Copywriting Crisis

Monday, 2:19pm
Reno, NV
“C’mere, I wanna talk to you…” A mugger in Ry Cooder’s “Down In Hollywood”


While down in San Diego for the Kern seminar, I managed to grab a couple of meals with Jeff Walker (of Launch Formula fame).

Always a treat to hang out with Jeff — smart cookie, funny, lives life according to his own damn rules.

Plus, he always says shit that makes me think.

This time, while everyone else was yammering at the table (one of the perks of going to these events is sharing meals with groups of fascinating folks)… Jeff leaned over and asked me something that has been gnawing at my brain for a month now.

“Do you think,” he whispered, “there’s a crisis in copywriting right now?”

For the few minutes we had to talk, he laid out a harrowing plot line: Increasingly, top marketers who are quite capable of writing their own stuff (like Jeff, and Rich Schefren, and Tellman Knudsen, and Mike Filsaime, and dozens of others) are hiring copywriters to handle the task.

Hey — even pro scribes like me are always on the lookout for hot talent to tackle some of the mounting writing chores that any successful online biz encounters.

And here’s the rub: Increasingly, freelance copywriters have learned to “talk” a good game… but can’t walk the walk.

They’re asking for — and getting — top fees.

And then either screwing up the project, or delivering inferior work.

This is not good, people.

I probably share some of the blame for this miserable state of affairs. Back when I started my freelance career (last century), freelancers were not treated well. You were more like a vendor, a guy merely supplying an unimportant service, and respect was hard to come by.

You often got paid last, almost as an afterthought. And you were expected to follow the whims of the client like a good slave, and not rock the boat.

I quickly decided this was bullshit. Most of the clients I had in the first couple of years — and this included veteran direct response agencies (who should have known better) — were so clueless about good selling strategies… that it would have been a CRIME to allow them to dictate what was written.

So I spoke up, argued, and insisted on following my “Gun To The Head” philosophy of writing what was NEEDED… not what would please the client.

This necessitated a chance in client-management, too. Rather than come in sheepishly, hat in hand, and act like a vendor… I realized I needed to blow the doors down and OWN the joint if I was gonna be a successful freelancer.

The strategy was simple, and based on experience: Most clients needed a freelance copywriter because they (or their staff) couldn’t write an ad that worked.

I knew how to do that.

Therefore… I was sort of like “the adult in the room”. The guy who could clearly see what was going on, what was needed, and how to do it.

In fact… whenever I delivered finished copy that the client “loved”… I knew I’d failed.

The best copy isn’t safe and nice and loveable.

It’s dangerous.

I wanted my clients nervous as hell, and squirming as they read the ad. My job wasn’t to make them happy. It was to make the ad a success.

To do that — to get into the position where I could push “the right thing” through — required a very ballsy attitude. Take no prisoners. BE that guy who demands and deserves respect… and who proves his worth by ACTIONS.

You don’t earn that kind of respect by talking a good game.

Naw. You earn it by earning it. By doing your job, over and over, and producing results that prove you know what you’re doing.

Back in my bachelor days, I remember meeting many guys who lied about their circumstances in order to get the attention of women.

“But you don’t really own a Porsche,” I would say. “And you’ve never sold a screenplay to Hollywood.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Mr Suave And Debonair would reply. “It’s all about perception.”

Oh yeah?

These guys would actually “get” the initial attention they craved. And, I guess if you’re after the most shallow and fleeting relationship encounters possible, sometimes they were “successful”.

But it always seemed creepy to me. Bare-faced dishonesty should trigger shame in your heart, not elation at gaming the system.

On the other hand…

… when you actually possess “the goods”… the real crime is in hiding from your responsibility to do what you need to do to accomplish “the right thing.”

If, as a copywriter, you know from experience and talent what should be done in a project or ad… then pure professionalism demands that you stand up and make your case.

If that requires a little attitude, maybe a little bullying or bludgeoning of the client, then that is part of your job: You treat the gig as if the business was yours, and the consequences personal.

Top writers do that. They are, despite working for a fee, partners with you for the duration of the job. (The best of the best often work on a percentage of the deal, which makes them real partners… with a very real stake in the results.)

The lower rungs of the freelance world are still valuable, of course. There are mountains of writing jobs out there that do not require the attention of wise veterans who’ve been around the block a bunch of times.

I’m not going to dis any copywriter out there who is willing to accept “fulfillment” jobs, where no input from him is expected or wanted — you just need to write a coherent piece of copy that clearly communicates what the client needs communicated. I’ve done that in my career (even after I adopted the “hard-core pro attitude” for most jobs). Sometimes, you just need to apply your skills as a communicator of the written word, and leave your attitude and consulting and “making ’em squirm” tactics back at the office.


This “crisis” that Jeff was talking about almost entirely stems from this attitude thing.

Here’s what’s happened: A whole generation of freelancers have learned how to talk their way into getting big gigs.

And they simply do not have either the skills or the experience to pull off what’s required.

This sucks. Both for the freelancer — who gets tarred with a bad reputation — and for the client, who is out the hefty fee… and still doesn’t have copy he can use.

I wrote the notorious “Freelance Manual” five years ago, ironically, to try to nip this situation in the bud. I saw two things happening, as a result of the explosion of marketing online:

1. There was a growing need for good copy… and…

2. There was a dearth of good copywriters able to do any of it.

That Freelance Course is not available right now. This is not a pitch for it. You couldn’t get it even if you wanted it, for any price.


I’m trying to make a point here: In that course, I had exactly three sections.

“Get Good” was the first section.

“Get Connected” was the middle section.

And “Get Paid” was the last.

That course created a bit of a sensation among would-be freelancers. It was the first time a pro had let rookies and outsiders “in” on the tactics of managing clients, networking with the Big Boys, and negotiating huge fees.

That trilogy — get good, get connected, and get paid — is still the foundation for a fabulous (and fabulously wealthy) freelance career…

… but…

… you gotta embrace the entire model.

You can’t skip the “get good” part. That’s where you earn the right to “get paid”.

What Jeff Walker has noticed is the tip of the iceberg out there. Since hearing it from him, I’ve since heard complaints from a huge section of the marketers I hang with… all on the subject of freelance copywriters presenting themselves as something other than what they are.

They talk a great game. They get the big fees. They seem connected, they network well, and they know how to manage clients.

But they forgot to get good at what they are supposed to do to earn those big fees.

In that Freelance Course, I made what I thought was a clear warning: Do not attempt to break into the “A” list of clients until you are ready.

How do you know if you’re ready?

If you have to ask… then you’re not ready.

The best writers have all served some kind of long apprenceticeship, where they were free to make mistakes and learn from them… without hurting their reputations, or hurting any big client who took a shot with them.

The lucky ones found mentors, who personally took them under wing and taught them the ropes.

The Freelance Course was meant to fill in the blanks for those many writers who couldn’t find a mentor.

The writers who followed my advice in that course (the first one of its kind) have done rather well for themselves. They get the best jobs, for the biggest fees, and they enjoy sterling reputations among marketers who hire freelancers.

They are a minority, however, it seems.

Whether the mob of freelancers out there mucking up the joint ever saw my course or not (and there are now several other guides to freelancing out there that are just fine) I cannot say.

One thing is certain, though: Too many are not learning to walk the walk before they get up on the soapbox and start talking the talk.

In business, when you’re the bottom-line owner, you will find out quickly if you have what it takes to thrive. Reality will smack you down in a hurry if you skip the fundamentals, or try to game the system without paying your dues and learning the ropes.

