybe even Grisham asks himself.

Anonymous said...

Steve, it may be too soon to tell. There will be a time when the curtain of woo is lifted and a whole generation of "the secret" souls will need guidance. It will be helpful for them to have the book and blog as reference. Like a seed which is planted and needs years to come to bloom....that's how I see our blog community.

Those were the days....


Steve Salerno said...

Londoner, when I read comments such as yours I'm always reminded of how the original proposal for SHAM included a final section whose theme would've been, "OK, now here's where to go/what to do for real help and success." And we would've covered a whole bunch of realms where people need guidance or feel lost and given them some proven tips, or at least pointed them in the right direction. This was my agent's contribution to the project.

We abandoned it because it seemed to my editor and me that a lot of readers (and certainly some reviewers) would've had a cynical reaction: We see right through you, Salerno: First you tell us why all the other gurus are idiots and then you try to set YOURSELF up as the one guy with REAL answers!"

But you know, L, if there was one email that I basically received over and over again after the book was first published, it went something like: "OK, so what do I do now? Now that you've explained why AA is stupid and Dr. Laura is stupid and the self-esteem movement is lame...where do I get the help I need??" Maybe my agent was onto something...

Anonymous said...

Steve, the answer is that there is no answer. The people turning to the new age and self help books are looking for help or a cure for the human condition or to bear things that have traumatized them both expected and unexpected. The tools required to be able to do this are very well known and no book is necessary. It's human connection, exercise, a purpose and meaning...all of which is all something we individually have to choose for ourselves. If people have specific problems eg dont know how to excersize or to be able to maintain intimate human relationships there are personal trainers and psychotherapists that can work personally on their unique struggles. And it's no miracle cure ...just a long painful slog!

In finding shamblog they can read and realise that "the secret" or "the cure" that they think is there for everyone other then themselves does not exist!

From then on the going gets're not chasing unicorns and rainbows....but reality...

Well that's how I experienced it.


Steve Salerno said...

Thank you, Londoner.

"Finding Shamblog." Has a nice, poetic ring to it. Someone should write a memoir... ;)

Anonymous said...

Yep straight after I finish this godforsaken masters degree


Ps don't publish this. For your eyes only