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The #1 mistake writers make when trying to get published

August 14th, 2018 by Bob Bly

In the pre-internet days, the most popular assignment for
freelance writers was doing magazine articles.

The way it works: You sent a “query letter” outlining the article
you propose to write.

Based on the strength of your query letter, the editor said yay
or nay.

Freelance writers typically got the name and address of the right
editor from a reference volume called Writer’s Market, which is
still published today.

And so many writers made a terrible mistake that got them
rejection after rejection on their queries.

Namely, they never actually looked at or read the magazine they
were pitching.

As a result:

>> They did not know whether the magazine was entirely staff
written or also used freelancers.

>> They did not know what stories the magazine had run recently
and so often pitched something the editor had just published —
which meant the magazine was unlikely to buy another article on the
same topic.

>> They did not understand the audience for the magazine — who
they were, what interested them, and what they wanted to know.

>> They did not know the departments and columns that were most
open to freelance contributions.

So most of their queries were off the mark and fell on deaf ears.

If you want to freelance for a magazine, get and read a number of
issues to get a feel for the points above.

Likewise, if you are a copywriter, and you get an inquiry, spend
a few minutes reviewing the company’s website before you call

Today, the thing seems to be writers (and marketers) asking if
they can write a guest post for someone else’s blog. I get
several such requests a month.

And they are making the same stupid mistake magazine writers made
in the old day: not reading the blog they want to post to!

For instance, my blog is about writing, marketing, and business

A few weeks ago, I got an email from HB who was looking to write
guest posts for me.

The guest posts he offered were all about cryptocurrencies; e.g.,

Anyone even glancing at my blog would instantly know this is not
a good fit for me, as I do not write about investing.

So HB’s post would be completely irrelevant to my readers. And I
politely turned down HB’s offer.

Frankly — not that he would care if he knew, which he doesn’t —
my opinion of him as a marketer is, based on this one contact
with him, pretty low.


Category: Writing | 3 Comments »

8 ways for writers to overcome loneliness and isolation

July 31st, 2018 by Bob Bly

What do writers and scientists have in common?

This: for many years, the stereotype of each was a dedicated
individual working alone.

The full cliché had the writer banging away on his typewriter
sitting alone in a room, possibly in a cold garret furnished in
early poverty.

Novelist Philip Roth, for instance, has said many times: “Writing
in a room by myself is practically my whole life.”

For science geeks, the stereotype was the “mad scientist”
working along in his lab, surrounded by flasks and beakers filled
with bubbling fluids.

Some people find these stereotypes a bit romantic and appealing;
others see them as depressing.

But the fact of the matter is .. they aren’t true — for either
scientists or writers.

Or at least they don’t have to be. And probably shouldn’t be.

As far as scientists toiling away in solitude, Yale Professor
Priyamrada Natarajan writes:

“Although advances in science and technology are often portrayed
as the work of solitary men … science has always been a
collective enterprise, dependent on many individuals who work
behind the scenes.”

For writers, though we are more likely to work alone than on a
team, many of us either want or would benefit from more “people
time” and less alone time.

Why? Spending time with others helps overcome isolation and
loneliness, enables productive collaboration, and provides an
opportunity for support and feedback.

If you are a writer alone most of the time but want to increase
your “people time,” here are 8 ways to achieve that goal:

1–Join a writer’s group.

Many towns have writers’ groups, usually mostly amateurs, which
meet to read and critique each other’s work.

2–Attend writing conferences.

There are a ton of them all over the country, and they are
advertised in writer magazines such as Poets & Writers, The
Writer, and Writer’s Digest.

The advantage over #1 is that, unlike local groups consisting
almost solely of amateurs, at writing conferences the attendees
range the spectrum from rank amateur to working journeymen to
superstars — and often editors and literary agents as well.

Two I have attended and can recommend personally: ASJA for book
and article writers, and AWAI for copywriters.

3–Find a writing buddy.

Reach out to a writer you meet at #1 or #2, and pair up as
buddies, much like kids have a swim buddy at summer camp. You
can read each other’s work and give feedback, plus you can have
writerly chats and moral support.

4–Hire a coach.

We live in a coach-crazy world today. If you hire a coach, make
sure the coach is an active and successful writer in the niche
you are pursuing.

5–Join a Mastermind group.

According to an article in Forbes, Mastermind groups are
relatively new to most people, even though Napoleon Hill created
the concept around 75 years ago.

