Why Libraries Would Make Great Ebook Publishers


I’m a big fan of public libraries. The sheer amount of time I’ve spent in libraries (including those I didn’t actually have a card for) makes every library feel a little like home.

While I love wandering through the stacks, I’m comfortable with how the best libraries firmly embrace technology. As long as there is still a librarian around who can direct me to the next great novel I need to read or tell me how to find that incredibly obscure fact I need for an article, I don’t care if that librarian points me to an ebook, a website or a physical book. That’s because one of the greatest values librarians provide is that of curation — without an expert, it’s hard to navigate the giant piles of both data and stories the human race has managed to produce. In fact, my experience of wandering the stacks is not universal: many libraries require readers to request a book from a librarian or through an automated system. That in turn means that readers must know what books they need, which makes curation ever more necessary.

With that in mind, there seems to be an opportunity for libraries to take their position as curators a step further: why don’t libraries publish ebooks?

I don’t mean actually printing books, mind you. I’m talking about finding material, editing it and releasing it online in a digital format. Libraries can act as small presses, releasing publications only in electronic formats.

Let’s Talk Problems First

I pitched the idea to a friend of mine who is a librarian and the whole conversation got pretty excited very quickly — the idea has a lot of appeal, at least to those of us who nerd out on information sciences. We did manage to make a couple of passes at what the big problems are going to be for the average library considering whether to start publishing ebooks.

On the most basic level, resources are always a problem. Libraries are typically non-profits or governmental departments. As organizations, libraries aren’t exactly known for having giant piles of cash to throw at experiments. Many libraries have a hard time keeping the doors open. In theory, at least, publishing some ebooks could bring in revenue for a library, but building that revenue stream is going to take upfront investment, at least of time.

I’d like to say that running an ebook publishing house — especially at the small press level — is easy enough to do. After all, I’ve published a stack of ebooks without any special training. But while it’s easy to get started publishing online these days, it’s also incredibly easy to get into trouble. Copyright law, for instance, is so arcane that most people just throw up their hands, rather than trying to figure out how it works. The average small library isn’t going to have an intellectual property lawyer on staff and also lacks the resources necessary to handle any sort of copyright lawsuit.

But these seem to be the biggest problems that a library interested in publishing ebooks faces. They’re at least as manageable as raising the funds for new buildings, which libraries have to do on a somewhat routine basis.

Libraries Can Win at the Publishing Game

The average library actually has some resources that put such institutions ahead of typical self-publishers, if not many small presses.

The biggest asset most libraries possess is that they already employ librarians — a class of workers who absolutely have to be tech-savvy to hold a job. The need for technology is not something new for librarians: my grandmother was one of the first people I knew who had an email address, because she had to have one in the early Nineties as part of her job as a university librarian.

Digitizing records (a routine process in many libraries) requires many of the same skills as setting up an ebook. Anyone who can handle the necessary technology to operate a local library is going to be able to learn at least the basics of publishing ebooks online.

Digitization represents an additional benefit: any organization that bothers with making electronic copies of paper documents (and other non-digital records) sees at least some demand for those records. The typical library owns collections of materials that people are interested in accessing, such as family history records and local information, as well as the personal papers of local notables and other documents that sneek into the backrooms of any such institution. Just creating ebook versions of such records could at least support the necessary efforts to preserve such documents. Given the people willing to pay to travel to the areas their families once lived in, I can’t imagine that family tree researchers wouldn’t be willing to pay for curated local records in digital format, especially if they can’t travel to the library in question.

Build From the Local Community

My local library district offers books and other media. But the individual libraries are also crucial parts of the community because they have meeting spaces and even arrange for certain types of experts to speak. That sort of tie makes the idea of ebook publishing even more appealing, at least in my mind.

Having community ties means that a library has supporters it can rely on for the funds and volunteer power necessary to build a publishing program, as well as a built-in audience that may want to purchase ebooks (rather than just checking them out temporarily from the library). But given that many writers’ groups meet at their local libraries, there’s a lot more opportunity there: libraries can work to curate the local writing available, helping the community publish its own works and accessing writing with a local bent.

Local authors always need evangelists, like the librarian or bookstore owner willing to take the time to set up a ‘local author’ display. Librarians can be champions for their communities on a whole new level in this little thought experiment. On a certain level, the idea of libraries publishing ebooks makes me think of the monastaries that housed libraries and scriptoriums before printing presses made wide-spread publishing an option. Librarians in those days might have effectively decided what books would continue to exist by choosing which would be copied. They curated the information important enough to be preserved for their communities. Today, just about any piece of information can make it into a format where it will be preserved, but we need curators to decide which pieces are important enough to be read — a purpose that libraries are uniquely suited for.

What Libraries Need to Get Started Publishing

Libraries, as a general rule, have some sort of fundraising mechanism already in place. There are similar systems for finding volunteers. I’m not going to suggest reinventing those particular wheels.

But there are some specific resources that the average library will need to recruit. These could be resources that the libraries in question pay for or they could be provided by volunteers.

