Archive for the 'Writing' Category

Self-publishing: the good, the bad, and the ugly

March 24th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Whenever I mention that I prefer traditional publishing to
self-publishing, two things happen.

First, I get a slew of e-mails from writers telling me
traditional publishing is awful — small advances, low royalties,
and publishers not promoting their books.

Second, I get another flood of e-mails from authors telling me
that they or other self-publishers are “crushing it,” making
money hand over fist.

They often cite Amanda Hocking, who has sales of over $2.5
million for her self-published Kindle e-book.

But according to a survey of 1,007 self-publishing authors by the
web site Taleist, conducted by Dave Cornford and Steven Lewis in
2011 (yes, it’s a bit dated), the truth is quite different.

“The majority of the information out there is about the outliers,
whose success is inspiring, but as we can now confirm bears scant
resemblance to the experience of most authors,” said Dave
Cornford and Steven Lewis.

According to their survey, half of self-published authors make
less than $500 a year.

That’s because, as reported in a 2015 article by Chris McMullen,
the average self-published book sells less than 250 copies.

Derek Murphy, an expert in independent publishing, says, “The
average self-published author spends $2,000 to $5,000 to publish
their books, and few earn any money.”

If you spend two grand and sell 250 copies, you are losing a lot
of money on your self-published book!

By comparison, in traditional publishing, the money flows from
publisher to author, even though advances are much smaller today
than when I started writing books 25 years ago.

The mainstream publishers not only give you money up front; they
also pay for everything, from printing and cover design to
editing and proofreading — saving you a considerable amount of
cash.

The bell curve for self-publishing is skewed, with less than 10%
of self-published authors earning about three-quarters of the
total revenues from sales of self-published books.

The average self-publisher from the group surveyed by Taleist
earns just $10,000 a year.

Notice also that many self-publishers with good sales, from El
James (“Fifty Shades of Grey”), Robert Ringer (“Looking Out for
#1”), and Roger von Oech (“A Whack on the Side of the Head”)
either immediately or eventually look for and get a deal with a
mainstream publishing house.

Take note: I am not saying mainstream publishing is great or the
better way to go.

My purpose here is to just present some cold, hard facts for all
those self-publishing cheerleaders I constantly hear from to
ponder — and to inform the rest of us about the good, the bad,
and the ugly of being your own publisher.

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Is your participle dangling?

March 21st, 2017 by Bob Bly

While channel surfing, I came across a horror movie, and the
description at the bottom of the screen read:

“Stranded in the countryside, a monstrous scarecrow terrorizes a
group of teens.”

This is one of the most common grammar mistakes, and it is called
a dangling participle or dangling modifier.

The first part of the sentence — “stranded in the countryside” —
modifies or describes a noun in the second part of the sentence.

In this example, it is obviously the teens who are stranded and
being terrorized by the scarecrow.

We know this because if the teens were not stranded, they could
just leave and avoid the monster.

The sentence should read: “Stranded in the countryside, a group
of teens is terrorized by a monstrous scarecrow.”

The dangling modifier is a common mistake in the lead paragraph
of business letters.

For instance, here is the opening of a letter written by a sales
rep to warehouse managers, selling an inventory control software
system.

It begins, “As a warehouse manager, I know inventory control is
critical to your success.”

This is wrong because it says the letter writer — “I” — is a
warehouse manager, which he is not.

The correct grammar would be: “As a warehouse manager, you know
that inventory control is critical to your success.”

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Are typos a big deal?

February 14th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Subscriber TW writes:

“Bob, here’s a question I’d love to see you address in one of
your e-mails: Have you noticed the constant misspellings and
incorrect homonyms on the web and in e-mails? People not knowing
the difference between ‘to,’ ‘two,’ and ‘too’ — or ‘there’ and
‘their’? Terrible grammar?

“Did you think that the ability to dictate on smartphones and
other devices and our reliance on spellcheck and text shorthand
(“r u home?”) is dumbing us down? Either that or is it
desensitizing us to these types of errors?”

Well, we have always lived with spelling and grammar mistakes —
but yes, they have definitely increased in e-mail and on web
sites. What’s the reason for the proliferation of typos online?

In e-mail, it’s two things.

First, people are crushingly busy today. So they dash off their
e-mails as fast as they can, without reading them over or even
using the e-mail proofing function.

