Should the Author Even Bother to Finish This Book?

April 14th, 2014 by Bob Bly

According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor (3/31/14, p. 36), English Professor Anne Fernald has spent the past decade working on a scholarly edition of Virginia Woolf’s 1925 novel “Mrs. Dalloway” — and she’s still working on it.

Mind you, Professor Fernald is not writing the novel. Virginia Woolf already did.  All Fernald is doing is annotating the book with extensive footnotes.

When I read that, two thoughts came to mind. First, a decade to annotate — not write, just annotate — a book? Seriously?

Second, is this something the world really needs and that Anne should dedicate more than a decade of her life to? I mean, to put it politely: does anyone care?

I ask because it goes to the deeper problem of being an author today: too many books already in print on virtually every subject under the sun — most that either no one cares about or else have already been done to the death.

When people send me a review copy of their new business book, usually self published because no publisher would take it, I groan.

And invariably, it sounds  just like the last dozen I was also sent for review.

Should you and I even bother writing more books, or just quietly slink away to relieve the world of its content pollution?



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Sifting the toads from the frogs

April 2nd, 2014 by Bob Bly

Subscriber WG writes, “How do you sift the toads from the frogs
with new client requests?”

In other words: How do you know whether a prospect will be a
good client to work with or a bad client?

There is a formula for qualifying clients I have given before:

It stands for money, authority, desire, fit, and urgency.

1-Money … does the client have a budget? And is it big enough to
cover your fee?

How to find out: Ask the client, “Do you have a budget for this

If they say yes, ask, “Would you mind sharing with me what it

If they say no, ask, “Well, do you at least have a dollar figure
in your mind of what you’d like it to cost?”

2-Authority … can the client make the decision to hire you? Or
does he have to get approval from others?

How to find out: Ask the client, “Who else is involved in making
this decision?”

3-Desire … if you are a copywriter, do they value good copy? Do
they want better copy than they have? Or do they view copy as a
commodity without any special value?

How to find out: When a prospect says “we are looking at many
other copywriters,” that’s a sign to me that they view what I do
as a commodity service, and it makes me lose interest in them.

4-Fit … are they a good fit for you? Are they in an industry you
are comfortable writing about? Are they the size company you
like to work with?

5-Urgency … if they need the service you provide now or by an
upcoming deadline date, the chances are good they will hire you
or someone else. If there is no urgency, your chances of getting
hired decline geometrically. Prospects in a hurry are the best

How to find out: Ask: “What is your deadline for completing this

Here are a few additional rules of thumb for client selection:

** Your instincts are right 95% of the time. Therefore, if you
get an immediate negative vibe from a person, don’t take them on
as a client.

Example: I got a call from a well known direct marketing
entrepreneur who wanted, he said, a “killer” ad. He asked me
“Can you write a killer ad?” five times in 5 minutes. And he
sounded like a used car salesman. I passed.

** If you don’t like or believe in the product, pass.

Example: I got a call a few weeks ago from someone who wanted me
to write a sales letter on using astrology to make business
decisions. I passed because I think that is a load of B.S.

** It’s a negative to me if the first question the prospect asks
me is “What will it cost?” That tells me they are looking for a
low price. They ought to be asking to see samples of my work, a
client list, and client testimonials and results.

** If they are poor speakers of English, this is a negative for
me as a copywriter, because they must be able to recognize and
appreciate well-written, conversational English prose when I
submit it to them.

** Having a prospect ask if I will waive my fee in exchange for
a percentage of sales gets an immediate “no” from me. From a
serious direct marketer, I will accept my fee plus a percentage
of sales as a bonus when such is offered.

** Also beware the prospect who asks you to lower your fee in
exchange for the promise of a lot of work down the road. It’s an
empty promise designed solely to get you to cut your price.

** I have had the occasional prospect tell me “You won’t be able
to understand or write about my product because my product is
different than anything else you have ever seen.” I agree and
tell them they are right and therefore I cannot help them and
wish them well.


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Why I won’t coach you

March 26th, 2014 by Bob Bly

I am frequently asked by my subscribers whether they can buy
coaching or mentoring from me.

