Cultivate a Garden of Peers Who Like and Respect You
There’s a reason I don’t do a great deal of marketing—and no, smart guy, it’s not because I’m lazy. It’s because I don’t need to. I don’t need to promote myself in order to stay unbelievably busy because, over the last 20 years, I have cultivated a large and varied base of clients, publishing-industry professionals, and fellow ghostwriters that continually bring me business.
For example, as I write this sitting on my patio in the summer of 2021, I’m either working on or negotiating terms for projects brought to me by:
- An agent who represents ghostwriters,
- The attorney of a past client with whom I’ve become good friends
- A hybrid publisher who’s one of my best and most consistent clients
- A literary agent referred to me by one of her colleagues with whom I’ve worked in the past
- A cold Internet search by a celebrity’s executive assistant
I didn’t build those relationships by handing out business cards at writers’ conferences or networking meetings. They grew organically over time. Today, if I had to guess, I’d say I have a network of fellow writers, editors, literary agents, past clients, publishers, and general well-wishers numbering about 250. They are high-powered, successful people who know other high-powered successful people, many of whom want to write books, represent authors, or run publishing companies. They keep me insanely busy without me really doing anything other than maintaining a solid website.
Of course, it’s really not quite that simple. I have engaged in a number of practices deliberately over the years that have enabled me to accumulate a rich, productive ecosystem of referring professionals and colleagues. The good news is, anybody can do this. You could do it. All you need to do is pay attention to the following eight key practices for building your network. And no, none of them involves attending writers’ conferences or excruciating networking meetings, making cold calls, or sending out cold emails. I did almost none of those things, other than perhaps send out a few cold emails to literary agents when I had a particular project that needed a home.
These are the eight ingredients in the FFF networking secret sauce:
- Be accessible. This goes back to our conversation about brand. Be able to be found via your website, your social media, and your published work. Whatever genre of writing you’re involved in, don’t make it difficult for people to locate you. One thing worth paying attention to here is search engine optimization, or SEO. Basically, that means filling your website copy with keywords that people who want to hire you (or search engine algorithms) are likely to search. I can’t tell you how many leads and good clients I’ve gotten because someone searched “ghostwriter” on Google and my website came up among the top results. Another facet of being accessible is when people reach out to contact you, you’re available to talk to them. Be responsive to emails, texts, and voicemails. Respond right away, and be open to setting up calls to talk at greater length about your work. I’m always shocked when I hear about writers who let a week pass before responding to a cold call from a prospect. If you do something that boneheaded, you really don’t deserve the work.
- Be opportunistic. Being opportunistic in this context means being opportunistic on behalf of your existing clients or contacts. What I mean by that is alert them to opportunities that may or may not involve your services. For example, I have a client, who is also a very close friend, who works with an extremely successful figure in the wellness space. One day, I suggested to him that this business partner, who had never published a book despite having a large audience, might really benefit from getting into publishing. We’re now talking about making that happen—not today, but sometime in the future. Be the idea source, the entrepreneur, the rainmaker for the folks in your network.
- Keep your promises. Years ago, when I was first freelancing, a good friend and I had a long dinner and mused about the secrets of success. By dessert, we had hit on a surprisingly simple formula: Meet your deadlines, return phone calls, and always do what you say you’ll do. Yes, that may seem like a low bar, but it astonishes me how many writers drop that last ball and fail to come through as promised. Look, shit happens. We all know that. But the rest of the time, be the writer everyone else can depend on to deliver, to show up, to follow directions, and to be on deadline. As the saying goes, “If it were easy, everybody would do it.” But not everybody does, which is an opening for you.
- Stay in touch. Every January, I try my darndest to reach out to as many folks in my network as I can, usually by email because that’s the tool I’m most comfortable with. I don’t have an agenda other than to say, “Hey, how are you? Just checking in. I hope everything’s great in your corner of the world.” It’s a courtesy and a way of letting them know I’m thinking about them. It also keeps me in their mind, because even though they might not have a project or prospect for me on Jan. 1, something might cross their desk on June 1 that potentially has my name on it, and I want them saying, “Tim’s a good guy. He might be a perfect fit for this. I’ll call him.” Also, on occasion, send gifts to the clients, colleagues, agents, and whomever else has been really good for you and your career. The gifts don’t have to be big; a $10 Amazon gift card is perfect for most occasions, though I’ve been known to go big for a major client, a hybrid publisher who brings me lots of work, or an agent who just sold a proposal of mine for big bucks. But it really is the thought that counts. A little bit of appreciation goes a long, long way.
