An Interview with Melanie Votaw

Melanie Votaw headshot3Melanie Votaw is a successful freelance writer working in several genres.  We caught up with her recently to find out how she got started, how she sustains her steady stream of work and what advice she has for other freelancers. 

You just passed the 10 year mark as a freelancer, right? Please share with us how you got started and what you think has sustained you for this length of time.

Yes, as of July, I have been a full-time freelancer for one decade. I started while still in a full-time job. I had wanted to try it for a long time, but I was low on courage. Then, a friend got a job at a publishing house and offered me a job writing a short book. That went well, so I wrote more. Then, I began to do some rather low-paying jobs through Elance and gained experience. I had been the editor of my college newspaper and have a degree in English. So, it was fairly easy for me to build on my Elance experience and begin to get more work. I think sustaining the career has been a matter of tenacity and luck. Besides my website, though, my main marketing strategy is to always ask for referrals. As a result, word of mouth has been my primary way of getting work over the years.

I know your work includes film reviews, travel writing and ghostwriting books, how did you choose these particular genres for your writing? And what do you enjoy the most?

I didn’t originally set out to be a book ghostwriter, but I quickly discovered that it is more lucrative than writing books of my own. It’s also more collaborative than most types of writing, and I enjoy that break from the usual solitary nature of the work. To be honest, I fell into it. Someone found my website online and hired me even though I had only written my own books up to that point. What I did have was some medical writing experience, so that’s why he banked on me. Then, I was hired to write a sample chapter for someone looking for a ghostwriter for a book to be published by a major house. She hired a few other writers to write sample chapters, but I won the project. She then referred me to one of my biggest clients, and from there, word of mouth has mostly sustained me.

As for film writing, I do that for the love of it. I used to be an actress, so I have a keen interest in that area. It’s great fun interviewing actors and people in the entertainment business.

Prior to writing about travel, I was an avid traveler. I had already been all over the world, so writing about it was simply a natural progression. I looked for ways to get into that world, and other writers helped. Then, I found a website looking for writers and published my first piece. If I actively pursue anything in my career, it’s in the travel writing area. I contact PR firms and hotels and try to get opportunities, and I’m trying to find time to pitch more publications to expand my outlets. The books keep me so busy, though, that it’s difficult to find moments for pitching, especially since queries are not my favorite pastime.Hummingbird on my finger in Jamaica

For the ghostwriting, how do you secure clients? And, if you don’t mind sharing, how do you bill for those projects?

I wish I had a magic formula to tell people how to do what I do. I have been really lucky, and I’ve been slowly building up a portfolio so that I’m now somewhat known in certain circles. For people who want to get into ghostwriting I recommend starting on a site like Elance or finding friends who want to write a book. You won’t make a lot at first, but you’ll get the experience of writing a book for someone else under your belt. It can be self-published or an ebook, but you need something to show others. Make sure that you’re contractually allowed to disclose your work so that you can parlay it into more clients. Ghostwriting is often done in secret, but you need samples to show if you want to build a career. Once you have some experience, you can join the Association of Ghostwriters and look up other services that hook up clients with writers. They are an excellent way to get new clients.

The rates for ghostwriting a book are almost as varied as the number of books on the market. For a shorter book, you can expect to earn anywhere from $8,000-$25,000. Longer books are in the neighborhood of $15,000-$40,000. Book proposals usually bill out at $5,000-$15,000 – again depending on the amount of work involved, i.e. the number of sample chapters and whether the author needs help figuring out the book’s structure. I recommend learning how to write a book proposal. It’s a very marketable skill, and once a proposal you’ve written has sold to a publisher, you’ll have the leverage to get more of those jobs.

For books, I usually set up a payment schedule in installments. The larger the amount, the more installments. If the book fee is only $10,000, for example, there will probably just be two installments of $5,000 each – one upon the signing of the contract and the second upon completion. I always include an out clause in the contract. Yes, that means you can be fired and will have to negotiate payment for how much work you have completed up to that point, but it also means you can get out of a project if it turns out to be an awful experience. You shouldn’t feel stuck with a project, and no client should ever feel stuck with you. Nothing will be fun about that. I also do a lot of developmental editing/book doctoring, which is similar to ghostwriting, except I’m starting with a raw manuscript written by someone else.

