#1: Your Brand
At the risk of blowing the bejesus out of my own horn, let’s get my bona fides out of the way so you’ll know I know what I’m talking about. I’ve been a freelancer since 1995, and ghostwriting nonfiction books exclusively since 2005. In that time, I’ve completed upwards of 65 books and 20 book proposals, had about 20 of my books land with such major New York publishers as HarperCollins, Wiley, and Simon & Schuster, had 5 bestsellers, and won a handful of awards.
More to the point for this conversation, in all that time, I have had exactly one slump in business: a freak four months or so in 2012 when I couldn’t even buy a new client or land a deal. Other than that, I have stayed consistently—sometimes, insanely—busy writing books for the last 16 years. During that time, I have never failed to earn a six-figure income. But what finally compelled me to share what I call the “Flush Freelancer Five” (FFF for short) is what happened during the shit show that was the pandemic + recession:
I was busier than ever.
How is that possible? Well, some of it had nothing to do with me. I tend to work with CEOs, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, and the like who, just as everyone else did, all spent a lot more time at home at the height of COVID-19. Many appeared to think, “Hey, maybe this is the time to write that book I’ve been farting around with for the last ten years.” Anecdotally, that holds up; several literary agents told me that during lockdowns they were flooded with manuscripts from first-time would-be novelists. The pandemic seemed to bring out the aspiring author in a lot of people.
Of course, that doesn’t explain the flood of inquiries I got last year, or a project calendar already booked into 2022. It doesn’t answer the fundamental question I hear from lots of colleagues: “How do I get to the point as a freelancer where inquiries from top-tier prospective clients flow regularly without me having to cold email and pester people?”
That’s the promised land, folks! When you don’t have to market yourself because great projects come to you. When you’re turning down work, and refer unwanted work out for a fee because you’re booked a year in advance. That’s when you’ve made it. It’s getting there that’s the tricky part. But there are no tricks involved, just smart practices proven to put you on the radar of people who can bring you terrific ghostwriting work and keep you there for the long term. That’s what the FFF are. In a nutshell:
- Your brand. In the freelance writing world, your brand equals your online presence plus your published work. Website, social media, published books, and articles—they should be visible and top drawer.
- Your reputation. What do people say about you when you’re not there to listen? What do past clients tell prospects calling for references? Your rep comes down to three basics: professionalism, reliability, and being easy to work with.
- Your self-advocacy. Many writers struggle asking to be paid what they’re worth. But if you won’t demand value for your time and knowledge, who will?
- Your network. What have you done to cultivate a garden of past clients, influential contacts, and admirers who will send you referrals?
- Your communication skills. You’ll close most of your deals via phone or Zoom, but nobody talks to writers about being charismatic and confident on prospect calls. I will, because it’s the key to closing more work.
Being a terrific writer matters, but you have to get the work before you can show off your chops. Mastering the FFF puts more qualified prospects in your inbox and your voicemail so you can show them what you can do—and it does it rain or shine, strong economy or recession, so you never have to worry again about having enough work.
With all that out of the way, let’s talk about the first FFF: your brand.
A Brand Is A Promise… Sort Of
That’s what we used to say back in the Cretaceous period when I worked for a Southern California advertising agency: “A brand is a promise of how you’ll treat your customer.” But a freelance ghostwriter isn’t like a company selling athletic shoes. We’re often asking people to trust us with personal stories, intimate details, or valuable secrets. Seen from that perspective, your writer’s brand needs to be more like a set of compelling clues that suggest to prospective clients, literary agents, editors, or referral sources what they can expect if they choose to work with you. You’re leaving a trail of breadcrumbs online.
Those breadcrumbs must suggest the following:
- You’re savvy and professional. That’s one reason a website is non-optional for a freelance writer. Having a good one tells people you understand that writing is (at least in part) a business. It tells the world that if they hire you, you’ll have your own contract boilerplate, know something about the publishing world, be familiar with non-disclosure agreements, and so on. I won’t even refer work to a writer who isn’t smart enough to have a solid website.
- You are who you say you are. Remember the old saying, “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”? Well, for writers, nobody knows if you’re a jerk or a fraud. That’s why I’ve had many prospects tell me that before they contacted me, they not only checked out my website but also my social media feeds and books available on Amazon. Social media is especially important here. Make sure your presence on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram reflects how you want your clients to see you, because they’re going to look at them. I’m mostly on Facebook, and I’ve made the choice not to scrub my posts, even though I’m very political and a die-hard liberal. Why? I want prospects to know who I am—warts and all—so if they hire me, they know who they’re getting. If I lose work because somebody doesn’t like what I posted about Trump, c’est la vie.
- You’re good at what you do. Testimonials don’t mean much. If one of my clients wrote, “Tim was late for every Zoom meeting, has the table manners of an orangutan, and writes like he’s grabbing his computer keyboard to keep from drowning,” do you really think I’d put it on my website? Prospects will know your work by what you leave them to read, mostly online. That means the books you’ve worked on and articles and blogs you’ve written. Write, publish where you can, and make sure the best of your books are easily found on both your website and lead-generation sites such as Reedsy.
