Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor
zette@cableone.net

Successful Business Writing:
An Interview with Geoffrey James

By Russell Gifford
2007, Russell Gifford


Geoffrey James has written over a hundred feature stories for national publications including Wired, Men's Health, Business 2.0, SellingPower, Electronic Business Computer Gaming World, CIO, ComputerWorld, NetworkWorld, and The New York Times.  He is also the author of seven books, including Business Wisdom of the Electronic Elite, published by Random House, and The Tao of Programming, from InfoBooks. The latter is quoted as a "canonical book of computer humor" on hundreds of web sites.  

Before becoming a full-time writer, Geoffrey worked as a software architect and marketing executive for large computer firms. He has extensive experience in broadcast media and since 1994 has made his living as a writer. In this interview, he shares his roadmap to success as a freelance writer, his views on the business of writing, and a touch of his finely honed sense of humor. 

Vision: Your writing credits are impressive. The list of markets you have placed articles includes many big name national publications -- Wired, Men's Health, Computer Gaming World, and The New York Times, to name a few.  But you are also a successful author of non-fiction books on business practices, specifically with the computer and software industry. Which came first, the books or the articles? 

GJ: Before starting freelancing full time, I had written five books: one technical, one historical, and three books of short computer-oriented humor.  In 1994, I quit my job as a marketing executive to write a business book, planning to make money as a management consultant and public speaker.  In the process of promoting that book, I ended up writing a number of articles and soon found that it was easier -- and more suited to my relatively reclusive character -- to make money writing rather than speaking.   

Vision: Where did your writing career begin? What got you started? Was there a magazine that you desperately wanted to crack, or a story you wanted to tell? Or was it all about the money? What was the push that moved you from marketing, or software engineering, to writing and journalism? 

GJ: I started writing at age 4.5 -- an elaborate cartoon that involved domestic conflict, murder, and suicide.  My first book was published when I was 6.  I recently completed a novel but, after having it read by several editors, discovered novels apparently require something called a "plot." (Who knew?)  Business writing is basically grunt work, although I do like writing about sales technique, because honing my sales skills makes freelancing a lot easier. 

 

Vision: Are there any articles that still stand out in your mind as big achievements, or is it all about 'what's next' with you? Is there a market you're still wishing you could place a sale with? Are the articles simply spin-offs created during the research for the books? Or are the books expanded extensions of the articles? 

GJ: I used to want to write for the "big" magazines until I learned, the hard way, that prestige of publication is directly proportional to size of editorial sphincter. Unless you're promoting a consultancy, writing a business book is a chump's game.  The only way that you can make money writing a business book is to rent out chapter 7 to the CIA so that they can use the middle paragraphs to send secret messages to field operatives.  (I'm convinced that nobody ever reads past chapter 1 of any business book.)  Seriously, you need to get a $50k to $100k advance to make a business book pay as well as an equivalent number of magazine articles.  

Vision: Is writing a sideline, or your main source of income? If so -- does it pay the bills? In your experience, can people get into this business and expect to sustain themselves as writers? Can it replace the dollars you made in your previous job? 

GJ: You're kidding, right?  On a bad year, I only break six figures.  On a good year, I gross $200k.  I make much more money writing than I ever made as a programmer or marketing executive, even though I was quite successful in those fields by most standards. 

Vision: What does it take to achieve that? Can you break down how many article manuscripts you have in the mail on a normal month, or how many books you need to produce? Or does your business model have other income streams?  

GJ: At this point, all my income comes from writing.  I make sure that I sell at least $10k of writing a month, minus whatever ongoing work (like columns) I've previously sold.  Making those numbers means spending a certain amount of time each day corresponding with editors and composing story pitches.  I make sure that I invoice at least $500 a day, on average.  That means writing at least 500 salable words a day.  I would never waste my time writing an article on spec.  

 

Vision: How do you choose topics for your articles or your books? Do you specialize in certain subjects? How much time does it take to research and write an article for your typical sale? What about the timeline for producing a book?

GJ: I base my story pitches on 1) whether I have credibility in that market; 2) whether it a subject matter that's at least mildly interesting to me; 3) what the magazine is currently publishing; 4) the upcoming editorial calendar; and 5) discussions with the editor about what they're looking for. It usually takes about an hour to make a sale (couple of phone calls, emails, story pitch).  For an article, I usually budget 500 words a day, which includes research.  