Besides book ghostwriting, there’s also copy writing. I write a great deal of website copy, especially for physicians. There’s a lot of website writing work out there, and you can build experience in different areas that you can use later for books and all sorts of things. For example, I fell into the medical writing, and now, I have a bit of a niche there. A good way to start in website ghostwriting is to send letters of introduction to businesses that design websites for other businesses. I work with a firm that specializes in doctor websites.Victoria Falls ride

What advice and/or warnings would you give to someone interested in pursuing a freelance writing career?

If you get a gut feeling that a client or project is going to drive you crazy, it will – trust me. Whenever your gut tells you to run, follow that feeling, even if the money is tempting. Every time I have gone against my gut, I have regretted it.

Also, always, always get money up front. I’ll write for a publication for free on occasion if it’s something I really want to do and they really can’t afford to pay me, but I don’t do free samples to get projects. I have lots of samples from previous work, and I offer those in order to land jobs. Early on, I did some work without payment up front, and you can guess what happened. I never got paid at all! Don’t take the risk. Once you have some positive experiences under your belt, you will have testimonials and references, so clients will feel comfortable paying you a deposit. Use absolutely all of your interests and experience as selling points. I used to work in law firms, so now, I write for lawyers. In my youth, I was a dancer, so now, I can write about dance. Even where you grew up can give you an edge over someone else, the fact that you’re a twin or have a sister, your childhood rock collection – almost anything can give you the experience needed for certain writing jobs. Use all of it to your advantage.

Most people in the industry advise not to work on an hourly basis, but I do on occasion. If I truly can’t determine the amount of time a project will take, I’m more comfortable charging hourly. That way, I know that if the project escalates to many more hours than I could have anticipated, I will be compensated for the amount of time expended. Some clients balk at this because they also worry about “scope creep.” For them, I offer to set a ceiling. This means that once I reach a certain number of hours, I let them know. They can then decide if they want to continue or stop in order to not go over budget. I also tell them that paying me hourly means they only pay me for the time I actually spend. If I charge them a project fee, I will have to pad it a bit in order to protect myself against possible excess. Charging hourly does not work to your advantage, however, if you are particularly fast at a certain kind of work.

I also think it’s important to never take jobs that are too low-paying, no matter how hungry you may be. If you do, you could easily get stuck in that kind of work, never able to get out of it. The $10-$25 per article jobs are like a hamster wheel. If you’re good at what you do, you won’t have to sustain yourself in a home sweat shop.Patrick Stewart

You have interviewed some very interesting people in the film industry! Will you share with us some of your favorites?

I just interviewed Sir Patrick Stewart last week, and he’s my current favorite. He was so open and utterly without pretense or defensiveness. I aspire to be like him. Another favorite is Raul Esparza, who is a Broadway star currently on Law & Order: SVU and Hannibal. We just had a wonderful, relaxed conversation. I interviewed Patricia Clarkson recently and have met her before. She is another favorite. She is just so friendly and a lot of fun. I would use the word “effervescent” to describe her.

I know you have done a good bit of traveling for your writing. What destination is still on your bucket list and why?

I have been to nearly 50 countries on 6 continents but still have a LONG bucket list. It’s hard to choose just one. I guess the Galapagos Islands would be in the number 1 spot at the moment, although Iceland is really close. I love experiencing and photographing natural landscapes and wildlife, so that’s why those two destinations appeal to me. They are both unique on the planet.

Melanie Votaw is a full-time freelance writer based in New York. She has written six of her own books and ghostwritten more than ten books for others published by such houses as Hyperion, Macmillan, and Hay House. She has also developmentally edited more than 50 books for individuals and publishers. Those books have won more than 30 awards, and one landed on the New York Times Bestseller List. As a journalist and photographer, Melanie primarily covers travel and entertainment, writing about destinations, hotels, food/wine, film, TV, and theater. She is also a copywriter for diverse businesses from law and medicine to fashion and retail, and her poetry and fiction have been published in literary magazines and book anthologies.

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