During my decade-long newspaper career, my writing life was more simple but also more boring. I was given an assignment. I wrote the story, it was printed in the newspaper where I was employed and I went on to the next assignment.
I never once considered writing the same story for more than one publication or writing different versions of the same story for different publications. That approach always sounded unethical, and for most of the 10 years I worked strictly for newspapers, I wanted no part of such practices.
I can even remember commenting once to a fellow staffer who was also a successful freelancer: “Why would you want to rewrite something or use the article elsewhere? It seems like a lot of work to make another $50 or $100.”
But we all learn. In my instance, I have come to realize what I do best is market. I believe a competent writer with great marketing skills will have greater financial freelance success than a very skilled writer who has no marketing savvy.
I have simply learned to write about sports, health & fitness, recreation, leisure, business and lifestyle subjects that appeal to wide audiences. And unless I’m writing a piece for a publication that pays enough not to worry about multiple sales, I believe an article that’s purchased only once is unsuccessful.
As an example, I’ve covered bicycle racing since 1979. A few years ago, however, my sister gave me an idea outside of the competitive vein when she mailed me an article about the bicycle built for two.
The article reminded me how much I’ve enjoyed the bicycle built for two (more commonly called tandem) competition during the four World Cycling Championships. I have covered in four different countries.
The newspaper she mailed me gave me the idea to write about tandem cycling – its history, the exercise involved, etc. The idea has worked surprisingly well. Nearly every editor I’ve written or called thought the article proposal was unique and gave me an assignment. As a result, I have now written more than 20 news service, syndicate, newspaper and magazine articles about tandem cycling.
The reason the article has generated nearly $3,500 in income is because it appeals to a varied audience. I’ve sold articles to senior publications, in-flight magazines, general interest newspapers, cycling magazines, fitness magazines, national health and fitness syndicates, a running magazine and a women’s sports magazine.
The New York Times and USA Today to Runner’s World and Retired Officer, a military lifestyle magazine, the editors all liked the historic, lifestyle and uniqueness of tandem cycling as a sport or recreation. I simply had to take the subject and craft the story to fit the various publications’ needs. I now jokingly call the tandem article, “the story that won’t die.”
While the article on the bicycle built for two has sold more often than any other article I’ve written, I have had numerous other multiple-sale successes. A piece on Dr. Eric Heiden, who has had careers as an Olympic gold medal speed skater; a professional cyclist, a television commentator and is now as an orthopedic surgeon in Sacramento, Calif., has sold eight times. An article on golfers’ back problems and exercise, has been purchased seven times. Most recently, an article I wrote about sunglasses has sold six times.
The point is, if you pick subjects that have wide appeal, your chances will improve. In the instance of my sunglass article, the American Optometric Association estimates that $2 billion was spent on 105 million pairs of sunglasses last year in the United States. With that simple fact, there’s plenty to expand upon and a wide audience to attract.
Multiple sales can also work with a slightly different approach. Instead of writing a feature and selling the article several times, freelancers can also attend events and set up what amounts to their own news service.
I have used this strategy many times over the years while covering such events as the U.S. Open Golf Championship, the National Cycling Championships, the Tour de France), the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii and the Winter Olympics.
If there’s an event I decide to attend, I write to a variety of publications I contribute to with ideas several months in advance, if an editor accepts an idea, I ask them for a letter of assignment to mail to the tournament or event organizers. After I’ve been accredited, I then look for additional assignments. I also call the tournament headquarters and ask if there’s an official hotel. Most often the hotel will offer a media rate.
If that scenario isn’t available, I find a hotel in the area and begin to weigh my assignment(s) value against my expenses. I’ve never gone on a trip or an assignment knowing that I’m going to lose money.
One of my greatest experiences as a sportswriter was covering the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville, France. As a former stringer for United Press International, I had acquired a press pass and had my flight and room accommodations paid for by the worldwide service.
At the time, UPI was barely solvent. And so while the news agency had provided my room and board and travel expenses, it couldn’t pay me to cover speed skating and figure skating.
But for me, it didn’t matter. As soon as I was told what sports I was going to cover, I wrote letters to the sports editors of several athletes’ hometowns.
Soon enough, I received several phone calls and negotiated a series of independent contracts. Knowing that France time was eight hours ahead of West Coast and five hours ahead of East Coast, I had plenty of time to work on other articles after filing my deadline UPI stories.
So on a daily basis for two weeks, I not only covered speed skating and some figure skating daily for UPI, I filed stories on individual athletes for the Anchorage Daily News, Sacramento (Calif.) Union and Champaign News-Gazette (Illinois). I also contributed several magazine articles to Olympian upon my return.
Of course, there is one potentially serious pitfall to avoid. All publications purchase various article rights and you must be careful not to sell any conflicting rights by selling to competing publications.
If you write an article for the New York Times, you can’t sell the same article to USA Today since both are national newspapers. But you can sell the same article to two different regional newspapers, since the publications’ circulations don’t overlap. There are exceptions, and publications with specific rights contracts should specify them in writing prior to any assignment.
If Playboy, The New Yorker, Smithsonian or some other major national magazine buys your original baseball card article, they’ll likely ask to purchase first rights or all rights, including electronic rights. Payment will also be at a high-enough rate that you won’t have to worry about multiple sales.