The Business of Freelancing — Session 1, AIW Going Freelance Seminar — I’m liveblogging the AIW Going Freelance! seminar today at Johns Hopkins University. Forgive the typos, as I’m trying to keep up. You can handle it. Trust me. -kk

The Business of Freelancing

AL PORTNER: So you want to be a freelancer…

Before you dive in, you need some perspective. There are only 3 jobs in the whole world.

  1. People who make things
  2. People who sell things
  3. People who account for the people who make and sell things.

Freelancers do all 3 jobs at once.

Ask yourself why you want to freelance, what kind of work you want to do, why you’re qualified, who you will work for, what’s our business plan, how you will market, whether you have a natural client base, whether you’ve set benchmarks to signal success, how much you will charge, and what you expect to earn.

Remember that business is separate from your personal life. However small, it’s still a company.

Things new freelance writers believe they will write largely for publication. But most of your income will come from work for hire projects, not magazine and newspaper articles. This is in part because of a shrinking pool of traditional magazines and other publications, and the time lag in periodical publication in terms of the lengthy process of pitching, writing, revising, and then getting paid.

Potential customers include AD and PR agencies, associations and nonprofits, general business, colleges and universities, foundations, government, embassies, health care providers, newsletters (a vertical population, or those who need information for their jobs), internet, technical documents (lots of money to be made), think tanks, etc. Commercial writing generally pays the best and is the most dependable source of income, including advertising, PR, annual reports, editing, grant applications, marketing materials, newsletters, photography, RFP responses, speeches, etc.

Consider certificate programs through professional groups, such as JHU’s editing program or IABC, PRSA, and Council of PR Firms, Association of Proposal Writers, etc. Those three or four little letters after your name make you more marketable in certain areas.

In a tough economy, some of the bet jobs are the ones that lead to revenue for your customers: grants, proposals, and fundraising materials. You become an investment rather than an expense. Also, any required documents like annual reports, technical manuals, documentation, etc.

Keys to freelance success:


  • Perseverance
  • Always remember you’re in your own business — you’re the president and the janitor
  • Maintain excellent busines practices
  • Deliver outstanding work
  • Cultivate specialized subjec matter knowledge
  • Marketing, marketing, marketing
  • Networking, networking, networking
  • Get and keep a good reputation

Contact Al via e-mail for a variety of resources including a new biz checklist, a list of the kinds of work available, a work for hire contract form, tips on networking, and a list of communications organizations and networking opportunities.

KEN NORKIN: The Fundamentals of Freelance Business

The Top 10 Good Things About Being a Freelance Writer

(i’ll have to get this from him, it’s hilarious)

Your Top 2 Questions

  1. Can I really make a living as a freelance writer? — Yes, you can.
  2. So how much can I earn? — It depends.

There are no reliable figures on freelance earnings. Some organizations have done fee surveys, but they can be skewed, outdated, and unreliable data.

Creative Business Newsletter is extremely valuable for commercial writers, and they update pricing guidelines every few years. The editor’s pay surveys ad pricing guidelines seem to indicate that in general, freelance writers who are experienced and qualified at a certain point should be able to earn about the same as if they were working full time as a writer. (See and others for comparable numbers).

More important than what you can make is whether you can do enough work to earn the income you want. Think about your earnings related to your capacity to do work.

If you’re paid per word primarily, figure out how many words you’d have to write in a year to make your target gross income. At $1/word, you’d have to write 50,000 words to make $50,000, which is twenty-five 2,000-word articles. But 650 words is the new 2,000 words, so that makes more like 120 articles/year. Do you have the capacity — physical stamina, ability, stamina, volume of assignments — to do that? The numbers don’t lie.

Per hour is a little easier. When all is said and done, most self-employed people have generally agreed that because you’re doing all of the billable and nonbillable work for your business, you will probably only bill about 1,000 hours/year. So what do you need to charge to make what you want? And how many hours can you work? That’s reasonable because 1,000 hours is 50% productivity.

Ken’s favorite way to pay is by the project. Charging by the project makes your potential income virtually limitless. The final bill you send the client is divorced from the number of hours it takes you to do the project. Ideally you want to make sure you break even OR increase your hourly rate by completing the job faster. Project billing lets you make more than you would per hour and solves the capacity problem. Capacity becomes more of a marketing problem: Can I FIND these projects?

Ken does a lot of annual reports and speeches that successfully compensate him at higher than his annual rate. If he could do 3-4 annual reports and 3-4 speeches each year, he’d be earning a very comfortable living.

The one thing you need to do to get paid for what you write is to SEND A BILL that includes:

  • Who you are and your contact info
  • INVOICE (not statement, etc.)
  • An invoice number for tracking purposes
  • Who the client is and their contact info
  • Who the contact is (ATTN: Name)
  • Description of the project (include project number, word count, name of project, etc.)
  • Possibly reiterate the rights you’re selling
  • Itemized list of costs and the total
  • Due date for payment

Top 10 Things You Need to Be in Business

  • Collection of payments
  • Billing system or process
  • Way to track time and expenses
  • Equipment to do the work
  • Place to do the work
  • Time to do the work
  • Time to find the work
  • Business cards
  • Materials that say “Why You?” (resume, brochure, clips, website, etc)
  • Customers!!!

Secrets of the top earning 16% of writers (Marcia Yudkin):

  • Establish relationships with a few editors
  • Speialize in one or two topics
  • Write books

Secrets according to Ken Norkin

  • Work a lot
  • Which means market a lot til you don’t have to
  • Write only for pubs and clients that pay well or that can advance your career
  • Turn down work that doesn’t meet your needs
  • Always be agreeable / flexible / easy to work with
  • Never miss a deadline

JOHN MASON: Copyright for freelancers

Copyright is an intangible intellectual right that attaches to individual works of authorship. Copyright attaches as soon as you put it in fixed format. The founding fathers thought copyright was important enough to include it in the Constitution. Now, copyright has developed into a multibillion or multitrillion dollar industry. Everything we do as writers is subject matter of copyright.