Freelancers, however, can actually hover above the rules of consequence. For a time, anyway. They get paid to produce an ad, and they can walk away from the project afterward.

This is NOT an excuse to do shoddy work. Pro’s — the real heroes of copywriting, the guys who become legends and own reputations that read like novels — throw themselves into every project with full force. There is NEVER an excuse to give less than 100% — if you accept a job, you are a partner in the project until you’ve done what needs to be done.

So, I suppose this is a warning shot across the bow of freelancers out there.

The top marketers — the guys who WILL pay top dollar for copy — are aware of this crisis.

And they talk with each other.

The rewards of taking the time to get good, before you start negotiating the big buck fees, are staggering. (And you can still earn a handsome living while you’re honing your chops and putting your nose to the grindstone, learning and getting experience.)

The damage, however, that you do by presenting yourself as something you’re not… is permanent and will murder your career.

Freelancing is a wonderful profession. But you don’t just waltz into it fully formed. You gotta master the craft.

Clients can suck. That’s a primal lesson all freelancers learn early, especially when they mentor under me.

However, when you are able to confidently swim the choppy waters of writing for multiple markets (and multiple clients), it’s all just part of a day’s work.

The clients may suck, the job may require you to think overtime and sweat more than you’d prefer at the keyboard (doing draft after draft until it’s right)… and your gut may wince at the moments of severest anxiety (like just before results come in).

But it ain’t digging ditches, is it.

It’s earning a living (and a damn good one, too) doing something you SHOULD love: Writing.

Copy is the foundation of business. All business, and all marketing. No video, website, print ad, email, text message, direct mail letter, fax, infomercial, radio spot, or anything else with a sales message… is created without someone sitting down and knocking out the copy. (Even “spontaneous” video is “written” — though the “script” may be in your head, assembled a nano-second before coming out of your mouth. It’s still copy. It’s still gotta be created.)

Writing is, in fact, the foundation of civilization as we know it. Scribes have always held a special place in society, because they are masters of communication.

Respect the gig.

Actually get good before you tell clients you’re good.

Don’t be shy about honestly assessing what you can do for any given client, and neotiating a truly fair fee that is a win-win for both of you.

You’re worth a higher fee when what you produce can quickly bring measureable results that make your pay irrelevant, because your stuff works.

This current crisis will end, one way or another, as the freelancers who actually produce are identified. The marketers with deep pockets are wary, pissed off and getting increasingly hip to how they can get “taken” by not-yet-ready-for-prime-time writers.

I do not understand why so many rookie writers are in a breathless hurry to get the big fees.

The ride is half the fun, people. Earning your success is a thousand times more satisfying than gaming the system… and it’s worth more, too.


Warning shot fired, and canon put away.

What do you think about all this? I’d love to hear from both freelancers and marketers who hire freelancers…

Stay frosty,

John Carlton

P.S. If mentoring is something you feel you need, in order to get your own ride going at top speed… don’t forget the opportunities of my coaching club.

Just read the copy on this link, and see if it isn’t something that fits the bill for you.

Free trials, you know.

Just a thought — if you’re considering moving ahead in your career, especially online.

Here’s the link:

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"11 Really Stupid Blunders You're Making With Your Biz & Career Right Now."

  • Kevin says:

    I suppose I’m in the “wanna-be” category here.

    I’ve been in radio advertising, wrote all my own copy, but I’ve never written direct response for a “for real” client before.

    I’ve studied John, Dan, Gary, Joe Sugarman, Ted Nicholas and all the old masters for years, and I am currently taking AWAI’s course.

    I have, however, written two unpaid pieces just for the exercise that were sent out and did well.

    One was a fundraising letter for a local charity that produced a 5-1 return on dollars spent. The other was for a bank my wife worked at that brought in $80,000.00 in new deposits in about a month, to a list of just 89 people.

    I AM very serious about this business, and I want to be in that top echelon more than anything. But I always debate with myself whether I’m ready, or if I’m just not letting the curtain come up. I can probably talk my way into getting good, paying clients, but I don’t yet have a solid track record to point to.

    And this is not exactly a business where someone else appoints you officially “ready.” I’m not a pretender, but I’m not yet a player.

    Seriously, how do you know?

    I have no intention of blowing a client’s money, their trust, or in killing my career.

    Anyway, thanks John, for doing this blog and responding to comments occasionally. I’ve learned more from you over the past few years than almost anybody else.

    John Carlton replies:

    This concept of “how do I know” is essential to becoming a wise person. Everything of any importance in your life will entail a brutal session with yourself on this subject: How do you know she really loves you? How do you know this is the right city to move to? How do you know this is the best use of vacation time? How do you know which longterm goals are the right ones for you?

    Listen — I sympathize, I really do.

    But this is what drove me to Zen. (The “American” style of Zen, as written about by Reynolds in “Constructive Living”, not the more formal type found in Buddhism. I’m too lazy, and too skeptical of formality to follow anything that hasn’t been diluted to my very average “American” consciousness.) (Though, still, any study of Zen will make you a better person. We all need to calm down, and start processing input with more focus on being wise, rather than being asshole Americans… if that makes any sense to you.)

    I grew up desperating believing that everyone else knew the secrets of living life well. They just were withholding these secrets from me. I was in my thirties when I discovered they didn’t know shit about anything. Almost no one knew anything. It shattered my old worldview, and opened up a whole new one based on reality… and a fresh realization that all kinds of cool and useable wisdom was out there for the taking.

    But no one will give it to you. You must do the hard work of figuring it out for yourself.

    No one but you can say whether you’re “ready” for anything or not. Yes, it’s an almost impossible question to answer… and yet, it must be answered.

    For me, a large part of the key was “committment”. I was as committment-phobic as a human being can possibly be — part of me was terrified of making a “wrong” decision that would tie me down to a life I didn’t want… and another part of me was just plain terrified of making any decision at all.

    It’s so easy to drift, and slack off. You really can do it your entire life — most of the country does exactly this. It’s the default choice in modern society.

    To reach for more… requires putting on your Big Boy Pants and shoving aside your misgivings and your fears (and your doubting friends, if need be)… and you must allow the curtain to rise on your show, and you must step onstage and do your thing.

    You cannot be “over”-prepared for this. I was lucky, in that my discovery of the career of freelance copywriter allowed me to attempt to earn a living doing something I enjoyed — writing.

    It wasn’t easy, by any stretch. Even the best writers in the universe fail — there are zero guarantees. You never get so good that you cannot fail. You can — as writers like Gary Bencivenga have proved — put so many factors in your favor (like taking six months to research the piece, and having multiple trusted other writers reveiw everything you write, and do small tests, and focus groups, and get pro help with demographics of any target audience) that you’re like the New York Yankees: Just so prepared, so stocked with the right raw material, and so experienced… that it would be stupid to bet against you.

    You can still lose. But you won’t lose because you did something stupid, or didn’t do your due diligence, or over-reached.

    You want a good product, with access to a qualified list of people with money and a high passion index for what you’re offering, with a damn good offer that is nearly too generous to be believed (but still believable)… and the right delivery method. All backed by killer testimonials, tons of research, a feeling that you know the person you’re writing to personally, and a story that causes everyone who reads it to go ga-gaa.

    Too many writers rely on guesswork for the essentials. They pluck at their swipe files, and don’t ask enough questions about the specifics fo the market they’re going to NOW.

    When are you ready to move to the next level? You may never be completely positive… but you’ll feel it in your gut, because you can make clear promises about what you’ll deliver without guessing, without making shit up, and without knowing that you’re bullshitting.

