Go the extra mile

This is a guest post by David Hague, editor of AusCam Online. If you want your clients to remember you, this story will tell you what you need to do. You can follow David on Twitter  – he’s @vbthedog

Many years ago, I had occasion to drive from the Gold Coast where I was living at the time to Mackay in northern Queensland – a journey of about 873km (or 542 miles). My younger brother lived there and from time to time I’d make the 12 hour trip for a break.

This particular trip, as I approached Rockhampton at around 4.00 in the afternoon the skies got darker and darker, lighting started flashing interspersed with enormous thunderclaps and the rain started to pelt down. This was now not driving weather.

I stopped at the first motel I came to in Rockhampton – the Country Comfort – and decided to stay the night and finish the journey in the morning.

The service was fabulous, the steak was great and the owners were very friendly – even offering a complimentary port along with a chat.

I got up next morning bright and early to get going. The skies were clear and things were starting to dry out. I got my stuff together, such as it was, and went to the car, to find a leaflet under the windscreen wiper.

We all have foibles about one thing or another and I am not immune from them having a few myself – one being an intense dislike for people who put litter under my windscreen wiper! I ripped it out and was about to screw it up and find a bin when I noticed the motel’s logo on the top. It was a note from a staff member that read,

“We noticed your car was dirty after your trip, so this morning after the rain we took the liberty of washing it and cleaning the windows. Have a safe onward journey”.

I was thoroughly gobsmacked!

This was surely a brilliant example of a business going the extra mile and almost guaranteeing repeat business. But it doesn’t quite end there. Almost 12 months later I made the same trip and made a point of again staying at the Country Comfort. Not only did they remember my name, what wine I drank and the meal I had, they again also washed my car.

If you don’t value your work nobody else will

I was just reading an article at the Society of Professional Journalist offering some advice on freelancing for newspapers. Some of the tips, like “Read the newspaper” and “Know the value of deadlines” are pertinent and important. However, one tip got my attention:

Expect the pay to be small, if at all

Here’s the full tip

Typical pay ranges between $25 and $50 per story, with three-digit sums possible for feature pieces after a freelancer has a body of work under the newspaper’s masthead. Sometimes, however, newspapers will propose first-time assignments without compensation but dangle a contract if they are impressed with the results. Keep in mind that assignments may not be frequent or fulsome enough to constitute steady income.

One a few occasions I’ve pitched stories and columns to newspapers. Of the three newspapers I’ve pitched stories to, two have offered me fair payment for the work. The third liked my pitch. Their offer – I could put the URL of my blog in my byline.

I thought about that offer for about three seconds and then dismissed it. Why? Because if I don’t place any value on my work then why would anyone else? Sure, a link to my blog would be useful publicity but I can’t eat publicity. I need to be paid in order to pay bills, get food and provide for my family. I’m certain that the publisher would have sold more than enough ads to pay me fairly for my work.

I can appreciate that the SPJ is trying to provide realistic advice but getting paid $25 for a story isn’t good advice. It’s compliance with exploitation. A short 500 word story might take a few hours to research and write. At $25 – the hourly rate is lower than an unskilled worker would expect.

Would you accept work at this pay-rate? Do you agree with me that it’s poor advice to tell new writers to expect their work to be so poorly valued? Let me know if the comments.

Getting paid – the freelancer’s challenge

Once the excitement of making the decision to freelance passes and you get your first paying work, you need to channel some energy into making sure you’re paid promptly. Now, you’d think that the world is a nice place where submitting a nicely presented invoice, with all the details correctly completed was enough. Sadly, it’s not. While you may have lots of good clients that pay promptly, every freelance writer has horror stories of clients who don’t like parting with their cash.

Here are a few guidelines on getting paid. All of these are things I learned by experience and through listening to those who walked before me.

Although you might be grateful that all your door-knocking, cold calling and emailing has resulted in someone offering you some work, you need to understand the terms of the business engagement. Make sure you

  • Know the pay-rate
  • Understand the payment cycle
  • Invoice accurately and track payments
  • Know who to call if there’s a problem
  • Communication
  • Escalation

The Pay Rate

It might sound silly, but I’ve taken jobs where I’ve known the editor but not the publication. If the publication is new, it’s possible that the editor isn;t really sure but makes comments like “I’ll look after you”. My advice is that you need to get the rate in writing before you start.

I’ve written some notes on how you might like to consider pay rates in this recent post.

The Payment Cycle

Every publication I work for is a little different to the others. If you work for an online publication, they might run a weekly, fortnightly or monthly pay cycle. Find out!

Others will only pay either once the magazine has hit the news-stands or some period after. One of the most annoying clients I had paid 30 days after the magazine went off the shelf. While I was working regularly, it meant that I was getting a monthly payment. However, it took three months for the first invoice to be paid.

Invoice accurately and track payments

A decent invoicing system will make it easy to send the correct information to your client so that there aren’t any excuses for not paying. If your budget is modest when you start out, you can create a nice invoice template using either spreadsheet or word processing software. You can also create a register of invoices and payments so that you can track outstanding debtors.

