Writers’ Marketing

Freelance writers make money hand over fist. Here’s how. First the writer dreams up a smart idea for a story and calls the friendly editor. Sounds great, says the friendly editor. Go for it. And the freelance writer thinks happily, “There’s $650!” A few days later the writer and the editor sit down together and sign a contract. And the freelance writer thinks happily, “There’s $650!”

Weeks of travail follow, but at last the completed manuscript is in the mail. And the freelance writer thinks happily, “There’s $650.” Several weeks later the third complete rewrite is accepted. And the freelance writer thinks happily, “There’s $650.” After several more weeks the article appears in unrecognizable form, and the freelance writer thinks happily, “There’s $650.”

And here’s the best part of all. It’s even possible, perhaps after intervention by the National Writers Union, that one day the freelance writer will actually collect $650.

As well as this system works, especially when it comes to driving freelance writers into public relations, there’s always room for improvement. Jill Sherer and Kathryn Taylor have opened that room. You’ll find it at 401 N. Franklin, a start-up space five floors up.

Here Sherer and Taylor interview freelance writers who come to call and, if the two are suitably impressed, put the writers’ names in the filing cabinet in the corner. The name of this room is the CopyDesk, and the business cards Sherer and Taylor are printing up explain that they run a “writers’ consortium dedicated to providing professional copy on deadline.”

They’re matchmakers. “About 50 percent of the time that freelancers spend working is time they spend not writing,” Sherer says. What if, for a cut of the take, say 25 percent, someone else did that work–the seeking of business, the signing of contracts, the collecting of fees? Someone like the CopyDesk.

“Kathryn and I are freelance writers. We’ve been out there. We know what it’s like to live that lifestyle,” Sherer says. (They also know PR and the monotony of steady employment.) “Sometimes the writer gets a little devalued in the process, and we’d like to change that.”

And because the writer would too, they think they’ve tapped a market. They tell me their one ad, in the Tribune, drew 200 responses, which led to some 45 names in their files.

“We always want new writers, but we don’t want thousands of them,” said Sherer.

“We want to be able to give them work and be a source for them,” said Taylor. “We want to serve them as much as we serve our clients.”

When we talked last week they’d had one actual client–a magazine with a “supertight deadline” needed two writers fast. Sherer and Taylor’s business strategy is to develop a pool of clients as well as writers. They’ll negotiate terms with the clients, then pass the work along. This will work, they think, not only because freelancers have always needed a friend in court but because of the way the writing business is changing. “We’re seeing companies getting rid of their staff writers and bringing them back as freelance writers,” Sherer said.

There is, therefore, a heightened need among companies for writers for hire, and among writers for a way to put food on the table. “Our writers have done some great stuff,” says Taylor. Sherer says, “We only wanted to have writers who had at least five years’ experience. To our good fortune, we have writers coming in with 8 to 10 to 15 to 20 years’ experience. We’ve got advertising copywriters, broadcast writers, playwrights and fiction writers and speechwriters.

“They talk about themselves as, “We writers are a crazy breed; we have a gene that makes us do it,”‘ Sherer went on. “They come to us because the nature of the beast is feast or famine. We’re another resource for them. That’s all we want to be–another resource. We’ll spend all our time marketing and hopefully build some consistency into that feast or famine out there.”

A “very few” writers who have turned to the CopyDesk have full-time jobs but want extra work, Sherer said. Some want a taste of the future before it’s shoved down their throats. “They’re concerned about industry trends to downsizing.”

Sun-Times in a Spanish Suit

How sad it is when nothing survives of a great idea. And how much sadder when nothing survives but a lawsuit.

In September 1993 the Sun-Times and La Raza, Chicago’s biggest Spanish-language newspaper, jointly announced a bold stroke: a new edition of La Raza, to be called Domingo, that would be distributed in the Sunday Sun-Times in Spanish-speaking Chicago. At least 100,000 copies of Domingo would be printed every week.

Domingo would strike preemptively at Exito, the free Spanish weekly the Tribune Company was about to introduce, and it would rejuvenate the Sun-Times’s slipping Sunday edition.

“It’s in big trouble,” La Raza’s publisher, Luis Rossi, told me then. “A little guy like us can help a big company like the Sun-Times bring in 10,000 or 20,000 new subscribers. I think it’s a winner.”