    A LITTLE bullshit won’t kill you. Proven veteran writers, for example, have no idea if they really can write to a new market or not successfully. However, after a decade of doing it successfully to many other markets… which were all just as new as this one was, originally… gives you an inkling that PROBABLY you’ll be able to figure it out.

    Does every batter going up against the latest edition of Roger Clemens KNOW he’s gonna get a hit?

    No, of course not. But he better feel he has the BEST CHANCE of anyone in the lineup of doing so… or he’s toast.

    And you don’t get that kind of confidence by wishing for it. You practice, you work hard, you judge new challenges through the context of how you’ve done in the past against similar challenges.

    If you decide you don’t belong in the batter’s box… either “yet”, or “at all”… then it’s time to explore other opportunities. There’s no shame in realizing the reality of the situation. The “A” list of top copywriters is populated by a few dozen writers… and probably always will be. There just aren’t that many writers in existence able to write at that level.

    However, just as there are lots of other opportunities in baseball (including the minors, coaching, umpiring, teaching at high schools, becoming an author or a commentator, etc), so are there a whole universe of slots in the copywriting field.

    There are NOT enough qualified writers to fill the demand for professional writing. There never will be.

    Just get good first.

    You’ll know you’re ready for the next level when you can confidently say “Yeah, I can write that. What kind of background research can you give me so I can write the best piece possible?”

    Stay with it.


  • Swans Paul says:

    Dear John:

    You and the late Gary Halbert are the reason why I am a freelance copywriter right now.

    Honestly, I am “getting good” right now.

    However, it seems to me that I am stuck with low-paying clients. And I always have an impression that I am undercharging.

    My case is a little bit more complicated because I deal with marketers on two different continents. I have clients in Europe (France and Britain) and one client here.

    And I’ve been thinking. And sometimes I wonder whether it wouldn’t be smarter to start promoting my own products.

    A few months ago, a client told me that my new sales letter increased his sales so much that he couldn’t fulfill all the orders.

    And yet, when he came back for another sales letter, he told me that he didn’t have a decent budget for the project.

    I took the project because I knew I could easily beat his control, but I am getting tired of beating his controls and not getting paid decently.

    By, in the sales letter I wrote for the client, I swiped your “One-Legged Golfer” headline, and I also imitated the structure of the story you told. It worked like a charm.

    Thanks, man.

    Well, as I said. I know I am getting better, but I am a bit nervous about big companies. And I really think I should start taking products, and market them myself.

    This way, if I fail, I don’t ruin my relationship with the client.

    And if I succeed, then my copywriting skills will have made a soon-to-be millionaire out of me.

    What do you think? Should I just start being my own client, just do mail order using the Internet?

    Besides intellectual product, have you promoted hard goods?

    One last thing: Do you talk about how to analyze and enter market in the Carlton Coaching? For example, today, I took a copy of Cosmopolitan, and I saw an ad about hair removal.

    Isn’t a full page ad in Cosmo pretty expensive?

    I am sure that I could beat that ad in my sleep. Now, I am thinking that if someone can spend money advertising to young women in Cosmo, then there must be a good market for this type of product.

    And I am thinking of finding a product, putting up a website, and see how well I perform.

    Perhaps, it would be better to join you on the inside and ask you these questions? Say the word, and Ill join.

    Swans Paul

  • Barnabas Ng says:

    I agree with every word you wrote.

    I am very new to copywriting (about 2 years into it – an infant) and I believe that I need to get good before i can stand out in crowd and tell the world to hire me. Now I am practising and improving my skills.

    I believe in giving value to clients even if they are at the bottom line owner. With good value, rewards will eventually come knocking.

    thanks for the great post, john

  • Louis says:

    It seems like another factor is the deluge of courses telling newbie copywriters how to earn six figures. The few that I’ve studied tend to focus on what you’re talking about… positioning as if rather than actually getting good enough to deserve it.

    Working on your own info product seems like the best way to test your skills. There’s a low cost of entry, low risk and high potential for return once you get good.

    Even so, it really comes down to the market figuring out what it wants, right? Whenever the demand explodes, the supply does it’s best to catch up and quality lags behind.

    I heard that’s what happened to colleges after WWII. The gov’t started paying for veterans to get educated and colleges couldn’t maintain the quality they’d had previously. People say that you now need a Masters to get the same level of education a BS/BA used to be.

    Interesting post… thanks for the thoughts.

  • Lisa Manyon says:

    Hi John,

    AMEN to honing the craft. It’s a never ending ride if you ask me. Coming from an ad agency and radio background where short copy was touted as the only way to go, I’ve had a lot to learn. Diving into direct response techniques taught by the pros like Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero, you during a hot seat at Lo’s live event (thanks for not making me cry, by the way) and Glazer-Kennedy, have taught me to skillfully blend the two techniques. I like to think I’ve found my groove and at the same time I know I still have a lot to learn.

    The real danger lies in getting cocky, charging big fees and then getting lazy. Walking the talk is the true measure of success. The process is fun, it takes tons of work and, again, it’s never ending but so worth it. I’m looking forward to some golden fees. Right now I’m still reasonable, learning and open to suggestions. By the way, about those projects you sometimes partner on…



    John Carlton replies:

    Guys, read what Lisa has written here carefully. Notice the words “fun”, “tons of work”, and “worth it” all in the same sentence.

    This lady “gets” it. Low end fees (I do not know what she’s charging) for “competent” copywriters (not “great”) start at a few thousand for a single piece of writing and move into the teens when you start writing multiple pieces (like emails, blog posts, articles, multiple websites for testing, name squeeze and upsell pages, etc) for a continuing campaign.

    If you stop measuring your income against the sky-high rumors you hear from other writers, you can relax and realize that just a dozen or so mediocre jobs a year can earn you MORE than the average family brings in. (I actually did this for a while, early in my career — earned more than I’d ever earned in full-time job, and yet had 20 days a month free to screw around.) (Or study up on my craft, which is what I also did.) (I was just so blown away at my new ability to bring in money, that I was kinda dazed. Never occured to me to fill up those extra days with more work. I was enjoying the leisurely pace…)

    Point: I understand both the appeal and the risk of laziness. I’m lazy. I was NOT, however, attracted to copywriting because I thought I could be lazy in it. In fact, I got in touch with my Inner Workhorse, and found out (to my utter astonishment) that I LOVED to work hard at writing well.

    Writing, again, isn’t digging ditches. Or showing up every day in a suit and tie, slaving for The Man.

    Freelancing has its travails. Writing well isn’t easy… nor should it be. If it was, you’d be out of a job, cuz everyone could do it.

    The trip is part of the fun. Lisa seems to understand this, and is taking advantage of it. In a year, maybe longer, maybe sooner, she will go to sleep one night realizing she just confidently scored a huge fee for a job she knows she’ll ace. New level. Shed your skin, refocus on the new challenges, keep moving. Keep living.

    Life is a journey, as the fortune cookie told you years ago.

    The world needs wise writers. Wisdom comes slowly. But that doesn’t mean you can’t love the process…


  • Tammy says:

    Hmm good copy is hard to write, but it pays and pays well when you practice. I don’t write for hire, but I write to sell my own line of products. By the way I’ve sold millions. Do I consider my self good. Nope, but I’m still learning.

    Can I write a piece that will pull. You bet. Can I improve on that same piece no querstion. Do I do that…everyday.

    Keep pracisting and keep writing….when the marketers see you do it, they come to you….and you do get paid. I know I don’t write for hire, but I have markets coming to me to sell thier product, because they know I can and will do it, by doing something they can’t. I know how to write decent copy.