And the answer is always the same – no – because I do not offer
coaching or mentoring services to individuals (all my clients
are companies that use direct response or Internet marketing to
sell products and services).

My refusal to offer a coaching or mentoring service to readers
who want it really ticks some people off.

But I think it shouldn’t, and that I am in the right, and here’s

First, I’m not telling you or anyone else how to earn YOUR

So what gives you or anyone the right to tell me how I should
spend my time?

Why shouldn’t I have the same freedom you do to select what I
want, offer services I want to provide, and work with the kinds
of clients I choose?

Isn’t that a fair and reasonable request? Isn’t a big reason to
become self-employed to be your own boss and choose your own

Second, I don’t like working with individuals. I prefer to work
with companies, which are usually either direct response or B2B

In my area, copywriting, individuals don’t know what they are
doing, don’t understand how to work with a professional, and
need a lot of hand holding – all of which I dislike.

I want to write copy for clients who know what a shopping cart
is, know how to arrange web site hosting, know how to research
keywords, and know how to drive traffic to the landing page I
write for them.

I only want to write the copy: I have no interest in explaining
over and over again the rudiments of digital marketing to
newbies who don’t know it.

In other words, I want to be a copywriter, not a marketing
consultant or coach.

My friend DH, a specialist in writing direct mail, put it this
way: “I want to work with clients who know where the indicia

The other problem with coaching is this: When I am hired to
write copy for a client, I do the work, and therefore am
accountable for the results.

When you coach someone, you do NOT do the work. They do. You
only encourage and motivate them and perhaps guide them.

And more often than not – they don’t take your advice and
execute the tasks necessary to achieve their goals.

So what happens is the coaching client does not succeed – either
because he is lazy, inept, untalented, unfocused, picked the
wrong niche, or any combination of these reasons.

And the coach gets the blame. Even though the client, not the
coach, did the work – or not. Who needs that?

Also, if you are a copywriter or an Internet marketer, you can
use Google to find many coaches out there eager and willing to
help you. So it’s not like I’m your only hope.

One other thing: when I became a full-time freelance copywriter
in 1982, there were no paid mentoring or coaching programs … no
courses … no online groups … even no books on how to succeed in
the copywriting business.

That I am here is proof that you do NOT need coaching to make
it. Although if you think it will help you, by all means seek it
out. Just not with me. Fair enough?


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The awful truth about publishing a Kindle e-book

March 19th, 2014 by Bob Bly

Marketing consultant BM recently wrote me:

“Bob, I am so proud! I just published my first Kindle e-book!”
It was a business title.

Of course, I congratulated him.

But being the negative nelly I am, I felt compelled to tell him
what in my opinion is the awful truth about writing and
publishing a Kindle e-book. I wrote:

“I think with rare exception there is almost no money to be
made and very little prestige to be gained in producing Kindle
e-books, precisely because everyone can do it and seemingly is.”

Kindle e-books have greatly devalued the status of being an

It reminds me of a line uttered by Buddy, the bad guy in the
movie The Incredibles.

Buddy is jealous of superheroes. Being an inventor, he designs
an outfit that gives him the ability to fly and shoot paralyzing

He intends to sell the suit design to the highest bidder,
gleefully noting: “When everyone is super, then no one is.”

It’s the same with Kindle: when everyone is an author, then
being an author isn’t special.

BM replied:

“Well, I agree, but having the Kindle e-book makes for good
marketing and it elevates my image in the eyes of some

Again, I am an argumentative cuss, so I countered: “I am not
sure how it helps with marketing. The best way to use the book
would be to offer it online as a free download, not sell it for
ten bucks on Amazon, who will not share the customer’s name with

“And I do not think being a Kindle e-book author does anything
to elevate image. A REAL book does that.”

BM agreed: “I have a real book, so I agree with you entirely,
even though it was self-published. I sold about 500 and gave
away about 300, and that book landed me huge projects.”

I have booked hundreds of thousands of dollars in copywriting
and consulting projects, and speaking gigs, because of my
physical books, all published by major publishing houses.

One of the problems with Kindle e-books is that, while they are
cheap and easy to publish, the end result is simply having an
e-book that people can buy on Amazon.