Original authorship is the key. There must be a spark of originality. So the phonebook, an alphabetical listing, is not copyrightable (Note from KK: the case law on this specific issue is hilarious). Other kinds of lists might be copyrightable if there is creativity involved, but you would hold copyright to the list, not the underlying materials.

If you want to preserve a right, spell it out. If you want the parties to an agreement, every time you’re doing work for someone and they’re paying you, you have an agreement whether you have a document to point to. The best way to protect yourself is to put it in writing and be clear. But be mindful that you don’t want to scare your customers with a 12-page document or something because the time they would have to invest in reading it and reviewing it would not be worthwhile.

A lot of customers will have a form agreement that they expect you to sign. Always read it. Whether you understand it or not, you’re bound by it if you sign it. A contract or agreement is the end result of a negotiation. If it’s a new business relationship, you want to negotiate it all on the front end, and the end result of the negotiation is the agreement. For existing clients, you will have already worked this out.

Invoicing alone is not necessarily sufficient to establish the terms of the agreement. Copyright law has formalities that must be adhered to. If you sign a contract, you’ll be bound by it unless it’s voidable by law. Read it carefully and understand it. If you don’t mind giving up the copyright, fine, let them have it. But if you want to keep a right, be clear about it and include it in the agreement.

The answer to every copyright question is basically “it depends.” If you want to represent a published version of your work in your portfolio or something, there’s nothing obviously problematic about that. It’s a public display already, so it’s fine. But if you use what you actually gave to the publication, that was not made public. With writers, if it’s published and it’s NOT in your contract that you can use it for your portfolio, find the published version and use that. Scan it and post as an image or link to it.

Copyright does not extend to an idea. There is really no way to own an idea under the law. Copyright attached only when it’s in a fixed and tangible form. Patent lawyers are trying to expand patent law to cover “business methods.” The one-click online ecommerce method is an excellent example (Amazon, eBay, etc.). Intellectual law allows you as the original owner to stop someone from violating your copyright, from infringing, with an injunction, etc. The reason this is relevant is that some authors are now trying to work with schmancy patent lawyers to patent plots as business methods. The dew that evaporates from the window is not fixed in tangible form, but the photo of the drawing you create in the new is copyrightable. Another would be drawing on the beach before the tide comes in — not copyrightable because the water will wash it away.

The inherent exclusive rights in copyright:

  1. Reproduce it (make a copy)
  2. Distribution (ie, publishing: First North American Serial Rights for example)
  3. Prepare derivative works (ie, changes to what you wrote)
  4. Perform publicly – play, movie, etc.
  5. Perform publicly – musical composition

Unless you sign the agreement assigning rights to another party, you retain the rights no matter what you may have negotiated — so just stating what you’re assigning to them in the invoice is not sufficient (but you can and possibly should reiterate it in the invoice for additional clarity if you’re concerned). If it’s in there and you sign it, you’ve transferred it. Be specific. Rights remain with the author if the contract is silent on the issue, but it’s better to be clear.

The Library of Congress is a massive repository of copyright registered materials. It’s about $45/work to register with the LOC, and there are a lot of technicalities so make sure you do it right. There are incentives to registering, such as additional damages in cases of infringement. In the US, you can’t enforce copyright except in a course of law. You can send a cease and desist letter, but if they blow you off your only option is to go to Federal court. You can only do it in Federal court and only with a certificate of registration. If you try to sue someone for copyright without that certificate of registration from the LOC, the court will throw it out. You can register after the fact if you find someone knocking you off.

Plagiarism isn’t necessarily actionable. It must rise to the level of actual copyright infringement. So if you submit a query to an editor and then 6 months later an article just like you proposed appears in the publication, it’s really not copyright infringement unless they literally lifted from your query.

Be aware of what publishers are trying to get from you before you sign a book contract because they are trying to get all possible rights (ie, revenue streams). Previously, there was a rights reversion in book contracts that you’d get the rights back after publication. Now, it’s mostly an exclusive right so long as the book is commercially available including print on demand (POD), so basically you never get it back and can never take it anywhere else. They want to get as much as they can, and you need to know what you’re signing off on. Making it Kindle available is one thing. Giving it to them forever and ever and ever is another. 50/50 is a pretty standard split for electronic stuff.

Copyright now is life + 70 years for individual copyright thanks to the Sonny Bono Copyright Extension Act. This was heavily lobbied by corporations because it extended protection for work made for hire to the shorter of 95 years from the first publication OR 120 years from the date of publication.

NB: AIW membership includes membership in Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts.

Contents Copyright © 2006-2014 Kristen King

2 comments… add one
  • Ken Norkin Nov 9, 2009


    Thanks so much for the compliment. I don’t know how hilarious this list is, but I’m happy to share it.

    Top Ten Good Things About Being a Freelance Writer

    10 There’s a good chance you may no longer be working for an idiot.
    9 Rejection letters make really good kindling.
    8 Editors and clients will ask you … no, wait, this is a list of good things.
    7 After all these years, you’re finally allowed to ask “how long does it have to be?”
    6 You’re not talking to yourself … you’re composing dialog.
    5 TV GUIDE is no longer a guilty pleasure … it’s a damn good market
    4 No more payroll deductions … so what if it’s because there’s no more paychecks?
    3 That guy in the next cubicle won’t be stealing your lunch any more.
    2 Web surfing is tax deductible research.
    1 You’re not “unemployed” … you’re just “between assignments.”

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