The following is an automated transcript from The Water Cooler Hangout. You can listen to the podcast by clicking The Water Cooler Hangout or read it in its entirety (complete with automation glitches) below.
What’s It Like Being a Working Writer?
Bob Poole: [00:00:00] So you think he might like to get paid to be a writer? It’s creative, sounds like it could be fun. You can sit at a desk or on the beach or anywhere and get paid to put words on paper. Today, our guest is Phil Elmore, and he’s going to share with us the life of a working writer. Phil is a bestselling, commercially published author, technical writer, Internet marketing copywriter and content creator, living and working in upstate New York. He’s written hundreds of books, including two dozen action novels in the Gold Eagle Worldwide Library series, The Executioner for Harlequin. His bestselling nonfiction book is Ten Things Your Doctor Won’t Tell You About Your C Pap machine. He has contributed countless articles to various firearms, knives and martial arts publications. You can visit Bill online if you want and hire to write for you at w w w dot. Phil Elmore dot com.
Bob Poole: [00:00:59] Hi, this is Bob Poole. Welcome to The Water Cooler Hang out. For over 40 years I’ve been helping people like you grow and prosper. Please join me and guests like Seth Godin, Guy Kawasaki, Loren Cordain, Beverly and Tim Walden, Phil Elmore and more as we share real life stories about sales, marketing, leadership, creativity and current events. Need help in moving to the next level.
Bob Poole: [00:01:24] Find out how others have done it by listening to The Water Cooler Hangout.
Bob Poole: [00:01:37] Hey, good morning, Phil. And welcome to The Water Cooler Hangout. It’s good to have you here.
Phil Elmore: [00:01:44] It’s good to be here.
Bob Poole: [00:01:45] I’ve read somewhere where you refer to yourself as a working writer. Can you tell us what that means to you? How does that differ?
Phil Elmore: [00:01:53] Yes, I. I make a distinction between being an author and being a working writer. Literally, anyone these days can become an author. That’s not an insult. It’s not a criticism. The first book I ever published was a self-published book. I will say as an aside, that you only ever get one first novel and they’re all terrible. You must exorcise the poison. There’s no getting around it. Very few authors turn out a brilliant book the first time. Maybe J.K. Rowling is the exception. But even published authors – authors who do great and have wonderful careers. There’s an author named I think is an Australian named Matthew Riley, who’s written a series of adventure books, and he published his first novel after rewriting it after he had several commercial successes and says in the introduction that when he self-published it, it didn’t sell many copies and it wasn’t very good. And that’s because you simply don’t know what you don’t know. And most beginning writers don’t write well, and I’m no exception to that. So because we live in an era of self-publishing and there are no barriers to putting out a novel, anyone can put out a novel and become an author. And many of us who grew up enamored of the idea of being authors, it has a mystique associated with it. That’s understandable. There’s so many people who will write a book, if you like. I wrote a book and maybe they’ll write several. And if they’re just writing for an audience of friends and family and they’re not subjecting themselves to a high level of harsh criticism, they’re not going to improve. So those people are all authors.
Phil Elmore: [00:03:29] A working writer, by contrast, is somebody who is actually making money at the creative writing. And unlike being an author, being a working writer has no glamour associated with it. It has no cachet. You’re literally making a living off the sweat of your brain. And sometimes it’s quite undignified. I have had to write, I cannot tell you and I won’t tell you some of the things I’ve had to write to make a living. I have contributed hundreds of thousands of words of just debris to the Internet working for Internet marketers. That’s one of the one of the big categories of available work, if you are a working writer, is Internet marketing and people who write websites of the Web, copy your blog posts or, you know, various things along those lines. So when you get into the realm of content creation, which is an umbrella term for I write things for people when they tell me what they want, that can be anything from white papers to articles to even e-books for clients who want to offer e-book products, physical books, even. I have written countless books for clients. I have written novels for clients. I have rewritten novels for clients. There’s very, very few genres of writing I have not done for pay. But the exchange for that is, in many cases, as a working writer y ou don’t get credit for what you’re doing. That’s the gig. You get paid a flat fee and then the person does whatever they will do with what you produce and takes credit for it. Or you write material that isn’t a book and isn’t particularly glamorous. Might be a website, might be a series of blog posts, could be almost anything.
