Create Digital Products to Boost Your Freelance Income: How 5 Writers Did It

by | Aug 13, 2015 | Marketing | 4 comments

Did you know you can sell a single piece of work over and over in perpetuity? Without a book deal or contract?

We’ve talked about recurring revenue, but this strategy isn’t just for business-minded folk. It’s for you.

When I was a baby freelancer, I got a bit of publicity around my non-traditional job hunt, and received a million emails from job seekers wanting to know how they, too, could get a job using social media. Inspired by online courses I’d taken, I created a three-part video series on this very topic. Five years later and I still make a couple hundred bucks per year from the videos while doing zero upkeep work.

Spending a few weeks creating this course rounded out my income while positioning me as an expert in new-age job-hunting. But before you yell that you need a billion Twitter followers or a bunch of speaking engagements to get people to sign up for a digital course, hold your horses.

I talked to a group of writers who created amazing digital products to find out how they did it.

How digital products can help your writing career

If done right, products — which most often are in the form of ebooks or online courses — can help you create regular income without the constant, and often exhausting, pitch mentality.

Products give you a platform. They bring in new clients and help position you when pitching pieces.

Say you’re a travel writer, but have only written for a few smaller publications. Creating an e-course for freelancers called, “How to Pitch Government PR Agencies to Finance Your Travels” means you’ve suddenly expanded your platform. (Not to mention the benefit of interviewing publicists for said course — that’s just clever networking.)

Products are also easy entry points into larger services like coaching, workshops, public speaking and traditional book deals, and if you execute them well, they will feed clients right into your sales funnel.

Amber Adrian, a blogger who’s shopping a book of short stories, created the Guide to Freelance Writing through Chris Guillebeau’s Unconventional Guides empire. It helps pay the bills while she pursues projects she’s passionate about.

Danny Margulies turned his success as a freelance writer on Elance into a course that helps others do the same. “I believe in the power of the individual to do great work, make an impact on the world, and most importantly control their own destiny,” Margulies says. “My course is a reflection of that belief.”

While this approach worked for these two writers, it can be difficult when you’re preparing to create your first digital product to decide what to offer. So we asked a few product creators how they came up with their idea.

What digital product should you create?

What questions do people send you emails or tweets about? What were you confused about at one point in your career? The topics that come up over and over can help you decide what kind of digital product to create.

Gina Horkey worried, “Who am I to create a product so soon?” when she decided to launch a product just six months into her freelance career. But she was actually in a prime position to create a guide targeted towards writers who were about to embark on the same journey.

Margulies had managed to do what many would scoff at: earn more than $100,000 on Elance in one year. It was those two points (the scoffing and the earnings) that lead him to believe freelancing sites were misunderstood. “All of the ‘expertise’ I’d find came from someone with no track record,” he said. “I felt that it was my responsibility to help others with the approaches I know to be successful.”

Carrie Smith, a writer who created a course on solopreneur finances, was prompted by a collaboration with several other entrepreneurs, who offered to help edit and design her first course. Smith had been an accountant for 10 years, so creating a finance course was the perfect fit.

“I knew I could shed some light on what it takes to run a business, do the bookkeeping, organize the taxes, and outsource work on a budget — all without being boring or taking a lot of time,” she said.

Writing retreat-lover Alicia de los Reyes created both an ebook and course on how writers can DIY their own mini-retreats. “I do better with external motivation,” she said, “and I wanted to create that same motivation for other writers. Plus, who says writing retreats have to be expensive, serious and stuffy? Why can’t they be fun? Why can’t there be camp crafts?”

These writers have created compelling products using their unique blend of gifts and experiences. And you can too! Spend some time with a notebook and a Sharpie (my favorite brainstorming method) and write down every question anyone has ever asked you, every struggle you’ve had and overcome, and see what you come up with.

How to find time to create your product

Now that you have the idea, it’s time to create. This part is both hard and fun, requiring time and commitment.

How have other people done it? I’m glad you asked.

