Bullish: How To Sell Yourself As An Expert

How do you start charging for expertise?

Let’s see a letter from a writer I’ve renamed J.K. Capote-Snicket. I’ve (obviously) anonymized a bit:

I’m a multi-published author with 8 [clown-crime] novels out, and nine years experience in the publishing industry. I’ve been full-time since college, and up until now it’s been great: flexible self-employed schedule, independence, plus a small, somewhat fanatical group of [clown-crime] fans.

But, the industry has suffered, and my income has plateaued: I have to write more novels, for lower advances, to make the same money, and now that I’m getting a bit older, my frugal post-college lifestyle won’t cut it any more.

Thanks to your columns, I know a way for me to make additional revenue is to sell my specialist knowledge to nice, rich capitalists. Teaching extension courses is one option, but taking on clients as a writing coach is what really interests me. Do you have any advice for me, and others, looking to launch this kind of side business?

I’m not sure whether I should invest my time in a website, flyering cafes, trying to get on panels at writing conferences, etc. And how did you go about setting your fee levels? I feel like my expertise is high — higher at least than many of the so-called ‘writing experts’ who haven’t published a novel in a decade – but fees vary so much, it’s hard to judge what will turn off people from the start.

Any advice you could offer would be great. I’m determined to break this income ceiling, while still using all my creative skills etc in a new context.


J.K. Capote-Snicket

I have often written that establishing expertise – preferably in something objective and quantifiable – is an excellent way to make money, to bypass sexism and other forms of discrimination, and to get ahead when you’re young and maintain a thriving career when you’re old. (See Bullish: Tech Skills Are Not Optional for Your Career.)

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But now that J.K. Capote-Snicket has done this, how do we turn it – in a gentlewomanly manner – into cold, hard cash?

Think from the perspective of your potential clients

J.K., I’m guessing you’re going to see a lot of rich wives. Or maybe not. You need to figure out who, exactly, hires an expert like you.

But, that aside, your potential clients don’t actually think about you as much as you’d think.

When they look at your website or ask questions about your services, they probably want a one-line assurance that you’re a badass expert – “published author of 8 clown-crime novels” is fine – and then they want to talk about them.

Research in neuroscience shows that people are basically biologically incapable of making logical decisions; decisions are made emotionally in the brain milliseconds before the logic centers get around to using logic to justify those decisions. Oh, the human condition!

More specifically, though, people make decisions – or change their minds – based on how they want to see themselves. People’s own self-concepts are the number one factor in influencing others. Your potential customers want to feel that they are doing something wonderful for themselves by hiring you.

They probably don’t want nebulous assurances that you’re available by the hour and can assist with any of such-and-such list of things. Okay, a few of your most motivated clients will want that, sure – they’ve already written something pretty decent and they want to pay you for a once-over and then they’re hoping you’ll offer to introduce them to your agent.

But most of your clients do not want you to be available to help with such-and-such list of things, because they don’t know what they want. They want you to know what they want. They want to sign up for six-step program and be walked through the steps. They want you to know the steps in advance. You don’t pick your own classes in elementary school, right? Clients who don’t know where to start are paying for your knowledge of where to start and your assurance that they’re starting in the right place and that starting is a good thing for them to do.

As you work with your first few clients, collect “before” and “after” information – however that works in your field. Maybe it’s a chapter of someone’s work before you came into the picture, and the same chapter afterwards.

See if you can codify whatever you do with these clients into some kind of Proven System that others would like to sign up for in the future.

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What services should you really offer?

From my perspective in test prep: I can help someone’s kid with the SAT, ACT, APs, SAT Subject Tests, and a few others. But people mostly don’t call up and say, “My daughter needs help with the SAT and the SAT Math I and U.S. History Subject Tests.” They call up and say, “My kid needs help with the SAT, and maybe the ACT…” and the dot-dot-dot means that the real purpose of this, after all, is getting into college, so I will also be telling the parents whether the kid should take the SAT or ACT or both, and which colleges need Subject Tests, and I’ll also be breaking it to the kid that college admissions committees do not need another essay about how your two-week service trip to Costa Rica taught you that sometimes when you help people, they really help you.

No one throws all of that at you when they’re first feeling the waters of working with you, but once they’ve decided that you’re good with their kid and you know what you’re doing, they’d generally like to outsource as much as possible to you.

In coaching adults, it is very often the case that people say they want help with time management, but what they really want help with is everything. Just like someone on a first date says they want someone to have fun on the weekends with, but what they really want might be much more than that.

In your case, people who want a clown-crime writing coach may indeed want your help to venture into other types of writing, and then they will recommend you to help someone’s kid with their homework, and then to their grandmother, who wants to record her life story and Depression-era thriftiness tips before she passes. Or your clients might just want you to fix their grammar and spelling, even though that’s way below your level of expertise. Or your clients may be bored, rich wives who just want to do something and it doesn’t much matter what. Clown-crime fiction is not the point; feeling satisfied about one’s life is the point, and this is a stab in the dark at getting there.