  • A graphic designer: While it’s possible to format and publish an ebook with nothing more than the word processing program already on your computer, it’s always easier to sell an attractive package.
  • A copyright expert: Just having someone review proposed book contents to make sure that a library has the right to publish the necessary material will save a whole lot of trouble. I don’t know how in-depth that process needs to be; it would be nice to have an intellectual property lawyer weigh in on the question.
  • A commitment to some specific ebook formats: Ebook publishers spend a lot of time chasing each other’s tails on what formats to publish in. I’m not prepared to make that sort of decision for anyone, but I’m personally banking on Kindle and PDF for most projects.
  • Marketing help: This one is probably the toughest. Libraries have great local audiences, but promoting anything beyond those nearby groups will be hard. If the money’s available, spending some on marketing help is going to be one of the most useful investments.

I could see a startup or even a non-profit creating a turn-key solution for libraries interested in publishing their own ebooks (if you decide this is an idea you want to pursue, email me so I can introduce you to my librarian friends). I could also easily see a few consultants popping up who offer to parachute in and teach a ‘publishing for librarians’ program (ditto).

Personally, there’s a whole stack of books my library could publish that I’d be happy to slap down some virtual dollars for. I’d love to be able to support local authors and local libraries at the same time. I’d like to think that people who don’t spend quite as much time in libraries as I do would be willing to do the same.

Image by Flickr user Saint Louis University

What Makes an Ebook Really an Ebook?

When is an ebook better than a printed book? When it includes resources that a physical book could never provide. I picked up a copy of The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide (an excellent resource for anyone using Markdown) and have been thinking about what really constitutes an ebook ever since.

I opted for the PDF version of David Sparks and Eddie Smith’s ebook. The PDF version is actually the secondary option, though, with the iBookstore version taking precedence. I prefer PDF for flexibility, despite being one of those people who mostly buys their hardware from Apple.

The reason that the iBookstore version might be preferable is because of the sheer amount of non-written content built in to the ebook. Every section seems to have something in addition to some very well written content, like a screencast or an audio interview. The same multimedia content came along with the PDF, though it isn’t embedded in the document. All in all, The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide weighs in at 130 pages, one and a half hours of video and one hour of audio.

We all have a working definition of a ‘book’ as a bunch of written content, perhaps with some images thrown in. But what happens to that definition as we shift over to reading our books on devices that make integrating video and audio content extremely simple? I wouldn’t be surprised if the definiton of books expands to include most types of content, though I’ll be very surprised if the word disappears from use — there’s a few too many of us bibliophiles out there for that.

On the surface, I love the idea that I can have all sorts of media in my reading material. But I want more data: how easy is it to process this mix? I shift back and forth pretty easily, but I spend all day glued to a computer monitor. For some readers / watchers, I could see this mix being very helpful, but for others I could see it causing distractions. Integrating more materials could change the interpretation of books: if there isn’t a video about a certain section, it clearly couldn’t be important. I know I get hung up on points in given books that the author may have included as a throw away. Will those points get lost.

I found The MacSparky Markdown Field Guide incredibly useful. I don’t expect to have answers about the right way to integrate media content for quite a while, but it’s a topic worth paying attention to. We’re going to see more examples every day, for the near future.

Complicated Books Require Complicated Reviews

Freelancers Bible cover

I generally prefer to only post reviews of books and other resources that I’m completely enthusiastic about. I don’t want to waste your time or mine on something that isn’t worth the effort; at the very least, I don’t want to have to read a crappy book all the way through, just for the sake of writing a review. But this post will cover a book I’m not one hundred percent sold on, because there are some important questions this book has forced me to ask. For the record, I did receive a free review copy of The Freelancer’s Bible, though I’m pretty sure this isn’t the review they were hoping for.

The Good, The Bad and the So-So

Clearly, I’m wishy-washy on The Freelancer’s Bible: on the one hand, it’s an exhaustive reference manual for freelancers, particularly those just starting out. If you’re in that category, you need a book that tells you what you don’t know you don’t know. The Freelancer’s Bible covers everything it can about freelancing, even to the point of growing a freelance business into an agency or a product company — information that’s probably a bit beyond the target audience.

But the authors, Sara Horowitz and Toni Sciarra Poynter, put freelancing into a very particular context. Horowitz is the founder of the Freelancers’ Union. The name and projects of that organization appear very frequently within The Freelancer’s Bible, to the point that I started getting very frustrated as I read. The book implies that every freelancer should be a member of the Freelancers’ Union, which I see as a gross oversimplification. While I joined the Freelancers’ Union several years ago and have used their tools (though not their insurance or classes), my experience is that the organization is focused very heavily on New York City. Anything done outside of that city is something of an afterthought. There are other organizations in other places that may prove much more valuable to new freelancers.

The book comes off as a big ad for the Freelancers’ Union in spots, which detracts from its overall usefulness. I can understand why Horowitz would want to offer up the Freelancers’ Union as a resource — it is a good one, and Horowitz is rightfully proud of all the work she’s done. But it’s a bit too much.

Your Bias is Showing

We all have opinions that color our approaches to new projects — writers, doubly so. But a good writer is aware of her bias and makes sure it doesn’t get in the way of her message. The Freelancer’s Bible comes straight out of Horowitz’s experiences, however, and her own approaches may get in the way of helping new freelancers.