Who you gonna call?

It’s inevitable when you’re a freelancer that a payment is going to be missed or late. Rather than just sitting there, stewing on it, contact your editor and ask what’s going on. In many cases, the person commissioning the work is not the person paying the invoices. In fact, once they pass the invoice off to the accounts people they may not know any other art of the process.

Once, I worked for a large daily newspaper and they took six months to pay an invoice. It wasn’t for a huge amount but I deserved to be paid. It turns out that I needed to fill in some form for the accounts department so they could set me up in their system. Once I found that detail out I was paid promptly. The trick was to find out who is actually in charge of the payments. In large publishing companies it’s rarely the editor.

Communication

Incredibly, even though, as writers we’re in the communication business we seem to not like talking about money. Although I’m reiterating something I’ve said earlier, if you’re not being paid, make sure you call your commissioning editor and get on to the accounts department.

Escalation

If all else fails, it’s time to call in some help. Most countries with a free press have a trade union. I suggest that you strongly consider joining. It’s not cheap (in Australia, it costs several hundred dollars per year) but one service my union offers is debt collection from tardy payers. And, unlike commercial debt collection agencies, the union doesn’t charge extra for the service – it’s covered in my monthly dues.

So you want to be a journalist

Many people I know think I’m the luckiest guy around. I have an enjoyable job, get to play with cool gadgets, work from home a lot of the time and get to travel from time to time.

The respected journalist Jerry Pournelle (one of the writers who inspired me to write about tech) wrote a long piece on his blog (that started in the days before the word “blog” existed!) about how to get his job.

The essay starts with this caution

it’s easy to be an author, whether of fiction or nonfiction, and it’s a pleasant profession. Fiction authors go about making speeches and signing books. Computer authors go to computer shows and then come home to open boxes of new equipment and software, and play with the new stuff until they tire of it. It’s nice work if you can get it.

The problem is that no one pays you to be an author.

So, how do you become a journalist? It’s a hard road requiring skill, opportunity and courage but it is possible to make a living from words.

For me, it started with me writing for free for newsletters and user group communities. I also had the benefit of working in a job where I had to write a lot of documentation. That was great training as it forced me to write with clarity.

After a while, Jason Dunn was looking contributors to contribute product reviews to PocketPC Thoughts. At the time, it was a great way for me to work within an editorial team and to get some exposure. That brings me one of the few bits of advice I think I can offer to people trying to get into professional (my definition of professional means “paid”) writing.

Write a lot, make it public and learn from the comments and criticism.

Part or writing for that community involved getting to know lots of people and receiving their feedback. It also gave me confidence in my work and that, in turn, gave me confidence to approach editors and offer my services. Also, it turned out that one of the people who was Jenneth Orantia – a well known member of the mobile device community and a freelance contributor to a local magazine, APC.

When Jenneth needed someone to fill in for her when she was going overseas she asked me if I was free and put me in contact with the editor, David Flynn (the founder and editor of Australian Business Traveller). I wrote that first story – a product review of a couple of iPaq PDAs – and was fortunate that David was willing to take the time to teach me a few things. One of the pieces of advice he gave, and I think is worth passing on is:

The reader of your story may have spent their $10 buying the mag just for your article. Make sure they think it was worth the money.

Even though David wasn’t the editor for much longer, the relationship with the publication remained and I wrote for the magazine regularly for another three years or so. That ongoing role lead me to two other significant elements to my career as a writer. Firstly, it gave me the confidence to pitch my work to other editors as I now had a track record of delivering content that was on time and met the editor’s brief. Secondly, it opened the door to meeting other journalists and that has led me to an extensive professional network.

What’s interesting about the Australian tech media industry is that while we all compete for stories and to be first with a story we also share resources like contacts, we pass work to each other when we’re overloaded. So we’re cooperative and competitive.

My last piece of advice for the aspiring freelancer is that your primary job is to make your editor’s life easy. That means delivering your work on time and on the brief. Sometimes it will mean working to shorter than usual deadlines as you might choose to accept work that was planned for in-house writers but couldn’t be done for some reason. And, if an editor asks you to do a job and you can’t  – don’t just say no straight away. See if you can find someone else who can do it and refer the editor  to that other writer. That way you’re still solving the editor’s problem.

One last thing – self-employed writers often call themselves freelance journalists. I’ve come to the realisation over the last few months since I went 100% self-employed that the term freelance journalist is not an accurate description of what I do.

I’m actually a small business that sells the ability to take ideas and complex concepts and present them to an audience. Being a self employed freelancer means that you need to learn some basic business operations. You’ll need to get a business person’s understanding of maintaining your accounts, some basic marketing skills and great time management skills. Staff writers usually have all of this done for them. Freelancers need to do all of those things or make enough money to pay someone to do them.

Of course, a more cynical view is beautifully captured in this video.