- Be low drama and low maintenance. I can’t overemphasize this point. Everybody, and I mean everybody, already has enough drama and anxiety in their lives and careers without their writer adding more. To the contrary, you should be a center of chill, no-worries capability, and calm for anyone you work with. They don’t have a contract or NDA to send you? You’ve got it. They need to change a meeting time? No problem. Their personal life is blowing up and they’re frazzled and upset? No big deal—you’re relaxed, professional, and ready to take charge of the work so they don’t have to. Being one of the things your clients don’t have to worry about will make them love you.
- Be a zero-cost resource. I’m constantly getting calls and emails from clients and colleagues looking for my help. Some want me to recommend a publisher, self-publishing service, or PR firm, while others might want me to have a look at a chapter or book proposal. As long as my time commitments allow, and as long as the ask isn’t egregious, I always comply and I never ask for a dime. Why? I’ve got a quarter-century of knowledge of the world of books and publishing, and a Rolodex (ask your parents what that was) of contacts, so it only makes sense to leverage them to build goodwill— and to have a long list of favors I can call in. This goes back to the “we do business with people we like” principle. I want people thinking of me as a terrific writer who also happens to be a low-drama, super-nice, extremely knowledgeable professional who’s happy to help. That’s worked wonders for me, and it will for you, too. The only caveat: Don’t say yes to helping someone when it’s obvious they’re trying to get you to work for free. It’s one thing to read one chapter of someone’s manuscript but something else entirely to be asked to read the entire book and provide detailed editorial feedback without being paid.
- Help other professionals make money. We’re all in this writing gig to make a good living, and few things make people more grateful than helping them get paid. How can you do that? Lots of ways. Refer a client to a colleague, a PR firm, or an ad agency you’ve written for in the past—and don’t ask for a finder’s fee. Send a literary agent a terrific book proposal. Connect a strong author with a good hybrid publisher or self-publishing service such as BookBaby. Be the broker of deals that benefit both sides, but don’t ask for anything yourself. Don’t worry, you’ll get paid in the long run, because nothing is more valuable that gratitude and goodwill. Nothing.
- Say yes. I cannot tell you how much money I’ve made over the years by being the writer publishers, agents, and authors can bring out of the bullpen to save the day when another ghostwriter has loaded the bases with nobody out. At least a dozen times in my career I’ve been called on to step into a project another writer has botched through incompetence, lateness, or just being a jerk. Some of those opportunities have turned out to be major, including my first chance to have a book published by Random House and my first chance to work with a celebrity, who also ended up becoming a longtime friend. Be the writer who says yes when people call you for help. Obviously, common sense has to be a factor; if you’re slammed and can’t realistically take on someone’s emergency project, politely decline while trying to refer them to another writer. But when it’s possible, be people’s lifeline—and then come through with terrific work. You’ll be a hero, and that alone will guarantee you a regular flow of referrals and new work.
By the way, there’s nothing wrong with handing out business cards and shaking hands at writers’ conferences. I’ve done both—and conferences in particular are a fun way to meet new people and make connections. But the investment of time and travel expenses isn’t really worth the payoff if you’re trying to build a robust network that will bring you a consistent flow of work.
Instead, set a five-year goal: a professional network of 100 people who know you, like you, and respect your work, and with whom you’re in regular contact. If you’re in the publishing world like me, those 100 people might be agents, editors, other ghostwriters, and authors. If you’re a freelance journalist, your network might be primarily other journalists, editors, publishers, and publicists. If you’re in the marketing and advertising world, your network might consist of chief marketing officers, ad agency creative directors, agency sales reps, fellow copywriters, and designers.
Whatever circles you run in, leverage these eight tricks to become the writer people know they can turn to for sound advice, professional conduct, a helping hand in an emergency, and top-quality work in any circumstance. Do that, and you will never, ever need to sell your services again. Pinky swear.
Tim Vandehey is a New York Times bestselling ghostwriter, author, entrepreneur, and musician. A native Californian, he now lives in Kansas City, Missouri (go Chiefs!). He’s also the founder of Freelancium, a coaching and resource site for freelance writers. For more info on Tim, please visit timvandehey.com.