It’s not just a fault that appears in The Freelancer’s Bible, though. If you read a lot of books on freelancing, as I do, you’ll notice that almost all of these guides focus on writers — because writers are the ones putting them together. Horowitz’s passion is advocacy and that shines through, just as a love of writing shows up in most freelancing books.

This discussion (and I hope you’ll take the time to chime in on the comments) isn’t exactly a stunning book review, but it is an opportunity to discuss what we each bring to the table when writing a book about our passions and what we need to leave out.

The Inverted Pyramid Format is a Dinosaur

The inverted pyramid format is one recommended for journalists (as well as other types of writers), where the most important information comes right at the beginning of an article, perhaps even crammed entirely into the first paragraph. Important details come next, with general background information coming last.

It’s a format that was developed for newspapers, although the exact genesis of the inverted pyramid is unclear. The version I like best is that the format grew out of journalists sending in stories by telegraph or phoning them in: the important details had to be up front, in case the connection was cut. It makes for a romantic picture — a journalist reporting on the Mexican Revolution, perhaps, desperate to get as much as possible back to his editors before Pancho Villa cut the telegraph lines. But the reality may be much less favorable for writers. With all the important information at the front, a lazy editor could just start lopping off the end paragraph and keep going until the article could be wedged into the column inches available to it.

Whichever creation myth is true, it’s clear that the inverted pyramid format is a legacy of a different approach to publishing, which was dependent on communication methods that were incredibly finite and lossy. A print publication only had so many pages and a paragraph at the end could easily be cut out.

The Extended Rule of the Inverted Pyramid

If the inverted pyramid is so old-school, why is it still the format primarily taught in journalism classes? Why did I get subjected to it in numerous classes over two different degrees, including a creative non-fiction class?

Part of the problem is that it’s an easy format to teach. Writing is an inexact process, particularly when time comes to teach it to new writers. It’s so much easier to tell students to write to a specific format and grade them on how well they do with that approach than it is to let them run wild. But that’s turned the inverted pyramid into a hammer that new writers will use on anything that looks vaguely nail-like. There are still situations in which using the inverted pyramid makes sense, but they are far fewer than the number of articles it’s actually used in.

The reality of where articles are published today is far different than the late 19th century and early 20th century — the years when the inverted pyramid emerged. We publish to blogs, mobile apps and news sites, which have no page limitations. The only restrictions we face are those we choose to accept, like Twitter’s 140-character limit. If I want to write a 12,000-word article on whether cats actually like cheeseburgers, the only factor I should really consider is if anyone will want to read it (and since my theoretical opus has cats and cheeseburgers on the internet, the odds seem good). I can write an article of any length and publish it immediately. The basis for the inverted pyramid is entirely gone, leaving only a shaky metaphorical shape.

The Guilt of the Inverted Pyramid

Some people feel that the inverted pyramid is more than outdated; it’s dangerous to readership rates. The broad concern is that it’s a generally uninteresting format. The reader gets the whole package one paragraph in. It’s trained readers to be lazy and to assume that the end of the article isn’t worth the effort. Sure, the article may have a kicker at the end to revive interest, but how many readers really make it that far after reading articles in this format for years? Even in the hands of the best writers, it’s hard to create an interesting story in the inverted pyramid format. At the most basic level, the inverted pyramid guarantees a boring story.

But there are some suggestions that the danger goes deeper. As a writer, I can usually tell by the comments whether someone read an article all the way through. A lot of the time, few people actually make it to the end, preferring to read the first paragraph and skim the rest. In the past, the inverted pyramid format made that approach perfectly reasonable. Readers have been trained that this approach will get them through most reading material. It’s a bad habit to get into and it’s an even harder one to break, unless you see that you’re not getting all the information you need. Moving away from the inverted pyramid format won’t fix the problem, but it’s a step in the correct direction.

It creates an interesting problem for all those newspapers with paywalls as well: universally, they offer a few teasing lines of the articles that they want readers to pay for. But those first few lines, at least in an article written in the inverted pyramid format, contain the whole picture — for anyone who doesn’t want more than that, there’s no temptation to pay to read further. There’s no clear solution that that little issue, either.

The Alternatives to the Inverted Pyramid

There’s a concept in design called ‘skeuomorphism’ — it’s the act of adding characteristics of an old form or approach to a design that doesn’t necessarily need them. In technology, it’s made obvious by example: your smartphone may ring with the sound of an actual physical telephone ringer, despite not having one itself. In many ways, the inverted pyramid is the skeuomorph of the writing world. We’ve been trained to expect it, just like we’ve been trained to listen for phones ringing, but it’s a characteristic we’ve imposed on new channels of communication.

It’s time to look for some of the forms that these new channels point to. We’ve barely scratched the surface of concepts like hypertext and we have the ability to publish practically infinite lengths of text. These may not be universal opportunities, but why not play with them and see what develops?

Even if you aren’t working on writing anything that you can afford to take that far afield, there are still some strategies that you should employ other than the inverted pyramid. Writing for the web demands storytelling: when a reader can be gone as quickly as she can click ‘back’, putting everything in the first paragraph isn’t good for your page views or other metrics, let alone for getting the whole story across. A more traditional approach to storytelling (just tell what happened, in order) or an essay format (a hypothesis and then some proof) can work well online, at least in my experience. Both approaches do require the writer to make some effort to be interesting, but it’s easier to pull off than in an inverted pyramid-style article. But these formats are just starting points. It’s up to you to decide what works for a given topic.