You should, for the sake of your business, compassionately recognize that these things are all real needs, and every single gig doesn’t have to be about you being the best at what you do best. Hell, a friend of mine is a writing coach who corresponded with a woman who said she needed a writing coach. Upon further discussion by phone, she revealed that what she really needed was help using Microsoft Word.

That’s incredible, right? But there are wealthy people out there who need help with Microsoft Word and they are a bit baffled and hurt that, even though they are willing to pay, they can’t seem to find someone to take them up on it and who won’t make them feel stupid.

Once you really get your business going, sure, you can turn down gigs, just as my friend turned down the woman who wanted Microsoft Word help. But if you can (and are willing to) serve this kind of wide panoply of needs, you can build a business fast.


People who hire others for a wide panoply of needs usually have friends who also do this. As I wrote in Bullish: How to Make Money from Being Hip as All Fucking Hell, broke, artsy people usually have broke, artsy friends who, also being artsy, don’t think that artsy skills are even all that special. Rather, I wrote, “You can rarely charge directly for coolness; you must practice coolness arbitrage.” (Also see Bullish: How to Make Money as an Artsy-Artist Commie Pinko Weirdo.)

I might sound like I’m contradicting myself here: Offer a Proven System or a Six-Step plan because people don’t know what they want, but also give people whatever they want and be nice about it.

I don’t think it’s a contradiction at all. People often want a well-defined, easy-to-understand, likely-to-succeed entree to your services, after which they want to lean on you for all kinds of things. From the perspective of a rich person, if you know how to do something they don’t and you charge less than they make/inherited, it makes sense to just pay you for it.

What kinds of marketing reinforce expertise?

You should definitely have a website, and it should dedicate at least as much space to testimonials from your clients as it does to stuff about you. Teaching an extension class would be a great way to get a bunch of testimonials all at once, which can then help you get private clients. Even just the anonymous comments from your final evaluations can be enough to get started.

Your website should broadcast that you really like helping other people with their writing careers.

It should absolutely avoid the intimation that you’d really prefer to be working on your own writing, but writing doesn’t pay enough, so the website therefore reeks of financial desperation and condescension towards the clients you deign to take on in your spare time.

Your clients should not feel as though you are beating them at a competition, or as though you are inviting them aboard a sinking ship.

Make sure you are smiling in your photo. But not in a sexy way. Women often don’t like other women who are being sexy for no good reason; it makes it hard to believe that you really want to help other women, rather than just beat them at stuff.

Consider writing some Q&A content on your website. “Writing Q&A with J.K. Capote-Snicket.” Answer a few questions that represent real and common problems. (“I’m writing a clown-murder mystery and am two-thirds of the way through, but I’m realizing that everyone probably already knows who committed the murder. How do I fix it?”) Give really specific, actionable answers. Don’t reference your own books too much. You are helping. You like to help. It’s sometimes easier to establish expertise than to be welcoming. Be very welcoming.

Don’t put up fliers. Fliers are not for experts. Fliers are just Craigslist with more work involved – a great way for beginner-to-intermediate providers to offer low-priced services for people looking for low-priced services.


If you intend to price yourself in the upper 50% of the market, you will not likely be successful through these avenues.

Consider writing a whitepaper or short e-book – Ten Steps to Getting Published in Clown-Crime Fiction, or something like that. Beat Writers Block in Three Days or Less.

If I were selling a fairly inexpensive product, I’d make people enter an email address and get themselves in my database before downloading my e-book, so I could email them at least one more time. But for fairly pricy, personal services, I’d just make sure my name was all over the e-book in a way that couldn’t be easily removed (PDF with name and URL on every page, next to the page number), and then let people pass this thing around the Internet as they will. If you’re charging $100+ an hour, you don’t want to come off like someone selling a $59.99 get-rich-quick scheme – you want to authoritatively put some serious, real, and helpful information out there, and then let your aura of expertise bring people in.

(See Bullish: Using Your College Skills to Succeed After College for more about whitepapers.)

Definitely get onto panels at writing conferences! People are strongly influenced by who is physically on a stage or behind a podium – you will do much better with people whose first impression of you was in such a context. I met one of my best friends when she was speaking on a panel at a writers conference, and even now, I occasionally remember this and think, “Isn’t it cool that we can be real-life friends?”

You never forget an authoritative first impression.

(See Bullish: How to Sell Without Selling for more on using events to market yourself.)

What should you charge?

Spend a day being your own potential client. You’ve messed around with clown-crime fiction (and a little bit of cat-based fantasy fiction), but now you want to get serious. Who can help you? You really want to do this, but you’re feeling a little insecure.

Poke around the Internet. Post a question to Yahoo! Answers. What are your options? Coaches, classes? What do these things cost? Would you feel welcome there? Would spending the money make you feel good about yourself?

Find the best options. Make sure what you’re offering is a little bit better. In niche fields, this isn’t hard to do. (This is one reason I like writing GRE books – it’s pretty easy to find the best product in the market and then write a better one!) Then charge a little bit more than they do. As you noted, you’re not a beginner. Don’t think of it as, “I’m new at consulting.” Think of it as, “The consulting market rarely sees the entry of such a high-level consultant.”

Good luck! May the clowns continue their sprees of fictional murder and mayhem.

Originally published on The Grindstone.

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