Successful Business Writing:
An Interview with Geoffrey James
By Russell Gifford
© 2007, Russell Gifford
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
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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
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?
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.
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
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
How often do you write? Do you set aside time daily? If so, how long do
you write? What is your average day like?
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.
writing business changed since you started? Is it better or worse?
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.
When did you know you wanted to be a writer? Has your career progressed
the way you thought it would?
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.
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?
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,
to cubicle land. I like helping individuals to be more successful,
which is the focus of my business writing today.
What do you read? Who has influenced your writing?
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.
Are there common mistakes you see new writers making? What suggestions
would you give them?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Thank you for taking this
time for this interview. Any last words you'd like to say to our
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!