a copywriting business manifesto
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A Copywriting Business Manifesto

Greetings Café Member,

As some of you know I’ve been operating my business from Quito, Ecuador, since June 15, and will continue here until the end of August. 95% of the time that works well, but the past couple days I’ve been road tripping down the Avenue of the Volcanoes to Baños, Ecuador, and Internet access has been very spotty.

In my absence, Ed Estlow, Café Member and one of my administrators for our Café Facebook group wrote an epic post this week. After I read it I commented that I was going to nail it Luther-style to the door of my office. It’s that good. Take it away, Ed…

A Copywriting Business Manifesto

One thing I want you to realize is that copywriting is, first and foremost, a business. IT’S A BUSINESS! Just like a hardware store or a gas station or a dry cleaners is a business. It’s just as much work, only a little more portable. The reality of ‘the writer’s life’ is selling, negotiating fees, dealing with clients both good and bad, sticking to schedules, long hours, sometimes-tedious rewrites, and more.

If that jazzes you, great. Read on. If not, consider some other way to make a living.

Some of you got here on an AWAI vector. Many in the Copywriter Café are AWAI members – but many are not. (I am – and I think the percentage is about 60%.) But it turns out, this isn’t an AWAI-centric group. And frankly, that’s to your benefit. You’ll get a lot of different perspectives, not just AWAI’s. This is not to dissuade anyone from AWAI – their stuff is very good. But there are other programs out there.

A quick thought before I dive into the guts of this manifesto, I’m one of Steve Roller’s administrators. If you have any issues, please get ahold of Steve or one of us. The others are Tanya MarCia and Michael Beil. Also, even though we’re about 1200 at this point, Steve is very approachable via PM – although he’s very busy. Get to know him and the others in the group. I’ve heard it’s one of the most helpful groups on all of FB, certainly in the copywriting realm. You’ll quickly learn who resonates with you and vice versa.


If you’re a beginning copywriter, I encourage you to work on three fronts: developing your copywriting skills, developing your business skills & knowledge, and developing/ doing your marketing.

With respect to copywriting skills, there are several good programs out there. Copyblogger has a ton for free. John Carlton’s stuff is great. Dan Kennedy’s materials are second to none. Naomi (I can never remember her last name)’s IttyBiz has excellent training aimed at small businesses. As I mentioned above, AWAI’s stuff is very good.

Beyond pointing you at such programs, if you want to do sales letters, practice by copying out the great sales letters (but make sure they’re the right ones… don’t copy crap). Do this as much as you can, for as long as you can. Even seasoned pros go back to this fundamental. Dan Kennedy claims he did this twenty-one times over with each of 100 direct response ads when he started.

And get a hold of Gary Halbert’s Boron Letters. You can find them free on the web, but his sons have now published them in a book with new commentary, which you can find on Amazon.

Bob Bly’s “The Copywriter’s Handbook” is very good. There’s Joe Sugarman’s “The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook.” Gene Schwartz’s “Breakthrough Advertising” is simply gold. Read it as many times as you can – at least once every year or two. Read everything of Gary Bencivenga’s you can get your hands on. If Schwartz is gold, Bencivenga is platinum.

Business skills? They are fundamental, since you’re starting a small business just like any other. Get good at selling yourself and your services. Don’t be afraid of local work in any field. On one level, a sales letter is a sales letter. Who cares if it’s for a local real estate agent or Motley Fool? You need to practice and you need early wins with clients.

Track & know your business numbers. Cash on hand, accounts receivable/ invoice aging, conversion ratio, prospects in the pipeline, etc., etc. If you don’t know what business numbers are, learn. And spend time developing that pipeline/ sales funnel.

As you contemplate a marketing plan, for God’s sakes, DON’T farm it out! Write it yourself. That’s the only way it will be of value. The value of any plan is in the planning process and internalizing what you learn along the way. The plan itself will be obsolete before you print the last page. That’s OK. Print it out anyway and start implementing. Mark it up, dog-ear it, put Post-It tabs in it, spill coffee on it, update it, etc. Put it under version control and formally revise it with your mark-ups occasionally.
Do the same with your business plan.

It sounds almost oxymoronic, but these plans are nearly useless. They become obsolete almost instantaneously. But do not ignore them, before or after creating them. The knowledge gained is critical, essential to succeeding as a business person.

