Get free government grants that you never have to pay back!

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Okay, now that I have your attention…

When I worked as a grants director for a women’s college, I would occasionally receive the odd request for funds from individuals. Inevitably, they were hand-written and stuffed into a colored envelope of some kind and smelled faintly of desperation. I think I received a handful a year, but they were memorable. There was one from a single mother who needed money to pay her bills. Another one was from a woman who needed money to help with everyday expenses, which had become untenable since she became the sole caregiver of her ailing elderly father. They were heartbreaking, even more so since there was really nothing I could do for them. After all, my job was solely to solicit grants from foundations, corporations and individuals for the college, not to disburse them to the public. If only.

One thing all the letters had in common was that they all mentioned that they found my contact information from the infamous Free Money Man himself, Matthew Lesko. You know the guy. (And no, I’m not linking to his Web site. I’m annoyed with him enough without throwing him any traffic.) He’s the one who wears those blazers with the question marks printed on them; he screams at the camera at the top of his lungs and tells you all about the “free money” that’s available from the government. Uh-huh. He basically repackages information anyone with a quarter of a brain can find themselves for free from government Web sites, and then charges a nice little fee for the privilege. He has plenty of critics and is frequently charged with broadcasting misleading advertising, but he’s still around and still taking suckers’ money.

I didn’t take the time to actually track down this book that my correspondents claimed had my information in it, but I had little doubt that it was true. Although my name and title were on the college Web site, few ordinary folks would have found me unless they were somehow associated with the college. I was appalled that Mr. Lesko would perpetuate his fraudulent practices by throwing my name into his book; surely he’s smart enough to figure out that a grant writer, especially one employed by a college, would not be in any position to give money away.

Anyway, I mention this now because I’m seeing lots and lots more people heading to the Web and seeking the “free money” scam that Mr. Lesko continues to hawk. One of my former clients is actually a young small businessman who wanted grant money to buy a farm. We had a lengthy meeting whereby I took as many notes as I could about his background, finances, etc., but cautioned him multiple times that there were likely few, if any, sources of government or private funds for land purchases. I didn’t have much experience in the area at the time, although my background in grant writing did give me enough confidence to let him know that I thought our search would likely prove futile.

He didn’t care and remained optimistic. I offered him two hours of basic research to see if his idea was viable, after which we could talk about the next step, which would have been crafting a bare-bones proposal draft. He paid me 75% of the work in advance and in cash (although I’d only requested 50%), and I went to work.

As I had predicted, no “free funds” were available for what he wanted. I dug deep into the sites of the US Department of Agriculture, the Colorado Ag dept, a few foundations, the Farm Bureau, and talked with folks from organizations such as the Future Farmers of America. My conclusion dovetailed with what I had initially predicted: unless my client had a very, very specific and research-oriented reason for buying a farm (in which case the USDA does have some grants), his only option would be to take out a low-interest loan from a lender that specializes in rural development loans, of which there are actually quite a few here in Colorado.

I wrote up my report and sent it to my client. I actually spent 2.5 hours on the project rather than the initial 2 that I had quoted, but I threw in the extra half-hour for free because a) it was an educational experience for me, and b) I liked the guy. He has a wife and little kids and really wanted to have his own farm. He had great ideas for it, and I had no doubt that he would succeed.

Of course, you could probably guess how this ended. I never heard from the client again, and I never got the remaining 25% that he still owes me. Oh well.

I suspect that he’s still out there, still believing in the hype that free money does exist, still trying to find a grant writer who would find him that elusive pot of government gold. I see variations of him on Craigslist and other job sites I haunt, folks seeking grant money because “I’m a woman” or because they “want to raise funds for my company to get off the ground” or because they need money to “pay my bills” or — and here’s a really popular one — because they have a “great idea.” I suspect that few, if any of these folks want to even consider a loan — possibly because they’re not eligible, especially in these days of tightening credit — so they fish the Web for some cheap writer to find that free money for them.

Many promise fees to the writer of over $25,000, although most wouldn’t pay more than a couple of hundred dollars, if they pay at all. Forget about the fact that writing grant proposals is a professional service that often requires hours of time at a rate upwards of $50-200 an hour. These poor souls have fallen under the Lesko Spell, the kind that seems to especially attract the gullible, the desperate, the lazy, and/or the greedy.

Folks, please get this straight: THERE IS NO FREE MONEY OUT THERE. Sure, there are plenty of grants from all levels of government (federal, state, local, tribal), but generally they’re scholarships for students, and more often than not they’re very specific in their requirements, e.g., you have to be a particular ethnic minority, go to a particular school, study a particular subject, have a parent who’s employed with a particular agency, maintain a high GPA, etc. If by some chance you are eligible and that’s what you’re looking for, you still have to apply for it — the government is likely not going to just hand it over to you. However, know this: if you’re smart enough to go to college, you’re definitely smart enough to find these grants yourself and fill out the applications without hiring someone like Matthew Lesko to do it for you.

There is no “free money” for individuals looking to buy a home.

There is no “free money” to help you start a small business.

There is no “free money” to help you pay your bills.

There is no “free money” to help you with your health care costs.

Repeat after me: There is no “free money.” There is no “free money.” There is no “free money.”