The Place for the Inverted Pyramid Today

There is a home for the inverted pyramid today, despite my unwillingness to let it run rampant over all forms of writing. It’s perfect for reporting breaking news. When you need to get across the facts of a situation like a natural disaster headed your way, put all the important information in the first paragraph. No one wants to be forced to read several paragraphs in to tell if their particular town is in the path of a snowpocalypse.

For a situation in which there’s an urgency to get information across, the inverted pyramid makes sense. It should still be taught and used and generally be a part of the writing world — though we can limit its place in the educational process to one class on the form and use of the format.

But the inverted pyramid should no longer take precedence when deciding how to write an article. Rather, the question needs to be what the right format for each individual piece of writing: it may add some time to the writing process, but we’re likely to wind up with not only better writing, but a higher level of engagement with readers in the long run. If we’re willing to pour time into efforts like optimizing articles for search engines and to promoting them on social networks, why not put a little more time into crafting great work?

Image by Flickr user Stephen Carlile

Clients Want You to Repeat What You’ve Already Done

There is a fundamental conflict in working in a creative profession, especially as a freelancer, consultant or other flavor of individual working with clients:

Clients only ever want you to do something you’ve already done.

Clients are almost exclusively results-oriented. I’ve yet to meet a client who consciously prefered a specific service provider because of the style with which said services were rendered. Rather, most business owners will decide on what results they want and what project will get them those results — convincing them of another course of action is extremely unlikely — and then look for someone who is proven to be able to produce those results, usually because they already have.

This is Only a Problem for Creatives

This is a damn fine plan from the client’s perspective (except, perhaps, not letting the expert suggest more effective courses of action): when you have a limited budget and you need to achieve specific goals with it, why would you ever go with someone who couldn’t guarantee that she knew how to get the work done? Please don’t interpret my writing this as attacking clients in any way: I love clients and I’d like to think that I understand why a person hiring me for work does so. This soap box is only geared toward creatives.

But on the creative’s end of things, this is a less-perfect solution. That’s because most of us want to try new things, expand our repertoires, even go out on a limb with a new project. If we wanted safe, we would have gotten a day job in a more secure career path.

At best, constantly repeating the same types of projects that you’ve already done will let you grow in tiny increments, as the little differences between individual clients add up. That’s the main way that freelancers tend to build up expertise and a steady-stream of clients. It’s not necessarily a problem — it’s a very good thing to constantly have money coming in. Your landlord, at the very least, will be pleased.

When Client Work Becomes a Solved Puzzle

But, just the same, it annoys me that I am doing the same thing over and over. I have solved that particular puzzle: the type of projects that my clients generally want are something that I can do in my sleep at this point. That’s exactly the reason I started exploring working more on an agency model. If I’d already solved the problem at one level, why not optimize it for a broader level?

But even that means still working on the same puzzle over and over again. It’s like a jigsaw where you know that, once you’ve put together all the edge pieces, you can just put together the blue section and everything else will fall into place. It gets easier every time you open the box, as well as less entertaining.

Every freelancer, every agency and every creative in-between has these sorts of projects: ‘bread and butter’ work that pays the bills. There’s no way to give up this sort of work, and certainly no good reason to do so. It’s here to stay and I’m well aware that I should show some gratitude.

But Sometimes You Can’t Just Live on Bread and Butter

As much as I love a nice piece of fresh bread spread with butter, I’m well aware that the combination does not contain all of the vitamins that I need to live. And that, when you get down to it, is the core of this discussion. We all need at least a little work that is good for our creative growth, not just for the bottom line.

Even if your clients aren’t asking for it, you need to stretch yourself. Convince your clients to add a new module to a project. Create something of your own and sell it. Write a book (I follow Benjamin Disraeli’s philosophy that the best way to learn a subject is to write a book about it). Studying is not enough. You can’t just attend lectures or read books. You need to put your skills to use or they’ll wither away.

Right now, we’re living in a world of opportunity. With platforms like Kickstarter making it incredibly easy to get funding for projects that we’ve shown some progress on — whether or not we have credentials to proceed — there’s no excuse to not try something new. Crowdfunding isn’t the only option, either: there are more grants, angel investors and other sources of money out there today than ever before. And all that’s assuming that you can’t frame a project so that client wants to pay you for the work. If the only thing stopping you from trying something new is cash, you’re doing it wrong.

But I would get a move on. With every revolution, there’s a period when everything is in flux (just like now), but eventually everything gels. A hierarchy falls into place. It gets harder to do something without the right connections or credentials. Right now, there truly isn’t a better time than the present to pursue a new creative project.

Repetition Isn’t A Bad Thing — But Stagnation Is

Repetition can actually be a very good thing, especially if you call it by a different name: ‘practice.’ If you haven’t perfected your daily work, you should certainly do that before moving on to the next thing.

