Artwork donated by Pati Nagle.
The Freelancer’s Survival Guide: Networking Part One
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Sometimes the topics that I’ve overlooked in my single-minded attempt at finishing this Guide astound me. If I had written a proposal for the Guide before I actually completed the manuscript, I would have estimated the Guide’s length at 70,000 words, and I would have covered a few of the topics herein. At the moment I’m at 130,000 words and counting, with six more topics of my own to cover.
As you can tell from that opening paragraph, this week’s topic is one I hadn’t thought of. I should have thought of it; I discuss networking with my writing students all the time. In fact, I network each and every day. But I hadn’t considered it a stand-alone topic for the Guide, even though I mention networking in many of the posts.
Writer Carolyn Nicita e-mailed me with the idea, only she labeled the topic “Support Groups and Professional Organizations.” She also gave me a list of such organizations and groups, as well as subjects to discuss—which I greatly appreciate. Her list is comprehensive and helpful, and made it clear to me that I wouldn’t be able to cover this in one single Guide post.
Why did I chose “Networking” as my topic instead of “Support Groups”? Because networking has become extremely important to modern business in a variety of ways, from the support groups and professional organizations that Carolyn mentioned to seminars and continuing education to becoming active on social media and the web.
If you’ve found a particular type of networking to be helpful or harmful to your freelance business, please e-mail me this week. I’ll work your comments into the next few installments of the Guide. (And if it’s okay to quote you, please tell me, along with any website address that I can link to.)
“Networking,” by the way, is a very modern term. As I started this post, I grabbed the dictionaries around my desk and looked through them for the word “networking.” I didn’t expect to find that word in the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (Fifth Edition) that my grandparents bought my father the year he entered college (1936)—and of course, I didn’t find it in there. I did find “network,” however, which had three definitions: a fabric or structure of cords or threads that cross each other at certain intervals and are secured in their crossing with knots, etc; Any system of lines that interlace like a net; and—the dictionary is very specific here—in radio terminology, a chain of stations.
Meaning that network used to define broadcast media was very new in 1936. Of course it would be. I hadn’t thought about that much. Then I picked up my college dictionary, the Macmillan Contemporary Dictionary from 1979. I expected to find “networking” in there, but it wasn’t there at all. Instead, I found the first reference to people: “interconnected organization or system—‘a network of spies.’” I also found that they’d added to the radio definition (of course), by including television and by defining how those networks interlinked—through coaxial cables.
By the mid-1980s—Webster’s New World Dictionary, for those of you keeping track—nothing had changed. I expected networking by then as well, but I was early. After all, the desktop computer had just arrived into American homes. I got my first in those years.
If I hefted my butt out of my chair and high-tailed it upstairs to the computer with my internet connection—on a DSL line, thank you, which these old dictionaries had never heard of—I could tell you to the year when “networking” became a noun. Probably in the mid-1990s. It appears in the dictionary built into the rather ancient computer that I write on—a 2005 iMac. The Encarta World English Dictionary has six definitions of network—and the second is all about people. (“A large and widely distributed group of people or things such as shops, colleges, or churches, that communicate with one another and work together as a unit or system.”) The 2005 definition also includes computers—of course—and “telecommunications” systems designed to exchange information.
So the definition of network has grown in the past 75 years. As that definition grew, we added the new term “networking.” Encarta’s definitions clearly show that the word came from computing. The first definition—“the linking of computers so that uses can exchange information…”—shows the word’s history and most important usage (at least to the people who wrote the dictionary).
The second definition is the one that applies to us: “The building up or maintaining of informal relationships, especially with people whose friendship could bring advantages such as job or business opportunities.” (Emphasis mine.)
Why do I always start these long, interconnected (networked?) posts with dictionary definitions? Because words tell us a great deal about ourselves. Words that exist in English but don’t exist in, say, Russian show us the difference between the cultures.
And words that have come into use or whose usage has changed within a single generation tell us about our culture.
I’m sure people networked in 1936. I’m sure they called it something else. (And, by the way, none of my dictionaries use “network” as a verb. When did that happen? Since 2005?) I’m equally sure that the networking that occurred in 1936 was not on the same scale that people network on today. The opportunities simply weren’t there. People had relationships within their communities, but the chance to network with people from all over the country, let alone all over the world, belonged only to a few.
If you read about the early history of broadcasting—one of my favorite topics, actually—you learn that the live radio broadcasts that our grandparents remember from World War II came about because of a change in technology, and a small group of reporters who all knew each other. They got thrown onto the air because there was no one else, not because they were particularly good at it.
Early networks often work that way. Only a handful of people might have the skills to do a particular job, but those people might not be known to each other. So friends hire friends and then offer on-the-job training. It’s human nature.
Last night, on The Late, Late Show With Craig Ferguson, Ferguson held a fascinating hour-long Tom Snyderish interview with British actor Stephen Fry. In the middle of that wide-ranging discussion, they talked about Twitter. Ferguson just joined Twitter; Fry was an early adopter who talked about the early days of Twitter.
In the beginning, Twitter grew by word of mouth—friends verbally told friends about it. Broadcasters started discussing it when celebrities started having “races” to increase the number of people following them, but the culture didn’t take Twitter seriously until the Iranian elections last summer. Iran closed its borders to outside journalists and censored broadcasts that left the country, but didn’t shut down its cell phone networks—at least not right away. Real live news, from regular people, filtered through Twitter onto the net, and then out into the world.