What does exist are: programs for desperate homeowners to refinance or renegotiate their mortgage payments; small business loans to qualified folks with a solid business plan; food stamps, energy rebates and other government entitlement programs for low-income Americans; and Medicaid and extension of COBRA eligibility for people needing health insurance. Many of these provisions are in the new stimulus package recently passed by Congress, which also includes plenty of tax credits for both businesses and individuals.

In other words, there is money out there, but none of it can technically be called “free,” with the possible exception of food stamps, but I doubt that these are what people have in mind when they start hunting down proposal writers.

It actually makes sense that the myth of “free money” remains just that: a myth. There’s a reason why foundations don’t simply distribute checks to outstretched hands. Grant proposals are complicated beasts, requiring not only the basic information about the potential recipient but also a damn good reason why they should hand out their funds. Donors want to know that their money is going towards a greater good, that their hard-earned cash is going to a project that will serve the greatest number of people. They want to give $1,000 or $100,000 or $1,000,000 to a program that will change a community, a country, the world, not to a single person or a group of people with more limited needs. They want to know that their money will outlast them, that they will create something that will make a difference. Imagine if UNICEF just handed out checks to all the people in Africa or Asia or South America rather than create programs that will expand education access to all children or train women to start their own microenterprises or ensure potable drinking water for a village. With very few exceptions, grant money operates on this classic principle: Give a man fish, and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man how to fish, and he’ll eat for life.

So please, if you’re thinking about maybe hiring your own proposal writer for $100 or so to help you land that “free money,” save your cash. First of all, really good proposal writers — the kind who can put together a viable proposal that may actually stand a chance of attracting funds, not the kind who will just slap together a rambling essay about why you deserve this money — are generally a kind and generous bunch, but we need to eat and pay our own bills, too, so we’ll need to charge more than a pittance for the work. Many of us will do pro bono work, but usually only for nonprofits with which they’ve worked/volunteered in the past.

And second? There is no “free money.”

The Golden Rule of Freelancing

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A meeting with an editor the other day gave me a huge, much-needed ego-boost. She mentioned several of the writers with whom she’s worked in the past who have made her professional days a nightmare filled with arrogant demands, prima donna attitude or just plain cluelessness. She pointed to my reliability and professionalism and unfailing good nature, and me being someone who was finally learned to just accept a compliment with a simple Thank You rather than arguing profusely with her, I said, well, Thank you.

These are my competition. If you’re a writer, these are your competition, too. I love reading those Writer’s Digest articles featuring true-to-life, rejected query letters and proposals, the ones threatening suicide if the publisher doesn’t accept the manuscript, or the ones listing all the editors who had rejected the submission before landing on the current editor’s desk. They remind me that, even with all the statistics out there about slush piles and the number of stories an editor may reject, the vast majority of those are actually from writers who have no idea how to actually write, much less how to submit a clean, professional-looking manuscript. The fact that I take the five seconds to call or go online to find out an editor’s name so that my query doesn’t start out with “Dear Sir/Madam” puts me way ahead of the pack already.

One thing that I’ve found over the years that I’ve been freelancing is that editors love writers who can do one thing really well, and that is, We make their jobs easier. Now, it wasn’t always like that for me. I’ve missed a deadline or two in my early years. Procrastination has always been my enemy, one I still wrestle with today, but I have not missed a deadline in years. I also do not call an editor several times over the course of a day or week and bombard her with questions about an assignment, or worse: call her up and pester her up a query I sent two minutes ago.

I’ve learned a lot of lessons as a working freelance writer since that first day I was published by a national magazine, and the funny thing is, the most important lesson is one I should have already known, given all the years I’ve spent as someone’s personal/administrative/executive assistant: My job is to make my boss’ job easier. Easy-peasy, Japan-easy. And when you’re a freelance writer, the trap we can fall into is to believe that we work for ourselves. Nuh-uh. The thing is, you work for whoever you’re writing for, and usually, that’s an editor. So to extend that lesson’s point: Your job as a freelance writer is to make your editor’s job easier.

That means:

  • Submitting professional queries and proposals that are free of grammatical, punctuation and spelling errors; are short but with just enough information about your story idea to intrigue the editor and make her want to read more; and includes a brief mention of your writing experience and publications with whom you’ve worked.
  • No calling up an editor two days or even two weeks after you’ve submitted a query and asking about your story idea. Believe me: she got it. She may not have had a chance to read it, though, and the last thing she wants is to get a phone call from an unknown writer asking her to dig through her Inbox to find your email. Editors are swamped with submissions. She’ll get to yours eventually, and if she likes it, she’ll let you know.
  • No sending queries via post without an SASE, or you risk having your query thrown out without so much as a glance. Also, no sending queries via post if the editor clearly indicates in their Writer’s Market entry that they only accept email, and vice-versa.
  • No calling up the editor a to whom you’re assigned after your idea has been accepted and asking a million questions every day or so. Find out the parameters of your assignment and start working. Ask questions only if truly necessary, and never, ever call “just to chat” unless you’re close friends with said editor. Even then, it’s just not professional to do so during working hours.
  • No demanding that the editor accept your piece as it is, regardless of the changes the latter requests from you. Remember that, chances are, the editor knows her publication’s audience better than you do and will understandably make sure that all the copy printed in each issue is written in that specific publication’s “voice.” Your essay may be the greatest story ever written, one that even Somerset Maugham himself couldn’t touch, but the editor has a job to do, and that is to address her specific audience’s needs, not yours.
  • Submitting everything on deadline, unless you’ve made prior arrangements with the editor to postpone because of an unforeseen circumstance.