  • Phyllis says:

    With all due respect, John — I think you just did one heck of a good sell job for your coaching club.

    While you’re right on the money about the issue of skill (or lack thereof), it’s in this venue — the Internet Marketing Arena — that “wannabe” copywriters are being sold a bill of goods.

    Yes, there are many copywriting tips and tricks that can be learned via books and courses. And there is nothing like having a great mentor. But the real art of copywriting comes from years and years and years of practice.

    Perhaps, once in a rare while, a gifted someone will come out of one of your seminars or coaching programs with skills worth paying for. But I’ll wager that he or she will be the exception to the rule.

  • Bal says:

    This is in response to Kevin’s question of “how do you know?”

    As John said, there’s no way for anyone to tell you.

    However… (and this, in my view) applies to everything that comprises a variety of service/consulting…

    Do a good job for less money than your job is worth; gain the praise of your client and repeat.

    Repeat successfully with a variety of clients and you can have some degree of confidence in your craft. That’s when you start thinking about raising your prices.

    Or when word of mouth about how good you are (not about how good a deal you offer) starts bringing you clients. That’s real demand for your services and warrants a look at your pricing.

    Price isn’t just a subjective thing at all. It’s a transaction between your ability and the world’s opinion of your ability. If you are underpriced and over-deliver, how can you go wrong?

    Then at some point, when your on top of the mountain and everyone is clamoring at the guru’s feet for a crumb of wisdom – then you can charge whatever the heck you want, get it and be thanked.

    – Bal

  • Ken Petersen says:

    Dam I love your writing, you really put great stuff out there for us to grasp and use. The comment of “vendor” struck home with me.
    I had spent 30 years or so in the Supermarket business as a Vendor.
    It seemed I was the only one who respected my title.
    I made more moola than most managers but still, I was classified as a ” low life vendor”.. I really do have more to say, but this is your column and I dont want to steal your glory!
    Keep it coming,.
    Next time you have a ‘meeting of the minds”, I am only a couple miles down the road from Mike F.

    John Carlton replies:

    No, man, let’s hear what you have to share. I don’t have any “glory” to be stolen — this blog is my “give back” to the industry that saved my life.

    I wanna hear your ideas, and I’ll bet others do, too.


  • Ken Calhoun says:

    Great points, John. What gets me is, google “copywriter” and then look at the god-awful salesletters from the ads for people who are allegedly copywriters for hire. It stinks to high heaven.

    There’s *so* many of what I call “networking copywriting wannabe posers” out there — they act like they can write copy, but they can’t. Now it’s great to try, and get into the arena… but there’s many out there that do the “go to a bunch of seminars and put out their shingle and drop a few names” even if their copy sucks, which it does, polluting the gene pool. You know who you are.

    There’s the aces – guys like you, Fortin, Makepeace and a real short list of others… but most of the people out there claiming to be copywriters just plain stink. Their salesletters, their websites, their positioning, their whole “bag” just reeks of “poser-dom” and lack of genuine skill. No craftsmen/women in the lot.

    Fortunately there’s a handful of competent folks out there, but there’s many more who are light-years away from real copywriting in-the-trenches skills. Many have obviously never sold anything in their life, face to face (which is the best way to learn salesmanship, a necessary prerequisite for copywriting), and couldn’t get laid in a whorehouse if they had a thousand dollar bill stuck to their forehead. So to speak. :p

    There’s a big jump from “academic copywriters”, eg people who’ve read the books/courses, and “REAL copywriters” who have winning controls and know how to pitch homeruns, control after control. I’m glad folks are trying to learn, but far too many are posers without talent. Just look at their sites/salesletters – sheesh!

    Fact: there’s damn few people I’d hire to consult with or hire for copywriting (Carlton, Makepeace and Fortin come to mind), and for all those trying to get established, for pete’s sake you Do have to “get good” to build a business out of it, for any sustainable timeframe with the success that we’re all looking for.

    Glad I learned from you 3 gents so I write my own 7-figure copy… but honestly I have yet to see any portfolio work from anyone else out there in the IM copy field that I’d even consider hiring.
    Top talent is so hard to find. To the victors go the spoils.

    To profits,


  • You are so right John.

    Writing is hardly digging ditches.

    I was so thrilled to be making $1,000 to $5,000 for writing a sales letter it didn’t occur to me for years that I could be making much more.

    Ironically when I started working with higher paying clients I realized that I really needed to be running my own business and doing my own thing.

    I just can’t work out why anyone who’s tried to make a living as a copywriter would complain about getting paid even the most beginner basic fee of $500 to $2,000 for a sales letter.

    Try writing articles or novels for a living and see how much you get paid.

    Or go work as a journalist and see how many words they expect you to write in a day so you can be paid a really basic salary.

    Direct response copywriting at nearly every level is an exceptionally high paying gig.

    And if you’re not happy just to be writing then you should probably find another profession.

    Lately there’s been a whole swathe of would be copywriters coming onto the scene who can’t write for shit, have no love for writing and no real interest in the craft of writing.

    Some of them can’t even speak English!

    I get a little tired of emails asking questions like “would be you thinking might send to me copywriting clients. Good for you money, I am copywriting very good.”

    You talk about getting good before you take on high paying copywriting clients. I’d just like to see some really bad coherent copywriters!

    Kindest regards,
    Andrew Cavanagh

    John Carlton replies:

    You know, Andrew, back in the early nineties, I took a hiatus from advertising and started writing fiction. Went to a bunch of week-long workshops, bumped elbows with published writers.

    They were all starving.

    Once they discovered I was earning more for writing a single ad than they’d earn in royalties from a published paperback that took them two years (or longer) to write… and especially when they discovered I could write those ads in a week or so… they got all confused and depressed. I’d experienced the same thing with “artists”, who discovered their old classmates who stopped trying to be the the Picasso and went into commercial art were earning nice salaries, while their own Quixotic quest for doing “real art” was ignored, unpaid, and starting to get silly.

    It can make you crazy.

    That said… I’ve tried to “help” around a dozen friends and acquaintances over the years who considered themselves “writers” (though they’d never earned a dime from their writing) to get into advertising.

    All but one — just one lonely guy — completely failed to grasp the concept of meeting deadlines, or following salesmanship principles when trying to sell stuff in an ad.

    They were literally on the other side of the river, metaphorically, when it came to basic professionalism — and it helped me to realize just what was needed to become a truly pro freelancer: Discipline.

    Someone needed to kick their ass. Hard, often, and relentlessly.

    Even then, it probably wouldn’t have changed much.

    Copywriting is like music and art: Many are called, few are chosen.

    I had to kick my OWN ass, for years, to knock a professional code of discipline into my head. This is why I’m so hard on students now — you don’t DESERVE a pat on the back until you’ve fucking EARNED it.

    The good news: The U.S. business world is crammed with opportunities to prove yourself, and to get the chance to show your stuff. Other economic systems are not so generous. (Though many are catching up.)

    I’m fine with folks who take stock of the discipline, hard work and grief that comes with any entrepreneurial project… and choose to back off. There is no shame in working for The Man — somebody’s gotta do it.

    But if you volunteer to enter the freelance world, then be ready for the challenges that will come, one after the other in a never-ending parade. If meeting challenges doesn’t invigorate you… if it’s no fun… then you’re probably not cut out for the gig.

    Again — freelancing is an amazing life adventure, full of rewards. For the right person, with the right mindset and the right internal “toolkit” for dealing with the job.

