Saturday, April 20, 2013

Want To Do Freelance? Advice From Freelancers

David Holthouse, Carol Simons, Lew Simons, Wesley Loy, Sarah Gonzales

[These are pretty rough running notes of the panel]

Q:   How did you start freelancing?

Holthouse:  If you have a story, rather than pitching, just do the story, and then try to sell the complete story.

Carol:  I'd followed my husband.  At AARP and Smithsonian, what I expected - never took phone calls and gave my email.  As many pitches as you can.  Send me five short pitches.  If you knew I would only pick one to see your writing.  Find the right editor.  I asked for tips:  know your subjects and know you have to earn money, includes writing things you don't want to write.  Freelance success - $99/year - cheaper than American Society for Authors - good website.

Wesley Loy:  I've been freelancing seriously since 1999.  Most of that time I was a business reporter at ADN.  I've been on my own making a living as a freelancer for about three years.  I was on a specialized beat - commercial fishing.  An obscure Washington magazine that covers fishing called me and asked me to freelance.  Since I left the ADN I've done more for this magazine.  There are some that question doing stuff on the side, but my editor said it was ok.  I'm not up here to play around - I'm from Tennessee - no biking or hiking - I'm here to write.

Sarah:  Reporter in LA, went to parties met a lot of editors, photographers.  Got into freelancing more seriously.  Hard to do it full time.  Do a story, maybe get $250 or even $1000.  It's hardly worth it.  Friends looking at possibility of long term projects you do on contract, instead of one-offs, or even a show.  Got our own funding independently - grant funding.  Set up Content Producers Guild.  A network of people to work with.  When working as an independent it's lonely, so this helps with a network.  Way to have more steady revenue stream.  Still doing stories you want to do.  If you have a project, talk to me or email me.

Q:  If you haven't freelanced, how do you get the attention of an editor?

Wesley:  One of the editors at ADN was freelancing for the Washington Post, and I asked him how to do that.  Hal called the national editor he worked with and said, "My boy here has a story he wants to do."  No internet then.  Had to come to UAA library to read the story a few weeks later.  Did a couple more later.  Always a different editor.  Had to make a cold pitch.  Last story made the front page.  It was about a small mouth bass - I was in Tennessee then.  Last times I did a pitch they didn't now who I was and got nowhere.  Use your connections.

Carol:  Who you know is important.  Take every business card and use those.  Keep pitching.  One freelancer had a goal of x pitches a month and every rejection got her closer to her goal.  Eventually you develop a relationship with the editor.  In Washington, the Associations all take freelance because they have good.  Quirky stories really sell.

Wesley:  That's what I got the Washington Post to buy - quirky stories about animals.

Lew:  Wes' story about changing editors is very common.  The National Geographic was very stable.  Called the Golden Coffin.  Everything stayed the same.  Then it changed, the circulation was declining, and they didn't know what to do.  Should we become more relevant, political, get away from nature?  While I was with them they changed editors and staff photographers.  You never knew who you would get.  I had a great relationship with this guy.  All of a sudden he's to another position and the new person didn't feel the same about me.  Cast that net wide.  . .   A friend in SE Asia was freelancing with a pseudonym because AP wouldn't let him freelance.  

Q:  Can you pitch to more than one outlet at the same time?

Lew:  I've pitched to two different outlets, but made them different enough that it's ok.  I only got one.

Carol:  I asked an editor.  She said if you have a personal relationship with an editor, pick that one.  But she said it was ok to pitch to multiple outlets now.  Have to give to the first response.

David:  A couple motivations:  1) to do work your heart is really in.  2) to make a living.  If just repackaging stories just to pay bills, what's the point?

Wes:  The point for me is to pay bills.

Wes:  What do they pay?  Fish Magazine - $.40/word.  Pacific Fisheries.  These are shoestring operations.  When I get a check, I go to the bank that day.  National Fisherman - the flagship of commercial fishing magazines.  It pays less than the other.  I did a profile of a fisherman, took forever.  $150.  Local publication - Petroleum News - $.35 a word, because I write 2000 words a week.  No serious journalism.  News of record.  Not real fulfilling.  Pays my bills.  Lately, Alaska Business Monthly.  Every state has one of these.  Pays lousy, but I'm grateful.  $.25 a word - 1500 words - get about $300. 

Q:  To David - you said you'd go out and write the story.  Do you pitch the idea or whole story?

David:  I'd send the whole story, not the pitch.  Once you have a relationship with the editor you can pitch.  Tailor to the publication.

Laurie Townsend:  Interesting you say you sent the whole story.  We'd prefer a pitch so we can help shape the story.  Know the deadlines.  If you call us at 4pm, well I don't have time to chat then.  Call in the morning when I'm not getting ready to go on.  You have to do a lot of pitches to eat.  If you get them both accepting, I'd say I already sold that pitch but I there's a different angle to the story I could do.

Q:  How'd you get comfortable to live without a safety net?

Wesley:  I have good relationship with the Fish magazines.  If you have enough volume with steady clients.  I have contract with these two for X words.  That's $750 a week gross.  It's not junk, but it's good informative stuff for a very specific audience.  I have a high standard.  You can make a living at it.

Lew:  I came back from Japan and worked at Knight Ridder.  Terrible time.  Realized I had to work on my own.  Carol had a job.  I had to work, didn't want to work for nothing.  A friend said, if you are happy writing stories you like going where you want to go, even if the pay isn't what it was, it won't matter.  No one goes to journalism to get rich.

Carol:  Can you make a living off of freelance?  It's not easy.  If you have a spouse, one of you needs a job to have health insurance.  It's a hard way to make a living.

Sarah:  I've managed freelancers.  Value people who are professional and on-time and don't ask a zillion questions.  People I would never work with again are really precious with their writing. 

Laine Welsh:  I make it work.  I stuck to what I love - fish.  I have a radio show, then I sell the script.  I have a regular column.  Try to sell the same thing three times in different formats.  I'm a gun for hire - editing, narration, script writing, but all fish related.  Lots of little things come in.

Q:  Repackaging stories?

Wes:  Pitches to multiple outlets.  Between these two magazine.  Big trial about price fixing in fishing, few reporters covering it.  I did a story for this magazine - Pacific Fisheries - then an east coast magazine wanted one, but the stories were very different.  The editor of one magazine saw the story in the other magazine and I got fired.  I probably should have been more upfront.  But they were really different stories.  Later, they approached me and I write for them again.  Why?  Because there are very few people who write about fish in the biggest fishing state in the country.

Q:  How do you pitch for radio? 

A:  Laurie Townsend - for breaking news it's a little hard for someone I don't know.  I've thought about David's sending out the whole story.  It makes sense - they can see that he's a good writer and don't have to wait for the story.

Q:  What about designers.

Carol:  They have a whole art department at AARP where I work. 

I didn't catch everything, but this should give you an idea of how things went.  

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