Horkey wrote one to two lessons of “30 Days or Less to Freelance Writing Success” every morning. “It’s like eating an elephant, one bite at a time!” she said. “Client work was always the first priority, but a goal and a deadline kept me on track.”

Adrian was in a slow freelancing period, so she opted to focus solely on writing the best guide possible. “I took six weeks and devoted it to writing and editing and rewriting and polishing. The benefit was that I could really dig in and focus. The downside was, of course, halted income for that period.”

Reyes, predictably, created a mini-writing retreat. She set aside an entire day to expand and reformat previous content and make the lessons user-friendly and flexible. “Once I got into a rhythm, it became easier to format,” she recalled. “In the end, it took me a few days to write, edit, and upload the content and worksheets, and then a few more weeks to share it with friends and test it.”

It’s really up to you and how you work best. Yapping dogs and screaming children might make it hard to take a whole day, or you might work best at 3 a.m. for exactly 53 minutes. I want to say “find a balance,” but that’s easier said than done.

Margulies admitted the difficulty of finding balance while creating a product. “I slept less than I was used to for a few months while creating the course, especially since all of my income came from clients,” he said.

Once the course was finished and started to bring in revenue, he was able to take on client work again — but needed to fewer clients since he had another form of revenue. ”But even when there was no balance, I was fueled and focused by my mission to help create a world with more well-paid freelancers.”

Selling your product

I could write an entire ebook on this topic alone!

But the short answer is that to sell your content, you need a platform. If I had a dollar for every time someone sang the praises of a “platform,” I wouldn’t need to freelance at all. No one’s going to buy your product if they don’t know it’s out there — or why you’re qualified to advise anyone else’s career.

But what you might not know is it’s not the end of the world if you don’t have a platform yet. Many larger websites (like this one!) will advertise your product for you if you set up an affiliate program and create a great product they’re proud to promote.

You might also follow Adrian’s lead and create your product under someone else’s umbrella. If you’re up for making a video series, sites like Udemy and Skillshare allow anyone to create classes, and their community gives you a built-in audience.

Or, like Smith, you could partner with colleagues to create a super-platform. “The great part about collaborating with other solopreneurs is that the entire weight of the project isn’t on your shoulders,” she said.

Post-product life

Skip ahead a bit: your product is done. It’s live. It’s obviously selling like hotcakes. How much work does it take to keep up with this thing you’ve created?

Horkey’s product hasn’t been a set-it-and-forget-it type of deal. “I’ve revised the course a couple of times and recently launched a new sales page. I continue to invest time and energy in hopes of making it better for future students.” She has also launched a Facebook group for students, which means she spends time every day facilitating discussion and answering questions. “It takes as much or as little time and as much or as little money as I choose to invest,” she said.

Adrian relaxed and watched the money roll in. Sort of. “Because Chris has such an impressive audience, my portion of the book’s proceeds provide recurring income each month,” Adrian said. “Not enough to jet off to Bali and watch handsome men do yoga, but enough to pay a few bills.”

Reyes spends her time sharing her work with people who might like it and asking them to share it with friends and readers. “I plan to spend money on affiliate marketing,” she said. “Marketing is always more work than I bargain for, but it’s the only way to get my work in front of readers.”

And for Margulies? The results have been so impressive he’s actually thinking about making the course his full-time job. “I answer lots of emails, work on promoting the course, customer service, technical stuff, you name it,” he said. “I’m wearing all the hats right now.”

But, he adds, “I’ve done more copywriting than ever these past couple of months, it’s just that my only client has been me!”

The moral of the story: You can make your product as big or as small as you want and spend as much time on it as you choose.

You want to create a $3 PDF with 100 different writing exercises? Sounds awesome. Or maybe a $1,000 year-long private mentoring group? “If you have information that might help others, share it,” said Adrian. “Even if your brain kicks up a fuss and lists everyone else in the world who would be better at this than you.”

Whatever it is, here’s our permission: get started.

Have you thought about creating a digital product of your own? What would it cover?

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