A mastermind group is designed to help you navigate through
challenges using the collective intelligence of others — some who
are your peers, others who may be ahead of you — and there is
often a large fee to belong.

6–Professional association memberships.

I am a chemical engineer and as such am also a member of the
American Institute of Chemical Engineers.

Medical writers join the American Medical Writers Association.
You get the idea.

Benefits to association membership are many and varied — from
networking and self-promotional opportunities, to conferences and
education, to affordable health insurance and discounts on
products and services.

7–Build a team.

Hire a virtual assistant, proofreader, copy editor, website
designer, bookkeeper, CPA, and others to build a team that
supports you.

The obvious benefit: outsourcing everything but the writing makes
you more productive and increases your writing revenues.

Also, as you gradually build relationships with team members, you
are almost part of a virtual organization.

8–Take a class.

Many adult education programs at high schools and colleges offer
a variety of writing classes including creative writing,
copywriting, and journalism.

Bottom line: If you are a writer … and you feel too alone and cut
off from others, especially those in your line of work … these 8
ideas can fix that.

As Jor-El told Kal-El in the original “Superman” movie — you will
never be alone.


Category: General, Writing | 10 Comments »

The absolute best thing about mainstream book publishing

July 20th, 2018 by Bob Bly

MM recently wrote on my Facebook wall:

“Bob, for the life of me I can’t understand why you knock indie
publishing, since you’ve published a ton of work independently.

“Last I heard you make several hundred thousand a year by selling
ebooks and courses through your own websites. Seems like you’re
being a hypocrite to me, by knocking indie publishing.”

I told MM that my preference for traditional publishing over
self-publishing can be summed up in two words:

“Quality control.”

The way I see it, traditional publishing is a quality control
system for producing books — one that self-publishers lack.

For instance, all of my publishers and editors, bless them,
absolutely put me through the wringer on every book I write.

The result: the final book is much better than it was when my
manuscript first crossed their desk.

And for that, my publishers and editors have my undying

By comparison, 97% of self-publishers don’t come close to this
level of quality control for their product.

In fact, many do not even have their books copy edited,
fact-checked, or proofread by anyone other than the author.

Result: a huge quality differential between mainstream and

My FB friend KS agreed with me, saying, “Quality is one reason
why traditional publishing will keep a foothold in the book
world, no matter what happens.”

RH commented: “I expect there to be a rebound toward physical
books and quality books that have been vetted by a publisher.
Maybe consumers will realize the value of publishers….”

BTW, I corrected MM in that I am not critical of indie
publishers; several of my own publishers are small independent

What I think often produces inferior books is self-publishing —
that is, an author publishing his own books without an outside
publishing firm.

The reason in a nutshell?

When it comes to editing, reviewing, and rewriting their own
work, most self-publishers take it too easy on themselves.

Editors with mainstream publishers, on the other hand, are tough
as nails on me. As they should be.


Category: Writing | 9 Comments »

Is a hardcover worth more than an ebook?

July 10th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Subscriber AW writes:

“I read your recommendation on the sales book by author X. It
sounds interesting, but I am not sold on spending $40 on an ebook
— though I would for a hardcover copy of the book. Thanks for
sharing the recommendation, though.”

While I have great respect for AW and like her a lot, I believe
her thinking on this topic is wrong-headed.

The reason is simple: the value of specialized information
targeted at a narrow niche audience is enormous. And the value
is in the content, not the format of the book.

Louis L’Armour wrote, “Books are the building blocks of
civilization, for without the written word, a man knows nothing
beyond what occurs during his own brief years, and, perhaps, in a
few tales his parents tell him.”

My late friend, the great info marketer Jerry Buchanan, said, “A
book that instructs in some profitable field is a priceless
treasure. And if the bookseller offers it and you fail to assume
ownership, who will be the poorer, you or he?”

He also said that people who wanted to make money or start a
business and did not avail themselves of good books on the
subject were “starving to death with a loaf of bread under each

The value of a how-to book is in the information between the
covers, not the covers themselves.

I am confident that the knowledge in the book I recommended to AW
could have increased her annual income by $10,000, which is a
250:1 return on investment — regardless of whether the book is a
PDF or paperbound book. Why would you pass up on an ROI like


Category: Writing | 9 Comments »

Is this the end of writing as a profession?

June 22nd, 2018 by Bob Bly

In a recent issue, I talked about whether freelance copywriting
is still a viable profession.