Return phone calls. Track down interviewee subjects yourself. Fact-check your work, and if required, list all your sources neatly and completely for the publication’s own fact check department. Turn everything in on time, including manuscript, photos, list of interviewees and their contact information, and your invoice.

It all comes down to this: Make it your job to make your editor’s job easier. Remember that, and you’ll be way ahead of your competition.

To outsource or not to outsource

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Recently I had a conversation with two people at two separate times about my decision to outsource my transcription jobs to a contract worker in the Philippines via Elance. My new contractor has been nothing but prompt, professional, and efficient, and if she makes a few mistakes in transcribing, then she’s still a great, great bargain compared to what I would ordinarily pay a transcriber based here in the United States.

The first person I spoke with is actually an editor with whom I’ve worked extensively in the past. She understood completely what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. She’s a small biz person herself, as a publisher of a fledgling glossy magazine that was only launched in the past year. As the publisher and a former writer/editor herself, she wears a number of hats in her organization — co-editor with another person, business manager, advertising representative, distribution manager, etc. — but has yet to pay herself a salary. The magazine — a well-received, much-lauded publication — was launched at what may have been possibly the worst time, with the economy zooming into a downward spiral, magazines and newspapers all over the country shuttering their doors and her biggest advertiser closing up shop just two months after the inaugural issue. In other words, even with the accolades, she’s struggling.

Still, she has a lot going for her. The magazine doesn’t have a central office, just a P.O Box and a staff of half a dozen or so who work from their homes. Since the town in which they operate is rather small, and they’ve all known each other for decades, they’re a smoothly run operation and can get together within minutes from wherever they are. They run a very tight ship, and while they don’t pay writers a lot, they do at least pay separately for photography, so an enterprising scribe with a basic understanding of how a camera works and how to compose a good shot can make more money submitting photos to accompany her article than for the article itself — and for a lot less work! (Yes, I’ve done that several times, and it’s fantastic.)

But even with such efficiency, she’s still a small business owner struggling in an economic climate, and she completely sympathizes with my need to outsource this tedious job to a relatively low-wage worker overseas. I don’t pay quarterly taxes — yet! — because I file a Schedule C along with my husband’s full-time salary, and it always comes out to a hefty refund for us. However, my accounting software does let me know in no uncertain terms what my estimated quarterly taxes would be, based solely on my business’ revenue and if I weren’t combining it with B.’s salary. And as someone who almost made it to five-figures last year, I can tell you that it wasn’t a pretty number. If I remember correctly, I was looking at an almost 40% tax bite.

Woof.

I have no problems paying taxes at all. I understand that it’s patriotic to do so, that we wouldn’t have all these great services and privileges we Americans enjoy if the federal and state governments didn’t have the ability to pay for it. On the other hand, it’s also discouraging to have the government pay lip-service to small businesses — supposedly the “engine” of our economy and the last great hope we have of pulling ourselves out of this recession — while at the same time extracting huge chunks of our already tiny revenue.

Now do you see why I seek every means possible of lowering my expenses, even at the cost of outsourcing to a deserving, but more expensive fellow American? If I were to do that, considering the relatively low pay many publications are now offering, I wouldn’t even break even, let alone make even the tiniest profit.

You see, the second — albeit brief — conversation I had regarding my outsourcing was with, you guessed it, a professional transcriptionist based right here in the good ol’ USA. Now, granted, I actually don’t know how much she charges. Based on what I’ve been quoted in the past, though, I’m probably looking at at least $40-$45 per recorded hour, and possibly even more. I’ve seen rates upwards of $80-100 per recorded hour. A couple of virtual assistants have asked for $45 per hour of transcribing, so if she took two hours or more to transcribe a one-hour audio file, I could be looking at $90+.

Yikes. Some of my assigned articles that require interviews are for under $100. A few are $50-75. At that rate, I might as well save myself the money and do the transcribing myself. Otherwise, I would have just spent 50-100% of my income just on the transcription.

I would love to give the job to a fellow American worker. But considering the tax rates and the relatively low pay many publications offer their writers, it’s just not feasible. Perhaps in the future, when I can command $4/word assignments from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Right now, though, I’m on a very thin shoestring budget. The bottom line is that I have to think about my own business before I can think about anyone else’s. It’s just the nature of the beast. And for now, Elance it is.

Customer may not always be right, but they should be respected

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You’d think that, in the middle of a horrendous recession such as what we’re experiencing now, with Americans zipping their wallets shut, staying home and away from the malls, and eating in more often, companies would be falling all over themselves to provide superior customer service. As if their very lives depended on it. And if you consider just how close many companies are to declaring bankruptcy or shutting down altogether, what with tight credit markets and a shrinking customer base, their very lives actually do depend on it.

Well, maybe not for some people.

Case in point: my not-so-dependable Avon rep. Now, granted, my Avon rep is not a huge corporation (although the company that makes the products she sells is), but in a legal and technical sense she is a small business owner whose very existence depends on good customer service. Direct selling companies like Avon, Mary Kay, Tupperware, and others rely on the reputation and services of their representatives to make money. Customers have an unlimited universe of options to choose from when it comes to commodities like beauty products.

