The Story Economy Blog

A Lesson from ASJA 2017 About How Not to Run a Copywriting Business



A few weeks ago, I went to the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA) conference in New York City. It was my eighth time going to the conference in 11 years.

This year was especially awesome, because I scheduled time outside of the conference to meet my editor at The New York Times. He gave me a tour of the Times building and let me sit in on the “front page” meeting—where I got to hear all the department editors running through the biggest stories of the day. (The whole thing was like a scene from a movie.)

Obviously, those kinds of meetings are very cool and important for career building! But these days, the biggest draw of the conference is actually connecting with other writers. Talking with other people who do what I do gives me perspective, business ideas, project leads, and a sounding board. Plus I get to see my dearest friends, who live all over the country. (See Exhibit A below.)

Hearing from others in the industry via workshops and panel discussions also gives me clues about what I don’t want to do, she says with a foreshadowing tone.

This year, a legend in the copywriting business was running one of the conference workshops. I had heard him talk at my very first ASJA. Back then, when I was only five years into being a freelancer, seeing his success—and how much money he made—inspired me to think much bigger than I had been thinking. I wound up reading one of his books and adopting some of his marketing tactics. But that was 2006. I wondered what new message he might have for the modern era of freelance writing (which looks quite different from how it looked in 2006).

I did not like his message this time around. At all.

This guy is brilliant at making a buck, and I’ve always appreciated his business savvy. But this time, when he started to talk about ways to maximize your income, something felt off to me. Is this what he was talking about 11 years ago? I wondered to myself. I looked over to my friend, Kate, who wore the same confused expression as me.

We continued to exchange horrified looks as he proceeded to offer pearls of wisdom, such as using really really cheap labor for design and programming (overseas or through certain sites that pay little more than pennies), repackaging public domain government information and selling it (legal, apparently), and writing sensational and mean-spirited satirical books. Every sample he showed was aesthetically displeasing (since you get what you pay for) and full of the kind of rhetoric that I know works in sales, but I personally can’t stand. At one point, Kate whispered, “Basically, he’s saying, just don’t give a fuck.”

As I listened to him talk, a few things became clear to me:

  1. If this is thinking big, sign me up for small
  2. I’m kind of over being disappointed when I learn how people I once admired are really making their piles of money
  3. I still give a fuck

Listen, I’m a fan of the free market economy and people being clever and making the market work for them. That’s the beauty of being a freelancer: you make your choices, and you’re pretty much only responsible to yourself and whatever moral or spiritual code you live by. It’s not my place to say what an independent contractor or sole proprietor should or shouldn’t do, within the bounds of what’s legal.

But I definitely still care deeply about how I do business.

I care about working with designers I know.

I care about aesthetics.

I care about quality.

I care about the words I use.

I care about stories.

I care about feeling what my 6-year-old daughter calls “gold in your brain”—which essentially means feeling really good about what you’re doing and how you’re acting.

I care about making money, too. I care about that a lot (especially since the 6-year-old enjoys expensive art camp). But not enough to forget about the other things on my list. Incidentally, those things can also go along with making good money. It’s not either/or.

But there’s definitely a choice to be made.

It’s kind of like this: Have you ever been watching Netflix or Hulu on a tablet, and your connection isn’t great and it keeps buffering? The app will sometimes say: “Try choosing a lower resolution.”

I don’t want to choose a lower resolution. And I definitely don’t want to be a lower resolution.

A lot changes in 11 years, and I don’t know if I’ve become more of who I am and now see this industry giant’s message for what it is, or if his message has changed. I guess it doesn’t matter. What matters is that I choose high resolution, even if things have to buffer from time to time.

Leave A Comment

Related Posts