Amazon doesn’t market or promote these Kindle e-books in any

Therefore, once posted online, the majority sit there, and many
sell a pitifully small number of copies.

One author, DY, told me proudly that after heavy promotion over
the course of a couple of years, he sold 540 copies of his
self-published book. He then admitted he barely broke even on
the venture.

Yes, I know there are Kindle e-book authors that have sold books
by the truckload and made small fortunes. But these are a
miniscule minority.

The vast majority of Kindle e-book authors toil in obscurity and
barely make enough on their book to take the family to a nice
dinner at Outback.

Most Kindle e-books, including my two — a collection of my
science fiction stories and a collection of these e-mail essays,
“Don’t Wear a Cowboy Hat Unless You Are a Cowboy” — are vanity

The author produces them for his own ego and from a desire to
make his writing available to the wider world.

But in most cases, including mine, the wider world has little or
no interest.


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Why does everyone think writers shouldn’t be paid?

March 12th, 2014 by Bob Bly

The other day, I got a letter from the town librarian welcoming
me as a new resident (we just moved here a few months ago).

Then the coup de grace: she knew I was an author and suggested
how nice it would be for me to donate some of the books I had
written to the library.

I felt like writing her back and saying: “So I should spend my
days writing stuff, and then give it away for free? What a great
business model! Why didn’t I think of it first?”

I also wanted to ask her whether she would donate some of her
time to the town library by foregoing her paycheck for a week or

(I have no problem being sarcastic.)

In her letter, she pointed out that as a published author and
new resident, donating my books would be a nice way for me to
support my local library.

I felt like reminding her that I already support my local
library with a donation every 3 months. It’s called “property

What would have been even nicer than me donating my books would
have been for her to offer to BUY one of my books from the
publisher for the library – heaven forbid.

If she bought one of my books for $10 and I got my usual 8%
royalty, I would in a few months get an 80 cent check from the
publisher and be able to retire.

Look, if you are a regular reader of these e-mails, you know by
now that I am a cranky old curmudgeon.

And a sore point with me is people assuming that writers -
unlike nearly every other profession – should not be paid for
the fruits of their labor.

I am sure when my next-door neighbor the car dealer moved here
many years ago, the mayor did not ask him to donate a new Buick
to the town for city officials to use.

But why should a writer be paid for work it took him months to
complete? Give it away for free? Sure! That’s the American way!

I tore the librarian’s letter up, threw it in my waste basket,
and kept my books on the shelves.

They are still there, waiting for her to pick them up. All she
has to bring is ten dollars apiece.

Some days it doesn’t pay to get out of bed….


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Best financial advice ever given to freelancers

March 10th, 2014 by Bob Bly

McDonald’s came under fire again a few months back for giving
its minimum-wage employees financial advice on how to live more

The company’s McResource Line advised Mickey D workers:
“Consider returning some of your unopened purchases that may not
seem as appealing as they did.”

McDonald’s management suggests that their poorly paid wage
slaves “sell some of your unwanted possessions on eBay or
Craigslist to bring in some quick cash.”

MD’s underpaid workers are also advised by management to break
food into pieces, because that often results in eating less and
still feeling full.

Now, this story gives me mixed feelings. And here’s why:

On the one hand, while I am sympathetic to the near
impossibility of getting by when you earn minimum wage, I am not
sure that – as a free market capitalist – I am really in favor
of forcing employers to raise the minimum wage they pay.

My favorite essayist, Barbara Ehrenreich, wrote a moving book
about working for minimum wage, “Nickel and Dimed.”

The liberal media portrays the workers as the victims and the
heroes, and the bosses and business owners as greedy thieves.

But here’s an opposing view: through our risk-taking and hard
work, we entrepreneurs build businesses that provide our
employees and vendors with jobs they need and would otherwise
not have.

If you are being paid too little, rather than picket for a
raise, why not focus on building your skill set to the point
where you add more value to your employer or customer?

If your services then begin to contribute more to the bottom
line, they’ll happily pay you to make them more money. To quote
Sylvester Stallone talking to his son in Rocky Balboa: “Go out
and get what you’re worth.” If you’re not worth that much,
acquire the knowledge and skills that will make you worth what
you want to be paid.