So subscriber TK then asked me, “Well, what about regular
freelance writing?”

By “regular” freelance writing, he was referring to a variety of
things writers commonly produce to make a living — and that are
not directly related to selling or marketing, but rather, are
written to inform or entertain.

These can include: magazine articles … newspaper articles …
nonfiction books … novels … short stories … plays … poetry …
essays … comic books … TV shows … movies.

TK wants to know: Is traditional freelance writing doomed?

My Facebook friend RK is of the opinion that yes, there’s no
future in freelancing.

RK writes:

“There is so much wonderful writing on the internet, which is
free. Eventually, writing will be like musical recordings.
Everyone will have access to everything.

“You can find the books of the greatest writers of all time for
free on the internet. The greater the writer, the more likely you
can find copies that can be read for free, because people upload
things in order to share these writings.

“The world is changing–has changed–considerably. Many excellent
writers give away 200-page books for free–really excellent.
Digitization is creating an entire new world.”

Some years ago, I interviewed writer Harlan Ellison for Writer’s
Digest magazine.

I asked him if the outlook for freelance writers looked gloomy.

He answered: “Bob, in terms of money, condition of work, and
approbation, things are worse today than they were when we first
met in 1979. Life is a lot harder for writers now.”

Then I asked Mr. Ellison, “Do you directly blame it on the

He gave a strong affirmative reply, criticizing the “slovenliness
of thinking” on the web as well as the “slacker-gen philosophy
and belief today that everything should be free.”

“These mooks don’t think of writing as craft or even an
occupation,” he said. “They think it’s some kind of dilettante
behavior. Much like their own lives.”

With all the sites publishing articles and short stories for
which authors are not paid, and which readers don’t pay to read —
well, what would you expect?”

Ellison again: “The amateurs ruin it for the professionals,
because they write for free just to get published.”

Just as free article and short story sites and blogs are
destroying the time-honored profession of writing articles for
pay, Kindle is destroying the traditional book publishing
industry brick by brick.

Back in the day, writing a book and actually getting it published
by McGraw-Hill, John Wiley, or another mainstream publisher was
something of an accomplishment.

But now, thanks to Kindle and Createspace, every Tom, Dick, and
Harry can instantly become a “book author.”

And when everyone is an author, there’s nothing special about you
being an author, right?

There are very few safe havens for freelance writers who, like
me, want to continue to be freelance writers and earn a decent
living at it.

One of these safe havens is direct response copywriting. Why?

Because the old adage that “everybody writes” — and can write —
is beginning to rear its ugly head again.

But those of in direct response know that in fact very few people
can write DR copy that makes millions for their clients and
produces clicks and conversions through the roof.

So areas where a piece of writing’s ROI can be measured down to
the penny still have high demand for writers … and limited
supply, because frankly very few people are good at writing
direct response copy that works.

Another way to survive and thrive in the downward spiral of the
freelance writing profession is to build a “platform” — a
combination of expert credentials plus a built-in audience for
your writings.

Example: Rachel Ray sells truckloads of her cookbooks. Not
because she is the world’s best cook, but because she has a
popular TV show.

Maybe you can’t get a network TV show right away, so start
building your platform on a smaller, more modest scale — anything
from a weekly column in your town newspaper to a 15-minute show
on a local radio station.

It’s not like being Dr. Phil. But it’s a start. And you’ve got to
start somewhere.

Plus, the more you build up your platform, the more likely you
are to be in demand as a freelance writer, have a loyal
readership, and have editors and publishers buy your work.


Category: Writing | 11 Comments »

A winning formula for freelance copywriting success

June 19th, 2018 by Bob Bly

In the last issue of this e-newsletter, I promised to give you
some advice on how to succeed as a freelance writer in today’s
highly competitive, over-crowded market.

So without further preamble, here are some suggestions for
surviving and thriving as a copywriter — and in particular, as a
newbie freelancer — in 2018 and beyond:

#1–Get good.

Your competitors are studying the books, taking the courses,
attending the conferences, watching the videos.

If you are not similarly a student of copywriting, you will soon
be left behind, unable to compete on their level.

#2–Next, get even better.

If you think you’re already a decent writer, don’t stand still.
Move forward.

Keep learning. Improve always. Continue reading the books, taking
the workshops, and studying.

Remember this famous saying: “School is never out for the pro.”


There are only 3 ways to get better as a writer: study (see #1
above) … write (see #4 below) … and read.