How and how much to charge? Well first off, charge by the project, not by the hour. And charge based upon the value it brings your client, not on the effort you put in (a round figure is 5-15% of the value it brings the client). Read the book at this link on pricing your services. It’s free, takes only an hour or two to read, and it will make you wealthy if you let it.

Marketing your services? Spend roughly a fifth to a third of your week marketing yourself – or at least on marketing tasks. Even if you’re booked solid. Learn what a sales funnel is, and set one up so you don’t need to work so hard. Understand marketing and sales, where they overlap and where they don’t.

Know your target market inside and out. Read about them. No, wait. This is better – read what they read. Subscribe to and buy other products aimed at them. Hang out with them. Literally. Find out where rich people in your town hang out. Go there and make friends. They are your tribe, not other copywriters.

Not that we’re bad, but we don’t pay your bills. Limit your time with us.

John Jansch’s Duct Tape Marketing is excellent stuff. So is Copyblogger. So is IttyBiz. Dan Kennedy is a genius. Follow and study these people and their materials.

Now, this next bit will sound harsh and maybe unkind.

Don’t get seduced by some wonderful vision of “the writer’s life.” You know the one I’m talking about. The dream of sitting on the beach, glass of wine or boat drink in hand, scribbling on a pad or typing a bit on a laptop while waiting for royalty checks to come in. That’s not realistic – unless and until you get very, very good. The writer’s life is a business person’s life. It’s work, just like running a restaurant or a landscaping business is work.

You can teach yourself all this stuff without sending anyone your money. But if you have sent someone Cash American in exchange for a program, work your ass off to get maximum return for your investment.

I don’t know you personally, so I don’t know your history or capabilities. But I will recommend one – and only one – personal development program without hesitation. That program is Psycho-Cybernetics by Dr. Maxwell Maltz. He published it in 1960. Dan Kennedy bought the rights to Maltz’s entire body of work a couple of decades ago, and updated it (he has since sold that business to Matt Fury).

Get either Dan’s Nightingale-Conant program, “The New Psycho-Cybernetics” or his book, “Psycho-Cybernetics 2000″ (which lists Maltz as a co-author even though he had passed away by the time Kennedy wrote it). Put the principles into practice immediately.

Finally, and most important of all, work damn hard to get rid of any prejudices you may have about money, about having money, and about the rich. They are your constituency – especially if you’re going to be a financial copywriter. Learn to be one of them, even if you are not yet rich yourself (I alluded to this up above).

I hope this manifesto has helped you. It IS the most effective way to ‘skin the cat.’ Your thoughts? Please leave a comment.

Steve Roller

Author Steve Roller

I'm a business coach, author, copywriter, world traveler (32 countries on five continents so far), and professional speaker. In addition to helping companies get more customers and make more money, I help other writers turn Big Ideas into profitable businesses. I offer one-on-one coaching, professional copy critiques, and three-day business-building immersion retreats. When I'm not writing, coaching, or speaking, I enjoy nothing more than hanging out with my wife and four kids and planning my next adventure.

More posts by Steve Roller

Join the discussion 22 Comments

  • Aces! Thank You.
    I will add one thing: Though it takes a spine and conviction, bill UP FRONT, at least HALF your fee. Even with existing clients. And especially with New clients. And especially, especially with online orders. TS Too Bad.
    Whenever I’ve forgotten this cardlinal rule, I’ve lost fees.
    Once the client has the work, it’s gone. You have NO leverage.
    Take that to the bank.

    Arthur VanDam

  • Oh, and one more thing…
    If A Customer does Not pay, STOP WORKING.
    Pencils Down.
    BS – Cry Foul.

    Over the years when I’ve forgotten these two rules, I’ve probably lost approximately $6,000 in fees.

    And we had written contracts with the clients.

    Your work.
    Your value add.
    Your money.


    • Ed Estlow says:

      Business 101 Arthur, but so many ignore it… at their peril. Thanks for the addendum – and the props.

  • Alice Seidel says:

    The best advice I’ve read in a very long time. Yes, we ARE in business, which is sometimes hard to see from our solitary vantage points, and we need to remind ourselves of this often.

    AWAI is simply fabulous as are Copyblogger et. al. It is scary now and then justifying in my mind the money part as I wasn’t raised with thinking about that side of business, but you get used to it the more you do it!

    Nice going, Ed!

    • Ed Estlow says:

      Thanks much Alice. Yes, there’s a lot of great material out there. The trick is often to find the ONE that works for you and stick with it. To not be seduced by other similarly shiny objects.