Second, some people believe that e-mails don’t have to be as
flawless as a traditional letter. And so they are sloppy e-mail
writers.

Unfortunately, many of their e-mail recipients are aghast when they
see bad grammar and spelling errors. As a result, such mistakes
distract your readers, diverting attention to the typos and away
from the content of the message.

Some readers even lower their opinion of you and what you are
saying if there is even a single misspelling.

As for web content, there are also two reasons for the
proliferation of spelling and grammar mistakes in web pages,
white papers, blogs, and other online writing.

First, back in the day, before the Internet, when our writing was
all print, we proofread carefully, because if an error was found
after a magazine article, direct mail letter, or product brochure
was printed, it would cost a fortune to go back to press. So we
were much more careful.

Today, if you write and post a new web page, and someone spots
typos, they can quickly and easily be corrected at virtually zero
cost. Easy peasy, no biggie.

Second, with large web sites having dozens or hundreds of pages,
many of the pages come from different sources — product bulletins,
articles, blogs, press releases, newsletters — some of which were
created for other purposes and then repurposed on the site.

So many firms either just don’t have or are not willing to devote
the time to carefully proof each new page.

It’s not that they don’t think proofreading is important, but
rather it is not at the top of their priority list, and they do
not have the bandwidth or resources to get to it.

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Is copywriting the most humbling of professions?

January 20th, 2017 by Bob Bly

It mystifies me how it has come to pass that so many copywriters
have huge egos.

After all, copywriting is one of the most humbling professions I
can think of.

My colleague BC explains it this way:

“So many times I have put together a campaign, launched it, and
sat back and said ‘work, damn it, WORK’ — and it did not. Very
humbling.

“And by the same token, I launched what I thought was watered
down drivel — and saw it pull like gangbusters.”

Any copywriter who says every campaign is a winner and claims he
has never had any losers is either a liar, or putting out very
little work, or not swinging for the fences to beat strong
controls.

Once, I mentioned to a big-name client that I thought their top
go-to copywriter, a famous freelancer, was great.

She snorted derisively and said, “He has more losers for us than
I can count.”

Another big-name client confided in me that a legendary
copywriter they used wrote 7 promotions in a row that bombed for
them.

Once, my client PN called me and said, “You want a laugh?”

On my recommendation, PN had called Mr. X, a famous copywriter,
because PN’s company had way too much work for me to handle
alone.

“I asked the guy what percentage of his promotions were winners,”
PN told me. “You know what he said? 100%! Ha! I sure hung up the
phone fast!”

Another famous copywriter wrote a package for a new client that
was so brilliant and creative, the client began recommending the
writer to all his cronies.

Then weeks passed, until one day, the famous copywriter got a
phone call from the client who said abruptly: “Remember that
package you did for me? Total bomb. Didn’t work.”

The copywriter was stunned … and the referrals all dried up.

By the way, all of the copywriters I am talking about here are
actually tops in the field.

The point is that even the best copywriters don’t write winners
every time.

Like Mr. X, any copywriter who says every single one of his
promotions is a home run is a liar.

And given that even the best copywriters write packages that
bomb, it is a mystery to me why so many copywriters out there
have huge egos.

If anything, being a copywriter is a humbling profession.

One day you can be king of the world, and the next week eating
humble pie.

And that’s the way it is, despite all the bragging you read by
copywriters on Facebook and elsewhere to the contrary.

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Enthusiasm: the key to great writing

January 10th, 2017 by Bob Bly

One of the factors that can elevate your writing to the next
level of effectiveness and power is enthusiasm.

By that I mean enthusiasm both for the subject matter as well as
the particular piece you are writing, whether it’s an essay,
article, book, ad, blog post, or sales letter.

When you are enthusiastic about what you are writing, that
excitement and caring will shine through in your words.

But some writers tell me that mustering enthusiasm is a problem,
because they don’t think what they are writing is unique,
valuable, or important.

A sales trainer writing a book on selling so he could get more
speaking gigs said to me, “There are already so many books on
selling, I question why I am even bothering to produce one more.”

And I see his point.

A copywriter working on a promotion for a prostate supplement
told me, “There are so many products in this category, and they
all seem to have the same ingredients — plus, not having prostate
problems myself, I can’t say from personal experience that this
one actually works.”