Sure, brand loyalty can play a role in a customer’s choice of product, but in reality most women shop for cosmetics and skincare products like they do clothes: whatever catches their fancy. Even women who’ve experienced stellar results from a particular line will occasionally stray to a competing one, “just to try it out.” Alienating that enormous audience, especially at the point-of-transaction, can result in a loss of those customers.

I’ve worked with my Avon rep for a few months now, at least since last summer. She has a somewhat indifferent personality and can take days to respond to an online order request, if she does it at all. Usually I place an order online and then wait for her to call me when it comes in. I would appreciate an acknowledgment or even a simple “Thanks for your order,” whether via email or over the phone, but I’ve gotten used to her silence.

A month ago, however, I ordered several products on her Web site, and it was only yesterday that I heard from her, via a message left on my voicemail. She had mumbled something about a “mix-up” and how that resulted in the delayed order, but otherwise acted as if nothing was amiss.

Now, I ran out of my products weeks ago. I could have picked up the phone or shot her an email asking for an update, but frankly, why should I make the effort? I’m her customer, after all. As a writer and small business person, I’m busy enough without having to also add “Track down Avon Lady” to my to-do list.

Ironically, I had actually given up on her just an hour before she left that message. I broke down and finally contacted another Avon rep in town. The latter wasn’t much friendlier than my original one, but at least she thanked me for the order and promised me that she would get my products before I left Grand Junction in two weeks. After I hung up with her I saw the flashing light indicating a message on my telephone and heard my original Avon rep make that lame-ass excuse about my delayed order.

Good customer service? Not even close. Neither of these women bowled me over. I’ve worked as a Mary Kay rep before and understand that it can be a very demanding job. Representatives who reach the pinnacle of success — the pink car, the lavish Caribbean vacations — have done so through sheer hard work, dogged determination, and a killer customer service policy. They do the following, and more:

  • Return phone calls promptly.
  • Take every single opportunity to thank the customer: when the latter places the order, when they receive the order, when they pay for the order, and many, many other times in between orders.
  • Give the customer lots of opportunities to try out new products without commitment, i.e., free samples. Mary Kay — and I assume, Avon — sells inexpensive sample sizes to representatives as marketing tools. In the six months or so I’ve worked with my Avon rep, I’ve not once received a free sample.
  • Make it super-easy to order and receive their products. My Avon rep has not once visited my home. I usually pick up my order at her house. Now, caveat: usually my schedule is such that I would prefer to be able to just swing by her house rather than wait for her to come to me. She lives only five minutes away, after all. Still, sometimes I get the feeling that it’s actually an inconvenience for her to make the delivery.
  • Never treat you as if you’re an inconvenience.

My Avon rep reminds me sometimes of something I read about Dolly Lenz. It’s said that the Manhattan power broker sells more real estate than anyone in the country. Now, realistically she may not actually sell more properties, but it’s undisputed that she is #1 in the U.S. in terms of the value of all properties sold. Estimates are that she’s sold about $7 billion of real estate since she began her career twenty years ago.

In an interview with The Observer a couple of years ago, when asked about the secret to her success, she’s quoted as saying, “I think it’s mostly that I truly just work so much more. You know, most people in real estate don’t work; it’s not a job of workers.”

Some people might consider that an incredibly arrogant statement, but frankly, I suspect that there’s some truth in what she said. How many times have you heard of friends or distant acquaintances who got themselves real estate licenses in order to make money off the housing bubble? I’ve met part-time real estate agents in attendance at writers’ conferences; holding garage sales; hanging around the coffee shop. Most had gotten a license simply because they thought there was money to be made. They didn’t realize the enormous amount of real, actual work that goes into those big, moneymaking deals.

Lenz admits to sleeping very little and seeing her children even less. She juggles anywhere from one to twelve Blackberrys and runs 10 miles a day in Central Park just to maintain her high-energy career and life. I wouldn’t necessarily hold her up as a prime example (I need my eight hours, preferably nine; I turn off my one smartphone at night; and I’d like to see my [future] kids more often than five minutes a week), but she hit the nail right on the head about what success demands from most people: lots of hard, dirty work.

I sucked at selling Mary Kay because I had a full-time job and just didn’t have the energy or inclination to really pound the pavement looking for clients. I disliked asking friends to host in-home facial parties, which are critical to selling MK. I didn’t have the nerve to approach total strangers (which I’d seen one successful MK rep do in a TV documentary about salespeople) and start my spiel. In other words, I just didn’t work it.

Lenz makes millions of dollars a year because she’s willing to do hit the road, talk to strangers, even eat several dinners and lunches a day to be available to her clients. Most real estate salespeople I know operate like I did when I sold Mary Kay — I waited for people to come to me. While I was unfailingly nice to those few customers I did have, I rarely took the initiative.

