Audience First, Money Second

One thing that current print freelancers have a lot of trouble adjusting to is the reality that, like it or not, succeeding in the new digital landscape often means first spending time “writing for free.”

I’ve gone round and round with my own book publisher about this. She runs the very successful and respected Writers Weekly newsletter, which is a great resource for paid writing gigs that are out there. She also campaigns tirelessly on the behalf of writers: calling out scammers, pointing to editors who make a fortune but don’t pay the content creators, and warning about contracts that are tilted heavily in the publisher’s favor instead of the writers.

In her eyes, you should never write for free. In my eyes, it’s the only way to become a true success at this. The old way means constantly scraping by and constantly pitching the next story for the next assignment. There’s no ongoing revenue stream: your ongoing income depends on doing job after job after job.

Revenue Streams vs. Job by Job

Here’s the thing though. Nearly all the six-figure-earning travel writers out there are content owners with one or more regular revenue streams, not just pens for hire. They run blogs, they run websites, they have best-selling books out, or—more likely these days—all of the above.

They are more like property owning landlords rather than house painters or plumbers. They are building something that generates income and could possibly be sold someday, not just doing tasks that earn a per-job payment.

The fact is, as a freelancer, it is almost impossible to get to a six-figure income just based on what somebody else’s publications are paying you, even if you only write features for top-tier magazines. It just takes too many checks, even $4K a pop ones, to add up to $100K. An editor at the top of the masthead may make this much, but it’s a rare freelancer who does, in any subject field. Plus if you’re not on staff, you have to do it all again the next year, with just as many assignments in a declining print media world, to generate the same income.

Crass as it may sound, the way to really make money as a writer is to build a sizable audience and then sell them things they want. What you sell may be your services, your books, or something else. Or it may be things others have created, through advertising or affiliate links, for example. Really, this is what any magazine, newspaper, or newsletter does—the publications that freelancers work for. But instead of you getting a tiny cut of what that publication is selling to their audience, you get a sizable chunk of it, maybe even the whole shebang. It doesn’t take a math genius to figure out that a big percentage of $5,000 every month beats getting 0.000001% of what an airline magazine is bringing in each month.

Do You Have the Patience to Succeed as a Writer?

Getting to that point doesn’t happen overnight though. First you need an audience. Building an audience takes time and effort. That time and effort invested in the future will not pay you much, if anything, for a good six or twelve months. The payoff comes later.

On that note, this Travel Writing 2.0 blog started months ago with no ads and no pitches for anything except the travel writing book. This week I added a few e-books at the bottom of this page that are useful for writers wanting to make real money at this instead of just scraping by. They require an investment, but if you look at the track record of the people who wrote them, you’ll see why they could pay for themselves many times over.

That’s it for now though when it comes to “monetization.” This blog is basically a free service that hopefully brings some attention to my book. I’m actually in the hole on it because I pay an assistant. That way I can keep juggling all my projects while still traveling and enjoying life. But doing this “for free” for now is an essential step on the path to success. This travel writing blog is starting off nicely in terms of traffic, but anything great takes time to build. Building for the future is how to reach a point of real success later.

On that note, I encourage you to read this excellent e-book by Corbett Barr, who runs the Free Pursuits blog: 18 Months, 2 Blogs, 6 Figures. He is giving it away absolutely free. He has made real money by being generous with his advice and eventually it all paid off. Eventually. Here’s a key quote from the book:

“It’s taken me 18 months to build up to this point…nearly 12 of those months were spent without any significant income from the business.”

It may sound like a paradox, but to get to the big bucks, you must first be willing to write for free, preferably for something you own. If everything you write requires a per-word paycheck, you’re going to find it extremely hard to make a good living as a writer in the digital age. Not that it can’t be done, but Vegas offers better odds—and complimentary cocktails.

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