On the other hand, I applaud McDonald’s for the practical advice
they are providing employees to help them manage their household
budgets more effectively.

I wholeheartedly agree that consumers at all income levels buy
too much crap they don’t need. And when you spend more than you
make, as do so many poor and rich people alike, you set yourself
up for financial woes. To quote Robocop: “There will be …

I grew up in the very poor city of Paterson, NJ. When I was 8,
my dad would drive me around town in his 1962 Chevrolet Belair,
a collector’s model of which I display on a shelf in my office
to remind me of him. Even though he is gone now for 17 years, I
still miss him terribly.

When we drove to the poorest sections, packed with unemployed
people lounging on the stoops of decaying multi-family houses in
which they rented dingy apartments, dad told me, “Look at what
you see.” And in front of every poor, run-down house was the
same car: a big, brand-new Cadillac, polished to a fine gleam.

The best piece of financial advice I ever heard is from Florida
freelance writer David Kohn, who on a panel at a writer’s
conference, advised the attendees: “Live below your means.”

When you live below your means, you reduce the pressure to make
a lot of money, and can live comfortably on what you bring home.
You can still own a nice car – in dad’s case, a Chevy instead of
a Caddy – and sleep a lot better at night.

I know several very wealthy men. Two that come to mind are Sy
Sperling, founder of The Hair Club for Men, and former
heavyweight contender Gerry Cooney.

Both men have plenty of money, and both could afford to drive a
Rolls Royce, as Sy pointed out to me. (Cooney was paid $8
million for the Holmes fight alone.)

But Sy drives a Lexus, and Gerry drives an Infinity, albeit a
larger model to accommodate his 6’7″ frame. And they both seem
content and happy with their cars.

I find the trend today of Internet marketers toward ostentatious
displays of wealth with the purchase of Rolls Royces and other
mega-expensive luxury cars to be unfortunate and a bad lesson
for their followers.

Look, these wealthy entrepreneurs are entitled to spend their
wealth the way they want to. But you should not follow their

I am not as rich as a lot of these guys, but I am a
multi-millionaire … and I drive a 2008 Prius, which I love.

I like the simple advice in the book “The Wealthy Barber,” which
says that when you get money, sock away 10% of it. Then you can
use whatever is left to pay bills, pay for the kids’s tuition,
vacation, own toys, whatever.


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Do you mistreat your customers this way?

February 26th, 2014 by Bob Bly

I now can tell you what is wrong with America, because I saw it recently at Best Buy.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I went to Best Buy to buy a
microwave oven; we had moved to a new home several months ago, and
the new house didn’t have one.

Although the store was well staffed, we were ignored as we stood
in the microwave oven aisle. So I went to a young woman sitting
at a help desk and told her we wanted to buy a microwave. “No
problem” she said. “I will send someone right over.”

Ten minutes later – no one came. Irritated, I marched back to
the young woman sitting at the help desk and, to my amazement,
saw 3 blue-shirted Best Buy salesmen standing around, next to
her desk, shooting the breeze.

Americans have developed, in the words of writer Harlan Ellison,
a “slacker mentality.”

In my observation, not everyone, but certainly a significant
majority of workers, just don’t seem to give a crap about their
job, their business, or their customers.

The incident at Best Buy reminded me of a business rule of thumb
told to me years ago: When someone is trying to give you money,
don’t make it difficult for them to do so. We were ready to make
a $246 purchase (including a 4-year service plan), and no one
seemed particularly interested in taking our cash.

After Best Buy, we stopped at a Chinese buffet restaurant for
dinner – new to us because as I said we just moved here.

Here, we experienced the opposite of Best Buy: great customer
service. My son took a hard-shell crab from the buffet and then
couldn’t open it. (I once lived in Baltimore where, when you ate
hard-shell crabs, you did so with a wooden mallet in your hand.
I never liked it.)

Our nice waitress showed him how to open it with a fork and
spoon, patiently waiting until the task was done and then
showing him what parts were safe to eat and which were not.

Here’s another attitude adjustment you may need to make:
increasingly, small business owners who work at home answer
their phones in a tone that is wary (instead of open and
friendly) at best and downright hostile at worst.