My Avon rep, simply put, isn’t a worker. She epitomizes the fallacy of the Avon (or Mary Kay, Tupperware, etc.) business plan, that it can be something you do “in your free time.” Clients understand in theory the idea of “God first, then family…” but in reality, when we want our products, we don’t want to have to hunt you down and then feel as if you’ll only respond to my needs when it’s convenient to you. That’s how my Avon rep made me feel, and that’s why I’m dropping her. When I return to Dallas, I’ll be on the hunt for another Avon rep, one who doesn’t disappear for weeks on end and who considers it a privilege to earn my business.

That’s how I like to think I operate with my own small biz. I haven’t always been the best vendor — I may the only freelance writer alive who will admit that she has missed a couple of deadlines in the distant past — but I’ve learned from my mistakes. I work very, very hard. I’m constantly trying to think of new ways to make work easier for my clients. It hasn’t yet translated to million-dollar success, but I’m confident that my business will continue to grow, even with the current economic crisis.

I can’t say the same for my erstwhile Avon rep, though.

My experience as an Elance buyer

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Like many freelance entrepreneurs, I’ve avoided Elance the last few years. For those of you unfamiliar with the site, it’s basically an online marketplace for professional vendors like writers, designers, Web developers, coders, and other service-oriented folks to bid on projects for clients around the world. Freelance writers flock to the site to bid on everything from blogging jobs to grant writing projects to business plan development. Vendors can be from anywhere in the world, from the U.S. to Bangalore to Manila to Shanghai.

It sounds like the perfect place for a creative entrepreneur like me to spend some time in, especially since just about everything is done through the site, i.e., bidding, project management, client interface, and payment. Elance gets a percentage of the fees that buyers give to vendors, even instituting an Escrow system whereby buyers can deposit funds through the Elance Escrow account and not have to release it to the vendor until the latter has completed the work to the buyer’s satisfaction. There have been complaints from vendors about losing payment or dealing with nightmare clients, but for the most part, it seems to work fairly smoothly. Like that other great online marketplace, eBay, there are definite downsides to the site, but for many freelancers around the world — especially those who live in remote areas with a tiny client base — it can be a godsend.

Unfortunately, however, that same open accessibility to any entrepreneur around the world is what hinders many U.S.-based freelancers from taking advantage of the site. When you’re competing with a writer from India or the Philippines for jobs that pay no more than $5 or so an article, press release, or blog post, for example, it can be difficult to earn even a decent part-time income on it. Who wants to write 10-50 articles of 500-750 words a piece for $20-50 a week, if that much? That number of articles alone is a full-time job, with the rewards barely enough to pay a single utility bill. Money-wise, you’d be better off working at Starbucks. At least you’d get health insurance benefits, even for part-time work.

There will always be a group of truly professional buyers who understand that you get what you pay for, and that paying someone $1 a blog post is asking for a lower quality of work than paying someone $50 a blog post. I’m not saying that the folks in Mumbai or Manila are guaranteed to offer poor performance, as there are plenty who provide excellent service and work. However, because the majority of heavy Internet users are in the U.S., hiring someone who is familiar with American culture and society only through what they see on TV and read in the newspapers is a wholly different experience from hiring someone from within that culture. I know that there’s a newspaper out in California that has outsourced their content (of local City Council meetings, no less) to Indian writers, but that weird exception aside, I still stand by my conviction that writing is very culture-specific, and content that is written from an outsider’s viewpoint is subpar to that written by someone intimately knowledgeable about the target group, culture, organization, or agency. If you simply want the facts, perhaps outsourcing to an outsider is appropriate, but then what do we have journalism for? I could just go directly to the City Council’s Web site and download the minutes myself. I want analysis and critique and can only get that from someone on the ground.

So I’ve avoided Elance specifically because I refuse to compete on price when it comes to offering my services. It’s one thing for Wal-Mart to do that, but then again, I don’t generally shop at Wal-Mart. Competing on price may work for the short-term, but that’s no way to earn a decent living. Plus, you’ll always have people who look at your work rather skeptically, the same way I look upon Wal-Mart’s discount wares, i..e, if it’s really that cheap, it’s gotta be crap.

Recently, however, I had an opportunity to rethink my aversion to Elance. Not as a vendor, however, but as a buyer. That’s right: rather than being the writer begging for scraps, I’m now the client picking from a number of low-cost service providers.

It’s one thing to outsource something as complex a project as journalism — which, while the barriers to entry aren’t necessarily super-high like, say, rocket scientist, still requires a certain advanced skill level — but quite another to do so on something mundane and relatively simple. In my case, I needed a transcriptionist.

I’ve been doing my own transcription for years now, and while I’m quite good at it — I type a minimum of 100 wpm with an average 2% error rate — it’s quite possibly the one thing I hate the most about freelancing. It’s tedious to have to go over the same interview with my recorder, spending hours that I could use to market my business or work on something I’m actually getting paid to write. I’m not paid to transcribe, but to craft a good article, press release, proposal, or whatever for my client.

I did look into hiring a virtual assistant or transcriptionist a year or so ago, but the rates I was being quoted would have amounted to surrendering at least 50% of the fees I was getting from my editors. It wasn’t worth it to me, and since I still consider myself in the launch phase of my business (even though it’s been a year), it made more sense to do the work myself rather than pay someone a huge chunk of my fee to do it for me. When I’m only making $75 an article, for example, I wasn’t too keen on doling out $40 of that just for a transcript of an interview.