    Also… and I realize this will shock some people… earning massive fees ain’t all it’s cracked up to be. I like money — but my real goal is more time and freedom. Money can buy that, to an extent. But the drive for more money can erase your free time just as easily.

    There’s a balance to work toward that fits YOU: For much of my freelance career — before I became a teacher — I was taking half the year off to screw around… and still earned a fat income. I’m enjoying working hard again… for a while, anyway. But my reward is coming down the pike, and it looks like lots of free time to do what I please.

    (And, surprise: One of the things I’ll be doing is writing fiction. Not for pay, but for myself. That’s how much I love writing. Most of the top copywriters I know commisserate…)


  • Hi John,

    I was going to be a smart ass and ask “Crisis, what crisis?”, since the flip side of what you and Jeff talked about is the golden opportunity here for journeyman copywriters who are methodically going about doing their job and improving their craft.

    As the old saying goes, “this too shall pass” when it comes to the dearth of wannabe copywriters who can’t write a coherent sentence or sell their way out of a paper bag. And when the smoke clears and these silly bozos move on to other get-rich-quick biz opps (which is really all this big buzz about “the writer’s life” comes down to), the journeyman copywriters will still be plugging away.

    After finally giving up on trying to be the next John Carlton last year LOL I now find life much simpler. It’s one of those Zen things.
    Be who you is, not who you isn’t Tooter. We can’t all make it to the A Level in record time, if ever. But if you look at some of these websites you’d swear these people were all the next incarnation of the great Bencivenga. Legends in their own mind. Too bad some people doing the hiring can’t see through the facade, but then business is like that, isn’t it?

    I thank you from the bottom of my heart for helping me take the leap into this great field John.

    Bruce Carlson

    John Carlton replies:

    Hi Bruce. Congrats on the self-actualization.

    It’s kinda cool when you take something as amorphous as a freelance career and make it work on your terms, isn’t it.

    Thanks for the note. You “get” it.


  • CAROL JONES says:


    Greetings from rural Australia.

    I don’t mean to be harsh, but I think many of you in the internet marketing industry need to take a reality check when it comes to discussions about online success and money.

    I’ve been sitting in on internet marketing teleseminars since 2005. All of them from America.

    I’m also on too many email lists. Including yours, and those of Tellman Knudson, Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero, Chet Holmes, Jay Abraham, Joshua Shafran, Kevin Wilke, Mike Filsaime, Rich Schefren, Mark Joyner, et al.

    And I’ve noticed that none of the above can speak – or write – 10 words without mentioning the mega bucks they earn.

    I listened in on a teleseminar in May with Lorrie Morgan-Ferrero and heard her mention she recently was paid $25,000 for writing one sales letter. And I was left with the distinct impression Lorrie earns an income of at least 7 figures.

    Tellman Knudson is the multi-million dollar rags to riches man. Rich Schefren, Chet Holmes and Jay Abraham are the multi, multi million dollar men.

    Joshua Shafran never stops telling his listeners how good he is and how he’s worth much more than he gets paid. And how unlikely it is that those of us in regular jobs would be able to afford him.

    The internet is full of big names, including the above, who talk non-stop about how much money they earn. And the mind boggles at the figures they rattle off for just a few hours effort. A $50,000 per hour fee still jolts me. And boasts of $10,000 per hour consultations now seem to be the norm rather than the exception.

    If I believed everything I read about internet marketers, there’s no one earning less than 7 figures for just a few hours work a week.

    And if you are earning less, you are definitely a nobody.

    Having laid the ground work, and expectation, for 7 figure payouts for a few hours work, why then do you lament the fact that the babbling that goes on in your industry is producing a genre of no talented, money grabbing, non productive freelancers?

    Who wants to confess to being ‘a nobody’ who earns a modest income to match their talent?

    I’ve not witnessed anyone address this issue of verbal diarrhoea relating to online money and success.

    The internet if full of programs and schemes that promise unprecedented overnight success and under deliver every time. And the men and women behind these under delivered programs boast at every opportunity about the millions they make from them.

    The internet is the old wild west. Everything goes and the lack of integrity is left unchecked.

    I’m an outside observer, John. But it’s easy for me to see that your industry attracts what you beget.

    A plethora of money grabbing freelancers.

    As the internet is all about words, and therefore copy writing – writing for websites, emails, blogs, auto responders – the men and women who write words rule.

    If you and the high flying internet marketers you mention in your blog are unhappy with your progeny, look no further than yourselves. This new generation is mimicking you. And isn’t imitation supposed to be the highest form of flattery?

    Take care,

    Carol Jones
    Interface Pty Ltd
    Ilford NSW 2850 Australia
    Designers of The Fitz Like A Glove ™ Ironing Board Cover
    Our simple design solutions make every product a joy to use.

  • John,

    Another great post that hit the nail on the head! I think that too many of us are looking for the big bucks, too early in our career. I have taken more than my share of copywriting programs from some of the greats; you, Gary Bencivenga, Clayton Makepeace, all of the AWAI courses and of course, studied the old masters, Ogilvy, Caples, Hopkins, Schwartz, etc.

    What I notice is the same thing…too many “copywriters” out there, trying to sell a “turd”. I have been studying for a couple of years now. Am I good enough…that is the question. I only take on one client a month and give that client my undivided attention. I don’t make a lot of money doing this, but get the satisfaction of knowing that I am perfecting my craft.

    I see so much stupid adverts out there, that I know I could do better. But I still hesitate, because I don’t want to disappoint the client. I would rather undersell and over deliver, than the other way around.

    In this day and age, where bullshit seems to reign supreme, and everyone that says they want to help you become….whatever, you stand by your principles and still call them as you see them.

    I’m glad that there are still people like you around to keep us all straight!



  • Laura M. Crawford says:

    John, I agree with you.

    I am one of the “newbies” trying to make my way, but I’m not raking in the big bucks. Not by a long shot. Sure, I could bullshit my way into it, but what good would that do? I would make it worse for everyone who’s busting their ass like I am, paying their dues and doing it right to “get good”.

    Currently, I am still working my night shift job at the plastics factory to pay the bills. I am in a mentorship with a copywriter who also owns her own publishing company, writes fiction, and told me straight up not to expect to make six figures my first year in the business, or my second year, or my third year. But if I have that as a goal, and I stick with it, and find the right connections once I’m ready, it is POSSIBLE. I’m ok with that. That’s REALITY. I can deal with reality. I’m also not afraid of working my ass off to get there.

    Andrew Cavanagh commented, “I just can’t work out why anyone who’s tried to make a living as a copywriter would complain about getting paid even the most beginner basic fee of $500 to $2,000 for a sales letter.”

    Andrew, and anyone else who is reading this, I would give my right arm to make that much money! My current salary is $22,000.00 a YEAR! Sure, I would love the money, I’d be lying if I said otherwise. But it’s more than just the payday for me. I’m working for a paycheck now. All that does is pay the bills, so it’s about more than the amount on the deposit slip every two weeks. I want to have fun. I want to write. I want to make money. In that order.

    But I’m in it for the freedom, too. I’m going to be 39 on June 11. I’m tired of working in a hot, smelly, plastics factory throwing 25 pound boxes around night after night. I will be amazed if I can leave without being injured or disabled. I want to leave before that happens. Quality of life. My only son will be leaving home June 19 for boot camp (he’s enlisted in the Navy). I want something that will CONSUME ME, so I won’t just be crying because my son has left the nest. I want to show him and everyone else what his Momma can do!