But doing the same thing, day after day, for the rest of your life, isn’t going to feel good, no matter how much mad cash it brings in. No matter what your chosen work is — whether you’re a writer or an accountant — you can’t mentally afford to stay in the exact same spot mentally for the rest of your life. Pursue those crazy side projects: create something new and finish it. You may even wind up repeating your new ventures if a client sees that you can get appealing results.

Image by Flickr user Yui Sotozaki

Why Custom Samples are Bad For Business

As a writer who regularly creates web content, I’ve gotten asked to provide custom-written samples for clients more often than I can count. It irritates the living hell out of me every time I get the question. It’s incredibly bad for my business to offer to write a five-hundred word blog post for someone to judge my potential to work with them.

What’s more is that custom samples are bad for clients, too.

Free Samples Never Tell You What You’re Really Going to Get

I had a chance to sit down with a very knowledgable editor during my master’s program: he looked over about twelve blog posts I had written that had all done fairly well (well enough I was willing to include them in a portfolio). He pulled out two posts and laid them side by side, telling me one was great and one was so-so. The real difference was one I was paid for and one I provided as a guest post and a favor. When I write for free, I just won’t put any real effort into it. It’s not going to be a bad post, but it’s not going to be indicative of what I do for a client, either.

Of course, there are people who consider that sort of situation an opportunity and work extra hard to create a great sample post. That’s not really a good example of what they’ll do once they get the gig, either. They may settle back.

Looking at what I’ve written for clients over long contracts will give a client a much better showcase of my work.

Free Samples Raise Prices

If I was to invest the time in creating free sample posts, I would need to pay for that time. Since I still wouldn’t land every client that came along, I would need the clients who I did bring in to pay me a lot more. I’m already at the more expensive end of the spectrum. Writing a free post for every prospective client who asked would lead me to double my prices.

That includes for clients who don’t ask for free work, by the way. Everyone I work with would pay more.

Free Samples Make Me Mad

Back in the early days of my writing career, I did provide a few free samples. I never had the misfortune of someone taking my work, posting it and then refusing to pay me. But I did find out that a prospective client had solicited 15 writers to craft a sample post, when they planned on hiring just one. That’s a lot of time wasted.

I wouldn’t say that I blacklist sites that ask for custom samples. But I don’t deal with them, I won’t recommend writers to them and I’m prone to turn up my nose when I get sent a link from a site that I know does that. It’s a bad business practice and I don’t want to deal with anyone who uses it.

Image by Flickr user Harmon

Melissa Breau Goes Full Time Freelance and Tells Us About It

The entire idea of going out on your own full time can be thrilling and scary, all at the same time. Melissa Breau is making the leap right now and agreed to answer a few questions for us about how she’s making the process work.

Why did you want to freelance full-time? Just to play devil’s advocate, I’d like to point out that a lot of people would tell you you’re crazy to leave a full-time job in a recession.

Isn’t everyone who starts a business at least a little crazy? Although I’ve always wanted to freelance full time eventually, a number of different factors came together recently that made it the right choice for me right now.

First, my long-time boyfriend joined the navy and relocated from New York to South Carolina. Second, he volunteered to help me make ends meet while I get my business off the ground. And third (and probably most importantly), I hit a point at my full time job where I was no longer being challenged professionally and there was no room for advancement; I needed to make a change.

What did you do to prepare for working for yourself full-time? Were there any financial steps you took to make sure you’d be comfortable with the transition?

Freelance full time meant making a lot of changes. I knew from my research that it generally takes about 6 months before freelancers are making a living wage. So I had to prepare for that–and there was no way that was going to be possible living in New York City. I needed to be spending significantly less a month (I was spending $800 a month on rent alone).

Fortunately, cost of living is much less in the south. I figured out a reasonable budget and saved about 4 months of living expenses (figuring that over 4 months I should be able to earn an additional 2 months of expenses) plus money for a car and the move. I stressed over numbers and set up an excel document to chart how much I needed to make a month for that to work. I also asked my grandmother (who lives in NC) if I could camp out in her spare bedroom for a month or two until I find an apartment down here, which helps further reduce costs.

It’s only the second week now, but due to some unexpected expenses (namely, car issues after I purchased a vehicle) I’ve gone through a bit more of my savings than anticipated. Despite that, I’m fairly confident I’ll be okay.

I arranged with my old boss to continue working for the magazine I just left, as a monthly columnist, which will provide some regular income. He has also assigned me a number of additional pieces, which will also help patch holes. And I pitched a few assignments before going freelance that I’ve managed to land.

Additionally, I’ve got a TON of ideas for products and services that I’m working to bring to fruition that will establish regular income with a fairly minimal amount of work (more info on this below).

What sort of plan do you have in place for making sure your freelance business grows? Where do you want it to go in the future?

First, as I mentioned, I have monthly financial goals. These step up slightly every month for the first 6 months–starting at a fairly low number, and climbing to what I’d like to be making monthly for my first year.

Second, I have a number of writing projects planned. Since for the last 3 years I’ve been in the pet industry, I’m working on a product that offers various animal service providers with content for their newsletters for a low monthly fee. The trick is finding service providers in different areas, so that I can re-use the same article, but without them having to worry about their clients receiving the same information from two sources. I’ve decided to offer it to one service provider in each state–so 50 clients paying monthly for one article (which takes me a minimal amount of work to write). If the first one of these is successful, I’ll probably branch it out to other types of companies and perhaps eventually other industries. I’m still writing for magazines and have a whole list of publications and article ideas I need to pitch–as soon as I do the research to write a solid pitch letter.