Read a lot. Read books about business, marketing, and writing …
and about all sorts of other topics.

The books about business, marketing, and writing improve your
ability to write kick-butt copy.

The books on all other topics give you a storehouse of knowledge
on all sorts of subjects you can draw on to add interest and
verisimilitude to your copy.

They will also teach you how to write better through example.


Isaac Asimov wrote for 10 hours or so a day, 7 days a week.

Stephen King has said he writes every day of the year except
Christmas and his birthday.

Write every day. If you want Sundays off, that’s fine.

#5–Avoid generic assignments.

The worst projects are writing articles and blog posts on general
subjects that anyone can look up on Google.

That’s because writers of these articles and posts essentially
just search Google for other articles on the same topic, pull
something from 4 or 5 of them, and cobble together a new piece.

Since any idiot can do this, it doesn’t — and never will — pay
particularly well. It’s a commodity service. And boring. So why

#6–Choose a niche.

All else being equal, in whatever field you look, specialists get
paid more and have a much easier time getting work than

For instance, neurosurgeons make more money than family doctors —
and patent attorneys out-earn local attorneys with general

As a writer, you can specialize either in a medium (e.g., white
papers, case studies), a product or industry (e.g., chemicals,
investment newsletters), or both (e.g., SEO for chemical companies).

#7–Acquire specialized knowledge.

Once you’re in a niche, become an obsessive student of the topic,
and if you can, acquire some credentials to make it evident to
others that you are a subject matter expert.

For instance, in the 1980s, when I was inundated with assignments
from computer and software firms, I trained to become a certified
IT professional. And as an engineering graduate, I already knew
some programming.


Any writing field where the success of your copy can be measured
and proven — and that is most notably in direct response
marketing — will pay you more than writing disciplines where ROI
cannot be measured.

By “compete,” I mean specialize in areas where results can be

You don’t have to win every time, and you won’t.

But if you get known as a top gun in a writing area with
measurable ROI, you can get paid top dollar.

#9–Know what pays.

Some specialties and writing tasks pay better than others.
Gravitate toward one or more of those areas, and you’ll make more

For instance, writing white papers pays well; writing blog posts
does not.


You will have frequent setbacks, failures, and disappointments
that will knock you to your knees repeatedly.

But as long as you get right back up, you will come out a winner.
As my Facebook friend Mike says, persistence breaks resistance.


Category: Writing | 7 Comments »

Is this the end of freelance copywriting?

June 15th, 2018 by Bob Bly

Subscriber BD, who happens to be both a songwriter and a
copywriter, writes:

“I fear something similar will happen to copywriting as what
has happened to independent musicians and songwriters over
the years.

“So many out there doing it. Just for exposure. For experience.
For samples. For confidence boost. For networking.

“So many people with solopreneur dreams.

“There’s a lot of similarities between freelance writing and
independent performing songwriters.

“Glamorous, romantic lifestyle compared to the factory and
cubical worker. Free spirit. Independent. Live life on one’s own
terms. The list goes on.”

Is BD right?

Are freelance copywriters becoming as obsolete as, say, this
librarian from the Twilight Zone?:

Today copywriters certainly face new challenges.

But we are far from down and out.

Newbie copywriters often ask me whether it is more difficult to
become a freelance copywriter now than when I started full-time
freelancing in the early 80s.

The answer: some aspects of freelance copywriting in the 21st
century are more difficult, while in other ways it’s easier

Overall, it’s a wash.

For instance, the competition is much fiercer, with so many more
people entering the profession.

The internet in particular contributes to this, as we copywriters
now have to compete not just with local copywriters — but with
freelancers across the country and even around the world.

Many of these freelancers live in regions and nations where the
cost of living is so low, they can afford to charge much less
than you do.

But the internet is also a boon to copywriters. Reason: digital
marketers need more copy than ever — everything from blog posts,
e-newsletters, and auto-responder campaigns, to websites,
long-copy online sales letters, and VSLs.

So yes, there are more copywriters. But there is also a lot more
work — enough to keep you, as David Ogilvy put it, in beer and

Will that continue in the future? I don’t know. I’m not enough of
a futurist to say. But I suspect it will.

Another mixed blessing is computers and software.

On the downside, there is software that can write articles and
other content, and at least one software package that can write
subject lines and other short copy.

On the upside, when personal computers came along, my writing
productivity easily doubled — and the ability to produce twice
the amount of work gave me a big jump in income, as it did many
other writers.

