Is Copywriting the World’s Best Business?

“I used to work in a fire hydrant factory.
You couldn’t park anywhere near the place.”
– Steven Wright

You’ve heard about the oldest profession. And I’m guessing you know the toughest, too (parenting).

What’s the most dangerous? Fishing, believe it or not. Along with logging and flying airplanes.

The worst pay, alas, goes to dishwashers and fry cooks, who scrape the bottom of the income barrel.

If you’d rather earn the big bucks, says a Forbes survey, you’re better off learning to knock people out.

No, not as a boxer – as an anesthesiologist.

Heart surgeons and OB/GYNs are also way up there, along with 11 other medical careers, your average lawyer, CEOs, and even air traffic controllers.

But what could be the world’s BEST business?

Dare I say it? Copywriting!

How to Spot the Best Business in the World

Yeah … I know what you’re thinking.

How can I, a humble copywriter, dare to make that claim? After all, I’ve yet to perform a heart surgery or land a plane.

And I’m a parent, yes, but just getting started. As for the world’s oldest profession – frankly, not for me. (I don’t like the hours.)

In short, you could say my experience is limited.

However, I recently stumbled across a classic essay that has me convinced I’m right.

It’s titled “The Ideal Business,” and it was written way back in the 1970s by legendary financial guru, Richard Russell.

(Just as an aside, you may have heard about Richard. He’s been writing and publishing his “Dow Theory Letters” since 1958. And he’s contributed to all the major magazines. He recently celebrated his 85th birthday and he’s still going strong.)

No, he wasn’t writing about copywriting specifically. Frankly, the copywriting we do – in the manner we do it, remotely with a laptop – wasn’t even imagined as a possibility back then.

But what Richard did do was run down a list of criteria that described exactly what an “ideal business” for anyone might be.

With kudos and thanks to Richard, let’s just take a look at the list from a copywriting perspective and see how it shakes out:

  • “Sells the World” – That is, it’s not local, it’s global. Now, I know lots of copywriters get their start writing for local businesses. And it used to be you had to dream of winning Fortune 500 clients to go global. Not so now, thanks to the huge demand for Internet copy.

  • “Enjoys Inelastic Demand” – Meaning that people need it, almost no matter what it costs. And with copy, that’s true. Sure, they’ll want to pay you based on your success record and experience. But there’s no question businesses need copy to sell. If you don’t advertise and do it well, you’re just building yourself a future cobweb colony.

  • “Cannot Be Easily Copied” – Richard was talking about patents and copyrights in his essay. But you could at least make the comparison that every great copywriter has a style, and every great headline leaves an imprint. Sure, rip-offs happen. But it’s the original ad writer who makes the big money and enjoys a lot more job security.

  • “Has Low Labor and Overhead Costs” – In other words, to run a freelance copywriting business, you don’t need employees. And you don’t need a warehouse or expensive heavy machinery (unless, er, you’re a VERY specialized kind of writer I’ve never heard of). All you need is a laptop and something to sell. And coffee.

  • “Takes in Cash Billings” – Freelancers might have to work out payment differences with new clients, but steady clients usually pay on time. And you know you’re usually getting half your fee up front and half when you’ve done the work. Plus royalties, if you’re in a copywriting field that earns them. (I am, and it’s nice to know you’ve got a stream of royalties coming in, especially when they start layering on top of each other.)

  • “Is Free of All Kinds of Regulation” – That’s definitely NOT true when it comes to what you can say in the ad copy you’ll write. Laws can box you in, and they can do it often. On the other hand, when you’re working for yourself, at least you don’t have to sweat the rules on office safety requirements. (Imagine suing yourself for getting your tie caught in your own fax machine or burning yourself with your own coffee machine!)

  • “Is Portable” – I get asked a lot about how to set up as a copywriter in Paris or any of the other places I’ve been lucky enough to work for an extended period (a London office, a New York City apartment, a French country farmhouse, etc.). It’s not always easy (those pesky laws again, the challenge of long-distance clients, and the costs sometimes involved). But as a copywriter, it can definitely be done. In fact, I can’t imagine another career – at least one that pays this well – being as moveable as this one.

  • “Satisfies Intellectual Needs” – I love what I do. Because I love ideas, I love reading, and I love writing. I love learning things and then turning them back around in my own words, while still trying to keep the topics interesting. Of course, that’s not for everybody. And if it’s not for you, well, consider anesthesiology (as a job, not a medical alternative to career depression).

  • “Leaves You With Free Time” – Okay, I’ve got to hedge my response on this one. On the one hand, you’ve got the freelancer’s curse working against you. When there’s no whistle blowing, and your home is your office, it’s possible to work all the time. Plus, as a writer, ideas will creep into your dinners, your walks, even the shower – and you’ll dash to write them down. On the other hand, I kind of like the energy of gears that churn on autopilot.

    Plus, while I may not have lots of free time, I’m master of what I have and how and when I decide to cash it in. Because my schedule is my own to shuffle around (though the older I get, the more I’m sure routine is the secret to success).

  • “Is Not Limited By Personal Output” – Now here’s the one where you might think I’ve hit a sandtrap. After all, some copywriters get paid piecemeal, while others collect royalties. But that isn’t what Richard meant. At least, it’s not the only thing. Ideally, it means you’ve got the chance to get paid exponentially for something you put effort into only one time. Like an information product you can sell over and over again. And certainly, once you’ve figured out how to write copy that sells, that’s an opportunity you’ll have no matter what else happens. Because selling is the key to virtually every kind of repeat business there is.

Maybe you agree with Richard Russell’s list, maybe you don’t. Or maybe you’re still too new to this game to know, one way or the other.

As for me, I think he’s hit pretty much all the key points. And by that measure, I genuinely couldn’t imagine a better way to butter my bread than what I’m doing right now (okay, maybe … maybe … some part-time work as a security guard in a lingerie fitting room … or wine taster at one of Paris’ best restaurants … but only if they came with stock options and dental).

[Ed. Note: John Forde shares his masterful insights and 15 years of control-beating experience weekly in The Copywriter’s Roundtable. (A must read for all copywriters!)]

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

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Published: May 27, 2009

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