A network that most people had initially seen as frivolous and a joke had suddenly gained international importance—and for many people, particularly those in Iran, life-or-death importance.
The world has become very small and the networks very large. My Facebook friends include people from Russia, Germany, France, Spain, South Korea, and Colombia, as well as Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States. Have I met all of these people face-to-face? No. But I have met most of them either through my website or their website or Twitter. I’ve done business with quite a few of them, even though we’ve never spoken on the telephone and we’re on different parts of the globe. I’ve read their work; they’ve read mine. We actually communicate in ways unthinkable as recently as fifteen years ago.
And I’m benefiting a great deal from the networks that have come about via the internet. I’ve sold short stories because of Twitter, novels because of Facebook. I’ve worked with movie production companies through e-mail and done broadcast interviews via Skype. I’ve been in touch with bookstores in Australia that carry my work and done online interviews for their websites. I’ve gone to conventions overseas because the organizers can reach me via my website, and I’ve been paid for overseas publications through PayPal, so I don’t have to go through the rigmarole that banks require on any check received in another currency.
Networks are important, not just in established businesses like mine, but also in growing businesses. The woman we sold our collectibles store to in 2008 had a bumpy first winter, not just because it was the middle of the Great Recession, but also because she relied on the old-fashioned way to do business—word-of-mouth in our small tourist town.
She had repeat business from tourists who had come through the year before, and she had business from some local ads, but not enough to sustain her through our slow times. She was good at money management, and she had low expenses, so she made it through, but she learned quickly that she needed to do more.
Dean had taught her how to put collectibles on eBay, but she hadn’t wanted to do the work. Not because she was work-averse—she isn’t; she’s a very hard worker—but because she wasn’t that comfortable with computers.
Still, a hard winter will convince anyone to make a few changes. So she put a few items on eBay, and then a few more, and then even more. Slowly, she has formed an online network of people all over the world who are interested in the items she puts up for sale, from toy trains to cookie jars. She’s known for quick service and quality products, and she’s making it through this winter just fine.
The network of local shop owners helped her as well, answering her online questions, and forming a group that shared the cost of local advertising. She has a network of suppliers that she’s established, people who comb junk shops and garage sales for that one special item. Her networks are helping her grow her business.
But there’s a downside to networks as well. They can be time-consuming, and they can be destructive. Carolyn’s points, from her e-mail, concern support groups and professional organizations, but they can apply to all networks in one way or another.
She mentions these:
•How to know when you need a group
•How to know when you need to get out of a group you’re already in
•How to cope with infighting and sabotage in your group
•Legal and financial ramifications
•How to know if you’re a groupaholic
•Goal and dream sharing
I’m also going to deal with two personality types:
•The master networker who has no work to stand on
•The excellent craftsperson who can’t network to save her life
There are a lot of other topics as well, which I know I will touch on as I get deeper into this subject.
I’m going to structure networking into a variety of components.
First, I’ll deal with in-person networks: support groups, professional organizations, seminars, conferences, and continuing education. I’ll deal with the upsides—the interaction, the contacts—and the downsides.
Then, I’ll deal with social media networks. I’d like help with this one from readers if I can get it. I’m active on Facebook and Twitter, as well as here on my own blog. I also belong to some listserves, many of which have existed for a decade or more. I have a Linked-In account, but I don’t make the best use of it. And as someone reminded me on my Facebook page just the other day, I need to tend to my page on Goodreads.com (a page I didn’t start; someone else did). I’m sure that there are other social media networks I know nothing about and which might be helpful to freelancers reading the Guide. So use the contact button here on the site and send me an e-mail.
(She writes, hoping that her network of readers will come through.)
Finally, I’ll deal with peripheral networks—networks that get built without you even realizing you’re doing so. The store owner above had no idea she was building a network of train collectors when she started selling toy trains on eBay. Now she’s linked to several of those collectors all over the world.
I know many of you have found this blog not because you’re fans of my fiction but because of all the business networks out there. I’m familiar with the online writing community, although not with all of the branches of that community—and there are countless branches, in every single city in this country (and in other countries as well). But I’m not as familiar with the networks for realtors, even though I know a number of realtors follow this Guide, or the networks for musicians, or the networks for computer consultants. I’m sure those networks are as vast as the networks for writers.
Because of the Guide, I have built some peripheral networks—inadvertently. And if I need help with real estate questions or computer difficulties, I actually have some people I can turn to outside of my friends and acquaintances. I’m also building some non-fiction business relationships due to the Guide, and gaining contacts throughout the non-fiction online community.
That’s an unexpected bonus of this Guide, certainly not one I planned on. I’ll be discussing those peripheral networks last. Again, if you have any insights, do let me know.
Interestingly, I’m going from this writing session into a weekend’s worth of networking. Dean and I are holding a workshop this weekend with the help of Denise Little of Tekno Books. More than 30 professional writers from all over the world will be at this workshop. I’m involved in a minor way—a session on Thursday night, and then I’ll join the group for several meals. Most of the writers will be together from Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon—a great way to make contacts, help each other, and to get to know each other.
These opportunities can be difficult and tiring, particularly for writers, who are an introverted bunch. But they can also be invigorating and uplifting, a chance to move forward in unexpected ways.
I’m sure the weekend will provide more insights for the Guide. Weekends like this one often do.
Yet even with the workshop, I wouldn’t have thought of this topic without Carolyn. So there is something else you think I need to discuss, please e-mail that as well.
“Freelancer Writer’s Survival Guide: Networking Part One” copyright 2010 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.