JH, a graphic designer, did this when I called her the other day
to see if she could design a direct mail package for one of my
clients. She answers in a flat, cold “hello?” She did not even
give her name. When I asked her about doing the job, she
answered in clipped monosyllables, as if I were annoying her.

The next day, I received this e-mail from her: “Bob, I want to
apologize for my unwelcoming answer to your phone the other day.
I usually don’t answer a call when I don’t know who is calling,
but I recognized your name, so I did answer this time. The phone
rings a lot these days and most of the time it’s an 800 number
selling something.”

I thanked JH, but told her: too little, too late. She has lots
of competition, and I have more than enough graphic designers
who will happily take on my client’s projects with an attitude
of enthusiasm. Her disdain for telemarketers is simply not my
problem, nor should it be.

It’s ironic. Business is more competitive than ever. The
recession has made consumer and business customers alike tighter
with a dollar. Your customers have more choices for the services
and products they want to buy than at any time in recorded
history. Yet when customers walk in the door or pick up the
phone, so many entrepreneurs send them running, blowing the sale
on the spot.

I am reminded of something billionaire insurance entrepreneur
A.L. Williams once said: “You beat 90% of the competition just
by showing up. The other 10% you must defeat in a vicious

With their counter-productive, anti-customer attitude and
behavior, so many businesspeople I encounter today are losing
right out of the gate. I hope you are not one of them.


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7 steps for keeping copywriting clients satisfied

February 19th, 2014 by Bob Bly

The worst thing about freelance copywriting (or any other type
of writing) is this:

You write a brilliant piece that you are absolutely in love
with. You submit it to your client or editor. And the client
call or e-mails – and to your utter amazement says, “I hate
this. It stinks.”

How can you prevent this unpleasant event and ensure your
clients’ satisfaction? Here are a few ideas that work:

1—Listen and capture.

Often when you ask the client about his business or product, he
will articulate its benefits in a clear and powerful way. Write
down what he says, and incorporate the best of this verbiage in
your copy. Not only is it accurate, but when the client reads
it, he’ll be pleased with how you put things (because it
accurately reflects how he thinks of the product).

2—Create a pre-approved sentence library.

Especially when dealing with a complex or technical subject,
after reviewing the source material, write a bunch of sentences
that express your understanding of the technology, function, and
features as best you can.

Submit these sentences – no more than 6 to 7 or so – to the
client and ask him to review. Incorporate any changes. Now, you
have a library of pre-approved sentences you can use in your

Few things upset clients more than the unpleasant surprise of
reading a first-draft filled with errors, because it puts the
fear into them that you do not understand the product. Using a
library of pre-approved sentences eliminates surprises of this

3—Submit 3-5 headlines.

Come up with 3 to 5 headlines – the strongest you can. Instead
of picking one and submitting your first draft with it, show the
headlines to the client early … and let him pick. That way, when
he gets your first draft, he is already comfortable with the
headline, which is the first thing he sees.

4—Submit the lead early.

As with the headlines, write a 100 to 500-word lead or two,
submit them to the client for review and comment, and then make
any changes. Again, now when he gets the first draft, you are
ensured of no surprises, at least on page one.

5—Use the John Steinbeck writing method.

John Steinbeck said that when you are writing, you must treat it
as the most important thing in the world, even when you know it
is not. This helps you take the job seriously and do your best
on everything you write.

6—Use the Bill Bonner writing method.

Bill Bonner, founder of publishing giant Agora, told copywriter
JF that you must believe in what you are selling – at least
while you are writing the promotion. If you don’t believe and
think the product is hooey, turn down the project. This is why I
just turned down a potentially lucrative assignment to promote a
course on how to make good business decisions based on

7—Do not be a prima donna.

When the client makes changes, don’t pout or grumble, even if
you disagree with them. For instance, in a copy review last
week, the client removed a phrase I thought was really strong –
a reference to the Dire Straits song “Money for nothing.” I
loved it. But I did not argue.

Copywriter Cam Foote always said he considered his first draft a
recommendation – and after that, he would acquiesce pleasantly.
David Ogilvy said, “Fight over your queen; let the pawns go.”


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