Diving Into Catalogs with Herschell Gordon Lewis

CI: When did you get started in direct marketing and copywriting?

HGL: I used to tell the story that I had a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, and on the face of that photograph it said, “Herschell, thanks for your help with that speech, Abe.” I’ve been at this for a long, long time. I started off, as some folks know, as a school teacher. I taught English and the Humanities at Mississippi State and sort of gravitated around the world of advertising for a long, long time. But if you want an actual start date, I would put that in the early- or mid-1970s … which makes me a geezer.

CI: When you read about getting into copywriting, everyone tells you to do magalogs, tabloids and direct-mail packages for big-name mailers. Nobody mentions writing for catalogs. Is the catalog market a really good niche for copywriters that somehow other people have missed?

HGL: Absolutely. I think it’s the best niche for copywriters for that very reason … so many people overlook it. It may not have the glamour that other niches have, but what it does have is the opportunity for a writer without a huge background to crack into this business.

CI: Do you need any special background to become a catalog copywriter?

HGL: No. Most copywriters who want to write for catalog companies on a freelance basis don’t have a huge background and can’t say, “Oh, I’ve written copy for Harry and David and I’ve written copy for Orvis and I’ve written copy for all these huge companies out there.” That’s not necessary. What is necessary is the capability, and that you can prove it through a sample assignment.

CI: Do catalogers routinely offer sample assignments? How does a copywriter get one?

HGL: Well, they’re not going to come out in the street and say, “Hey, I hope you’re a catalog copywriter.” The most logical way to get started is to look at as many catalogs as possible, and start writing better descriptions for any of the products.

Next, call the toll-free number on the catalog, and track down the name of either the creative director or the head of the company, which for smaller catalogs may be the same person.

Once you have that name, contact the individual by email and say, “I’ve been looking at your catalog and think you could use some freelance catalog copywriting help. Here, for example, is the way I would have written this copy block in your current catalog.”

If the dedicated would-be catalog copywriter does that once a day with a different catalog, I can assure you, they’re going to connect. Some people will write back saying, “I’m sorry, we’re staff written.” Some people will write back saying, “I’ll keep your name on file” … which means forget it. But some people will write you back and say, “We’ll try this one” … and then you’re in business.

CI: How do you find prospective catalog companies?

HGL: The easiest way to get a whole bunch of catalog names – whether you live here in the United States or in Togo – is to go online to Google and just type in “catalogs.” You’ll get millions of possibilities. Then simply get rid of the detritus and pick the ones you want to follow through on.

In addition, most people get catalogs already. Order something from a few different catalogs, and you’ll be inundated with more catalogs than you can handle since many catalog companies swap their buyer names. You can then use that as your lead source.

CI: Can freelance copywriters build a base of national clients, even though they may not be able to meet with them in person? Do the clients want local writers, or do they work long distance?

HGL: If this conversation were taking place in the year 1980, I’d say you’ve got to be somewhat within a geographical proximity. It ain’t 1980, baby! Everybody … everybody knows that it makes no difference whatsoever where somebody is. For instance, I am writing for a catalog that’s in Athens, Greece. I have never set foot on their premises, nor have they been on mine. Geography is of no consequence today, because we’re dealing with things like email. The client can be across the street, and you’re faster with email than you would be actually walking across the street.

CI: Does having a catalog automatically mean they’re a good potential client? Or are there certain types of catalog companies or clients that freelancers should avoid?

HGL: Well, I would think, first of all, that those you know are entirely staff-written are not good client leads. And there are circumstances, yes, in which your personal discomfort may get in the way of what you want to write about. But in most cases, because the catalog copywriter is totally anonymous as far as the public is concerned, and each description is a new start, there’s no problem writing about almost anything, because you don’t need a technical background. It’s pre-packaged for you.

CI: How do you set your fees for writing catalog copy … by the word, by the product, by the page, by the hour?

HGL: No, please, never by the hour. That’s a good way to commit suicide. Nobody wants to pay by the hour, especially to an unknown source. The best way is by the copy block. Generally you should figure about $100 for small copy blocks, and up to $250 for big copy blocks.

CI: Is there a standard or typical length of the copy block in terms of word count or character count? How is the length determined, and who determines it?

HGL: Well, the catalog itself determines it. Typically in a catalog, the layout will precede the copy. They may send you a sample showing you what the page is going to look like, and you flesh it out with copy to fit a certain space.

