While the books on my shelves come and go, there are three that are keepers. All three have the same author, Peter Bowerman. I’ve never grown tired of reading them. In fact, I’ve read them countless times and always find other tip or hint I’d missed before. If you’ve ever thought about switching to commercial freelance writing, Peter’s the guy you want to learn from.
This Writer’s Life (TWL)-How did your writing career begin and was it something that you always wanted to pursue?
Peter Bowerman (PB)-Yes, I’d always wanted to be a writer, but could never figure out how to do it without starving, and I just wasn’t willing to do that! About 12 or 13 years into a sales career that preceded my writing career, I came across a book on the “commercial writing” field by one of the icons in our field, Bob Bly. The light bulb went on, and I said, “This is how I’m going to do it!” For the next two years, I talked myself in and out of the idea a dozen or two times, before finally pulling the trigger in January 1994.
TWL-Most people think of freelance writing as getting a byline in a magazine. Did you ever go that route or did you dive straight into commercial writing?
PB-As I like to tell people, I never cut my teeth on poorly paid writing (and magazine writing, for someone starting out, is the very definition of that). I actually did start out writing columns for some local papers in Atlanta (for grocery money), but that was just for practice; I never thought of that aspect of writing as a financially promising direction.
TWL-For those who aren’t familiar with the term commercial writer, how would you describe it?
PB-Well, I’ll paraphrase the back cover of my book… In the course of communicating with prospects, clients and employees, the typical corporation (from the 50-person shop to the Fortune 100 company) has to create an enormous amount of written material. The only question is whether they’ll do it in-house, or hire an outside contractor, and there are enough in the latter category to make it an exceptionally rich opportunity. What kinds of projects? Marketing brochures (of all types), newsletters, direct mail, web content, web messaging, case studies, white papers, video scripts, sales sheets, sales letters, email marketing campaigns, executive profiles, taglines, slogans, names, and dozens of other categories.
TWL-What’s the toughest challenge to someone who wants to set up shop as a commercial writer?
PB-It’s the same challenge that any business in any field faces: How to get enough business in the door to support yourself and, eventually, make a handsome living. Our business is no different. Of course, I’m assuming that anyone starting this business knows that they’re a good writer, and not just because their mother told them so!
But if you do have solid writing skills (brilliance not required, but certainly helpful), that’s half the battle, though the other half of the battle is the tough one. But as I try to remind people all the time, there really is a healthy and ongoing demand for good writing skills in the business world, and they will pay handsomely for those skills. But, you have to dig for that work; you’re not at all likely to land that work by simply bidding on projects on an online job site.
TWL-What types of writing would you suggest for someone thinking about giving this a try?
PB-The broad category of work in our field is known as marketing copywriting. Doesn’t mean that everything we do is heavy-duty marketing and sales, but, as a rule, the goal of the projects we execute is to, directly or indirectly, boost the bottom line of these entities.
As for what kinds of projects they should try, refer to the list above for the most common projects we are called on to do in this field.
And if I may be forgiven a brief “marketing moment” here, if some of your readers are interested in the field, but have little or no experience with the marketing-writing realm, I invite them to check out Well-Fed Craft (www.wellfedcraft.com) my self-paced course on how to write the most commonly requested projects in our field.
TWL-You’ve written some great books on the topic. Did you see a gap in the market for this topic?
PB-When I released the first edition of The Well-Fed Writer, in 2000, there was only one other book on the market about “commercial writing” (zillions on freelance writing in general), and it was the book that got me started in the business.
So yes, absolutely, I felt like there was plenty of room for another book on the subject, especially given that my book, while just as meaty and substantive as the other, was going to be a lot more fun and lighthearted.
TWL-You published them before the self-publishing trend hit big time. Any reason for going that route?
PB-The short answer is: I’m a control freak! No, seriously (okay, there’s a little truth to the first answer…), I just didn’t like the deal that was being offered to authors by traditional publishing houses (IF I could even get accepted by one—which is a big IF).