In addition to my writing projects, I’m working to become more involved in editing ebook-length projects. I have my masters in publishing and my resume includes time working for Columbia University Press and Manhattanville College marketing department, in addition to my years as an editor at Pet Business Magazine. I’ve worked on a few projects like this for various clients, but I would really like to grow this aspect of my business over the next 6 months and am working on a marketing plan to allow me to do that.

Finally, I plan to continue offering copywriting services, which I’ve done as a part time freelancer while working full time at the magazine for the last year and a half.

What’s the most exciting thing for you about going out on your own? What are you really looking forward to?

It’s funny, but the thing I’m most looking forward to is the one thing so many entrepreneurs worry about. I love the concept of an integrated life–doing something you like enough that you can’t put it down. I’m a bit of a work-a-holic and one thing I hated about working for a company was the push back whenever I wanted to really dedicate myself to something. I love the sensation of throwing myself into a project; while at a number of my previous jobs, that was discouraged–my coworkers tended to believe in putting in the minimum and if I did more than that, it was chalked up to youthful over-enthusiasm. And nothing is more discouraging that doing extra work just to have someone be amused that you bothered.

I’m also looking forward to the location independence; I’ll be living in a number of different locations in the near future and my navy boyfriend will be traveling a lot–it’ll be nice to be able to fly out to visit him on location (when allowed) and to just be able to bring along my job. I won’t have to worry about finding new work in each location he is moved to; I’ll just have to worry about building a new in-real-life network.

Overall, I’m as terrified as I am excited; only the next year will tell which emotion is more justified.

BIO: After a year and a half of freelancing part time, Melissa Breau recently left her full time job as a magazine editor to take her part time freelancing business to the next level. She is a freelance writer, editor and a cheesy romantic who likes long walks on the beach and arguing about comma placement. She is blogging about her freelance journey over at Jargon Writer — or learn more
about the services she offers on her website, MelissaBreau.com.

From Writer to Business Owner: An Interview with Marjorie Asturias

Actually turning your writing career into a business is a worthwhile step — but it takes a great deal of work. Marjorie Asturias agreed to give us a look into how she made that transition.

Can you tell us the story of how you transitioned from a freelance writer to a business owner with three team members?

It definitely wasn’t something I planned! As I’m sure you’ve heard from a lot of solo entrepreneurs, I originally just wanted to be able to continue being a freelancer and hopefully match the income I was making before I took the plunge to go on own.

As my business grew, however, I struggled to meet deadlines and fulfill my contracted commitments while at the same time continue my networking and business development efforts. I’m the kind of person who likes to both jump in with both feet while also doing extensive research on the best ways to do something. So while I’m building my business, I’m also soaking up all this information about starting and managing a small business from books, blogs, websites, and newsletters. One of the things that really struck a chord with me was the constant refrain of, “If you want to build a business for growth, you have to get help.”

It took me awhile to understand that deceptively simple command, but it soon made sense when I found myself working 16 to 17 hours a day juggling business development and the actual work of my business. I’m not 21 anymore — I can’t sustain that for long! I need my nine hours of sleep (although I still only get about seven on average). I also need time to sit back and actually do some big-sky, strategic thinking, so I’m not constantly just reacting to things.

The first person I brought on was a web developer who disappeared as soon as I paid him, which didn’t exactly inspire me to go out and hire someone else. But I knew that I couldn’t let that setback cripple me or my business, so after licking my wounds, I went out and was more careful about the next person I hired. The first one was a social media coordinator, who I hired on a part-time basis, maybe about five or so hours a week. The first time I paid her, I flinched because I didn’t like seeing money go out the door, but that feeling very quickly passed once I realized how much freeing it was to know that the work was being done but that I didn’t have to worry about it. I could spend more time doing high-value work that brings in business and know that the projects themselves were being taken care. Once I hired that first person, it was much easier to hire another, and then another.

How does your typical day with Blue Volcano Media differ from how you spent your time when you started out as a freelancer?

I spend way less time at my desk! When I was a freelancer, most of my assignments were with print magazines that were based elsewhere, or websites looking for content. I thus spent the vast majority of my time in my home office, pounding away on the keyboard. For variety, I would sometimes park myself at the local coffee shop, but that gets old really fast when you have to go to the bathroom and have to pack up everything just to do that.

Now, I still spend a lot of time at my desk, but about half of my week is spent meeting with clients or prospects or attending business development and networking events. I spend a little more time on the phone now (Skype or my mobile), but instead of interviews with article subjects, I’m usually talking with clients or prospects or meeting with my staff.