    But most of all, this is what I’ve dreamt about my whole life. Making a living as a writer. Sure, I thought I’d be the next female version of Stephen King, or the next Erma Bombeck, but when I learned there was a way of combining business and writing together, I knew this is where I belonged. It fit. It would allow me to make enough money to pursue my other writing dreams, and I could eventually teach, mentor, or coach, which was another dream. Or even become a motivational speaker. (Please genie, can I have another wish??)

    Plus, there’s the added bonus of becoming successful and pissing off my family who thought they should “intervene” with this writing nonsense (“You should go back to school and become a librarian! You like books, that would be perfect for you!”) Ahhh, satisfaction is another goal! How sweet it will be when I compare my (eventual) six figure income to that of a librarian. Ha!

    Another reason I wanted to become a copywriter is to help people, mostly local, small business owners to start.

    I live in a small town in Minnesota. The businesses around here are hurting, really bad. The price of fuel will affect everyone, but mostly it will affect our neck of the woods because we are a last stop on the way to Lake Mille Lacs, a high tourist destination in the summer. Most people are debating whether they will go to the lake this year because it will cost too much to drive, and if you are towing a boat on a trailer, or driving an RV, well, a lot of people will be sticking close to home this summer. But it will hurt us here. If the people aren’t going to the lake, they won’t make a special trip to stop here. It’s like in the movie “Cars”.

    If I can help them, I help myself. And ladies and gentlemen, that’s PRICELESS.

    As for Ms. Jones in Australia, I hope this shows not all American copywriters are just in it for the money. As for John pitching his coaching program, well, it’s his blog. He can do what he wants. He just happens to make a lot of money doing it, and he’s not ashamed of that, and frankly, I appreciate the hell out of him for sharing that and being so goddamned brutally honest about it.

    Besides, I would have been surprised if he DIDN’T pitch something!

    Keep doing what you’re doing, and thanks for making us all think!

  • kip says:

    From a business owner’s standpoint, the “crisis” I see in copywriting is that there are ever-more freelancers out there not willing to stand behind their work from a benefits-produced standpoint.

    Nearly every copywriter will tell a business owner like myself to include some form of risk reversal in the offer.

    I offer my clients a six month satisfaction guarantee that allows them to return the product and receive most of their money back.

    How many copywriters do the same?

    Last month I was negotiating with a new cw’ing group to see if it might make sense to have them put together a test market direct mail campaign for my product line.

    They wanted $25k up front plus a % of the back end.

    Wanted to become instant “partners” in the business I’ve spent 8 years and tens of thousands of hours building.

    Which I would gladly make them … IF their ideas work.

    But didn’t want any part of any of the risk of the new test venture.

    Offered instead the standard (and tired), “if the first campaign doesn’t work, we’ll re-write it up to two times … after that, you’ll owe us another front fee.”

    Actually were incredulous that I even suggested they create the project up front at no cost and receive a back end approximately 2-3 times what they originally wanted.

    So from one business owners perspective, the “crisis in copywriting” may be the feeling of entitlement by some copywriters to earn top dollar without actually being required to produce results for clients … and an apparent unwillingness by some I’ve spoken with to utilize the same risk reversal marketing techniques they suggest their clients use.

    I have products ranging in price from $1300 to $7255, and would gladly pay 10% or even 15% of each sale in copywriting commissions for a project that accomplishes my sales goals in the manner I envision.

    I have a business opportunity priced at $30,000 and again, would gladly pay up to $7500 for each sale (btw, I even offer a one year money back guarantee on this product.)

    From my viewpoint, the “crisis” (as I see it) could be a HUGE marketing opportunity for copywriters with the fortitude to stand behind their work and only get paid when the client benefits.

    Thanks John.


    John Carlton replies:

    Hi Kip. Thanks for posting.

    People, this is an experienced marketer who has experimented for decades with ways to motivate qualified writers to produce for him. He’s worked with Halbert, come to my workshops, and is as smart as they come.

    He offers EQUITY to writers — a piece of the action.

    And yet he nearly despairs of finding a writer who can do the job, and work long-term.

    My best clients (“The Boys”), created a situation that allowed me to be me. I could have made more money elsewhere… but they did their homework and knew I wasn’t motivated just by money. They offered a chance to write without a leash, and they welcomed me into the inner sanctum of their biz.

    We’ve been a team for almost 20 years now. It’s been a priceless relationship.

    I do not know if Kip is actively looking for writers at the moment. Do NOT deluge him with email unless you know you can bring what he needs to the gig. (He’ll see through any subterfuge, anyway.)

    Good insight from the marketer’s side.


  • Harlan says:

    I’ve started a response three times and deleted it.

    Just above my desk in the famous “all clients suck” email you sent me many years ago.

    I should send it to Jeff Walker.

    Let me jump in to the launch formula issues you mention.

    There are a lot of people who see Mass Control, Stomper Net, or Eben Pagen and think…

    Gee if I do a launch, I’m automatically going to make a lot of money.

    And they hire a copywriter to write a sales letter.

    There is no launch.

    No anticipation.

    No videos.

    No blog.

    No proof.

    No affiliates.


    No list.

    And they wonder why the launch didn’t work.

    There’s a significant difference to having all the big names mail for you and having no one mail for you.

    So my first point is – the problem may not be the copywriter’s fault.

    Second is marketers want to be cheap. They want to make a million dollars on the launch – or more – but pay $2000 for the copy.

    That equation doesn’t work for me.

    Heck, Jeff Walkers programmer charges a percent of the take.

    Now as to people skipping the get good phase.

    I took you literally when you said don’t pursue “A list” jobs. They will find you.

    They did and I turned them down. I don’t want to write for lawyers or committees.

    I like writing for business owners or smart marketers.

    And I charge what I feel I am worth.

    I think this is one of your most significant posts ever.

    And you should post it on Fortin’s board.

    Well worth reading.


    Harlan Kilstein

    John Carlton replies:

    Harlan, I was wonderng when you’d post on this one. Rookies often mention you when they discuss fees, because part of your rep came from the freelancer side as you negotiated higher and higher fees.

    What nearly every single rookie misses, though, is the part of your story concerning how hard you worked to understand the craft. You paid out a fortune to consult with veteran writers, and you were relentless on pursuing every avenue of “getting better” in your writing. You even worked for specific mentors for FREE (as I advised).

    And you listened to your gut when opportunities came too soon to work with “A” list clients.

    I am no longer amazed when rookies eagerly talk about how much they’re gonna earn for any given job, without having a clue what is truly required from them to complete the job at a professional level.

    I’m concerned, and I shake my head… but I’m no longer amazed. People will shortcut their own processes in their own peculiar ways. They are blind to what they’re doing wrong. They sink into denial about the honest work required, both to get good, and to do good work consistently.

    This underscores the advantage a rookie has with a mentor (or a series of mentors, or coaching): No decent teacher will let you get away with this bullshit.

    Another poster took me (and every other IM guru she could name) to task, saying we were reaping what we’d sowed. Perhaps.

    But no writer has come out of MY camp with an easy ride. I blister their brains with harsh, brutal critiques (and the best wear their scars as badges). And I never let anyone get away with squishy thinking — especially the magical thinking behind the idea that you can further shortcut critical parts of any process a pro has already cut down to the bare bones.

    My advice to freelancers is the same as it ever was: Respect the gig.

    Thanks for posting, Harlan. I’d argue your point about client’s expectations being a big problem — it CAN be part of the problem… however, a true freelancer is the adult in the room, and must know how to navigate even nightmare clients. You should see the traps looming, and nip problems in the bud. That’s part of the responsibility of the freelancer.

    That kind of savvy only comes with experience. Part of earning a high fee is knowing how to handle the client.