But it wasn’t. Both papers had trouble selling ads for Domingo; La Raza began to stuff its news hole with canned articles on subjects like Jacques Cousteau that Latinos weren’t clamoring to read about; and the circulation of the Sunday Sun-Times continued to drop. Last December the Sun-Times pulled the plug.

Now they’re both in court. Rossi sued the Sun-Times for breach of contract, alleging that it broke a contract that doesn’t expire until September 5. He’s asking the court to award him some $55,000 he says the Sun-Times owes in sales and advertising revenues.

The Sun-Times’s counterclaim argues that La Raza violated the original agreement by billing and collecting from advertisers when this was the Sun-Times’s responsibility, and by giving advertisers credit without the Sun-Times’s permission. The Sun-Times claims Rossi owes it $26,600 in ad revenue.

“It’s like a child was born and got killed,” Rossi told me. He points out that the Sun-Times executives who signed the deal weren’t the ones who scrubbed it. In early ’94 the Sun-Times was sold, and a few months later publisher Sam McKeel resigned. The original agreement “was a commitment to the Spanish community in the long term. They recognized my community,” said Rossi. And the new owners from the American Publishing Company? “I think they look at the bottom line, that’s all.”

In Rossi’s eyes Domingo wasn’t losing money; it was “investing money.” Denying that the content became as turgid as some readers say it was, Rossi said, “You cannot come out with a paper and the next year it’ll be in the black. It takes a little while. Remember, this city’s going to be black and Spanish. If you cover the blacks and the Spanish now, in ten years you own the city.”

Soon-to-be-Familiar Quotations

A.E. Eyre trudged into the office. “Another commencement season,” he lamented. “And no dewy-eyed innocents to address.”

“Pray tell, why?” I said.

“Because no one’s asked me!” he thundered. “Because my prowess as a wordsmith remains unheralded. Because you didn’t fetch me a perch in Bartlett’s as you promised.”

“I promised nothing,” I said.

“A man with your connections!” A.E. moaned. “All you had to do was pick up the phone.”

I’ve written of A.E. before, though not by name. Now he chooses to cast anonymity aside. The passing seasons have made him desperate, beyond embarrassment. Having dedicated each waking hour to the thankless toil of phrase making, A.E. is at the age when one begins to worry about one’s legacy. He yearns to leave behind a monument, but Bartlett’s has turned its back.

Bartlett’s immortalizes only the immortals.

“With an entry of my own in Bartlett’s,” A.E. mused, “I’d have my pick of graduations. The finest schools would vie for my valedictory.”

“Is your speech written?” I said.

In response A.E. cleared his throat. “Go forth into the world firm in the conviction that there is no shiv in chivalry. No screw in scruple. No deal in your ideals.

“Go forth and seek truth, armed with the certainty that the plural of “how’ is “house’ and many whys make one wise. Go forth, and abide in the house of wisdom.”

“That is unusually eloquent,” I acknowledged.

“Assent would have rippled through the gathered throng like water cleaved by a dorsal long in the deeps,” A.E. keened, “had I been allowed to utter these modest thoughts.”

“A generation would have been saved,” I agreed.

“And in conclusion,” A.E. concluded, “take to heart this lesson: When life hands you a lemon, make lemon–”

“That’s been said!”

“I’m not done!” he snarled. “When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade. And when life makes you a pariah, make yourself a Murray Perahia.”

Now the tears came.

“And that’s what no one will let me say.”

In despair he flung himself into an ergonomic swivel seat. “I’m the genius. You’re the hack,” he blubbered. “You have to help me.”

“I swear I’ll write to Bartlett’s,” I swore. But I wasn’t hopeful. The pedant establishment is a closed little circle of ruthless people.

Contrary to last week’s Hot Type, says Windy City Times publisher Jeff McCourt: (1) he did not launch his paper ten years ago by leading “a staff mutiny” from Gay Life (now defunct); and (2) neither he nor his late lover (and Damski’s friend) Bob Bearden ever promised Damski a job for life at the new paper. This columnist regrets writing on Damski’s dismissal before hearing from McCourt on history so significant to Damski’s standing at Windy City Times.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Randy Tunnell.