Lost Business Shouldn't Scuttle Writing Ships

As the dot.com world shifts, you may lose some of your current freelance jobs. But don't worry, there's still a silver lining for those who want it.
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I received a phone call from an editor late last year.

It seems the dot.com craze had imploded into "dot.gone," and the site for whom I had been writing a weekly home office column was switching gears in an evolving economy. Translation: Goodbye, Jeff.

A week later, I received a similar call from another Web zine for whom I wrote a similar monthly column. They faced a similar fate. And, alas, so did I. Hasta la vista, baby.

Just to dash any hope that this was strictly a cyberphenomenon, an editor from a print publication for whom I wrote a bimonthly column called to say she still wanted me to write occasionally—just not with the same regularity as before.

With the quick stroke of a phone's dial pad, three editors effectively cut about 10 percent of my income in three weeks' time. Ouch.

Did I sweat the fear for my professional existence and immediately make a beeline for the safety of my former corporate self? That would have been a reasonable response. I could have lamented the losses (which I did) and questioned my own abilities (which I also did, at least for a few moments).

Was I slipping? Why did they not want me around?

Yes, I was upset at the loss of the work. I liked the publications, and I enjoyed the assignments and topics. I also lamented the loss of marketing value that came with the bylines. I was garnering immeasurable exposure in important market segments with those columns.

As a journalist, it helped boost my awareness before other editors in the market. As a writer with books to sell, exposure is an important commodity, and I had just lost three valuable markets.

Stay focused, don't panic
I'll admit some trepidation following the second and then the third calls.

This had little to do with self-doubt, and more with the state of the economy. Could this be a harbinger: more publications' failures or repositionings that leave me—and other qualified writers—out of assignments? Was this a general trend toward a reversal of fortune in the publishing arena?

Sure, all of these thoughts crossed my mind, and occasionally continue to rise amid the course of daily affairs. But what I didn't do was panic. I realized—or at least surmised from their hopefully honest explanations to me—that it was no fault of my own that we parted company.

Heck, given such a climate, my editors likely were in some fear for their own jobs—not just 10 percent of their jobs. So I wasn't the problem here; their direction and my chosen specialty just didn't jibe any longer.

That said, did I scramble to expand my specialty, so I could end up writing about something I neither knew nor liked in order to make a buck? Not to a great degree. I generally stayed focused on what I do, and reached out to my existing contacts.

This was not always the case. If this had been five years ago, a similar call from either of two publications, who each made up about 30 percent of my billings, could have decimated my balance sheet and scuttled my blossoming business.

As much as I knew it was bad business practice, what was I going to tell the two companies that combined to account for 60 percent of my billings? Don't give me as much work?

Diversify your holdings
How does a writer recover from such losses, or prevent such vulnerability in the first place? By doing just like any financial adviser would recommend in a stock or investment portfolio: diversify.

Because I'm broadly invested in a number of publications—many of whom would gladly take more work from me, if I only had the time—I knew I would be able to send out an e-mail to two or three editors and make up at least part of the shortfall.

What have I learned from this experience?

I need to keep a keen eye on my product, my relationships and my client volumes. As in many relationships, the 80/20 rule applies here: Often, 80 percent of one's business can come from 20 percent of the clients.

Make sure your client list and billings remain relatively balanced and spread across the list. This will help lessen the impact of any one or two—or three—client departures.

Since it was around the time of the new year (beware calls from editors in the fall and winter: they're often planning budgets for the coming year, and it could bode poorly—or well—for your tidings with the publication), this went into my annual planning for the year ahead.

I also took a long, hard look at what I do, and where I'm going. Some people believe things happen for a reason. And the loss of several accounts can be reason to look at the market, the future and your own role in it and decide if where you are is where you want to be.

I reopened the Rolodex and placed calls to editors whom I have not contacted in some time; since it was the holidays, I mailed more season's greetings than I did this time a year ago.

Even in the best of times, it's just good practice to maintain contacts with clients.

Find the silver lining
After the triple-witching weeks of "Don't let the modem hit you on the way out" calls, I learned another good lesson in the world of freelance writing.

Another editor I used to work with at one publication—who had recently moved to another magazine related to my core specialty of home officing—called. She had a gig to offer up, writing a weekly column on home officing. The work, I found out, would make up for two of the three lost gigs. So, there is a silver lining to be realized.

One thing I did do with those editors who had cast me aside—and frequently do with those with whom I continue to have solid working relationship—is ask for an "exit interview." It's important for me to know from the editors who have decided to no longer work with me exactly why they made such a decision.

I beg honesty; parting is no time for a soft touch. If I'm being ditched because they didn't like my work, I need to know specifics. What was wrong or unprofessional about my product? Was my delivery, demeanor, demands or product not what the editors had expected?

More than asking those moving on, I ask those for whom I continue to write.

What do they like, dislike or wish they could change about my work? Again, I implore them to be honest; my wife and kids give me lots of feedback, but little has to do with my professional endeavors. I need good, creative and critical input from my peers and clients.

So I entered 2001 with a net loss of two accounts and a few thousand dollars a year. But I also knew—and continue to know—that the losses had little or nothing to do with my professional demeanor. That goes a long way in recovering—at least mentally, and then financially—from a business downturn.

Does the writing business perplex you? Let Jeffery D. Zbar seek the solutions in his monthly Business column. E-mail your ideas or questions to jeff@goinsoho.com.

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