Phil Elmore: [00:05:02] And that too is not something you’ll take credit for. And hopefully you want to. In some cases you will pound the pavement and stand on virtual street corners. Used to be sites like Elance which got bought by Upwork. I’ve done work on those sites. I’ve met clients on sites like this that became years long clients who produce thousands and thousands of dollars of work for me. But doing that type of work is exactly like prostitution without all the dignity. You have to be willing to swallow your pride, get paid less than you think you’re worth, do work that you might find a little detestable, right? Write about topics that you find…ah let’s just say that you can’t afford to find things offensive when you’re trying to make a living that way. So when a client pays you to write a series of sleazy websites for products that you didn’t even know existed until you did, how you open your research then? That’s the gig. I had a client who has to do a series of websites like that for all kinds of adult products we’ll call them. And then one day he’s like, yeah, I need you to give me ten thousand words on costumes. And I’m like, what? What manner of vile things? No man costumes, Batman. Superman. I’m like, what? It doesn’t have disgusting sex stuff. How can I write that now? So, you know, it really there are some writers who would look at that and go, oh no, I’m destroying my writing talent, writing things that are beneath me and it’s going to harm my writing abilities.
Phil Elmore: [00:06:32] I don’t see it that way. A working writer has to be able to (garbled audio). So you’re just learning different genres in your work and overall, I would say that all that experience is beneficial because the more you learn to write, the better you become. It is helpful. Like if you spend your week after week writing your copy for websites on topics that don’t personally interest you, which is probably the case, then it’s helpful to write on the side and work on your pet novel or work on something else that you find intellectually stimulating just to keep your hand in, but in all your copious amounts of free time. And I often say that you’re not a working writer until you want to go to bed, but you can’t because you have to finish what you write. And a lot of authors live a life of work where they never have to confront that. Oh, I don’t feel like writing today. So I’m not going to almost I wrote an entire chapter today and aren’t I proud of myself, and that’s nice. But only when you’ve been up until 3:00 in the morning because you need to Grind out ten thousand words of Web copy because you live on deadline, which I’m not saying that (garbled). I’m just saying that that’s what the job can be like. It can be very difficult. But the opposite part of that, the other side of the coin is that it can be very fulfilling. It also gives you the ability to make money all the time. I can always make extra money if I’m willing to exchange sleep for it. The hard part is just finding the client willing to spend a fair amount of money.
Phil Elmore: [00:08:06] I’m so sorry you pressed the button that is “talk about writing. right, and I just…
Bob Poole: [00:08:12] No, no, that’s a great description of what you call a working writer, but how many books have you written? Have you kept track?
Phil Elmore: [00:08:20] I have the luxury of not being able to remember how many books I’ve written.
Phil Elmore: [00:08:24] I wrote a dozen books for Harlequin alone, the romance novel company. They had a men’s adventure in print that they didn’t like to admit to having for the longest time and over several years, I wrote two dozen books in their Executioner Adventure series. If you heard of The Punisher, you’ve heard of a similar property. The comic book The Punisher was widely acknowledged to be sort of inspired by a rip off from the executioner. Their stories about a man whose family is killed by criminals, who makes the entirely logical decision to kill all the criminals. So he does over the course of (in the case of The Executioner) of hundreds of books that those have been ghostwritten by a staff of writers of whom I am only one of dozens of people probably. I’ve never known exactly how many authors worked on that series. But when the original author wrote like 40 of the books and then sold the property to (audio garbled), which was the imprint of Harlequin, put those out to people like me, wrote those books to the tune of I think they were churning them out, like four every few months, for a while. So there are six or seven hundred books in that series at this point. I’ve done those written books for other clients. I’ve written a number of science fiction novels for an IP company. I’ve done ghost written fiction for other people I’ve edited and heavily rewritten books for clients. So those aren’t I don’t I wouldn’t say that I wrote those books, but I definitely co-wrote them by the time they were done and then I have non-fiction books that I’ve written years ago, I wrote a couple of martial arts books for Paladin Press before they went out of business later. And my best selling book, because life is not about a sense of irony, is a book about C-PAP machines because, yes, as a as a starry eyed youth, I thought I was going to be famous for writing books about martial arts and how to beat people up and use weapons and know I’m a best selling author because I wrote a book on machines to stop you from dying in your sleep.
Bob Poole: [00:10:24] And now how did that come about?
Phil Elmore: [00:10:30] Well, I actually went on an adventure where that’s concerned I, I got really sick and then I had pneumonia and then I had bronchitis. And then I went to my doctor and said, hey, when I go up a flight of stairs, I feel like I’m going to die. And I feel like it’s worse than just being overweight. It’s like, well, it could be your heart. And I said What! So they did a bunch of tests and determined that I had untreated sleep apnea that had probably damaged my heart. I did sleep study. They gave me a C-PAP machine and adjusting that machine turned out to be extremely difficult. And I finally did make the adjustment and the machine saved my life. And I’m much better today and I have to do more testing yet. But they think maybe my my heart has has improved as well. It’s it’s hard to say without doing so.