Well, the great novelist John Steinbeck had a simple solution to
putting enthusiasm into your writing even in situations such as
these.

He said: “The writer must believe that what he is doing is the
most important thing in the world. And he must hold to this
illusion even when he knows it is not true.”

For instance, I am not a truck mechanic, so I am never going to
use the tools for fleet maintenance my client sells. I wouldn’t
even know how.

But DS, my client, loves what he sells. Tools and truck
maintenance are his passion. He communicates that love to me when
I interview him, and so I am able to muster what I call
“temporary enthusiasm.”

You see, you do not have to love everything you are writing
about. What you DO have to do is become excited and jazzed about
it during the weeks or months you are writing about it. I call
this “temporary enthusiasm.”

And that you can do. I do it all the time. You can too.

Now, there are two additional methods in addition to “temporary
enthusiasm” that can help you have a more positive attitude
toward your writing assignments.

The first is to gravitate toward clients whose products or
industries you absolutely love, or if not love, at least really
like or are interested in.

For instance, one of my copywriting clients is a major science
fiction publisher. I love SF (I am a published science fiction
writer), so doing their work is pure joy for me.

Another makes chemical agents for fire suppression. While I don’t
“love” fire suppression, I am a chemical engineer, and I DO love
writing about interesting technology — and theirs is indeed
fascinating.

The second technique for avoiding lack of enthusiasm in your
writing is to turn down projects in which you have zero interest
if not outright disdain for.

In 1982, the first year of my freelance copywriting career, when
things were lean, a mainstream book publisher asked me to write 5
direct mail packages, one each for a different book.

Thrilled to get the call, I asked him the subject matter.

When he replied that it was hunting, I was crestfallen, and —
painfully, because I needed the work, the portfolio samples, and
the money — I turned it down.

Why? Because I love animals, and knew I could not write with
enthusiasm or credibility about the joy of killing them —
something I would never do.

The client was actually offended, because he thought I was saying
hunting is wrong or evil.

(Quickest way in the world to start an argument: tell a hunter
you think hunting is wrong. He will immediately say: “You eat
meat, right?”)

I was not saying that hunting was immoral. If people want to
hunt, they have the legal right to do so. I just don’t understand
why they would do it … or how they could get pleasure out of it.

Some say, “Well, I like to be out in the woods and nature.” I
say, “So go out and enjoy nature — but don’t kill it.”

I simply don’t like the idea of hunting, and while I am not doing
anything to stop it, I certainly am not going to promote it,
either.

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Copywriting: the good, the bad, and the ugly

January 6th, 2017 by Bob Bly

Is freelance copywriting being oversold as a business
opportunity, with those who write about it looking through
rose-colored glasses?

Well, in some ways yes. But so is just about every business
opportunity and profession under the sun.

One of the problems with business opportunities in general
and freelance copywriting in particular is you always hear the
great success stories … but no one is forthcoming about the
bad stuff that happens.

Nothing in this life is all sunshine and flowers. Every job,
career, business opportunity, or small business has its pros and
cons.

Freelance copywriting is no exception. There are a lot of good
things. But also some bad things.

The good far outnumber the bad; if that were not the case, I
wouldn’t still be a freelance copywriter after nearly 4 decades
in the business.

But almost everyone tells you only about the good stuff. And only
a few willingly tell the total truth — the bad along with the good.

One famous copywriter recently wrote to me and said:

“I’ll tell you a story about the week between Christmas and New
Year’s that shows what life is like for a freelance copywriter
like myself!

“This happened years ago. I just finished a magalog for one of
the big financial publishers a few days before Christmas.

“They got back to me on the day before Christmas and said it
needed a massive rewrite. So I spent that whole week between
Christmas and New Year’s working 12-hour days trying to rewrite
the whole thing from scratch.

“Then on December 31st, they called me–before I’d even submitted
the revised copy–and said, ‘Look, we’ve decided this is so far
off base, we’d rather pay you the fee and kill it.’ The worst
part was knowing I could’ve spent that week relaxing!”

The fact is, almost anything you can do for a living in this
world has both pros and cons.

Freelance copywriting is no exception.

And that’s the way it is.

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Is simple writing the best writing?

