Archive for July, 2017

Writers, money, and the 9-to-5 grind

July 28th, 2017 by Bob Bly

As I turn 60, I look back and recall how different young writers were in the 70s when I started submitting my stories to magazines for publication — as compared with the new money-focused young wordsmiths today.

Back then, there was some odd notion that many writers had about
it being somehow romantic, cool, and even hip to be struggling in
poverty and obscurity …

… eating Kraft mac and cheese for dinner every night — and being
the proverbial writer “starving in a garret.”

The garret for me being my crappy, tiny, walk-up tenement studio
apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

The goals were art, publication, literature, fame, and the
best-seller list first … and after that, then yes, money.

But for today’s writers, who aspire to getting rich in mere weeks
by selling information online rather than a novel to
HarperCollins (a publisher to whom I sold two paperback books on
Star Trek), money is the main thing, front and center …

… as is evidenced by the astounding popularity of all the
high-priced “make a million dollars with information marketing
online” programs being sold today.

In my day, you learned your craft in copywriting by reading used
copies of Ogilvy and Caples books you bought for a dollar at the
Strand.

Now people of all ages, from all walks of life, hand over their
credit card to buy training in info marketing and copywriting for
thousands of dollars a pop … without batting an eyelash.

But back in the day, the brighter writers were too smart to buy
into the “starving artist” mentality that many others embraced.

In his book Factotum, Charles Bukowski, who was poor for a lot of
his life, wrote:

“Starvation, unfortunately didn’t improve art … the myth of the
starving artist was a hoax.

“A man’s art was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much
better after eating a porterhouse steak than he could after
eating a nickel candy bar.”

How true!

And, like J. Jonah Jameson in the first Spiderman movie — who
tells Peter Parker, “Freelance is the ticket” —

–Bukowski, like so many other writers, was an advocate of
freelancing … and abhorred 9 to 5 jobs (which he was forced to
take for decades until he finally started making good money as a
freelance novelist and poet).

Bukoswki in Factotum again:

“How in hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30am by an
alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, piss, brush
teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where
essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were
asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

I get this: when I had a 9 to 5 corporate job, I hated having to
set and waking up to an alarm, perform morning ablutions, put on
a suit and tie, and commute to be at work by 8 or 9am.

Ironically, as a freelancer, I get up every morning at 6am —
without an alarm clock — and have done so for decades.

Within 3 minutes of getting up each morning, I walk down a flight
of steps to my home office, turn on the PC, and start writing
immediately.

No need to waste valuable time making sure I am clean shaven, my
shirt freshly laundered and ironed, my shoes shined, my pie-hole
rinsed with mouthwash, and my hair neatly combed — as I did in my
days as an employee in corporate America.

I arise naturally, bright and bushy tailed, eager to dive into
the day, because I love freelance writing.

Always have. And hope, think, and am pretty confident I always
will.

We’ll see.

But now in my 38th year of being a writer — so far, so good.

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Remembrance of music past

July 25th, 2017 by Bob Bly

There’s a weird thing about some songs, I have noticed.

Let me explain….

Like so many people, I love music.

I play 2 ½ instruments: clarinet, sax, a little piano.

And I listen to music CDs a good part of the day while I write.

One thing I have noticed is that there are certain songs you
really like, but sort of forget about for long periods.

The weirdest thing is: You don’t even remember they exist, until
one day, something triggers your memory of them.

When that happens, I immediately go to YouTube, find a clip of
the song, and listen to it — at least half a dozen times — with
great enjoyment.

Here are 10 such songs I YouTubed recently that were dredged up
from the mucks of my dormant memories:

1–“I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” The Proclaimers:

2–“Tub Thumping,” Chumba-Wamba:

3–“Runaway,” Dell Shannon:

4–“Turn It On,” Sonny Stitt:

5–“Love Thy Neighbor,” John Coltrane:

6–“McArthur’s Park,” Maynard Ferguson:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HTDU6sCnnY

7–“Third Movement, Symphony No. 3,” Brahms:

8–“I Will Always Love You,” Whitney Houston:

9–“Chatham Boogie-Woogie,” Darren Green:

10–“Imperial Death March,” Richard Cheese version:

Like any of these? What songs NOT on my list do you love but not
listen to often enough?

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Are we becoming a nation of know-nothings?

July 21st, 2017 by Bob Bly

Is there a basic degree of knowledge one should possess as an (a)
educated, literate human being and (b) to function competently
in one’s chosen field?

Well, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what that level of
knowledge is.

But yes, I do think that there is some body of knowledge that
people must possess to be taken seriously in society in general
as well as in their industry or profession in particular.

And sadly, I see fewer and fewer people at this level of basic
cultural and technical knowledge as the years pass.