Well, the other day it dawned on me that — duh — why can’t I use Elance to find a reliable transcriptionist? So I logged on to the site and started poking around. The site is very user-friendly to buyers, allowing you to search for particular specialties (Transcription for me, but you can also find UNIX programmers, virtual assistants, PayPal specialists, graphic designers, etc.) and even narrow your query down to Country of Origin.

I did a quick search of transcriptionists, then narrowed it down to vendors based in the Philippines. I thought, Well, if I’m going to hire someone from a developing country, I should at least help out my fellow Pinoys and Pinays. I chose three vendors, two of whom were relatively new to Elance and who hadn’t yet won a project. None of them charged over $5 an hour.

There were actually several vendors who offered their services for $3/hour, but the Wal-Mart analogy kicked in, i.e., Do I really want to lowball a project that’s such a significant part of my article writing? $5/hour seemed to be a good average among the transcriptionists on the site, and I figured, Well, I could try it out for one project, and if it doesn’t work out, I would only be out $5.

Only one of the vendors responded to my bid; she had been on Elance for a few months but had not won a project. She’s a professional transcriptionist in her day job, so it seemed a good fit. Plus, there was just something about her photograph, you know? In her picture she seemed professional and trustworthy. I know, I know, it’s hard to tell anything about anyone simply from a photo, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut.

I awarded her the project and asked her to transcribe a 16-minute interview that I had conducted over the telephone. Within two hours of receiving the audio file, she emailed me to let me know that she was done.

Yeah. Color me shocked.

I quickly perused the file she sent, and with the minor exception of a couple of misspelled words, it was perfect. She had already asked me about unintelligible parts of the audio file, so I knew to expect time stamped segments that she couldn’t catch, but there were relatively few of those. The fact that she had it done in what I consider record time — especially since it was in the middle of the night in the Philippines — was proof enough for me that I had found a winner.

I’ve since had her complete a dozen or so more interviews, and each time she’s nailed each and every deadline. When I have her transcribe a particularly problematic interview (lots of background noise, for example), or if I have a really tight deadline, I double her pay and am more than happy to do so. At $10 per audio hour, that’s $20 — still a bargain when you consider that U.S.-based transcriptionists often charge several times that for the same audio file. She doesn’t always hit every single word on the page (e.g., she wrote “scroll” instead of “sprawl”), but her accuracy rate is about 95%, which is perfectly acceptable to me and my needs.

I know that some will argue that I’m contributing to the outsourcing of valuable U.S. jobs, taking away work that Americans can do and handing it over to underpaid foreign workers. It’s a valid argument. But as a small business operator in a very, very competitive environment, I simply couldn’t afford to grow my business without such inexpensive labor. Very few small businesses can, especially those that are in the creative markets. I, too, am competing against qualified, cheap professionals from overseas. I’m using whatever tools are at my arsenal — free or cheap open-source software, cloud computing, Elance — to maintain my business and still offer high-quality services.

Is it for everyone? Small businesses might appreciate the chance to hire contract workers for their IT, graphic design, and yes, writing needs at very affordable rates. Is it guaranteed to work for everyone? I concede that I may have gotten lucky on finding my super-duper transcriptionist. An article I read in a recent issue of BusinessWeek featured one Elance buyer who was burned by the IT guys he hired through the site from India. He forked over $750 and received mediocre work in return; essentially, they just “tweaked some sample designs.” He complained to the Elance folks and was able to get his money back. He did try again, however, and found another firm that charged him $1,000 and did excellent work. The firm is based in — guess where — Oregon. Of the new firm, he says, “It was a match made in heaven.”

I might try my luck again at bidding for projects on Elance as a vendor, but for now I’m very, very happy as a buyer. As my business grows, I hope to pay her more, and perhaps even hire a virtual assistant. Someday.

Take control of something, i.e., your business

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One of my favorite writing mentors, Angela Hoy (she of WritersWeekly.com fame), wrote an exasperated intro to this week’s newsletter. Dear Angela is apparently inundated with query letters proposing articles around the subject of “How To Survive the Economy.”

I agree with her insistence that the recession shouldn’t be used as an excuse for freelance writers to throw up their hands and surrender to the relentlessly depressing news no CNBC. (Not that there’s anything wrong with CNBC. It’s an oddly invigorating network to watch first thing in the morning, with or without coffee.) I’ve found that I’m actually making more money from one particular publication I’ve worked with in the past. They’ve let go of a number of staffers and are now relying more on freelancers, and since I’ve been one of their most reliable ones, I’m at the top of their list of go-to folks for when they need a piece.

I’m worried about the economy myself, and even more so whenever I open up the employment ads in the newspaper and notice…nothing. The Free Press actually had just two job listings just the other day. If my freelancing collapses altogether (God forbid), I don’t have the luxury of falling back into a 9-5 cube job to take up the slack, as I did even just last year. Two years ago I sent my resume to a local company and received a request for an interview within two hours. Obviously, times have changed.

Still, I refuse to be worried. I’ve been accused of being too optimistic in the past, but I think this is a case where I just can’t worry about things I can’t control, i.e., the overall economy. I can, however, work on things that are under my control, including my business. I’ve several business ideas I want to roll out and try over the next six months, and while I may have to do some old-fashioned bootstrapping in order to do many of them, that’s okay with me. I have one eye firmly fixed on the post-recession era, when people will be breathing easier and are looking for businesses to meet their pent-up demands for services and information. It may take awhile to get there (I’ve heard estimates of anywhere from a year to five from analysts trying to predict when the economy will finally hit bottom and start its long, slow climb back up again.), but I’ll use that time to my advantage and really work on the business so that I’ll be ready.