December 20th, 2016 by Bob Bly

RS, an ad agency creative director, wrote the following in a
recent article on branding:

“Today, the emerging big brands among us are those that are
bringing the future to fruition — changing how we exist,
interact, and sustain our lives. They’re making social networks,
self-driving cars, hoverboards, and holograms.

“And most interesting of all, this new class of brand is led by a
visionary founder with a particular philosophy, not by a
corporate entity acting out a product roadmap against established
brand guidelines and architecture.

“People like Elon Musk, Evan Spiegel, and Mark Zuckerberg are
pursuing innovation across product and business lines that
sometimes don’t organize quite as neatly under a parent company
as the businesses of yesteryear had, and instead are branded in
siloes.”

Is this good writing?

I would bet that when RS read his draft, he was glowing with
pride at his highfalutin, breathless prose.

But in my forthcoming book on writing, I will use it as an
example of how NOT to write … and in my writing seminars my
students call this one, “What did he say?”

To me, it stinks, because RS violates an important rule of good
writing:

“Write to express — not to impress.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald mocked Hemingway for Ernie’s simple, basic
vocabulary and plain, unadorned style.

“He thinks I don’t know the ten dollar words,” Hemingway said of
Fitzgerald’s criticism. “I do. I just prefer the $1 words
instead.”

When I first started teaching business and technical writing
seminars for corporate clients, I would occasionally have an
attendee who, when I said simple and plain writing is best,
argued with me.

They said they had been taught all their life to write in a
formal, corporate style — and the conversational style I was
teaching in the class was wrong and inappropriate for business.

I would show these naysayers the Flesch readability test; they
usually remained unpersuaded.

But when I got into direct response copywriting, I finally had
objective proof — not just subjective opinion — to support my
assertion that simple writing is the best writing … at least when
it comes to communication.

And the proof is this: almost without exception, virtually every
successful direct response promotion is written in clear,
concise, conversational copy.

It’s the style used by John Forde … Clayton Makepeace … Richard
Armstrong … Ivan Levison … Paul Hollingshead … Steve Slaunwhite …
and just about every top six- and seven-figure copywriter I know.

Why? Because it is plain English that virtually always gets the
best response — proving that when it comes to communicating,
simple writing is the best writing.

And it’s not just my personal opinion that clear writing trumps
ornate writing, and that plain language communicates more
effectively than big words.

It’s a tested fact.

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What to do when your client wants more than just the copy

December 9th, 2016 by Bob Bly

Subscriber JA writes, “I am finding clients who say they want a
copywriter, and then ask for additional services such as design
and web development, including programming. How do you sell them
on just the writing aspect that they need first and foremost?”

I do three simple things that solve the problem easily and
neatly.

First, I send them a link to my FAQ page where it states the
following:

“Q: What if I need graphics, not just the copy? Do you work with
an artist?”

“A: I work with the best direct-mail artists and web designers in
the world, but it’s not a package deal. After you hire me, I’ll
give you some recommendations on the right artist for your job
and you can come to terms with him or her on your own. I can also
work with your artist or web developer, if you prefer. Either way
is fine with me.”

I stole this language from Richard Armstrong. We are in essence
saying, “We can get you the other parts of the project you need,
but we don’t act as an ad agency or manage the project for you.”

Second, I make it easy for the client to find vendors who can
provide whatever they need that I don’t do — by posting a vendor
directory page on my site:

http://www.bly.com/newsite/Pages/vendors.php

When a client asks “What will a mailing list or design for my web
site cost?” I don’t go out and get a quote from the vendor. I
point the client to the vendor’s page link above — and tell them
they have to contact the vendor directly to get the pricing.

Third, after all this, there will still be a few clients who will
only hire you to write their copy if you also act as a full-service
agency and deliver the entire package.

In such situations, you can say one of two things: Yes. Or no.

If you are in such demand as a copywriter that you have many more
potential clients than you can handle, then sticking by your
guns, saying you write copy only, and refusing to provide full
agency services is easy.

That’s the option I have chosen: fill my lead pipeline to
overflowing so I only have to take the jobs I want. And projects
where the client wants me to “do the whole thing” are jobs I do
not want. So I turn them down.

On the other hand, if you are hungry and need the work, turning
away good assignments from clients who demand a turnkey service
is more difficult, and you may choose to give them what they
want. It’s up to you.

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