For instance, a couple of years ago, Alan Alda was the
commencement speaker at my son’s graduation ceremony at
Carnegie-Mellon.

When I told my personal trainer OL, who is in his 30s, he said:
“Who?”

Alan Alda — played Hawkeye Pierce on TV in M*A*S*H, I said.

Nope, replied OL. Never heard of him.

Until that moment, it never occurred me that there could be
people in this country who aren’t familiar with M*A*S*H.

Writer Harlan Ellison tells how, years ago, when he mentioned
Dachau at a college lecture, a student raised her hand and asked,
“What’s Dachau?”

He was flabbergasted that an educated American would not know
this infamous concentration camp.

Similarly, I find that in marketing, practitioners lack basic
knowledge that I, at least, think they should have.

Early in my career, in the 1980s, when I referred in my
copywriting classes to Claude Hopkins and his classic book
Scientific Advertising, most students nodded their heads in
recognition.

Today, if I am giving a copywriting lecture to an audience of
several hundred copywriters and marketers, and I ask “Who here
has read Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising?” only one or two
hands in the room go up — if that — which I find almost beyond
belief.

Don’t get me wrong: The majority of people I associate with both
in my personal and business life are smart, educated, cultured,
literate, and knowledgeable.

A huge number of them are a lot smarter than I am … and know a
lot more than I do.

On the other hand, the people who fill the Jerry Springer show
studio as his live audience have to come from somewhere, right?

In his book The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster),
Allan Bloom wrote:

“The failure to read good books both enfeebles the vision and
strengthens our most fatal tendency — the belief that the here
and now is all there is.”

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The worst way to approach a potential client

July 18th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Subscriber HG writes:

“As a big fan of your work, I must confess your web pages are
boring, and I guess they are not converting to sales as they did
before, isn’t it?

“Please allow me to restore a few of your web pages from the
archaeological ruins to the modern slick, easy to read, search
engine friendly, better converting pages, OK?

“If you do not want to make more money, then just neglect this
email.” (A very snarky comment.)

This approach to establishing a relationship with me is really
stupid, for 3 reasons….

First, HG does not know my landing page conversion rates. He
assumes they are poor.

But as Felix Unger pointed out in an old episode of The Odd
Couple, “When you ASSUME you make an ASS of U and ME.”

In fact, the pages he cited as failures pull like gangbusters;
one ebook sales page has a 32% conversion rate.

My pages make me so much passive income that, if I so desired, I
could quit my freelance copywriting job tomorrow, and never work
another day in my life. (But of course that idea is anathema to
me.)

Second, even if I was jonesing to improve some of my pages, why
would I hire HG? He gives not one shred of evidence that he has
any skills or success in this area.

Third, the part of his message I left out … and that you do not see
here … was even more off-putting and insulting to me — and
insulting strangers rarely wins them over.

When I posted HG’s comments on Facebook, one of my FB friends,
JS, wrote:

“All he is trying to do is use the same tactics as email spammers
that supposedly work on the weak-minded masses.

“He has no persuasive tactics. The entire thing is a pitch. It
comes from someone who thinks he is good at manipulation, though
in actuality, he sticks out like a sore thumb.”

Also on this FB thread, BM was even harsher: “Arrogant,
insulting, and a blast sent to hundreds of people whose websites
he has never seen. I see these every day.

“A good example of what NEVER to do. He needs your e-mail
marketing course, but a frontal lobotomy first.”

Another FB friend, MS, said:

There are a few turn-offs for me with this sort of
thing–implying expertise without having researched his
assertions, the sense of a little dishonesty through flattery,
and a scare tactic infused with some arrogance.

“My reaction, from an open minded perspective and willingness to
accept help, is to tell him to take a hike!”

And that’s just what I did.

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Should you ever work on spec?

July 14th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Subscriber DC writes:

“In my many years as a freelance copywriter, occasionally a
potential client has asked me to write a free ‘test piece.’

“I’ve always refused but today the marketing director of a huge
European logistics company contacted me with this request:

“‘I am evaluating external support for various projects. One such
project is for small to medium-size enterprises (SMEs) and
logistics.

“‘Can you give me some draft ideas of content (blogs, white
papers, etc.) that would appeal to SMEs who are looking to
broaden their horizons and get more involved in international
trade?'”

“So he wants free editorial consultancy work with no guarantee of
a contract or payment, and of course he could just take my best
ideas!

“This is a variation of the infamous free test piece and it shows
how careful we must be about speculative projects.

“I’m sending you this story partly to help other freelancers and
I hope it’s useful in your excellent newsletter.”

I agree with DC: Avoid working “on spec” — writing for a
potential client with no promise of getting paid.

In spec work, if the client likes what you do and decides to use
it, they pay you something.

If they don’t like it, the project is over — and you don’t get a
dime for your time and effort.

