Sex and Sales in Shanghai

Note: This blog post also ran in the Society of Professional Journalism’s “Journalism and the World” blog. Click here to see the original post.

Last week, Scott Adams posted an eye-opening piece in his Dilbert Blog, “Today I Will Improve Your Sex Life.”

(My sex life hasn’t improved — it’s as bad as when I was still married! – but I’ve got high hopes).

But the more important part of the post was about how to sell yourself. He suggested reading a book called “Influence” by Robert B. Cialdini. I saw a single copy of the book on a shelf at Chaterhouse this weekend, and grabbed it up. Chaterhouse is Shanghai’s only half-decent English-language bookstore, with a weirdly-spelled name and the world’s most annoying website. But I digress.

Apparently, Cialdini’s book is something of a classic read in the areas of marketing and sales — I don’t know how I’ve missed it so far.
Fortunately, most of my competitors probably haven’t read it, either. I’m always surprised when I talk to other freelance writers about how little sales and marketing training they’ve had, especially since slow sales is usually one of their biggest complaints.

Being a freelance writer is like being any other kind of small business owner. You need to produce the product (your articles), you need to manage the business (send out invoices, pay taxes, make sure the electricity isn’t turned off), and you need to sell. Unless you hire people to do this, you have to do it yourself. And sales is the last thing you can hire for. Hiring someone for administration is the easiest part, and was the first hire I ever made. At first, Linda Jiang managed my books, sent out invoices, handled government bureaucrats and landlords, paid all the bills, and translated documents. For the past year, that job has been handled by Anna Zhang, who’s been fantastic. Anna even updated my website, until the business started growing so fast that she has her hands full just handling billing and HR.

Then I hired people to help produce the product — first translators, then researchers, copy editors, and finally staff reporters. The sales part is still up to me, though.

When I went freelance when my first second child was born nine years ago, I hit the libraries and bookstores for all the sales books I could find (or could afford at the time). And I took advantage of reporting assignments that let me go out and interview people who were good at sales. Now, with about a dozen other people depending on the business I bring in, I’m starting to realize how little I actually know about this.

If you’re a freelancer and you haven’t taken some sales and marketing classes at your local university or community college or continuing education center, you’re doing yourself a big disservice and a disservice to editors who have to go without your work. And you’re performing a big service for other, less qualified or talented writers, who are getting your business.

Since that could well be me, I should probably shut up about now.

In Shanghai,