Bob Poole: [00:11:20] That’s good.
Phil Elmore: [00:11:21] Very elaborate tests. But the first thing is it’s put me on medication to make it easier for my heart to beat. And I sat down at my desk one morning and I thought to myself, what’s different? Oh, I don’t hate everyone, because it turns out that when your heart is trying to compensate for the fact that it’s not pushing up blood, it’s hammering away at about 110 beats per minute at rest, and it makes you extremely irritable.
Phil Elmore: [00:11:46] So I thought to myself, there are all these things I wish I did know when I started to this that would have made making adjustments easier because the hard part was not I now have this machine I have to mask with a hose that I have to wear when I sleep. That wasn’t the hard part. The hard part was feeling like I was never again going to get a decent night’s sleep because I couldn’t sleep with the mask on at first. And I went about three days without sleeping at all. And you would be amazed how quickly you mentally unravel when you haven’t slept in three days. I was just out of my mind, so I wrote the book after I made the adjustments and basically explaining what I’ve gone through in the hopes that other people who have that same transition would find it as useful.
Phil Elmore: [00:12:35] And I was thinking in terms of as I wrote it, I was thinking in terms of relatives who I knew probably had the same problem and how would I convince them that they needed to take the problem seriously?
Phil Elmore: [00:12:45] And for whatever reason, the book, which is just 99 cents on the Amazon, it became a bestseller. It was in double digits and Amazon’s self-help category itself. To this day, Amazon continues to turn out a significant amount of…
Bob Poole: [00:13:04] What’s the title of the book.
Phil Elmore: [00:13:08] It’s called 10 Things Doctors Won’t Tell You About Your CPAP Machine.
Bob Poole: [00:13:10] In that case, people that are listening and are having problems with CPAP machines.
Phil Elmore: [00:13:18] It’s a it’s a much more extensive problem than I ever. What else does a working writer do? Because I’ve seen on your website I looked over it looks like you also do some work in audio or video.
Phil Elmore: [00:13:30] Well, I was blessed with a fairly decent speaking voice, so I’ve had the opportunity to do audio work. I’ve read books for the audiobook versions. That can be very difficult because a long book it takes. You can always work faster, you can always write faster. You can’t talk faster. So as a matter of fact, when you’re doing audio work, you have to you have to go slower because you have to allow for making mistakes and reading an audio book means it’s not your conversational speaking voice, you’re speaking slower. For example, if you listening to Ben Shapiro talk in front of the speaking, which is very, very fast, almost too fast, if you listen to one of his audio books, it almost doesn’t sound like him because he’s reading much slower because you have to when you do an audio book. So the the process of doing audio is fun. And I do enjoy listening to the sound of it so that that part has always been enjoyable. But when it’s a long project, it can be very difficult. Audio book recording and doing voiceovers, because most of the clients are not people who want their books written. There are people who want voiceovers for videos and for little promos. I am the voice of a parking system somewhere in the Midwest somewhere.
Phil Elmore: [00:14:56] Get a bunch of a bunch of phrases for this like this zone cannot be parked in right now.
Phil Elmore: [00:15:01] Right now your credit card is invalid, stuff like that. And it’s always weird when every once in a while I’ll stumble across like a YouTube video that I did voices for. I have an Internet marketing friend who bought a book on Internet marketing and called me and said, You’ll never guess whose voice on this article. So it was me reading the audio book on Internet marketing that another Internet client of mine purchased.
Bob Poole: [00:15:26] A great, great story.
Phil Elmore: [00:15:28] So, you know, this the fun. I do a little bit of video editing.
Phil Elmore: [00:15:32] I have a client who has a series of seminars every year about his products that would pay me to edit it together. These videos, those are just little things that I picked up here and there to sort of pay the bills. I even have the ability to do transcription because as a as a writer and as a prolific writer, I typed very quickly. So the transcription is relatively easy to do. The problem is, again, you can’t listen faster. Yes, you can turn up the speed on the audio, but often that makes it more difficult to make out what’s being said. So doing transcription work can be just as frustrating as recording audio that you are limited to each time progress.
Bob Poole: [00:16:12] So what let me ask you, what advice would you give to someone who may be listening right now and is thinking they’d like to maybe do a little side hustle or maybe they’re getting close to retiring and they’re thinking they might like to do some writing and get paid for it? Well, the research suggests where do they start?