That’s also something else I spend more time on: project management. I have a virtual assistant who I would like to eventually turn into a full-time project manager, but for now she’s relatively new to the company so she’s still learning the ropes of how we do things, who our clients are, and what we do. So for now I’m the project manager, so I’m constantly emailing or chatting with the rest of the team to answer questions, follow up on projects or assign tasks and projects to them. My social media specialist is going on maternity leave soon, too, so I’ll be spending part of the time working with my assistant on taking over some of our social media accounts and training her on social media and the tools we use.
I’m also looking for a part-time SEO assistant, so that’s another thing I need to devote my time to that I never had to before: human resources. It’s not my favorite part of the job, but most entrepreneurs feel the same way, I’m sure! It has to be done, so I try and have my assistant do a lot of the front-end work like gathering candidates and reviewing credentials, while I just come in for the interviews and final decision.

What tactics were particularly important in letting you grow your business so quickly? Did specialization play a role in your growth?

Networking! It’s amazing how few freelancers do this, and many of those who do, they don’t do it consistently enough. I totally understand the desire to do as little of this as possible, but with very few exceptions, it’s almost impossible to grow a business without doing some kind of networking.

I’m not a natural networker — I’m an INFP! — but I can fake it. I’m usually exhausted after a round of meetings and networking events, and all I want to do is crawl into bed and read a book, but it’s not really as difficult as people make it out to be. For a lot of really driven networkers, they motivate themselves by pursuing a high goal, like meeting a hundred new people a week or getting 20 business cards per event, but I aim for quality, not quantity. It would terrify me to enter a room full of people I don’t know and try and gather even five business cards, much less 20, so I keep my goals in line with my personality: I try and meet one new person at each event. Just about anyone can do that, including most shy folks, and it takes the pressure off of glad-handing everyone you meet just to achieve an arbitrary number.

I joined two local Chambers the month I officially launched my company and tried to attend as many of the events as I could. I got lucky and landed a client at the very first event I attended at one Chamber, and he’s been wonderful at giving me referrals that later turned into business. But most of the time it’s just showing up, meeting new folks, greeting old friends (and the more often you attend, the more people you know the next time you go to a meeting or event, which is comforting), and getting your name and face out there. People do business with people they know and like, and they can’t do that if you’re not around.

And yes, specialization did help tremendously, especially since we specialize in a relatively new, sexy field. We originally had offered web development services, too, but I scrapped that pretty quickly. It’s not one of my strengths, although I built our company web site myself after our developer disappeared, so when we were doing web development for clients, I was spending most of my time just managing projects rather than doing the work. I also found out just how many web developers there are out there — I meet a new one at every networking event I attend — and realized that I didn’t want to compete in such a crowded space. Sure, there are a lot of folks in the Internet marketing space as well, but we’re one of the few that actually has significant experience (we’re talking years, not months or weeks, like some of our competitors), so we enjoy that competitive advantage.

Once we zeroed in exclusively on digital marketing and dropped web development, we were able to focus our work and our networking efforts better. Since all of us on staff are writers — three of us started out as bloggers years ago and only moved into the digital marketing space once we’d established ourselves in the blogosphere — we have a huge leg up on so much of our competition, many of whom rely on cheap content providers from overseas who can string SEO words together but not necessarily create content that the average American user can or would want to read. We understand language and its power to evoke certain emotional responses. We know that there’s a difference between, say, “precise” and “accurate,” and that people respond differently to both words. That’s a mighty compelling pitch to a prospective client, since they can be assured that we know what we’re doing and are not just throwing words on the screen.

What do you see happening with your business in the future?

I’d like to see continued growth in 2011. 2010 was a fantastic year for us in terms of revenue, which caught me by surprise because of the economy and the fact that I was pretty new at the whole entrepreneurial thing.

I know it’s a cliche to say something about wanting world domination, but really all I want is to be able to continue to create value for our clients and, internally, develop my employees’ expertise. I don’t think I would ever want a huge company, but I do see growth in 2011, with perhaps a couple more additional employees with particular expertise in SEO and content. Beyond that, I don’t really know what will happen. If you’ve read “Rework” by the guys from 37Signals, you know that they don’t really believe in long-term plans either. I do some blue-sky thinking, but mostly about the business itself — where is SEO going to be in six months? what are the potential effects of Facebook’s recent changes on our clients’ fan pages? So much change happens in this business that it’s difficult enough to keep up with everything, much less project what will happen to my own company down the road.

What advice would you give to a freelance writer considering how to create a business out of a freelance career?

Prepare to work the hardest you’ve ever worked in your life. I started out my working life as a Taco Bell crew member when I was sixteen, working two hot Texas summers surrounded by hot ovens and pots. I was a wind energy developer/landman before I pursued freelance writing full-time, so I traveled frequently throughout the Southwest, scouting out dusty, windy dirt for multimillion-dollar wind projects, driving thousands of miles on lonely highways, negotiating with savvy rural landowners and farmers, attending trade shows, dealing with the colorful personalities in the energy industry.

This? This is the hardest job I’ve ever had. It’s also the most fulfilling, but make no mistake: it requires a lot of self-discipline, organization, and a desire to learn how to sell. Because that’s what you do when you own your own business: sell. If you don’t like selling, don’t start a business. I hate selling, but I’ve figured out a way to sell that fits my personality and doesn’t make me want to shoot myself at the end of the day. If you believe in what you do and what you can offer your clients, the selling comes pretty easily anyway. But you have to be comfortable talking to people and meeting new folks all the time. When you’re a freelancer, it can be easy doing all your selling via pitch letters and query letters, but with your own business, most of your selling will be offline, in person.

