Use the 80 – 20 Rule to Sell More Queries By John K. Borchardt

You can take advantage of a common business rule of thumb, the 80 – 20 rule, to better target your queries and get more of them accepted by editors. It is a common rule of thumb in business that 80 percent of a company’s sales come from 20 percent of its customers. After noticing that the same was true for my freelancing writing, I asked several successful freelancers about this. They confirmed that about 80 percent of their income came from just 20 percent of their customers.

The 80 – 20 rule was an important part of the 2007 bestselling book The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris. He recommended focusing your attention on the 20% of customers that contribute 80% of your income. He even suggested not doing business with some of the customers who take up a lot of your time after accepting your manuscript but being the most difficult customers to satisfy. These editors require extensive revisions and often have many questions about your manuscript. The value of the 80 – 20 rule for freelancers is that it reminds you to focus most on the 20 percent of your customers that provide most of your income. These customers provide the best opportunities for continued sales and to grow your freelancing business.

I began practicing the 80 – 20 rule during the recession even as I was losing some of my magazine and corporate customers to budget cuts and to the elimination of their use of freelancers. I also had some customers greatly reduce the per word fees they paid freelancers. I focused on querying my best remaining customers. It was easier to sell queries to them than to magazines and companies I hadn’t written for previously. This has remained true as the economy recovered. I also worked harder on serving as a resource to my current editors. For example, I point out items of interest to them and suggest ideas for articles that other writers might write because the topics are outside my area of expertise or interest.

You can grow your sales to your best customers. For example, I regularly sold feature articles to a magazine, “Today’s Chemist at Work,” published by the American Chemical Society (ACS). I broadened what I did for the ACS by developing employment workshops for their 163,000 members. Then I began presenting these and other workshops at ACS national and regional meetings and for university chemistry departments. These workshop presentations provided additional income plus interesting travel opportunities subsidized by the ACS. My workshop business survived the demise of “Today’s Chemist at Work,” a major customer for my articles. Then in 2009 when I really needed the business, I began writing paid blogs on employment and career subjects for the ACS.

I also eliminated my most difficult customers. These were editors for whom my income, calculated on an hourly basis, was low. This was because they often changed their minds about the direction and focus of the manuscript and wanted extensive revisions as a result. A couple of other editors wondered about various points raised in the manuscript and gave me additional questions to ask my sources. However, because of manuscript length limitations the answers to these questions seldom made it into the published manuscript. I also included in this group editors who substantially reduced the word count of my articles to accommodate advertising and then paid me only for the number of published words. Other members of the difficult group were publications slow in paying me for published articles.

Following the 80 – 20 rule doesn’t mean ignoring opportunities with other customers or not recruiting new ones. Eliminating the financially least productive of your customers frees time to research publications you haven’t written for previously and develop queries for them. Some of these new customers will eventually join the 20 percent that provide most of your income. Their addition will grow your business and increase your income.

Freelance writing concerns often go beyond the financial. For instance, getting an assignment with a prestigious magazine may offer little opportunity for additional sales but provide you great personal satisfaction while providing an excellent clip to persuade others to buy your work. However, these options don’t mean that you shouldn’t focus primarily on your best customers.

John Borchardt is a freelance writer who covers business, employment, career management, science and technology. More than 1,200 of his articles have been published in a variety of trade and consumer magazines and online publications. His Oxford University Press book Career Management for Scientists and Engineers was a Science Book Club Alternate Selection.