Vision: Do you prospect for non-fiction markets? Or are you focused on the book sale? Any suggestions for our writers that could help them tackle some of the big non-fiction markets? Is there a good place to start?  

GJ:  I've fielded a few book proposals for subjects that interest me personally but my agent can't seem to sell them, even though identically-themed books seem to always appear two years after my proposal was panned.  The way to start in non-fiction book markets is to write for small trade magazines.  You might not get much per word, but you get experience that can be leveraged into better things.   

Vision: Did you start with a strategy in mind for becoming a 'writer'? You made it, so it must have worked, right? Or did you succeed in spite of your self?  

GJ:  I always wanted to write for a living and I wanted to work at home, so I saved a year's income and took the leap. 

Vision: How often do you write? Do you set aside time daily? If so, how long do you write? What is your average day like? 

GJ: I do the bulk of my writing from noon to five.  The mornings are pretty much about reading the news, surfing the web and messing around.  I usually take a nap in the middle of the afternoon. 

Vision: Has the writing business changed since you started? Is it better or worse? 

GJ: Magazine ad pages are down and work is moving onto the Internet.  Web sites pay less per word but demand less research, so it's a wash.  There's some growth right now in corporate newsletters.  Only about .1% of the population can actually write a coherent paragraph, let alone an entire article, and writing can't be outsourced to India or China.  Freelance writing can be a great career with good job security, even though in most people's minds the job title "freelance writer" ranks somewhere between "struggling musician" and "starving artist" in terms of earning power and job prestige. 

Vision: When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Has your career progressed the way you thought it would? 

GJ: I originally thought that I had the potential to be a great writer.  I now realize that my skills are adequate for making a good living, but not much beyond that.  Sad, but true. 

Vision: How have you changed since you started writing? Has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there article subjects that matter most to you? Are they the same ones as when you started writing? 

GJ: I get bored pretty easily which is why I've changed careers pretty frequently.  The biggest change in my personality is that, after spending 12 years freelancing, I could never, ever, ever return to cubicle land.  I like helping individuals to be more successful, which is the focus of my business writing today. 

Vision: What do you read? Who has influenced your writing? 

GJ: I regularly read the New Yorker, the NY Times, and the Atlantic Monthly.  My favorite fiction author is Jack Vance. The best book I've read recently is Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.  I'd rather poke myself in the nostril with a rotten chicken bone than read a business magazine.    

Vision:  Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions would you give them?  

GJ: The most common mistake is thinking that freelancing isn't a sales job.  In the first year, freelancing is 100% sales; once you're successful it becomes about 25% of the job, but still the most important part.  It amazes me that very few freelancers grasp this basic fact.  Even fewer bother to find out what sales is all about and how it's done.  At minimum, freelancers must understand how to cold call, how to write a sales proposal, and how to close a sale.  If this sounds like something you don't want to learn and do, you'll never be successful freelancing.  Suggestion: If you're going to freelance, get comfortable spending long amounts of time in your own company.  If you have to take your laptop to Starbucks in order to keep from feeling lonely, you won't last a year. 

Vision: As a software engineer, this question may seem strange, but -- as a writer, do you see the Internet as a good tool for upcoming writers? How do you use it in your writing? What about marketing?  

GJ: The Internet greatly reduces the amount of time it takes to get good sources for articles.  It makes it easier to check out a publication and get background on the editor to whom you're pitching a story.  It makes it trivial to find out what else has been published on a subject.  Other than putting up a web page for editors to check out your bona-fides, the Internet is useless for marketing freelancing services.   

Vision: What do you have coming out that we should look for? What sort of things do you plan, or hope, to write in the future?  

GJ: Right now, I'm just trying increase my sales ratio and get more extra work to pay for a second adoption.  So I'm not really focused as much on career development at this point as I am at increasing my client base and profit margin.  My most recent "labor of love" is an animated feature film called Borg War, which I created, all by my little lonesome, using computer games.  It's had a quarter of a million downloads to date and was nominated for a couple of minor awards. 

Vision: Thank you for taking this time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to say to our readers?  

GJ: Actually, I have a question.  Would you readers out there be interested in a book that explains exactly what you need to do to make big money freelancing?  I've learned all the tricks. and if a writer as minimally talented as me can do it, I figure that anybody can do it. 

(Readers:  Is the answer yes, you would be interested in such a book?  Email me and let me know, and I'll pass the words on to Geoffrey James!  zette@cableone.net)