  • Your post confirmed a lot of what I suspected about the copywriting arena.

    It actually inspired me to lower my rates back to where I had them 6 months ago. I only moved them up, because of different pressures and bad advice. As you said, if you need to ask if you’re charging too much, then you probably are. I rather err on over-deliver, than under.

    I’ve found charging a _little_ less on the upfront advance, makes the conversion from prospect to client easier. I always work on a percentage cut or royalty. 80% of that works out fine. I just like to see a serious down payment first, so I know they’ll do their share of the work (e.g. traffic/mailings).

    Your post will stick in my head, for I suspect, a lifetime.

  • Peter says:

    I agree with you, John, it’s a lot more important for a copywriter to walk the walk and not put some much into the talk. Kind of related to: be the most interested person with someone else, don’t try to be the most interesting.

    In my experience, clients are more interested in how to get sales up. It’s rarely been my experience that clients reach out looking for snappy copy. They will, if they’re sharp enough to realize their own copy could use a special “something.” But mostly, it seems they look for marketing improvements.

    Yes, some business owners are know-it-alls, some are wet behind the ears, but the serious ones are serious about how to amp up sales and how to get and keep customers.

    What I’ve seen working with clients as a freelancer is that what they dream of at night, and mull over their cup of joe in the morning, is having on call a person who knows that copywriting is part of the overall plan. A person who knows that copywriting is a cog, albeit an important cog, in the machinery of a number of other things that make sales happen.

    And oddly, someone who can be a team player and still have a backbone and won’t roll over and bark on command. Someone who’s able to keep the big picture in perspective, and point out places for improvement, not point fingers at flaws. A dash of diplomacy, I learned ain’t gonna kill ya. Ass kissing will.

    Whether a business sells caskets, or gaskets, or bus tours, or vacuum cleaner bags, they really want Sir Launcelot of Le Copy de Killér to shine a light on the marketing path that leads to the Holy Grail. They don’t want a rock star cartwheeling into the Great Room, and rattle on about how awesome their word play is.

    Client meetings got real interesting once I learned how to turn down my ego volume to the lowest possible setting. That’s when it was possible to really hear what the client needed. And for safety’s sake, it never hurt to keep the bullshit quasher on idle, and be ready to use it if needed.

    It’s a funny kind about ego modulation: ego typically on low, and then during some parts of the meeting(s) ego zips to high. Because there are times they just have to get it that you’re all business and you know your stuff, in painful detail.

    I’ve seen that a business owner doesn’t mind the three or four hour meeting as long as it ends by pointing to how cash flow will increase. The profit’s a blink away, as long the cash flow’s there.

    Clients want someone who “knows” the buying psyche in their “special” little market, or quickly figures it out. They really don’t want to do the dirty work of figuring out the triggers or motivators, or attach their name to what looks like a risky project. They want you to provide a solution.

    So, here you are as a freelance copywriter: brave, brash, self-assured, and suddenly all that stuff about a stopper headline that will spark “skyrocketing” sales, penetrating bullets that “drill ’em even in their sleep,” and all the other stuff suddenly becomes “deep background.” Because meeting with clients, I’ve learned that a copywriter, or a designer, has to operate in different waters. Where a lot more whole brain business stuff has to be at the ready in the front of your noggin, like now.

    And when you can talk big picture stuff, and you can lay out how this thing you propose is going to fit in tomorrow, that’s when they get it: you operate in “the zone” they can access only through you. You da man.

    You’re not one-dimensional, you’ve got eyes like a fly: you’re able to see how lots of pieces fit together, or need to fit together, and where one or another doesn’t line up properly.

    I’ve had the good fortune to learn from going through stuff like that. Digging through crud to figure out what needs to be done, doing the menial stuff, and even pulling a skeleton back from the edge of final bankruptcy and getting it back into seven figure land. But not simply on the strength of copy.

    I’ve also helped ambitious newcomers come to realize that, wow, you can predict so many sales this month, and so many the next, not on the strength of copy, but by first having a crowd of hungry buyers (right on, Sir Gary of Halbert), as well as copy that lays out what a great deal this is for them, and leaves them convinced this is how their life is made whole.

    Then it’s fun selling, because these are folks who bought before, and are ready to buy again.

    It could well be copywriters today take it way too literally that writing good copy is like having a special license to carry a loaded firearm. That’s it’s the be-all, end-all. On one level, it is. But on a day to day business level, it’s also about your list, and your offer, as well as the copy. Kind of like once you’ve got that copy thing figured out, move on and figure out how to get ducks in a row for the big picture.

  • Ken Calhoun says:

    Right – and Harlan’s on the short list of hardworking guys worth working with… (he’s, remarkably, been 100% right with all his posts on various forums over the years that I’ve seen, and is a sharp guy and top copywriter, too.. and I owe him a personal thanks for helping me get refocused on my core business).

    More of the aspiring copywriters would do very well to model Harlan’s work ethic, knowledge (including deep knowledge of various topics) in addition to core copywriting skills. The good thing about being on the ‘short list’ is that it’s easy to stand out, because one’s work speaks for itself.


  • John,

    Great post and a lot of “home truths” here. I have to say that the vendors of copywriting courses have to accept some responsibility for the current state of affairs. Freelance copywriting is sold as an easy ticket to freedom and riches (Yes, I’m particularly referring to you, “AWAI” but every vendor is guilty to some extent). The reality, as you point out here (although not in your own sales letters), is somewhat different.

    Love Peter’s comment. I think he does a great job of summing up the reality of business life. It’s a funny thing about copy. As you often say, nothing gets done until the copy is written. On the other hand, the copy is only one part of the whole marketing process and sometimes it’s not the most important part. The ideal situation, as suggested, is that it’s a partnership between the copywriter and the business owner. Like all partnerships, the terms need to be clear on both sides and make sense to both sides.

    Kip raises the issue of freelancers providing guarantees. I’m a freelancer but I can appreciate his position. However, here’s my 2 cents on why it doesn’t make sense for most freelancers to provide an unconditional guarantee.

    Firstly, there’s a big difference between a business owner providing a guarantee (which is only ever likely to be taken up by a relatively small percentage of clients and usually involves small amounts) and a copywriter providing a guarantee. The risk for the business owner is, in practice, small and manageable. For the copywriter, it’s huge and many factors are out of their control.

    Secondly, giving an unconditional money back guarantee is like giving someone a free option. Maybe it’s my investment banking background but I’m not in the business of giving away free options! It becomes a no-lose situation for the client and a poor deal for the copywriter. After all, how many clients are going to come back and pay you a bigger fee if the campaign is a big success?

    Having said that, how to deal with a potential clients legitimate concerns? Reputation and referrals are important, of course. Plus the client can look at samples and previous work. I’ll often provide some sort of “freebie” (a decent critique, for example) or do a small “trial” job for a small fee. At the end of the day, I’d suggest it comes back to knowing who you’re dealing with and working out that “partnership” thing.

    John, love the “Zen” stuff and your comments about “How do I know I’m good enough?” Sometimes you only find out by getting out there and doing it. I recall in a (much missed) “Rant” newsletter you mentioned Keith Richards saying something like “I may not be the best guitarist but I’m prepared to get on stage in front of 50,000 people and show them what I can do” (…and yes, I appreciate that “Keef” had worked on his “chops” before he first got on stage back in some pub in London).

    Thanks again for an excellent post I miss the old hard copy “Rant” but you really do post some amazing pieces here.