Sometimes they will give you a character or word count, or else they’ll say, “It’s up to you, and we’ll cut it down.” The easiest way, of course, is to do a word count of the existing one you’re going to try to mirror and match it. Some catalogs will have four items on a page. Some will have six items on a page. Some, like Sharper Image, may have one item on two pages. So much of it depends on what that catalog is selling. And when you get into business-to-business catalogs, where the need for outside help is the greatest, the amount of actual writing is the least, because it’s mainly pictures and charts and graphs.

CI: What if the product description takes up an entire page? Is that still $100 to $250, or is there a page rate?

HGL: No, no, no. If Sharper Image were to call me tomorrow and say, “We want you to write some copy for us,” I would charge them $1,000 for a page. That would be a bargain for them … and if I were to charge any less, they’d think there’s something wrong with me.

CI: What about a full page for a lesser-known catalog? Would it be $500, or is $1,000 per page pretty much the standard?

HGL: No, it’s a negotiating proposition. The easiest thing for freelancers to do is say, “I want to show you that a relationship between us will be profitable for both of us, and I don’t want to kill it by quoting a price. You tell me what this would be worth to you, assuming that you use the copy I send you.” It’s a typical business negotiation.

CI: Should you show the catalog company some sample sales letters that you’ve written in the past?

HGL: It’s not related at all, no. What they need to see is catalog copy.

CI: But what if a freelancer is just starting out?

HGL: When starting out, you can say to a prospective catalog company, “What I’m going to do for you, since you’re giving me a shot at this, is to rewrite two or three copy blocks including a more dynamic headline than I think you currently have on the ones I’m looking at.” Don’t be afraid to be somewhat brash, because abashedness does not work in trying to get an assignment. You say to that person, “I’m going to charge you just $100 per copy block – oh heck, I’ll do all three of them for $250. Then we can get acquainted, so you’ll see that I can do what I say I can.”

If that person then says, “I want to see some samples,” just hang up and go someplace else. It’s like a fundraising call where the person says, “I’m not ready at the moment” or “My money is all spoken for.” There are enough prospects out there who will not ask that question. But if they do, you do not want to lie … just tell them “my samples are of no consequence when I’m talking about what I want to do for you.”

CI: Do you think the Internet will force the traditional print catalog to disappear, and result in just online catalogs?

HGL: Well, I hear the prophets of doom all the time saying that the print catalog, if it exists at all in the year 2010, will simply be a feeder mechanism for the Web. And while some companies will use it as such, in my opinion the printed catalog certainly can coexist, because printed catalogs have a benefit that online catalogs don’t have … they are not in that murderous row of competition.

CI: What is the demand like for catalog copywriters? Are there a lot of catalogers who need occasional copy, or are there a few that need a lot of copy?

HGL: There’s no single answer to that question. It depends on the individual catalog. There’s always a demand for catalog copywriters, because there are so many catalogs out there and because, yes, in some places there’s a revolving door situation where people are in and out.

CI: What about the competition?

HGL: Of course there’s competition out there, but I would never regard it as severe as it is for direct-mail packages that are perceived to be much more glamorous.

CI: Which catalogs would you recommend to study?

HGL: Well, certainly the industry catalogs such as Harry and David. Orvis up in Vermont is a wonderful catalog. Williams Sonoma sets a pattern that many catalogs should emulate and too few do, which is why there is such an opportunity. In the business end, Levenger writes a good catalog. And on the budget end – here’s a little catalog that most people laugh at and I think it’s one of the best-written catalogs I’ve seen – there’s Dr Leonard’s. These are all catalogs that I think people might look at, not necessarily to get a job but to see what really fine catalog copywriting is.

CI: If a freelance copywriter really applies himself within a year or two or three, what can he expect to make … $50,000 a year, $100,000 a year, $10 million a year? What’s a realistic income?

HGL: If you’re good and diligent and you work hard, certainly you should be able to look for between $75,000 and $100,000 a year. Some of the catalog copywriters who are at it all day every day are easily picking up, let’s say, $1,000 a day … so over a period of – let’s say they work 250 days a year – that’s $250,000, but that’s solid work all day. There’s no big deal in writing 10 descriptions a day and getting $100 a piece, but if you’re going to write ten descriptions a day, chances are you’re in a situation where you’re going to get more than $100.

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Published: February 28, 2007

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