Also, millennials who were raised with computers have never
experienced the dubious pleasure of having to retype entire pages
just to make even relatively small rewrites and edits; I shudder
at the memory.

In my next essay, I’ll share specific tips and strategies for
surviving and thriving as a freelance copywriter in today’s
over-crowded, hyper-competitive market.


Category: Writing | 5 Comments »

The awful truth about “flimsy” books

May 22nd, 2018 by Bob Bly

Recently, a colleague handed me a book on communications she got
at a seminar on that topic from the speaker.

I flipped through it and immediately thought of a comment I read
in a book review once: “This is a book that should never have
been written.”

And increasingly, in this era of self-promoters and CreateSpace,
the rise of books that should never have been written — or
published — is increasing at a tremendous rate.

I call these works — most not worth the paper they’re printed on
or the price of a Kindle download — “flimsy books.”

And I urge you to neither read, buy, nor heaven forbid, write and
publish such books.

They are 9 times out of 10 a waste of both the writer’s and the
reader’s time, effort, and money.


Because these flimsy books have a number of characteristics in
common, which make them good for lining bird cages or starting
fires in the fireplace — but not so good for actually reading.

>> To begin with, flimsy books are actually flimsy. That doesn’t
make them bad in itself, but is an identifying trait.

When you see a flimsy book, your first impression is that it’s a
pamphlet, not a book. And actually, that is essentially the case.

The communications book I was given has barely 50 pages with text
on them … and the page size is small.

Reason: Authors of flimsy books are more interested in having a
published book for use as a marketing tool or to enhance their
reputation, rather than writing a good book.

So they tend to dash them off quickly, often without much effort,
thought, research, or editing.

>> Second, the vast majority of books I am referring to as
“flimsy” are self-published, more often than not today on

Again, that doesn’t make them bad in itself.

However, anyone who has written a book for a big publishing house
knows that those books almost always get a lot more attention to
detail — especially in the editing, proofreading, and production
process — than self-published books.

My editors at these publishing houses are tough, and don’t let me
get away with being lazy or doing a half-assed job, or being
unclear or incomplete.

Most self-published authors I know don’t hire a copy editor, and
so their books lack this essential quality control.

“Submitting a book for publication is also submitting to the
discipline of the market,” says my Facebook friend WC.

“Indeed, there are worthy self-published books, but I tend to
agree that added prestige is given when books are published by a
major publisher.”

>> Third, you don’t get much for your money with flimsy books.

The flimsy communications book I am using as an example is, as I
said, barely 50 pages and less than 15,000 words total.

By comparison, my average 200 to 300-page trade paperback for the
big publishers is 80,000 to 100,000 words — so the buyer gets 5
to 6 times more content than in a typical flimsy book.

>> Fourth, as mentioned in my first point above, the motivation
for publishing a flimsy book is more often than not marketing —
either to sell for maximum profit with minimal effort … or to
serve as a sales or reputation-building tool.

As Dr. Jeffrey Lant notes: “A book is a brochure that will never
be thrown away.”

>> Fifth, most flimsy books I review are — uh, how can I put this
— just not very good.

It is painfully obvious that they have not been fact-checked,
proofed, researched, or written with careful attention.

In so many flimsy books, the writing is disorganized, the text
meanders and is full of pointless digressions, and the coverage
of the topic is woefully incomplete — with much of the key
information missing.

But — why am I complaining? Why bother to protest? Is there
really any harm caused by the growing practice of writing,
publishing, and selling flimsy books?

Answer: Yes — some. And here’s why I think the world would be
better off without so many — or even any — flimsy books….

Reason number one: The existence of flimsy books cheapens the
value of real books.

When I started writing books in 1981, having a book published was
prestigious. But flimsy books make people think less of books and

Reason number two: People write and publish flimsy books to
convince others they are experts.

To write a 300-page book that is vetted by a top publishing house
does require some expertise or at least a lot of research.

Writing a flimsy book, not so much.

Reason number three: Flimsy books are a major source of “content
pollution” — which I loosely define as books, reports, courses,
and other materials that, to put it charitably, should never have
seen the light of day.

You may disagree. But that’s the way I see it.

Before you ask or say anything, yes, I have written a few
books that are small and slim.

But, of my 95 published books, I have written many that are
200, 300, or 400 pages — and in one case 800 pages.

So my average book is indeed a real book, and not a flimsy


Category: Writing | 18 Comments »