Be prepared to work long hours, sometimes seven days a week. As a freelancer, you already know that if you’re not working, you’re not earning, so you’ll at least understand that part of owning your own business. You’ll need to learn how to juggle the many, many, many little tasks that small business ownership requires, from bookkeeping to taxes to invoicing to CRM (customer relationship management). And if you expect to grow, you’ll need to learn how to hire and fire people. The 37Signals guys believe in hiring slow and firing fast. As a generally nice, accommodating person, I still have difficulty with this, but it’s so important. No one will ever value your business as much as you do, so you’ll need to demand that your employees treat it with respect, whether they work in an office or work from home.

Oh, and do get a nice suit. As a freelancer, you can get away with wearing a nice pair of jeans, blazer and shirt, but as a business owner, you’ll need to up the game a little and dress up for networking events. Trust me — people notice.

Create Accountability in Your Writing Business, Assuming You Want to Succeed

It’s so incredibly easy to put off any part of what it takes to write a business: you don’t have to write your piece until the day before it is due, no one will ever know if you don’t market your business today and there’s never any rush to work on a project that you’re doing for yourself. This is a fact that I’ve struggled with throughout my writing career — and it’s something that most of the writers I know also have problems with.

Simply put, there’s not a lot of accountability in writing. As long as you get your clients’ projects done by the deadline, no one particularly cares how you spend your time. All deadlines are self-inflicted, meaning that ignoring them can be a simple matter. That means that we, as writers, have to create accountability, to keep our work moving along.

Creating Accountability: Tell Someone What You’re Up To

At the most basic level, telling someone what deadlines I have in mind makes it more important to me to meet that deadline, whether or not the person in question is involved in that deadline. That’s because I have a lot emotionally invested in being known as a person who always meets her deadlines. The same seems to hold true for many writers: just talking about your plans and expected deadlines can create accountability to help you accomplish them. Of course, if that sort of reputation isn’t important to you, you may have to go a step further. You may have to get someone a little more interested involved.

One of the reasons that writers who participate in some sort of writing group seem to have better chances of being successful is because they make a commitment to write regularly and have to show what they’ve written to other people. There’s nothing inherently group-oriented about writing, nothing that a good individual editor can’t do that a writing group can do. It’s the fact that members of writing groups feel the responsibility they have to show up to their group every week with new pages to share.

That doesn’t mean that you have to join a writing group to be successful — personally, the dynamics of most critique groups make me run for the hills — but having someone else involved in your project that will expect you to meet your own expectations can be key. One option may be a significant other or parent who a personal investment in making sure that you’re regularly bringing in income.

Keeping Accountability Reasonable

Carefully picking who you will be accountable to is important. I’ve had days when I don’t do much of anything, followed by days when I put in twelve hour days, because I’m trying to be accountable to myself. Personally, I know I can be a tough taskmaster for myself at certain times. That’s been another reason that being accountable to people outside of myself has been important — other people can be a little more reasonable about what you need to get done than those ambitious inner voices that most writers seem to have.

Image by Flickr user Peter

Just Remember, There is a Chicken Magazine

I like to go to bookstores and browse through magazines. I get new ideas for articles, find new markets and even occasionally find something I want to read. Recently I saw Chicken Magazine, which was dedicated to providing recipes on how to cook chicken. I came home and ran a search for ‘chicken magazine’ — I didn’t find the exact magazine I saw at the bookstore, but I did find Backyard Poultry Magazine, Home Grown Poultry Magazine, Poultry USA, Poultry Press, Chickens Magazine and more. That’s not even counting the mini cookbooks companies like Tyson’s publish regularly.

To put it mildly, there are are lot of publications buying content just about chickens — enough that it’s not out of the question that a writer could cover nothing but chickens, if she so chose. If that writer was willing to invest time into pitching articles on chickens to broader publication, we could be talking about a very good income.

Where’s Your Expertise?

If you want to focus on a given topic, you almost always can find publications that will buy your content. It’s becoming even easier, with the number of long tail websites, focusing on topics too obscure to support a magazine and printing costs, but with enough interested readers to pay for new content. That means that focusing on a specific niche — being the go-to writer about a specific topic — is becoming more beneficial. Even more importantly, if you are truly the expert in your field, you can just as easily start up that long tail website yourself. That not only means that you’re earning money directly off your expertise, without having to rely quite as much on clients, but you’re also getting an added benefit from articles that you write on a freelance basis — if your bio includes a link back to your site, you can pick up interested readers who find you through work you’re already getting paid to complete.

The big questions are figuring out your passion — what would you love to be an expert on — and deciding if there’s enough of a market there to support you. On certain topics, there’s no question: if you want to write about NASCAR racing, you’re probably going to be able to land enough gigs to support yourself and you can easily create a site of your own. If, however, you want to write just about the Old Faithful geyser at Yellowstone National Park, you may have a harder time generating interest in it every day of the year. There’s no set rule that a given topic is too narrow, but you may have to actually start writing about it to see if you need something broader.

Further Resources

Image by Flickr user Steven W.