Beware the "writing sample"

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I love — absolutely love — when I respond to a dodgy-looking job posting from some anonymous “Web marketing company” trolling for writers, and I get an email requesting the same information that they could have gotten off my Web site and/or attached resume. Oh, and of course they have the audacity to demand a “500-600 word sample article” about some broad subject that cannot have been published elsewhere, either online or in print. They claim that they have too many people applying for the position, so in order to winnow out the “legitimate” writers from the wanna-bes, they decided to ask everyone to submit a brand-spankin’ new article made just to their specs.

In other words, out of, say, 200 applicants, they could conceivably get 200 articles written for free, without having to hire a single one of them.

Yeah. Clever boys.

Why do I bother responding to these posts anyway? Well, many of them are actually written fairly persuasively, with enough detail to make you think that it’s a real site. Indeed, it may actually be a real site, but it may also be an article directory that’s run by some guy in his basement in Norway. It’s difficult to tell sometimes, although I stay away from job postings (especially those on Craigslist) that don’t at least include details on types of articles requested, word count, deadlines, and payment. If it simply says: I need a really good writer to submit lots of blog posts. Email with sample clips and payment requirements, well, I generally don’t waste my time on it. I’ve had some luck with getting one-off assignments from these vague posts, but generally they’re not worth my time or effort chasing them down. It takes me an average of about 5 minutes to put together an electronic package that includes my resume and an introductory letter that links to my Web site and online portfolio, but multiply that by even just 10 job postings, and I could spend an entire hour just sending out applications that end up in someone’s Junk Mail box.

No, thank you.

So lately I’ve been limiting my applications to 2-3 a day, with each intro letter tailored to the individual job posting. That doesn’t include traditional query letters to established publications and sites, of course, which can take more than a few hours each, depending on the complexity of the subject I’m proposing to write about. Even with that relatively limited output, I still get the occasional request for a comprehensive “writing sample,” but unless I get more detail and the sample is short and doesn’t require much research (if any), I generally decline with a note basically saying that I don’t write for free.

Beware the "writing sample"

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I love — absolutely love — when I respond to a dodgy-looking job posting from some anonymous “Web marketing company” trolling for writers, and I get an email requesting the same information that they could have gotten off my Web site and/or attached resume. Oh, and of course they have the audacity to demand a “500-600 word sample article” about some broad subject that cannot have been published elsewhere, either online or in print. They claim that they have too many people applying for the position, so in order to winnow out the “legitimate” writers from the wanna-bes, they decided to ask everyone to submit a brand-spankin’ new article made just to their specs.

In other words, out of, say, 200 applicants, they could conceivably get 200 articles written for free, without having to hire a single one of them.

Yeah. Clever boys.

Why do I bother responding to these posts anyway? Well, many of them are actually written fairly persuasively, with enough detail to make you think that it’s a real site. Indeed, it may actually be a real site, but it may also be an article directory that’s run by some guy in his basement in Norway. It’s difficult to tell sometimes, although I stay away from job postings (especially those on Craigslist) that don’t at least include details on types of articles requested, word count, deadlines, and payment. If it simply says: I need a really good writer to submit lots of blog posts. Email with sample clips and payment requirements, well, I generally don’t waste my time on it. I’ve had some luck with getting one-off assignments from these vague posts, but generally they’re not worth my time or effort chasing them down. It takes me an average of about 5 minutes to put together an electronic package that includes my resume and an introductory letter that links to my Web site and online portfolio, but multiply that by even just 10 job postings, and I could spend an entire hour just sending out applications that end up in someone’s Junk Mail box.

No, thank you.

So lately I’ve been limiting my applications to 2-3 a day, with each intro letter tailored to the individual job posting. That doesn’t include traditional query letters to established publications and sites, of course, which can take more than a few hours each, depending on the complexity of the subject I’m proposing to write about. Even with that relatively limited output, I still get the occasional request for a comprehensive “writing sample,” but unless I get more detail and the sample is short and doesn’t require much research (if any), I generally decline with a note basically saying that I don’t write for free.

Knowing your worth in the freelance marketplace

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I came across a job posting online the other day that sounded mighty tempting. Steady work, potential for a large readership, and a subject that I’m passionate about. Even the ad itself looking promising, in that it was actually well-written and spell-checked within an inch of its life.

I passed on it, however, although I did have to think about it. I recently made the very difficult but necessary decision to only take on assignments that offer decent pay. Now, what I consider “decent pay” may be different from what, say, David Brooks might consider “decent pay,” but since I’m a full-time, professional writer/editor with tons of clips and paid assignments to my name, it’s about time I said No to the low-paying gigs that barely cover a tall latte at my local coffee shop. Time was when that was necessary in order to get clips for my portfolio, although even then I only sought article assignments that paid even $10-$15. (My first paid piece was a short story for an online site that netted me $15. This was back when Web sites that published fiction flourished on the Web and actually paid their writers. I still have that uncashed check, too!)