Phil Elmore: [00:16:33] The best way to start would be to sign up with a site like Upwork or maybe Fiverr offering editing or copywriting, or something related to one of the many functions that they can do. The primary purpose of sites like Upwork is to connect people who want the work done with people who offer the work done. But even though you’re not supposed to go outside of the system, invariably if you end up doing good work for somebody. They’ll find ways to get a hold of you outside of the framework of that of that freelance and using sites like that. Like I said, I developed clients and I ended up providing work for many years into the tens of thousands of dollars of networking is also extremely important. So if you’re not on LinkedIn you need to be on LinkedIn so that people can find you, most people don’t use LinkedIn socially, but they use it when they need work done. I just recently got a message from a former co-worker of mine who said, hey, this guy is looking for a writer and he has a public post on LinkedIn about it. You should go over and comment. So I did and may very well end up arranging a call to talk about the work that he’s done.
Phil Elmore: [00:17:46] Networking is extremely important, but it’s a lot like losing weight. You can’t just say, OK, step one, lose one hundred pounds like it’s a slow process. So you can’t just say, OK, today I will network with all the people I need to network. You know, you have to build those over time. And I have had the luxury of years in this business to meet people and meet clients with other people sometimes referred to me. So if you do good work and maintain positive relationships with the people that you work with and you stay connected to them online sites like LinkedIn that helps with the networking process. But it takes time, so you should be prepared to start small. Start with, like I said, one of freelance sites like Upwork, do the jobs, fill out your profile, put up a nice portfolio of work when and if you have it, and then just be willing to take some grind it. You have to get to work on it over time. It’s not going to happen overnight and you’re not going to make a ton of money on it.
Phil Elmore: [00:18:44] At first I first started and created my very first website where I sort of hung out my shingle as a writer.
Phil Elmore: [00:18:55] Twenty, twenty five years ago, and it took a lot of years for me to get comfortable calling it a side income, these days, I make my entire living writing things, different things for people. I like to say that my life is a series of desks and I’m not this desk. I’m at a different desk somewhere else.
Phil Elmore: [00:19:13] And it’s amazing the adventures you can have from behind a desk. I have written things that that were financially successful.
Phil Elmore: [00:19:22] I have written things for clients that turned out to be best selling products for them that made tons and tons of money. I have written things that offended people and made lifelong enemies. So certain types of journalism I don’t do anymore. It can be very fulfilling and then being a very adventurous life from behind a desk at a keyboard.
Bob Poole: [00:19:43] One of the questions I get from people who are trying to start out in what used to be photography all the time, I started as a professional photographer many, many years ago. And so people will ask me, you know, I’d like to do photography and get paid for it. What do I charge? So the same thing I’m sure is true about people who want to write for a living or at least write for money. How do you figure out what to charge on these sites the year like Fiverr.
Phil Elmore: [00:20:10] That can be very difficult.
Phil Elmore: [00:20:12] The person who specifies a price first usually loses.
Phil Elmore: [00:20:17] And especially in these freelance sites, you’re up against people who are doing work from other nations like India and working very cheaply. Now, a lot of the time, you get what you pay for. But the fact is, it’s very easy to get undercut what I normally do when I’m not working within the framework of a of a freelance system, like in the freelance systems like Upwork, there’s usually a rate that was probably specified by the client or the range. You can usually tell what do I bid in order to be a price that I can live with, but under what other people are offering. So there’s some calculation based on context that happens there. If I’m just talking to a client out in the real world, then I usually ask them, well, what’s your budget for this product project? What are you comfortable paying to have this done? And usually clients who know what they’re doing usually have an idea of what they’re willing to pay. And then your decision is, can I can I operate within that framework? If you don’t have that, if they’re not willing to specify, well, then you’ve got to make a shot in the dark. So basically, you do the mental math of how many hours is this likely to take me? Which can be a real guess, but it’s not always easy to know.
Phil Elmore: [00:21:32] And then what would my hourly rate likely be over time? The more you do this, the more it will develop, sort of an arbitrary system of rates that is flexible and we all charge different amounts based on the clients. The clients that we like usually get that I like you discount. And then if it’s a project that seems like a real pain and you don’t care if you don’t get it, then you’ll at a higher price because you don’t really want to do it. And sometimes they’ll meet that. So you end up making the money and then you have to grin and bear it. But most of the time my go to is what’s your budget for this project? And then I determine, can I afford to do the work at that price? And by that I don’t mean is it enough money to be worth my while. What I mean is whenever you do work, you’re spending time that cannot be spent on anything else. Every project has a time cost associated with it. So if I know that I’m doing this project is going to take 20 hours out of my week and that 20 hours is going to generate X dollars, I have to say to myself, can I afford to spend 20 hours to get that amount of money based on the amount of money that I need to make overall? So being a working writer involves a lot of a lot of hustling, a lot of calculations, a lot of constant looking for money.
