Two years ago, I quit a perfectly good editing job at BusinessWeek magazine to be a freelance writer. Why? To have more flexibility, to spend more time with my children, and to never, ever sit through a Friday staff meeting again.
In my new life, I’ve found there are tricks to freelancing profitably, and one of my favorites I call The Parallel Universe. It’s not a place — more of a mindset — and it is crucial to bleeding every last dollar out of a story.
Here’s how it works: When a story runs, I’m already thinking about where it can generate another paycheck for me. But instead of trying to sell it to a similar publication, I seek a market in another category – what I like to call the Parallel Universe. If the story ran in a consumer magazine, I go looking in the business pubs. If it ran as a business story, I look for a trade title. Usually, this will require a rewrite in order to fit the tone and style of the second home, but because these publications don’t consider themselves direct competitors, I’ve been able to sell my re-purposed stories at top rate, rather than settling for lower-end reprint fees.
I’ll give you an example. I wrote a story for BusinessWeek on the success of online advertising to young consumers. The story was all business, focusing on big companies and how they make their money on the Internet. But the issue of kids and advertising isn’t just a business story. Told from a different perspective, it’s a parenting story. And so I was able to rework the same information and sell it to consumer monthly Big Apple Parent as a service story for parents who want to know how to protect their kids online. One topic. Two treatments. Two paychecks.
I did the same thing when I interviewed the CEO of Baby Jogger (that’s the maker of the original three-wheeled jogging stroller.) My first client was Americanbaby.com, and my story was about a new stroller, its features, its benefits, its price, etc. But I was struck as I did the interviews how often people use the phrase “Baby Jogger” generically, as though it were a noun rather than a brand name. Consumers don’t really care about that, but businesses do. And so the Baby Jogger story was able to leap to the parallel universe of business magazines, and I did a story focusing on its brand marketing strategy. One company. Two stories. Two paychecks. And in this case, the second publication paid a lot better than the first.
Life in The Parallel Universe does have its rules:
1. Be honest with your various editors. No matter what your contract may say, it’s useful to be straightforward with your editor about your story’s multiple personalities. Often, publications in parallel universes don’t see each other as direct competitors, and so they won’t be put off. But a little honesty up front can save you a headache down the road.
2. Always write a new lead. Editors are funny about leads. If they’ve seen the lead before, they think they are getting leftovers.
3. Think about the parallel universe as early as possible in the story process. Have it in your head when you are doing your interviews so that your notes will cover both your original story assignment and any future incarnations you can come up with, all without doing more reporting.
Ellen Neuborne is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She specializes in marketing and advertising topics and also writes frequently about small businesses. Her work has appeared in BusinessWeek, Sales and Marketing Management, Ms. and Mademoiselle. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.