Now, however, with over a hundred articles and features and an equal number of columns to my name, it’s ridiculous to continue seeking penny-ante assignments with little or no hope of future revenue increases. At this point in my career, my time is way more valuable than $15 for a day’s worth of work, so I might as well command what I’m worth. Or at least, what I’m worth now as opposed to what I was worth a month or a year ago. Next year, I’m sure my threshold will be even higher. So get your bargain writer now!

Writing from the heart

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I should be spending more time tackling the vast amounts of paperwork on my desk that have been screaming my name, but right now I’m just not in the mood. Instead, I’ve been mulling over my current projects and am making some decisions about what I’ll be prioritizing in the new year.

I spent much of 2008 fulfilling dozens of projects, some of which paid decently, but many more represented far too much work for far too little money. I know I should be grateful, as a professional writer, for any assignment that comes my way, especially in this brave new financial world in which we live. I should be happy that I have a pretty healthy-looking portfolio of published clips, all of which were paid gigs, not to mention a fairly well-received column for the local paper that I hope to continue for as long as ideas come to my stress-addled brain. In 2008 I gained my first commercial client, interviewed a New York Times bestselling author, traveled to Singapore to do research for my novel, completed the requisite 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month, wrote my column every single week from February through the present without a single break (not for illness, holiday or the absence of my muse), and even published my first reprint. I won new fans and plenty of enemies (check out the “testimonials” on the Newspaper Columns page on my Web site, if you haven’t already), some of whom really need a quick grammar and spelling review.

So yes, it’s been a pretty productive and rewarding career, writing-wise, and I imagine that if I were willing to pursue my vocation with even greater fervor in 2009, I’m sure my income will increase in lockstep.

However, therein lies the fundamental problem. My income, however much I worked for those dozens (over 100) articles, profiles, essays, and columns, is just under half of what I had hoped for this year. Indeed, it’s a mere fraction of what I made in my previous job, and although I didn’t think I’d be able to match my previous income, even on an after-tax basis, I’m still floored by how little I really made this year, despite all the work I did. And no, it still looks pretty pitiful even after all the small business tax deductions are taken into consideration.

Big sigh. It’s quite disheartening, I must say, to realize that all the work one does really does amount to very little when you break it all down into its smallest parts and determine a per-hour income. I didn’t even make minimum wage, when you factor in the actual time I spent with each project. That may sound merely inadequate when you’re 21 and fresh out of a creative writing college degree, but it’s downright tragic when you’re weeks away from 37 and wanting to fund a decent Roth IRA.

So 2009 will be a watershed year, in more ways than one. One of the things that’s really making me re-think my whole writing career is the realization that I’ve earned nearly every dollar of this meager income writing about things that, uhm, really don’t interest me that much. Oh sure, I love writing my columns, even with the dreaded weekly deadline. Now that I’ve learned how to jot down column ideas whenever they come to me into my handy-dandy Palm Centro, I’m pretty much free from writer’s block when it comes to sitting to down to write the darn thing. I can fire up my Palm, open up my “Column Ideas” document, and choose whatever I feel like writing about.

On the other hand, 90% of the projects I’ve worked on the past year have basically represented nothing more than a paycheck (albeit a pretty small one). One editor once affectionately referred to me as a hired gun, and that’s basically what I am. Many of my gigs have been assigned to me, and I willingly took them. I don’t regret doing so — they’ve paid bills and helped us get to Singapore, after all — but now that I’ve done it for awhile, I can honestly say that, the money aside, I’ve lost the appetite for them. If they were well-paying gigs, it would be different, but when you’re asked to craft a persuasive article, complete with photographs and a lengthy interview with several subjects, and then in the end you see maaaybe $200 for about 15 hours of work, well, you see where I’m going with this. $1200 would be different, but $200 is just slave labor.

In the meantime, the project that’s closest to my heart, the one that I’ve been working on off-and-on (mostly on during the month of November, aka National Novel Writing Month), languishes, waiting for me to finish it and finally make the deep edits it so desperately needs. I’ve two more book projects waiting in the wings, and another project I’m seriously considering, a screenplay or script adaptation of a much-loved novella. None of them may ever lead to massive riches — or even a dollar in income — but they’re the things I think about the most whenever I ask myself the question, “Sooooo…what do you really want to do with your life? What do you want to do so much that, were you not to do them/it, you would end up regretting it forever?”

Yeah. Those projects.

Does this mean that I’m going to give up my freelance writing? Not likely. I’ve a major project coming up in January that will take up much of that month’s time. It’s a good gig, and one of the few decent-paying ones. I’m still committed to the weekly column I write for the local newspaper. I also want to return to my regular blogging, especially on this one blog project that has shown much promise throughout its short but fun life. I would love to see an income arise out of that, as that represents the kind of writing I enjoy, i.e., writing that represents what’s most important to me, what I love and am passionate about. But for now, I just want to come back to it and welcome its presence back in my life again.

For the most part, though, I want to rededicate the new year — my 37th — to the personal projects that inject my life with meaning, grace and hope. I had hoped that I would have at least finished a first draft of my novel by now, but the great thing about life is that it always offers second chances. So for 2009, among other resolutions I’ll mention in later posts, I’ll include this: Write more from the heart, and hope the money will follow.