You give up control of the creativity, the timetable, the rights and most of the money. And even after giving up all that, you’re still expected to do most of the marketing yourself, and for, generally speaking, less than a buck a book. No, thank you.
TWL-In fact, you’ve even written a book on self-publishing? Do you think that’s the way all writers should get their work out there?
PB-Well, let’s be frank: For the overwhelming majority of writers, it’s the only way they’ll ever hope to get their work out there. Landing a publisher for your book is not far off from winning the lottery, statistically speaking. Except for one huge difference: Even when you do land a publisher, don’t expect you’ll make much money.
By choosing self-publishing, I have made exponentially more money than I ever would have made with publisher—in large part because I have the rights to anything else I create. And, I’ve created a lot of additional books, e-books, and workshops that have significantly boosted my bottom line.
TWL-Your web site is also a great resource for anyone thinking about commercial writing. What should the first time visitor check out first?
PB-Site is http://www.wellfedwriter.com, and I have a number of free resources: As you note, below, a monthly ezine (publishing continuously since May 2002; we just turned 16!); a blog (which yes, I’ve been a bit delinquent on lately, but there’s plenty of good past content on it); a knowledge base; and more.
Of course, for those visitors interested in learning about the commercial writing field, and getting the lay of the land, I invite them to check out my book, The Well-Fed Writer, which is available both as a print book, and in multiple digital versions, and with additional companion ebooks that can make the path to profitability that much smoother.
TWL-And last but not least, your free Well-Fed E-PUB e-newsletter that goes out every month. Can you tell us what subscribers will find in it?
PB-A healthy mix of information and inspiration. The thing is set up like a menu, and I write the first course (Appetizer), and I get submissions from working commercial writers around the world to fill in the other courses. It’s a nice mix of success strategies, success stories, tips and other goodies, all designed to help commercial writers make more money.
Peter is currently looking for submissions for the newsletter he sends out (definitely sign up because it’s packed full of great tips from not only him but other commercial freelance writers too. While it isn’t a paying market, it’s a great way to get a clip for your portfolio and share your knowledge with your fellow writers. Here are all the details from Peter-
I have SERIOUS needs for:
1) FEATURES (500-600 words): Perhaps an effective marketing strategy
you’ve used; a more in-depth success story with a lot of how-to detail; or
anything other longer piece of value to our commercial writing crowd.
2) GREENS (200-400 words): Slightly longer success stories than #4 below,
a successful strategy that can be explained in fewer words; or a learning
experience worth sharing.
3) TIPS (100-200 words): A particularly useful site or blog (and why),
service, tool, resource, ergonomic tip, mind trick, etc.; and…
4) SUCCESS STORIES (150-300 words): Good/serendipitous stories of landing
work; success with a client project; a fruitful prospecting campaign, etc.
If something comes to mind for items 2-4 above (i.e., shorter pieces!), RIGHT NOW,
while you’re thinking about it, bang out a few paragraphs, and send it on to me.
I’m happy to take it the rest of the way, editing-wise, if the basics are there.
You can email me your ideas (before writing it) on ANY of the above, but definitely
do so for Features.
Previously published material is OK, as long as it’s relevant to our crowd, and
hasn’t been seen in 10 other places!
You do NOT have to be a veteran to contribute; many great stories come
from those starting out.
Review archived issues HERE to get a sense of it.
Bottom line, I’m seeking real-world content relevant specifically to
freelance commercial writing and its practitioners (vs. general
“marketing” or “freelance writing” pieces).
This publication officially turns “Sweet 16” with the May issue
(yes, I’ve published every single month since May 2002!), and I know
it’s made a big difference for a lot of people.
No, I’m afraid I can’t pay, but I also don’t accept advertising, and the ezine
has gotten exceptionally high marks since Day One for its great content,
as well as the powerful mix of information and inspiration.
Again, send all queries/pieces to me
Thanks in advance for answering the call!