Tuesday, July 20, 2010

You Ain't In It For the Money

From this week's New Yorker:

[Rod Blagojevich's] wife, Patti, ate a tarantula in a contest with the actor Lou Diamond Phillips in Costa Rica for the reality show "I'm a Celebrity... Get Me Out of Here!" The couple explained that they needed the money.

May you never need money so badly.

All joking aside, mes auteurs, it's important for you to realize that you're not likely to make a ton of money with your writing. It is, in fact, unlikely that you'll even be able to quit your day job; only a vanishingly small percentage of working authors earn enough from their writing alone to support themselves. While it's nice to dream of a six-figure advance and a house in the Hamptons, sadly, that's probably all it'll ever be: a dream.

If you're a serious writer, you're not in it for the money. You're in it because you love writing, because you believe you're good at it, and because you believe your story deserves to be told and read. Sure, it's nice to be paid for something you love and are good at, but you'll probably have to do at least one other thing (something you may not love, or possibly even be good at) to make ends meet.

No one ever said it was easy being a writer. Paying work isn't guaranteed; you may end up being paid for writing you don't particularly want to do; you probably won't get paid a lot to do it. Them's the breaks.


If you're at least comfortable with said day job, you can view your writing not only as a hobby, but as a potential (though relatively small) source of income. Extra money for something you love doing is a pretty nice bonus, even if it's only a few thousand dollars. Sure, it's hard work to finish a manuscript, send out a million queries, secure an agent, get a deal at a house, and help shepherd your book through the publication process, but if you truly love writing and publishing novels, you'll see it through. If not, you're not cut out for this business and should probably hang up your pen/keyboard.

The point, meine Autoren, is this: do this because you won't be happy doing anything else, not because you want to be the next James Patterson or J.K. Rowling (as nice as that'd be).


  1. I was actually thinking about this over the weekend (because that is the only time I work at my other job). I don't think I'd quit working there even if I did get tons of money from my writing... unless I had to. The main reason being that working in retail - interacting with fellow employees and with the public - helps me when I sit down to write. I don't feel out of touch with reality, and it's nice to get away from a computer screen for a good chunk of time and still get paid for it.

    But that's just me. I'm only happy when multi-tasking.

  2. Nail on the head, Eric.

    I still get happily surprised whenever I get a check for my writing. They actually *pay* me to do something I want to do anyhow? How great is that!

    That said, even if the money is largely an extra (as in, bonus income, as opposed to main livelihood) for the vast majority of writers, it's still important to look on it as a job. Ideally, after that first sale, you are being paid to produce something. Even though you love it, and the pay isn't going to put you in a mansion, you still need to approach it like a professional, which means meeting deadlines, staying in touch with your editor about unexpected developments/changes, and so on.

    Small paycheck/hobby it may be, but it is also a business, and we writers need to remember that going in, and staying in.

  3. I give this type of talk at the beginning of the novel writing workshop I teach at my local high school. It usually thins the crowd by 50 percent :-)

  4. It seems that when writers hold onto that dream a little too tightly, they set themselves up for disappointment. If you're fortunate enough to love writing AND your day job, then I think it allows us to be realistic about the income we can hope to make. I happen to be lucky in that I love my job and it compliments my writing aspirations. Thanks for the post!

  5. You know what... you're right. Absolutely 100% right - but you can't think like that. The minute you start thinking that's all it will ever be is the minute you commit to being that person who never gives up their day job.

    That's not that way it should work surely. Belief is all some of us have left!

  6. Considering I get the vast majority of my writing done on my commute, I worry about being so successful I could quit my job. I need this commute, man!

    I will disagree with you on the hobby thing. I try to stamp this out wherever I see it. Authors should not think of this as a hobby. They should think of it as a second job. A hobby that is something that can be picked up and set down casually. A job is something with obligations and expectations, something they should hold themselves to.

  7. Surprisingly, I wanted to become a writer because I love both, the possible money (who doesn't want to be the next [insert popular author name here], right?) and because I like telling stories. :)

  8. When people learn I am a novelist, and have actually had books published, they immediately imagine that I am rich. I smile gently and allow they to believe what they wish. And I am rich, of course. Rich in experience, rich in the great delight of twisting and tangling words. My novels may make only hundreds of dollars (not, alas, thousands) but they are a wonderful world to live within....

  9. Like Lydia, I enjoy working because I need some outside contact with reality in order to write well. Unless I'm so fabulously successful as a writer that it's guaranteed I'll never have to worry about money (and really, for many authors is that true?), I think I'd want to work at least part-time to keep sane.

