Work like you mean business

By Joel M. Vance


Creative types are wooly-heads, imaginative only in dreams and the telling of them, but dolts when it comes to making money at it. Outdoor communicators, being creative types, are prone to give away what anyone else would demand your first-born for.

Of course there are exceptions; outdoor communicators with the instincts of a jaguar closing on a juicy peccary when it comes to going for the profit – but more often, we give away our only product, that of our minds.

It not only makes sense for an outdoor communicator to be businesslike for his or her own good, but also for the collective good because only by all outdoor communicators being united as businesspeople can individuals survive. You don’t find butchers, bakers or candlestick makers giving away their products, but that’s not true in our business.

Too many of us give away material or sell it for less than it is worth. Find out what the rates should be and make editors abide by it – or don’t sell. If an editor lists a rate, don’t accept less. You’re not sticking up for principle as much as you are establishing yourself as a professional – buying insurance for the future.

Start your outdoor communicating with a businesslike approach. You are in business. Above all, that means keeping records. The most important is an accounts ledger.

You need not be an accountant, but you should be able to keep a simple ledger with receipts and expenditures. All income should be listed with date and source. It’s easy to forget what a check was for, and the stub doesn’t always tell. Equally important are expenditures – they’re all tax-deductible, and don’t forget it!

Keep a record of where you have sent material, to whom and on what date. As a rule of thumb, inquire about a manuscript after six weeks – it’s barely possible it was lost in the mail, more possible it’s languishing on some editor’s desk. Newcomers to outdoor communicating often are afraid to inquire about their material for fear they’ll prejudice the editor.

Not so. It is your property and you want it taken care of properly. All publications are understaffed and overworked. None, save a few transgressors, deliberately stiff communicators or treat material cavalierly. But accidents happen.

Get everything on paper. You can make arrangements by phone, but get them confirmed on paper. If you check on errant manuscripts or late pay, do it by registered mail, return receipt requested.

Sell only first rights unless you have no alternative. Almost all publications agree to this, but some insist on all rights or a work-for-hire agreement and then it’s up to you if you want to sacrifice your interest in your material.

Take the time to learn what copyright is and how it applies to you. Learn what the various rights are to your material and how to protect them. Maximize income by selling the same piece to noncompeting markets or selling a piece as a reprint. This includes foreign markets as well as domestic ones.

There are pitfalls in all this, so learn what they are. You could prejudice an editor who thinks he has exclusive rights to something you’ve produced if it shows up elsewhere – even if it is perfectly within your legal and ethical rights to sell it elsewhere.

So, the element of common sense comes into play. Your best guides are those who have been down the road before. Ask other communicators how they handle reprint or simultaneous sales. Be up front with editors and ask if you can sell to noncompeting publications.

It is to your professional advantage to attend OWAA’s annual conference. It is where the nation’s best at what you do gather to exchange ideas. And it’s all tax deductible, every cent. If you do go, meet and greet as if you were running for office. Make connections, ask questions, take notes, seek assignments – work the conference as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. And it is, except it happens every year.

Study every issue of Outdoors Unlimited©, but also pore through Writer’s Digest and other writer-oriented publications. If you don’t want to spring for the subscriptions, read them at the library and take notes on likely markets. Probe the Internet (the inelegantly named Google is a search tool gem) for markets. Bookmark promising sites and periodically review them for potential outlets for the deathless prose you’ve just committed to pixels.


As a professional you should have several tools, just as a carpenter does. A word processor for any communicator, no matter the field, is imperative today. Use it both for composing copy and for keeping records.

If you have the choice of only one make it a good laptop. The better ones have as much memory as a desktop, will do absolutely everything the bigger machines do and you can cart them on the road. Read reviews to find the best writers programs or ask your peers. Unless you’re a Macaholic, Microsoft Word is the standard word-processing program.

A good database program will keep your sales records and also can create mailing lists and do many other things. Other programs will keep your books, even to prepari

ng your income tax return. All this is possible, but remember also that not every communicator does everything suggested – don’t bite off more than you can chew. Just be aware that these things exist and that they are useful.