Phil Elmore: [00:22:49] All of my clients know that I’m always in need of money it’s never not the case, because it’s all about cash flow. When your rent is due three days from now, it doesn’t matter if you’re going to get five thousand dollars for a project ten days from now that doesn’t do any good. So you’re constantly sort of on the prowl for ways to keep the cash flow coming in that would keep you afloat. It can be difficult. And I don’t mean I’m not trying to discourage anyone by describing it as difficult. This is just the reality of doing this job. Again, the upside is I have the ability to generate income simply sitting at a desk. I’m not working in a coal mine, so I’m not going out running a cash register. I literally have the luxury of making money sitting at a desk.
Phil Elmore: [00:23:35] It’s a wonderful way to be able to make money if you can do it.
Bob Poole: [00:23:38] Have you had to adjust how you work during this whole Covid-19 pandemic thing?
Phil Elmore: [00:23:43] Not for the most part.
Phil Elmore: [00:23:46] I do some technical writing and that often involves having to go on site to look at machines and take pictures of them and get information about them. And so the pandemic has made that more challenging. But the fact is, like I said, my life is a series of desks. So as long as the desk I’m at allows me to operate the computer that I need to operate, it doesn’t matter. So it has not changed my lifestyle a whole lot. If anything, it’s actually made easier because you don’t have to budget as much time for not being in the office, because where would you go? So overall, this is one of those professions that is sort of pandemic proof. However, the one downside to the pandemic is a lot of clients who were paying for this became unable to do so or didn’t need to do so, or my income definitely contracted over the course of the pandemic, it was it was not easy and it’s still not at the moment
Phil Elmore: [00:24:49] So those are just the things that you come to terms with.
Bob Poole: [00:24:53] One last question. What’s one bit of advice you would give to someone who may be listening and thinking, all right, I want to give this a try. What’s the one thing you tell them to do first?
Phil Elmore: [00:25:04] Well, again, as I said before, the first thing they need to do is sign up for one of those freelance sites, fill out their profile, dot all the I’s, cross all the T’s. But that’s the mechanical advice for how to get started. Emotionally and mentally as far as how to get started. The one thing that has been of most benefit to me in my career is the ability not to take criticism personally. If you’re not improving as a writer, then you’re not writing that you should always be able to look back on your past work ago. That is not as good as I can do now. It was as good as I was capable of doing at the time, but I have since improved and the only way to improve as a writer is being willing to accept harsh criticism. I worked for an IP development company that was probably the single best writing workshop period of my life and that the folks who ran that company were not shy about telling me when my work was not good enough or where they thought I could improve. And early in my career, the single fastest way to make me angry was to criticize my writing because I felt that that was unfair and that I was a good writer.
Phil Elmore: [00:26:11] Well, I was wrong, you have to be willing to accept criticism and not take it personally and see it as an opportunity to do better and improve rather than getting personally affronted or upset or feel that it’s unfair when you’re writing nonfiction and people criticize your work. It’s very easy to say, well, they just don’t like my opinion. So they’re making unfair criticism. When you write fiction and people criticize your work, it’s it cuts much deeper because now they’re attacking you. Now they’re attacking what you do and how you see how a story is written. And being able to learn to accept criticism on both of those fronts really help me and help me to become a better writer. So it it can be it can batter your ego down. There are days when you just feel like I’m just not good at this and that self-doubt is normal. You have to be willing to fight back against that. Do better, be better. So it’s there are times when it’s an emotional battle, not every day. But if you look up writers quotes about writing, which I did one time when I was putting together a manual on how to write a novel, but I still haven’t finished the side project.
Phil Elmore: [00:27:20] When I looked up a bunch of famous quotes from writers to put on the facing pages of the chapters, they were all unhappy. Writing does not make people happy. It is not a source of joy. And part of that might be this sort of masochistic desire to be a martyr and that writers tend to be a self-indulgent lot if you leave us to our own devices, we will do things that are not in our best interest, which is why the writer is only as good as his editor. And you’ll see a lot of especially amateur writers who blog about writing. And when they’re writing about writing, they’re not getting any writing done, ironically. So there are a lot of pitfalls emotionally and mentally. It requires a lot of strength. So the single piece of advice I would give anyone who wants to embark on this is a way to make money or even just if they want to write a book, is that be willing to be told that this isn’t that good and then get better? It can be hard. It can be very difficult, but it is absolutely necessary to the process.