    That said, I never expect to make that much money off my writing. If I do, it'll be a pleasant surprise, because like you said, most writers don't, even if they seem successful in terms of sales or prestige.

  10. I would write novels even if I had to pay to do it, but I still can't help but hope that I could eventually attain the freedom of independent poverty through writing.

    Is making something like ten grand a year completely unheard of for midlist authors? It makes no difference for my writing, but I sometimes wonder what lifestyle people have in mind when they say you can't make a living off of it. I could live off ten grand a year. I'm pretty much doing so now. (I have no intention of having a family.)

    Oh well. Back to writing and querying.

  11. A dose of reality to winnow out the hordes of writers? It's always better not to set yourself up for failure, but one has to take risks to learn what we're capable of doing.

    If it is important to our sense of personal/spiritual balance, we will keep at our writing, if only for the love of the words.

    Nice post, Eric.

  12. It's kind of sad that people can't look forward to making a decent living from writing if that is what they want to do as an occupation. There are so many people desiring/trying to write books that I suspect the dream of becoming a huge, popular, bestselling author is what keeps many if not most of them going.

  13. I cannot express strongly enough how annoying I find this attitude--that writers should write for the pleasure of the masses, but God forbid they should expect to be able to make a living at it. This makes a really wonderful excuse for publishers to continue to screw writers over, because after all, we're doing it for love, not to pay the rent and the light bill!

    I have news for you--there ARE a lot of writers out there who ARE doing it to make a living, who ARE paying the bills with it. A lot of them are members of two-income families, but dammit, writing is one of those incomes too. Try treating us with a little more respect. We write for love AND MONEY, because we have bills to pay the same as anyone who gets a REGULAR paycheck and benefits. It would be nice if you wouldn't perpetuate the myth that we shouldn't expect to be able to live on our talent--after all, you do!

  14. I have to agree with badgermirlacca. I make my living writing. I have for a long time. I made a choice when I was in college that I wanted to be a full time writer AND I wanted to make lots of money. It has worked for me. I believe it's all in the attitude. Shoot High. Very high. So what if you fall short? Never, EVER have low expectations. If you do, you will most definitely achieve them.

  15. Hi badgermirlacca,

    I post to inform writers/authors as to what I believe the current state of the market is, not some sunshine-and-lollipops scenario we would all prefer. Yes, there are novelists who live solely on the income they make writing, but there are not a lot of them. Any writer can feel free to expect to live on his/her talent. He or she will more than likely be disappointed.

    Also, being a writer myself, I'd be disinclined to disrespect them.

    Hi E. Van Lowe,

    Writing for television is a whole different ball game, especially if you were fortunate and talented enough to write in the 1980s/1990s, when there were enough scripted shows for television writers to be employed regularly and paid well.

    All best & thanks for reading,


  16. It isn't realistic to expect to make a living writing fiction full time. It just isn't. It also isn't realistic to expect to make a living singing, dancing, acting, or any of a thousand other careers in the arts. I know that people say "do what you love and the money will follow", but this world just doesn't reward that 100% of the time. Or 50%. Or 30%. What if what you loved the most in the world was swimming? Would you expect to make a living at it? Could you be a professional swimmer if you just wanted it hard enough?

    I don't think publishers are sitting there cackling "we'll screw 'em cuz they don't know any better! they do it for love! ahhahahahaha!" I find that many people who complain about how The Gatekeepers Are Out To Get Them just haven't written something good enough for the particular gatekeepers they've encountered to open the gate for. And whether you're good or not, whether your writing is publishable or not, that's almost beside the point. The point is, even in the best case scenario, making a living publishing fiction is a slow build toward success, so you'd best be doing something else for money while you're building.

  17. The non-sunshine and lollipops schtick has always been the case. I, too, make a living writing and have for a couple of decades. Not a lavish living or lifestyle, but it's paying the bills.

    I do not comprehend why it's acceptable for everyone involved in book production to earn livings, excepting those who create the books from which *those* incomes are derived. Why it's ridiculous for writers to expect payment for their work. (Same goes for all artist-professionals) Everyone published in the traditional market loves to write. It's too damned hard to diminish to hobby status.

    Believing in a story, writing and finishing it to publishing standards may be a labor of love, but that doesn't abrogate acceptable payment for the manuscript. I understand and commend any attempt to dim starry, unrealistic eyes. But do not understand and condemn an attitude that money for a job done well enough for publication is too high an expectation . . . until all involved in production are also reduced to labor-loving hobbyists.

  18. I say something very similar to would-be tattooists: If it's something you'd do for free, you'll be fine. If you're looking for what you can get out of it, this art will eat you alive...

    Never thought about that parallel! :)