Most editors accept and may prefer e-mail submissions. The savings in snail mail cost is considerable. Most of us have slide photo files. Either scan to convert them to digital images or hope the publications still accept that wonderful Dark Ages form of photography. Convert your camera equipment to digital and buy two (not one) external hard drives to store images. Be religious about saving images to both. Send photos on a CD or e-mail them.

You must have decent stationery. A simple letterhead is all right, but a well-designed one, printed on good-quality paper, is better. Good stationery runs about $80 per 500 sheets. Cheap stuff is, well, cheaper. Get a graphic artist to design a nice letterhead. Get a box of plain envelopes printed with just your name and return address for unpretentious communications.

Talk to a knowledgeable accountant about the advantages of hiring your spouse to do secretarial or other work. Incorporation may help your tax situation. If you’re a dog writer, dog expense is deductible. Your kids may qualify as photo models. Most accountants really don’t understand the nature of our business, so be sure yours does.

On the subject of taxes, remember that almost everything connected with your business is tax deductible – magazine and other subscriptions, all your outdoor gear (who else gets to depreciate that new shotgun that came home to roost instead of the vitally needed new stove or refrigerator).

Keep good records of everything. On trips, be sure to keep track of mileage, meals, guide fees, permit fees, every nickel and dime. The IRS won’t give you anything – but don’t you give them anything either.

It’s an axiom that you get what you pay for. You can save money by buying cheap film or using cheap processing, buying camera lenses made of old Coke bottles and toilet paper tubes – but you won’t sell much. Buy good equipment, but look for the best deal you can get. Sometimes it’s through OWAA discounts from supporting groups; sometimes the local Wal-Mart or Kmart is just as good if not better. Read reviews of equipment online and buy from reputable discount outfits.

Every photographer/communicator should carry a good-quality pocket camera (they’re quite inexpensive) with auto-focus, auto-wind, auto-exposure. It’s amazing the quality shots you can get, and the portability makes them indispensable. There are waterproof digital pocket cameras that will take amazing underwater posed photos of that big fish with the lure in its mouth. One shot like that will sell an article.

Keep up-to-date with filing slides, digital CDs, film or tapes, whatever your product. A simple filing system involves storing slides, for example, in the processor’s boxes, each box numbered, starting, appropriately enough with No. 1. Put a subject file on 3-by-5 cards, cross-indexing as thoroughly as you feel necessary. If Box 1 has quail-hunting scenes, you might index it under “quail hunting,” “pointing dogs,” the names of your hunting partners, etc. You can jot notes about individual good slides or special effects for future reference.

For digital images, there is no better filing system than Lightroom, an Adobe software program. Investigate it and invest in it. And don’t forget those two external hard drives for image storage.


Part of being in business is conducting it. If you’re a writer, spend time at the word processor some of each day. If you can’t get to a processor, carry a cassette tape or digital recorder and verbally take notes or compose. Some very accomplished writers still hand-write everything with pen or pencil (including Annie Proulx who won a Pulitzer for “The Shipping News” and who founded the Wildbranch Workshop which has been attended by several OWAA members).

Keep a notebook of ideas, future projects, etc., and plan the flow of queries so you can get a steady stream of assignments, without either dead spots or a surplus of work with not enough time.

Any good businessperson uses time wisely and productively. On assignments, seek the serendipity, the bonus material that means another sale or two. Do research on the area or subject and think of other ideas – travel, history, whatever. Take photos of everything. Plan ahead to what you need to photograph, whom you need to interview and what questions need to be asked. Have a list of potential story ideas before you leave home.

Think production, but make sure it is quality. Your name is on it and your name is also your reputation. Give each assignment a thorough treatment and pretty soon you’ll be making so much money you’ll think you’re a business type instead of one of those wooly-heads. ◊



Joel Vance is a freelance writer, book author and columnist. He is a past president and historian of OWAA and a winner of the Ham Brown, Excellence in Craft and Circle of Chiefs awards.

This article first appeared in an earlier form in “Selling the Outdoors Story,” copyright OWAA, 1988.




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