How one writer beat the odds and became a success story, and built his own storytelling company in the process. ♦
As May quickly approaches, hopeful soon-to-be English grads are chomping at the bit to enter the workforce and break into the publishing industry, or to become playwrights, poets, technical writers, English teachers, or “real writers” of "serious literature" (and who like to point this out as often as possible). So what happens when August or September arrives, and a number of these newly-minted English graduates still haven’t nailed down their dream jobs?
For one, they might consider the success of Nathan Weller, owner and chief storyteller of Black Cat Digital Publishing, who took a very non-traditional route to get to where he is today. For starters, he never attended college—not even a semester.
“I’ve never been trained or taken a writing class beyond high school English,” Weller says. “I’ll be the first to admit that my style is pragmatic, sometimes to the detriment of style. I’ve basically approached writing as a job to be done, sometimes getting hired for work that I have no idea how to even approach. I then find as many examples of that writing style as I can and pick it apart. I try to learn its structure and understand the creative choices in each piece. Then I give it a try. Hopefully while being paid.”
When he was just 18 years old—fresh out of high school, without any experience to speak of—Weller landed an internship with a new media studio in Texas. Over the next two years, he worked across the gamut from basic copywriting to script writing for promotional videos and even working on documentaries and multi-media stage plays. After his two years as an intern were up, Weller headed home to Ohio, hoping to segue his writing experience into a job at a paper or print magazine.
“I ran into nothing but walls,” he recalls. “I don’t even think I got a call or email back.”
So Weller began taking sales and customer service jobs at a few Internet startup companies, and when writing or creative needs would pop up for these companies, he'd inform his boss that he had experience with that sort of thing and take on the task. “That led me to doing a lot of mass email and social media copywriting, as well as exposing me to the world of paid blogging," he says, adding that, at a certain point, "I decided to figure that business out and see if I could get paid to do that for a living.”
Over time, Weller networked and made friends with some popular blog editors and media companies, the biggest of which was Abduzeedo.com, whose founder, Fabio Sasso, is now the head designer at Google. From late 2009 to 2011, Weller found himself writing quite a lot for Abduzeedo and other blog editors, and his resume was shaping up to be quite impressive. He'd now been a working writer for five years and had recently added business development to his skill set, acquired at a startup called GoBigNetwork, where he sold ads and leads. Weller also began selling ads and sponsored posts for Abduzeedo and negotiated a 20% cut for every sale—plus, he was still freelance writing for blogs.
“Unfortunately," Weller says, "in the world of freelance blogging, things change fast, and clients come and go just as quickly. When Fabio went to Google, his contract required him to shut down the biz development part of his site [which Weller was running] and I had to make article writing my full-time job."
Weller began experimenting with ways he could make as much money as possible from each article. While his methods were working, and his output turned a profit, he found the workload to be painfully time consuming, so he soon began to contract writers, using his connections with blog editors and owners. In this set-up, he could book large amounts of work for the group and take a cut from each of the writers he was finding work for. “That worked okay. But again, the time management was a huge pain, and not very many people were as serious about quality as I was," he recalls. "I spent a lot of time doing heavy edits and even re-writing other people’s work . . . and then firing them.”
Nevertheless, Weller had soon built a sturdy platform for himself in the blogging world, and his web presence began to attract editors who sought him out to run their blogs behind the scenes. This warranted him more freedom, allowing him to write as many articles as he wanted for $.10 per word. Then, toward the end of 2012, Weller decided that he'd been around the block enough times, and understood the business well enough, that he could start and run a large editorial site on his own in a profitable way.
Which leads us to Weller's company—and the focus of his attention these days—Black Cat Digital Publishing. Drawing on his (now seven years') experience, Weller offers his services not just as a writer but as a storyteller, as the headline of his website proudly advertises, inviting potential customers to “Find Out What A Good Story Can Do For You.” Weller teaches bloggers and business owners how to craft their own stories, allowing them to connect with their intended audiences and leave lasting and memorable impressions, whether through a blog post, memoir, television show, new media production, or even a novel. Even better, Weller gets to employ his lifelong passion for storytelling in the building of products, services, and platforms that help others tell their stories more powerfully.
Weller's success is itself a pretty good story. And, as such, there are a number of lessons one—especially aspiring writers—can take away from it:
1. Decide what success means to you
Before you do anything, you need to decide what success means to you. Does success to you mean having your name known? Having a play on Broadway or writing for a hit TV show? Or simply, making money while writing? Before you start doing anything, make a list of goals (in your mind or on paper) that you hope to accomplish as a professional. Understanding what success means to you will allow you to find happiness as a writer.
2. Put yourself out there (and network!)
No matter how “beneath you” a writing job feels, producing work is the #1 way to get your work read and acknowledged. Contact bloggers or newspapers and offer to be a contributor. Even if it’s a project for a friend’s blog or designing an invitation for your sister’s bachelorette party—a job’s a job. If you can put it in your portfolio or on your resume, it'll pay off.
3. Accept that the publishing industry can be a tough nut to crack
Then, once you've accepted that fact, move forward with determination. Be flexible. Be open to any and all opportunities that help you build your platform. Be willing to explore work you hadn't considered before—and never give up!