  • Davina says:

    Excellent job, Ed. I agree with Steve, this is getting printed and nailed up in my office. To tag onto what Arthur said above, not only must you get your fees upfront (I try to get them all and most times I succeed) but, while you should always have a written agreement signed by the party to be charged (your client) before you begin, you should never rely on that agreement. Why? As an attorney, I can tell you contracts are only as good as your willingness to enforce them. Sometimes, it is cost prohibitive to enforce a contract (by the time you pay an attorney and court costs). Sometimes, you just don’t want to be the guy or gal with a reputation for suing clients. Money up front, no-money-no-workie.

    • Ed Estlow says:

      Thanks Davina. You offer a solid financial philosophy – especially for working with new clients. My personal feeling is, once a writer and client know each other and a relationship is built, such an arrangement might be modified.

      I’ve never just flat-out not been paid, but I have had clients delay, delay, delay. Or pay partial invoices. Lessons learned all around.

      And let me take this opportunity to thank you for your frequent legal insights in the CC. You’ve helped a lot of folks, including me!

  • keith sims says:

    Steven Pressfeild’s, “Do the Work” is an excellent examination of why we don’t do what we know we need to do. It’s about more than looking at procrastination. It offers some very practical advice on how to step over productivity landmines.

    • Ed Estlow says:

      Keith, I’m familiar with some of Pressfield’s work – certainly, “War of Art.” I haven’t yet read “Do the Work.” Now I’ll have to put that on the short list! Thanks!

  • Mark says:

    This is probably the most realistic, honest advice for copywriters or aspiring business owners out there.

    Excellent…and thank you.

    • Ed Estlow says:

      Thanks Mark, and you’re welcome. Yes, I like to think a lot of what I wrote is solid business advice, not just copywriting advice. I would love to see more folks have the mindset of a business person BEFORE they encounter copywriting. Too often it’s the other way around.

  • Ed Estlow says:

    Thank you Kigozi. Best of luck as you move forward.

  • Shawn Maus says:

    Ed’s article is magnificent! People need facts and want facts as reasons for buying into something. Ed spells it all out. He’s assuaged many of my fears about taking the leap and brought reality to the “writer’s life”. I’ve been living in fantasy land (not really with the dreams of writing on the beach because my OCD would freak out if I got sand in the keyboard), but now I’m fully committed to launching my freelance career with this manifesto staring me in the face from my computer each day. Push on! Thanks, Ed for a great piece of copywriting, and a wonderful teaching moment!

  • Ed Estlow says:

    Thanks Shawn. Press on… regardless!

  • Steve Roller says:

    I may just have you guest blog more often, Ed. Well done, sir.

    • Ed Estlow says:

      Ha ha! Thanks Steve! My pleasure – anytime.

      And thank YOU for providing a soapbox upon which to stand.

  • Absolutely fantastic article, Ed!!! You laid it all out, in a broad vision with some nice, important, valuable details. I like your emphasis on the business components, but I also understand that I have to educate myself more about copywriting itself. I’ve been revising my blog and filling in some of the gaps in my approach, circling around now for new stage of planning, implementation and growth. I’m grateful to be a part of this community where I learn so much from many varied conversations and people. Thanks again…

    • Ed Estlow says:

      James, I’m glad you liked the piece. And it sounds like you’re taking a solid, iterative approach to developing your skills and business. That’s good! An ever-upward spiral.

      Yes, the business understanding is vital. Without it, no matter how good your copy is, you’ll never make much money at it.

      Certainly, you won’t be able to earn a living.

      And you may get yourself in serious legal or tax trouble. I know of at least one rising star copywriter who got into pretty bad tax trouble within a year or two of becoming successful.

  • George says:

    I just finished reading this piece, sandwiched around Breaking the Time Barrier (which I’ve read at least twice before), and wish I’d read it (or something like it) twenty years ago. This gave me a whole pile of stuff to try to incorporate into my “worldview” and business strategy. And it forced me to focus on a business strategy. Hopefully, no more fuzzy thinking for me. Thanks, Ed!

    • Ed Estlow says:

      Happy to help, George. Best of luck as you work your way through that business strategy – and remember, it (the business strategy) is supposed to be used, but it’s written on paper (or in 1’s & 0’s in silicon), not a rock. Change it anytime it no longer fits or is working.

  • linda says:

    Excellent article, Ed, thank you! I appreciate the straightforward information. 🙂 Linda

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