Subscriber CG writes:
“What advice would you give a writer who has many interests and
talents and finds it difficult to choose a topic, theme, or genre
to write in?
“If they are new to writing full-time for a living, must they
choose a focus area to be successful?”
This aspect of freelancing — generalist vs. specialist — has
changed somewhat during my 4-plus decades as a freelance writer.
When I first started freelancing, the magazine market was wide
open — and welcome non-specialist writers with welcome arms.
The vast majority of freelance magazine article writers wrote on
almost every subject imaginable — for any magazine they could
sell their idea to.
As for books, in the early part of my author’s career — I wrote
my first book for McGraw-Hill in 1982 — I felt pretty confident
that if I came up with a good book idea, my agent would be able
to find a publisher for it.
And it pretty much worked out that say for a decade or three.
In copywriting, I was niched from day one as an industrial
copywriter, primarily because I had an engineering degree and was
But most of the copywriters back then — and there were fairly few
freelancers — came from ad agencies and would work on any type of
product for any type of client. They were generalists.
Today, it’s a bit different….
There are still plenty of magazines buying articles from
freelancers, but magazine publishing is in a downward spiral …
and so writing articles is no longer the plum assignment it was
back in the day.
Books are even more difficult.
Book publishers today only want to buy books from author’s who
have something known as a “platform.”
The two components of a platform are (a) the author has
credentials and experience in the subject matter of the book he
wants to write and (b) also has a built-in audience which
presumably will buy his book.
And of these platform components, (b) — the ability to sell lots
of copies of the book — is much more important than (a), the
author background and qualifications.
The problem is that it is difficult if not impossible to have a
strong platform with both components, (a) and (b), for more than
one or two niches or topics.
Therefore, if you publish through mainstream publishing houses,
as I do, you cannot get publishers to buy books from you in
multiple niches — e.g., gardening, computers, marketing, pets,
and whatever else interests you — because you simply can’t have
strong platforms in more than one or two areas.
The problem still exists if you self-publish.
For instance, I publish an online marketing newsletter with
These people trust me for marketing advice and many will buy new
marketing books from me.
But if I tell them about my new book on real estate (and I have
coauthored two), most won’t be interested or buy — because they
come to me for marketing and not real estate advice.
So back to CG’s question: “If they are new to writing full-time
for a living, must they choose a focus area to be successful?”
I’m afraid, CG, the answer is: yes, they must focus on a niche,
topic, or area — at least at the beginning.
There are so many more freelance writers and copywriters today
than when I started, competing with one another, that
specialization is often the key to gaining competitive advantage
Once you have many long years of experience behind you, then
specialization is not as critical, because people hear about you
through the grapevine, and if your reputation is good, many want
to work with you … although even then, the specialist usually has
the edge over the generalist.
I suspect my answer will distress CG, whom I think is a
renaissance person with wide-ranging interests who wants to write
about many subjects — but will have trouble getting clients and
projects without choosing an area of focus and sticking with it.
I empathize, because I too love to write on a wide range of
But I was lucky in that regards, because I started in a day when
generalists, not specialists, ruled.
As a result, I was able to get contracts from major publishers to
write books on many subjects that interested me — everything from
sex and Star Trek, to careers and computers, to essays and short
stories, science and vocabulary … to name just a few.
I am glad I did that when it was possible, because today, it is
much more difficult to sell a book outside your main subject
matter expertise …
… although I just did, writing my first biography, to be
published in October by Quill Driver — enormous fun for me!:
Times keep changing, and for writers with wide-ranging interests,
not always for the better.