Sell Your Work: Tips from a webinar for freelancers
This week, the Reynolds Center for Business Journalism hosted a series of webinars called "Sales Strategies for Freelance Business Journalists." The series has been turned into an immensely useful self-guided study package, which includes slides and full recordings of the four hour-long sessions.
While some of the advice might be old hat to many freelancers - get to know publications before you pitch to them, write good subject lines in your emails to editors, hit deadlines - much of the instruction and discussion was illuminating. The series was hosted by Maya Payne Smart, who runs WritingCoach, a site filled with advice and services for freelance journalists.
Here are some tips from the week that I thought were particularly useful for health journalists:
Diversify your clients between consumer and trade publications, newspapers and online outlets.
You can look for different types of places to sell your work in the subscription-based WritersMarket.com or find a copy of Bacon's Media directory in your local library. The "How to Pitch" section of mediabistro.com is very useful for gathering information about what magazines are looking for and when. They have a growing Health/Fitness/Medicine section.
Many trade publications, geared toward a niche market or businesses, pay better than consumer magazines that target a general readership. Local and regional consumer magazines sometimes pay very well, so don't just pitch the national magazines. You can make a living writing for newspapers, but the pay tends to be much lower so you'll need to write much more. Alternatively, you can use newspapers as a secondary market for evergreen kinds of content or syndicate your content to several newspapers. Online, demand for content is huge. Look for sites that have a track record of working with (and actually paying) freelancers. Maintain open communication with editors about what they're looking for from freelancers. Things change quickly online and successful freelancers often pitch the right content at the right time.
Hartford-based freelancer Theresa Sullivan Barger attended the webinar as a writer who started as a business writer but has moved into health journalism. She has a diverse set of clients, from the university-based Yale Public Health Magazine to writing stories for nonprofit organizations and her former newspaper employer, The Hartford Courant. On working both for both news organization and nonprofits, she writes in email:
"As long as you don't report as a journalist on someone you do PR work for, I think it's OK to do PR work for a non-profit health organization. PR writing tends to pay better than journalism, so I see it as funding my journalism habit. And several times while doing stories with colleges or nonprofits I uncovered something that led to a news feature in a newspaper or magazine. As long as you tell the editor that you stumbled on the story while doing the PR work and are transparent, it shouldn't be a problem. Most colleges and nonprofits are sitting on tons of interesting stories; they just don't know they're stories or they don't have the staff to get the word out on all of them."
Schedule time for market research.
Though she is often met with resistance on this particular tip, Smart recommends that freelancers just getting started spend three hours per day on marketing. One hour should be for research and and reading, when you identify publications and editors and learn about how to pitch to them. Two hours should be spent in actual outreach, which can include writing query letters, attending a networking event or having coffee with an editor. Freelancers should invest time in creating new relationships and solidifying existing ones.
Smart also recommends that you track your time to see how effective you are with your marketing. Count how much time it takes not to just complete an assignment, but to win an assignment as well. This will also help you develop accountability for yourself and be sure that you are spending your time well. There are a lot of programs that can help with this, ranging from an Excel spreadsheet to smart phone applications. (I'm a fan of Easy Timesheet on the iPhone.)
Your brand is not what you say about yourself, but what other people say about you.
You might think of yourself as a cerebral or daring journalist, but ask editors who you've worked for why they hire you. It could very well be your attention to detail, coachability or the clean copy you produce. These are good things to fold into your websites or query letters and are more important than a logo and are often more relevant and powerful than what you say about yourself.
You also don't have to tie yourself to one area of coverage. Sullivan Barger made this point in email: "Everyone says to write about what you know, so I find it easier to write about topics that I'm personally interested in and have read about, such as breastfeeding and nutrition. However, I have written about topics I know nothing about as well. You just can't be afraid to ask for further clarification or explanation if you don't understand something -- whether you're covering health, business or any other topic."
Consider your client first.
Your elevator pitch should not begin with what you want to do, but how you can solve a problem or fill a content hole for an editor. Investigate and think about what they need, and then present yourself as the solution. You can get information about publications and editors' needs by joining professional associations and informal freelancers' groups. Building relationships -- not just closing a sale -- is essential.
(Photo "Magazines" by Sean Winter on Flickr Creative Commons)
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