Search This Blog

Monday, January 31, 2011

Listen to your Gut: or How to Not Waste Four Hours of Your Life

If you tune in here often, you know I'm all about managing my time as efficiently as possible, at least most of the time. Regardless, though, marketing my business and "qualifying" clients takes a significant amount of time, especially as much of the work I do now is ghostwriting/coauthoring books. Signing a book client usually takes significantly more time than getting a magazine article, so I definitely don't want to it with someone who isn't a viable client.

So let me share a story from several years ago, when I was much newer (read: mostly clueless) to the ghostwriting biz:

It started when I received an email from a potential client in the Chicago area. Well, it was actually the client's underling. Said underling was looking for a writer to handle several projects for his boss, including an autobiography. His boss was a very successful, very wealthy real estate developer.

I called the underling, and we spoke briefly. He wanted me to come to his office to meet him and his boss. I debated. The trip is an hour's drive—without traffic—and I already knew I wasn't right for a couple of the projects. My gut said "no." But my greedy little brain said, "Very wealthy!" In other words, this dude's got lots of coin to spend on an autobiography—why not spend it on me?

So I agreed, put on my grown-up clothes a couple of days later, and drove up to the northern suburbs. The traffic stunk, but I made the trip in under 90 minutes. I met with both men, and it quickly became apparent that I had wasted my time. Mr. Fabulously Wealthy began sketching out his plans for one of the projects for which he needed a writer. The project entailed an incredible amount of time and work. I listened, took notes, and asked what budget he had in mind.

He wouldn't answer me directly. Then he explained (as if talking to a four-year-old) that the writer had the "opportunity" to make an incredible amount of money as the project grew in scope. I pressed, only to have him grow angry at my insistence that no professional writer (including me) is going to put her time into a project with the promise of a payoff. We expect to be paid for our work. He waved me off, and I diplomatically suggested that I wouldn't be the right writer for this fantastic "opportunity."

Attention turned to his autobiography. Again, he fobbed off my questions about pay. "The great thing about this book is that the writer will be able to learn about my life, and learn how to sell," he said.

"And the writer will be paid for writing the book," I pointed out. Dead silence from him. Uh huh! Well, thanks for wasting my morning! Yet I politely said I needed to hit the road (I never like to burn a bridge). I drove home, mentally calculating what I'd spent for this worthless meeting. Four hours' of babysitting. Gas to drive up there. Tolls. Lost time from my real work. I came home in a foul mood, but I was just as angry at myself. My gut had warned me during my phone conversation. But I overrode it.

What could I have done differently? Number one, asked about the budget before I agreed to meet. Then I would have discovered that first, that this opportunity was nothing more than an opportunity for me to waste my time and money, and second, that Mr. Fabulously Wealthy had no intention of sharing that wealth with me.

Today, I always ask potential clients about their budget, or what they expect to invest in a project, before I proceed, let alone leave the house. I suggest you do the same.


  1. Wow, I can totally see myself not asking about the budget beforehand, thinking it was inappropriate somehow, but you've made a great point. Nobody wants to waste their time--not the potential client and definitely not the writer! Great advice, thanks!

  2. I need some advice regarding this topic: I have two projects on my plate that I took a few months ago when I was part time freelancing. They weren't too bad to work on when I was part time, but now that I'm full time, and have other projects competing for my time, I've come to find that these two projects in particular are, quite frankly, anchors. The compensation for these projects doesn't justify the amount of time that I have to put into them and are getting in the way of working on other things that are much more lucrative. I'm afraid canceling them will look unprofessional, but I'm also afraid that I'm simply losing money by spending time on these two projects. What do you suggest?

  3. Thanks for your post, Holly!

    And Allison, that's a tricky one not knowing more about your situation. Can you speed up your work so that your hourly rate on the two "anchors" improves? I'd be inclined, though, to bite the bullet and finish them to keep a good (or at least positive) relationship going with those clients--after that, if you don't want to take more on from them, that's up to you. FWIW, you never have too much experience to completely avoid this situations; I had a project last year that I did for a flat fee and wound up with a really low per-hour rate on--but sometimes that happens.

    My $0.02 (or 0.03). Let me know what you think. :)