    Kevin Francis

  • […] John has recently posted a piece on his blog titled “Copywriting Crisis”.  If you’re a copywriter, I highly recommend you read the piece for […]

  • […] John has recently posted a piece on his blog titled “Copywriting Crisis”.  If you’re a copywriter, I highly recommend you read the piece for […]

  • […] John has recently posted a piece on his blog titled “Copywriting Crisis”.  If you’re a copywriter, I highly recommend you read the piece for […]

  • […] John to post his recent blog comment here. Since he didn’t, I’m going to jump in and post it here: John Carlton’s Big Damn Blog ? Blog Archive ? Copywriting Crisis A tremendous amount of food for thought. Do you agree with what he says? Don’t miss the […]

  • RAY EDWARDS says:

    Hi John,

    Great post. My other long comment disappeared with my failure at Math–that part of the the posting process sucks.

    -Ray L.,

    John Carlton replies:

    Hi Ray. Yeah, math suckiness is a chronic problem among writers. I’ve forgotten half my multiplication tables (8 times 7? No clue whatsoever. I gotta go to 7 times 10, and subtract 7 times 2. I need pen and paper…)

    Anyway, thanks for posting.


  • Hi John,

    Great post. I agree. I read your blog often but this will be my first ever post on it.

    I wonder if part of it is the difference in overall work ethics. Lots of people who live life by saying, “Just give me the free dinner and dessert, why should I have to earn it first?”

    I was a competitive sprinter for 12 years. I can remember getting my butt kicked daily in practice by my teammates. It challenged me to get better until I was one of the best in my local area at 400 meters and good enough to run at a Division II college level.

    That short-term pain/long-term gain experience prepared me for starting my first offline business in 1993. Lots of blood, sweat, and tears as I grew, expanded that business twice over the next dozen years.

    I first learned how to write copy for my own business. True gun to the head method. As in, “If this ad doesn’t work, I won’t have enough money to pay my office rent and staff salaries on time.”

    I started writing copy professionally in August 2006 and have absolutely loved it every step of the way. There’s copywriters newer than me that charge more… there’s more “experienced” copywriters who charge less.

    I could care less what other copywriters charge. That’s their problem, not mine.

    I charge what value I feel I can easily deliver to my clients. Then I work my ass off on their behalf and give them the best copy and expertise that I can deliver.

    Copywriting has allowed my family and me to enjoy a better lifestyle so I treat it with respect. I work at my craft daily because that’s what I believe it will take for me to become one of the best copywriters.

    How will I know when I’m one of the best?

    Don’t know… don’t care either. Clients vote with their wallets and that’s what matters to me. I have enough clients rehiring me consistently that I know I’m on the right track.

    My one piece of advice to newer copywriters: Don’t be in a rush to charge big fees. The bigger the fee, the higher the pressure will be to deliver the goods and deliver them with consistency.

    Life’s a journey, not a destination.

    Take care,


  • Jay says:

    Got a question for John and the more experienced copywriters.

    I’m about as green a rookie as you’re gonna find. I turned 21 six months ago and I’m getting ready to create my first sales letter/e-course campaign for one of my clients. As you advise, I’ve been “getting good” by writing articles and blog posts. Now the client (and I) each feel I’m ready for the next step. My question is simply this.

    What if my first sales letter bombs?

    My articles have been successful: lots of Diggs, reciprocal links, comments, and Google love. Intuitively, I know I can parlay my skills into direct response success. But I also know there’s gonna be a learning curve, and I’m nervous about how I’ll be perceived if my first go around tanks.

    Any advice would be much appreciated. Loved this post, btw!

  • Jay,

    Not sure if I qualify as a “more experienced” writer but I’m a working writer so hope these comments will be helpful.

    Firstly, from what you’ve written here. I’d be pretty confident the letter will produce results. However, if you’re not happy with the results then simply go back and look at the elements in the Direct Response process.

    Assuming it’s not something like a poor list or the wrong market and that it really is to do with the copy, test the key elements such as headline and offer first. Most of the time, that will fix the problem.

    In other words, be a professional and apply your knowledge and skills to fix the problem. Don’t get emotional about it. Hey, I appreciate that you’re going to be nervous, I was absolutely terrified with my first letter (I still am with many projects today!). But you can’t let that paralyze you.

    One of the little “secrets” about the business is that not every project is going to be a success. Yes, of course, you work on the basis of intending to make every letter a winner. You do everything you can to put the odds in your favor (see John’s comments above about Gary Bencivenga). But some projects are not going to be a success. That’s just part of the game. What counts is to keep going. Your “winners” will more than outweigh any disappointments if you’re following sound principles.

    Hope that helps and wishing you every success!

    Kevin Francis

  • Jay says:


    Thanks for the tips. You’re right: one of the awesome things about direct response is that there are only so many points of failure. If the market is right, you can tweak stuff by process of elimination until it eventually works.

    The funny thing is, I’ve been writing “sales letters” since I was 10 or 11 years old. When I wanted a friend to sleep over, I knew my Mom’s objections. She has to get up early in the morning. She doesn’t want a lot of noise at night, etc etc. So I would literally write her a letter reassuring her that all her worst suspicions wouldn’t come to pass. Sure, it’s nothing like the high stakes you have when there’s money involved, but it had to get results.

    And usually, they did get results. Fundamentally, I guess direct response copywriting isn’t much different from what I did back then.

    Thanks again for the kind words!

  • Laura M. Crawford says:


    Hey, good luck on the first gig. And I think it’s funny how you talked about the letters you wrote to persuade your Mom to let you have friends over! It comes naturally, sometimes, doesn’t it?

    I worked for years in the personal injury field for a law office and the demand letters I wrote are not much different in writing copy for clients for their products, or what’s even better…

    Writing copy for your own products (which I am working on now), which is a great learning experience.

    Take a deep breath, write, and breathe out. You’ll do fine.

    Laura 🙂

    P.S. You must let us all know how it works out. I will be curious and would like to know what you learned, good, bad and ugly from going through it.

  • John,

    I wrote a long comment last night, and it said that I did not add correctly, and it was rejected.

    I know 7 + 7 = 14, and unless there is new system of adding, I believe that is correct.

    I admire your style and information, and was really disappointed when you did not want my comment on your site.


    John Carlton replies:

    Hi Sue. Sorry about that. I do not know of any problems with the process, but we’ll take a look at it.

    Technology is frustrating, because it’s always “right”, even when it’s wrong. You can’t win against a robot…

    Anyway, THIS comment got through. As I said, the system is working. Might have been a one-time glitch. Or, for a brief moment in time, 7 and 7 didn’t equal 14 anymore. It does now, of course. I’m just suggesting an explanation…


  • […] the company vice president sends an email going – Holy Cow. They love it. Uh oh… John Carlton?s Big Damn Blog Blog Archive Copywriting Crisis […]

  • […] there, don’t be surprised if you get a call. When John Carlton wrote on his blog about the "copywriting crisis," I didn’t get it. I wondered how top notch marketers could ever get "burned" by a […]

  • […] there, don’t be surprised if you get a call. When John Carlton wrote on his blog about the "copywriting crisis," I didn’t get it. I wondered how top notch marketers could ever get "burned" by a […]

  • […] there, don’t be surprised if you get a call. When John Carlton wrote on his blog about the "copywriting crisis," I didn’t get it. I wondered how top notch marketers could ever get "burned" by a […]

  • Exactly on the point here John.Thanks for sharing!

    We can all be better, we can all tackle new areas of specialty or network a little harder. If we want to survive right now, there’s basically no excuse for not doing so.

    More on my take on how to make it thru this tough times..

    Keep rocking!

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