by Dawn Copeman
There can be no doubt about it: the recession is finally here and it looks as if it will be here for quite some time.
While this means that things in the writing world are tough, it does not mean that making a living as a writer is impossible. We just have to work harder and be wiser in how we approach our work.
Now is not the time to be a niche specialist. Now is the time to diversify and earn your cash however you can. In addition to article or short story writing, you should think about adding copy writing or resume writing to your portfolio of services on offer. With so much unemployment going around, some argue that the need for resume writers is only going to increase as people strive to impress to gain those ever more elusive jobs. Whilst advertising budgets have been cut, there will still be a need for some form of advertising: press releases, leaflets, posters, brochures, newspaper ads, etc. If you are affordable, professional and can deliver the goods, the work is out there. What's more, when the good times are here again, you could find yourself with some happy, long-term clients.
But what about mainstream magazines: is it possible to sell articles to them in a recession? As advertisers reduce the amount of money they spend on advertising, magazines have less money to pay for articles. Some may lay off staff, but they will still need content. As a freelance writer you can provide their article or story needs for less than a staff writer.
Remember, however, that there will be many more freelancers pressing for each job now, so professionalism counts. Ensure that your work is as good as it can be and get it in on time. Also remember that now is not the time to ask for pay rises; now is when we can either accept a pay cut or lose the work altogether. Don't act like a prima donna, and accept that pay per word or per article may be less than it used to be.
Previous recessions have shown that magazines still sell well because people hunt for stories to take them out of themselves or hints on how to survive on less money. And this time around we have another huge source of information: the internet. Online magazines and newspapers are becoming increasingly popular, as people prefer to read things for free. Don't dismiss writing for ezines as a way to make a living and get those vital clips. The pay online might be low but it's better than nothing.
What should you write about in a recession? Whatever you want to, really, but remember that austerity is the keyword, so unless you're selling to a luxury magazine (the type read by people unaffected by recessions), this probably isn't the time to pitch articles on luxury cars, exotic foreign holidays, 101 ways with truffles, champagne for every occasion or unusual gifts for the person who has everything.
Below are some suggestions for nonfiction articles that people will want to read during tough times:
Economics and Property: If this is your area, then there is a huge market out there for you. People want to know more about the recession, how long it will last, what stages there are to a recession, what people buy in a recession, comparisons to previous recessions, etc. As for property, anxious sellers and hesitant buyers want to know what happened in the last big recessions, what you can do to make your house more saleable in a downturn, how to avoid repossession, how to make do instead of move up, when to buy, what you need to know about renting (both as a landlord and as a rentor), how to rent out a room in your house, how to haggle on prices, and so on.
Cookery: Think cheap, filling and delicious. With food prices rising and disposable incomes falling, people want to relearn how to make more with less. There is, in the UK especially, a whole generation who desperately needs and wants to learn how to cook on the cheap. The big publishers are already aware of this; Delia Smith's 1976 book Frugal Food is about to be re-published in the UK, and one of the UK's bestselling cookbooks in 2008 was How To Feed Your Whole Family a Healthy Balanced Diet With Very Little Money and Hardly Any Time... (The title goes on and on.) What readers and magazines want is meals that can be made from leftovers, food that can be stretched to make two or three meals, or how to cook delicious food from the contents of their cupboards. For recipe writers this could be a boom time. Look at pre-war or Depression-era recipe books for inspiration and give these recipes a modern touch. I have a cookbook from 1927 that I'm currently working through and adapting to modern needs (although I'm skipping the sections on brains, tripe and trotters).
Home Crafts and DIY: According to The Daily Telegraph, sales of sewing machines have risen by 70% on eBay in the past three months alone. People are trying to relearn the skills of "make do and mend" and need to know how to make clothes, toys, household furnishings, etc. Sales at DIY stores are also increasing as people take on more home repairs. People are looking for how-to guides and hints. If this is your area, your expertise is needed, and not just in the specialist or craft magazines; now is the time to and pitch your articles to other magazines too.
Travel: This isn't the time for long-haul articles. Today it's more about free activities for you and your children, must-see sights in your local area, how to have a holiday for less than $20 a night, London on the cheap, how to get the cheapest plane/train tickets, etc. People still want holidays and they need travel writers to help them find one they can afford.
History: People want to learn from what has happened before. They want things explained to them, and articles on the Great Depression will be hot topics. Think about pitching your history articles to mainstream magazines, as the main history magazines will have covered this with their own experts unless you can come up with an unusual twist. Think about such topics as foods from the Depression, or relating the South Sea Bubble to the credit crunch.
IT and Technology: Think about articles to explain how people can use the internet and technology to save money, such as printing off money saving coupons. Also think about articles reporting the effect of the recession on technology. It's not all bad: sales of Wii and other games systems have increased and helped some stores to remain profitable.
Short Stories: People want escape more than ever in a recession. Sales and rentals of DVDs have rocketed over the past few months, most noticeably in comedy. In a recession people want cheering up. If you can write it, now is the time for humour.
However, as a rule, general book sales also tend to increase. People stop going out as much, but they still want entertainment. For novelists, whilst books are still getting published and being sold, expect any advances and royalties to be lower than you might previously have expected. [Editor's Note: Also watch out for ways by which your publisher may try to avoid paying those royalties; my husband's publisher sent a notice this fall that as per their "policy" (hitherto unstated), they would not be sending out royalty checks if the amount was less than $600. My husband complained and will get his check, but publishers are seeking ways to hold onto your money as long as possible.] The market for short stories stays pretty much as it was before, but expect pay rates to be cut.
If I haven't covered your particular area, I apologise, but the general idea is the same. Think about what people need to know to survive the recession in relation to your topic area. As I said at the beginning, writing in a recession is not impossible; we just have to work a little bit harder than we did before.
Good luck and good hunting.
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