The idea of working on spec to me is patently ridiculous and
grossly offensive.

Try driving to your local gas station today and telling the
attendant: “Fill my car with gas, and if it runs well, I will pay
you for it … but if not, I owe you nothing.”

Order a meal at a local restaurant and say to the waiter: “Bring
my steak and baked potato; if I like it, I’ll pay the bill; if
not, I won’t.”

So if someone asks you, “Write my ad for free, and I will pay for
it only if I like and use it; if not, I won’t” — well, what
writer in his right mind would agree to that?

Samuel Johnson said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote for any
reason other than money.”

So if you write on spec for a potential copywriting client, you
are the blockhead.

And when you don’t get paid, you have no one to blame but
yourself.

After all, you asked for it.

Are there ever any exceptions to the no-spec-work rule?

Answer: Precious few.

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The rise of the non-book

July 7th, 2017 by Bob Bly

I call it “the rise of the non-book.”

I’m talking about the increasing number of extremely short Kindle
e-books being published and sold on Amazon.

My FB friend TJ describes Kindle as a place “where anyone can
string 10,000 words together, make a cover, call it a book, and
present it to the world.”

Back in the day, when I wrote my first book in 1981, you had to
write an actual book to become a “real” author.

For a 200-page trade paperback or hardcover book, that meant
writing, on average, about 80,000 words.

Not a monumental task, but quite a bit of work.

Among my 93 published books (plus two more under contract and
being written by me even as you read this email), most are around
200 pages.

Yes, a few are only around 100 pages. And I have written half a
dozen published children’s books which are even shorter.

However, these short ones balance out with several adult
nonfiction titles that are over 300 pages … and one that is a
whopping 800 pages — “The Advertising Manager’s Handbook,”
published by Prentice-Hall.

But today, as TJ points out, you can write a short document —
just 10,000 words, 5,000 words, or even less — slap a nice cover
on it, create a Kindle e-book, and sell it online.

When people see it on Amazon, most don’t realize it is a
glorified report or article — and they mistake it for the author
having written a real full-length book.

To self-promoters who want to inflate their guru status,
publishing a series of short pieces as individual Kindle e-books
is a quick and easy way to make yourself look like a more
prolific book author than you really are.

But for actual book authors, like me, it devalues your work and
production — because to the untrained eye, it looks like everyone
has written as many books as you have.

This is why I am a fan of paperbound books over Kindle e-books,
and of books sold by mainstream publishing houses vs.
self-published.

Having a paperbound book with a major publisher doesn’t guarantee
quality.

But at least the book has been vetted at several levels beyond
the author himself — including the literary agent, publishing
house editorial committee (they make the decision whether to buy
and publish your book), book editor, copy editor, and
proofreader.

I know many of you today are self-publishing and Kindle fanatics.

But to borrow phrasing from “Make Mine Marvel” Stan Lee, “Make
mine McGraw-Hill (or Macmillan, or Morrow.)”

You get the idea.

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On color and readability in graphic design

July 4th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Subscriber JA writes:

“Bob, have you noticed how many websites use gray typeface on a
white background?

“It’s difficult to read.

“How about taking a minute to address the importance of color
schemes?”

Entire books have been written about color in design. And I am no
expert in color. Far from it.

But the whole of it can be boiled down to one principle:

The primary purpose of design is to attract the eye to the ad,
and to make the text easy to read — and the latter just as
important as the former.

Anything that makes the copy difficult to read, no matter how
dazzling or creative, is bad graphic design, whether in print or
online.

So at a glance, the color and type rules to follow are these:

1–Make all type large enough to be easy to read for older adults
with average or less-than-average eyesight.

2–The best color scheme is black type on a white background.

3–In body copy, avoid reverse type, which is white type on a
black background.

4–Avoid low-contrast color schemes such as gray type on a white
background, or dark blue type on a light blue background, or the
horrific but not uncommon gray type on a black background.

5–In the body copy for print materials, use serif typefaces —
letters with little extension on them, such as Times Roman.

6–Online, use sans serif typefaces — letters with no extensions,
such as Arial — in body copy.

7–On web pages, subheads can shine and make a statement when you
use an easy-to-read bold serif font such as Georgia bold, for
example, and set them in a darker color to pop off page online
and draw the reader’s eye down the page.

A dark blue looks nice. A deep red or rusty red can also feel
easy-to-read. The color depends on your overall design and what
type of audience and product you are working with.

8–In direct mail, despite what the vendors of handwritten
envelopes and letter mailing say, I have seen no proof that
handwritten outer envelopes or letters outpull typeset. If
handwriting universally outperformed typewritten, everyone would
use it all the time.

Remember, the primary functions of graphic design in advertising
are (a) to attract the reader’s eye and (b) make the copy easy to
read.

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Category: General, Writing and the Internet | 1 Comment »