Why not sell five articles at once?

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Why not sell five articles at once that mostly use the same core material?

If you’ve been following the “How to Sell 75% of Your Freelance Writing” blog series here, this is #14 (of 16 segments)—and my favorite. I call the process “Topic Spoking.”

Let’s say you are averaging $400 a magazine sale. It’s great to get in print, but why not use that article topic as the core, modify it some, sell each modification, and, say, earn $2,000 for five sales? Then add another three or four sales for $250 each, as reprint or rewrites. That could easily bring in $4,000, and lots of new sales notches, all door-openers for more articles and topic spokes to those editors in the future.

Does it work? That’s mostly how I sold 1,700+ articles and lived on the income while helping two daughters through master’s degrees.

In summary, here’s the thinking.

Find a topic you enjoy and that readers want to read about. My standard example, because it’s so big, is whales. (I grew up in Illinois and the whales we had there were suspect. I thought they were fish.) Then I moved to California.

Gray whales were nearly extinct, and that particularly caught my attention, in part because one day driving along the Pacific Ocean near Ventura I saw a pod of them swimming in the sea. So I got out a sheet of paper, drew a circle, and on it I wrote WHALES. Then I drew eight spikes from that core center.

I also started a 20-hour clock to gather as much key information as I could about whales, noting the source of each fact and the names of all the experts quoted. I listed every spin-off whale-related idea I thought that readers of other magazines or newspapers would want to know about.

During the 20 hours I mostly read and note-took (now I’d add in video watching). But I also drove my family to San Pedro (near Long Beach) and we went on a “whale-watching” cruise to see grays in the ocean. We then visited the Maritime Museum nearby and I spoke to an expert on grays there.

By the end of that time I had solid copy for a newspaper travel piece called “Whale Watching in Southern California” and enough support photos (which I sold to six newspapers, five with a $50 sidebar). I earned about $1,200 total.

I also posted seven other ideas, one at the end of each spoke: “Gray Whales,” “Grays in Baja California,” “Whale watching in the mainland U.S. (mostly New England),” “Whale watching in Hawaii (all done by phone!),” “The Endangered Species List,” “Echolocation: underwater orientation (mostly by whales),” “and “Gigi and Sea World” (the only gray in captivity). Each one of those yielded at least one good sale, many three or four, and some, additional pieces that overlapped, like “Whale Watching in the Californias.”

Since the migration passes California twice a year, this topic lasted about a year. (I used to do three or four topic-spoking themes at a time.) It brought in $14,000+.

Mostly I used it to sell magazine and newspaper travel pieces but a few other topics became books or book contracts, and that would multiply the income about four times higher, with more royalties later. The trick was to also work the reprint market hard as well, so some topics, exhausted, would still bring in small additional sales years later.

The most important thing is the huge economy in time and effort. I suppose the first article earned about $10 an hour, dividing the payment check by that research starter 20 hours. But by the sixth article, I was earning an easy $200 an hour because I already knew 80% of what I needed to write about, and usually just had to make a couple of phone calls to get the needed expert quotes that most editors wanted.

We spoke earlier in this series about a feasibility study. Topic spoking is just a series of sort-of-overlapping feasibility studies, where you identify the topic, who wants to read about it, and what they read. You then make a market list of those publications, prioritize the market list, and either query the magazine editor or simultaneously submit to the newspaper editors.

Don’t forget that the photos are usable for a lot of sales. Here, if I had a killer shot (alas, not of a killer whale!) I’d shoot it from lots of angles so I could use it more than once (or twice). And if I spoke to an expert about one aspect of whaling, say, I’d look at the related articles with similar themes and I’d ask specific questions about them too. I’d also ask that expert, at the end, if he/she knew of another expert about “x” and “y” (other articles I was doing then or in the near future).

The big-pot reward? If you really enjoyed the topic, why not write a book about it after you already had so much research, so many expert leads, solid photos, and enough in print to get a “go-ahead” from a publisher?

I discuss a lot of this process in my Travel Writer’s Guide book.

I’ll talk about “multi-tiered topic spoking in section #15 next week.

Give it a try!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. Glad to have you as a free subscriber to my monthly newsletter, where I talk more about writing and selling—plus book publishing. (You get some free reports too.)

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