Whether someone is looking for a writer in general or researching you specifically, you’re not there to speak for yourself. You don’t get to say, “Uh, well, my designer is finishing my new website and it will be up in about two weeks.” The breadcrumbs of your brand have to speak for you and convince the person that you’re worth contacting, worth the time it takes to read your samples and CV, worth the time spent on the phone or FaceTiming about the project.
Leave Gourmet Breadcrumbs
Enough pontificating. What are the best practices you can employ to make your brand stand out and attract a constant flow of new projects and great clients? These are they:
- Have one. Even if you have to DIY your site using Wix or Squarespace, build a website. I created mine (timvandehey.com) myself on Wix, and while it’s not going to win any awards, I get a fair number of compliments on it. A website is the price of admission to the professional ranks. NOTE: If you can afford to have a website built by a professional, do it. I’ve found excellent designers for reasonable rates at Upwork.
- Have a portfolio page where prospects can download samples of your work. Make it easy for people to read your stuff.
- Have a references page showing past clients who have agreed to allow people to email them to ask what you’re like to work with.
- If you’ve had legit bestsellers (Amazon and B&N don’t count) or won legit awards (Axiom, Independent Press, etc.), put that on your home page. It all helps.
- If you have a blog, write new material at least weekly. If you can’t do that, don’t have a blog. Few things look worse than a blog whose last post was in 2017. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go update my blog…
- Put your web address everywhere—social media, email signature, you name it.
- Buy your own name as your site address if you can. Once upon a time, I used the name of my old one-man creative shop as my URL, which was dumb. Now someone who wants to find me can type my name plus “dot com” and voila!
- Pick your platform and own it. Don’t worry about being on the “in” platform. For example, I mostly use Facebook (because I’m an ancient mariner at 56) and LinkedIn. I use Twitter occasionally, and Instagram rarely. That’s just what I’m used to. I post a lot on Facebook and that lets people find me and learn what I’m about.
- Use your social channels to share your work—new books, deals, articles, speaking, you name it. Let the world know what you’re up to and create the impression that you’re busy and successful.
- Don’t worry about creating a professional page on your chosen social platform. They’re not that useful, and nobody is visiting your social page to learn about your professional credits. They’re trying to get a sense of your personality.
- Don’t post or tweet anything you don’t want clients or prospects to see. Profanity, compromising photos, anything potentially offensive—they could cost you clients and you’d never even know it.
- On the other hand, don’t shy away from letting your real voice come through on your social channels. It’s important to be yourself. Let prospects get to know you before they contact you, because they’re going to do that anyway once they hire you. As I said, I’m very political in my Facebook posts, and some people have advised me to dial the politics back. I’ve always refused. Why would I? That’s who I am. I’d rather prospects know me and make an informed decision than get down the road and find out I’m not who they thought I was.
- Write stuff that isn’t your paying work, about subjects that interest you. It doesn’t matter what it is, just get your voice and POV out there. Publish in some of the many amazing online venues for publishing good work: Medium, Vox, Slate, Thrive, HuffPost, Quartz, Inc., Forbes, Gawker, Gizmodo, Business Insider, Buzzfeed, Mashable.
- Publish on LinkedIn.
- Make sure your best books are visible and accessible. Visibility usually isn’t a problem for ghosts; you want people to know what you’ve written. But accessibility isn’t as common. Someone might want to read part of one of your ghosted books—or a book you’ve written yourself—but not be able to. Provide links and downloadable PDFs, and make sure anyone who visits your social media feeds sees the covers of your best books right away. You’re a ghostwriter; don’t be invisible.
- If you don’t want your own blog, no worries. It can be better to find half a dozen other blogs whose owners you know and will let you guest post once a week or so. You won’t be building an audience from scratch, and you’ll be able to do more self-promoting on someone else’s real estate.
- Go all in. Starting to publish is like starting to shave: Once you get going, you’re committed. Two-year-old bylines make you look out of touch, or worse, like no one wants to publish you. Once you start writing, you have to keep going. Even once a month is fine, as long as there’s a regular flow.
Now, if you start looking into my online branding (and if you do, it’s possible you have way too much time on your hands), you might mutter, perplexed, “But Tim, you don’t do all these things.” It’s true. My website is OK, and I’m active on Facebook, but everything else is sporadic. Two things in my defense. First, all that will change over the next year as I start several important personal projects, including a number of my own books and my new support website for freelancers: Freelancium.
Second, I’ve been able to get by with the rudiments of branding because, frankly, I’m crushing the other four elements of FFF: reputation, self-advocacy, network, and communication skills. They can take more time to impact your workload and income than a great brand can, so start there. Do as I say, not as I do. And in the coming blogs, I’ll unpack how you can crush the other four, too.
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.