Since the smashing success of J.K.Rowling and Dan Brown, I’ve seen a lot of peeps enter the writing game thinking it’s a way to make a fast buck. I even had an unpublished poet offer to pay me for my editorial services out of their future royalties (oh, my!). Most of the experienced authors reading this are probably having a bit of a chuckle right now as it’s well known in the literary world that it’s not only hard to make money from writing, but, for poets, it’s nigh on impossible! Basically, I’m all for dreams (I’m a trained life-coach, after all!) and there are always exceptions to the rule (and I sincerely hope you and I are one them – I’ll see you by the pool, ha, ha, ha!), but starting writing novels with the idea that this is going to be a cash cow is really setting yourself up for a fall. Here are some reasons why and things to ponder.
1. Most writers cannot live on their writing: I’ve already said that poets have it pretty bad when it comes to the way the literary money tree shakes, but, out of all the writers in all the world, so far as I know, only a small minority can live off their work. The last figure I was given was 10%, but even that was before the 2008 crash which stripped the publishing industry back. I’ve heard that authors with multiple books out make, at best, an average of 11k per year from their royalties – and I don’t personally know many writers who even make that much (and I know a LOT of writers). Often writing a book puts you so below minimum wage that you’re into the minus column!
Yes, print book sales are up and I really hope that bodes well for the literary world, but things have never been quite the same since the recession and because the publishing world, arguably, hasn’t still got a solid take on what to make of e-books and self-publishing. Hence things are likely to stay this way for writers and, in fact, it’s always been thus, so far as I know, with only a flash elite being able to scribble stories all day every day. So, if you’re thinking about writing a novel for the dosh, PLEASE DON’T BOTHER! It’s easier to make megabucks in the City, so go and get a job as a banker or lawyer, if cold cash is what you’re after!
2. Most literary fiction only sells 150 copies: Again, I don’t know where I got this statistic (I’m a words, not numbers gal), but, from speaking to my writer friends, this figure seems to be about right. I remember hearing that one National Book Award winning novel in the US had only sold 200 copies before the prestigious award brought it to the public’s attention and boosted sales. Even really excellent books often don’t sell well – especially if they’re non-genre literary fiction or they don’t have a big publisher pushing for them. Indeed, the big publishers often won’t market their newbies, but rather put their advertising budget with their already successful authors who seem to guarantee a better return on their investment, so even getting a book deal with a major house doesn’t mean you’ll get much help with marketing (writers have to do a lot to flog their wares now, so be ready for that). So, once again, writing is not a money train!
3. The days of big advances seem to be done (but this has its positive side): When I was starting out as a fiction writer in the early 2000s, I knew of quite a few new literary authors who were getting 100k advances and it seemed to be a pretty normal thing. My naive newbie head was blowing up with how I was going to get a huge deal and grab this six figure sum for myself … of course, then life got in the way and it took me ten years to get a book deal as a result and, by then, advances from even the major houses had been massively cut and, if you were published by a small press, as I was, you usually got very little at all in return for your years of work on a novel. But, you know, it’s okay – for me, getting my first book out (which is a massive hurdle for any writer) changed my life and how I was viewed as an author, so it was enough of its own sweet reward. Yay!
And, as for those peeps who got the big cash back then – a lot of them sadly never made back their advances, so that was the end of them not only making coin from their future books, but some even got hustled into writing a follow up to their first book too hastily, so it bombed and then agents and publishers blacklisted them. I’ve even had clients come to me mid-career who are starting over under a pseudonym as nobody will touch them because they never lived up to their advances. With money, also comes a heck of a lot of pressure and sometimes, even though houses can make mistakes in marketing your work, the blame will always fall at the writer’s door for not making good sales. Because of this, some of my most successful writer friends tell me it’s better to begin small, with a tiny deal and steadily progress your career, rather than being given a big slice of pie early on which may turn to a big weight in your hands.
4. Most writers have other side hustles which support them as they write and it usually stays this way throughout their careers: I am fortunate enough to know lots of writers (almost all my pals are scribes) and nearly all of them, including those whose books have been bestsellers and who write commercial genre fiction, still work at least part-time in another career. That’s why when someone says they’re a full-time writer, they’re usually retired, on the dole or they have a well-paid partner who can keep them whilst they tell stories all day. For this reason, I don’t feel saying you’re a full-time author helps you when approaching agents and publishers, especially if you’re a newbie and cannot possibly have income from books to support you. It smacks of insecurity and trying to lay claim to a professionalism which can only come from your writing itself – do that well and the publishing peeps won’t care what you do all day. Which leads to …
5. There’s nothing wrong with having a side hustle – it doesn’t make you less of a writer: Okay, we’d probably all love to be able to write full-time as it gives us such joy, but, given how most of us can’t earn enough from writing to do this, it’s totally fine to have a day job. The wise and very successful writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, has said that she never expected her writing to support her and didn’t want to put that pressure on it, so she didn’t quit her job until way, way after Eat, Pray, Love became an international bestseller. T.S. Eliot was also a banker and many writers teach, edit or coach and mentor, as do I. There is no shame in it – in fact, there’s a freedom that comes from knowing your creativity is not tied to your material survival – it means you’re not trapped in trying to write for the market, only to find the trend has moved on and you wasted your artistic time and energy making something which repulses you just to try to pay the bills (see number 7). And, hey, whilst you’re working to support yourself in another job, you might well meet some groovy people who’d form the basis of fabulous characters or hear some inspiring stories (this is also what Julia Cameron thinks on this issue).
6. Many people do far worse jobs for low pay, so let’s keep some perspective: I’ve seen some discussions on writer friend’s feeds on Facebook where authors bemoan not being able to live on their writing … I’ve already given some reasons why this isn’t such a tragedy, but I also would like us all to remember that many people on this planet are starving or working in incredibly menial and even dangerous jobs for very little. Some are even doing incredibly important roles, like nursing or teaching, for not much of a salary. So when I hear writers going on about how awful it is they cannot live on telling stories about imaginary people for a living, I tend to see red! I come from a working class family and my gran lived with 10 siblings in a 2 room house, so forgive me if I think that writers aren’t that hard done by.
After all, no one forced us to write! No one held a gun against our head and said we must write fiction! These moany about money folks also forget that no one will die if we stop writing – whereas if that ICU nurse doesn’t turn up to her shift today, someone just might. We are not that important! Yes, we auteurs add to the culture of our world and our words matter and it’d be fab if we lived in a world where we could all live on our writing and I could lie on a pink velvet chaise longue and eat bons bons all day, but a LOT of people on this earth have it worse, so let’s take responsibility for our choice to be creatives and adopt this lifestyle and respect the fact that many people don’t have the same options. (Basically, let’s not be entitled asshats!)
7. “Don’t write for the market – just write the best book you can and someone will want to read it”: This was said to me by Richard Ford, a
two time Pulitzer prizewinner, so I tend to trust his judgement. I also know that Paul Auster wrote a crime novel to try to cash in when he was still a nobody and it took him four years to sell it and I think he made about $400. “So much for selling out,” he said. It’s fine to write commercial fiction if that’s what lights you up inside – but if what you really want to create is literary and avant-garde, then please be true to yourself, because, as we saw in point 1 here, the chances of making significant money, even from commercial genre fiction, aren’t good. And if you do become successful in your role, say, as a crime author, but you truly wanted literary acclaim and to be getting Pulitzers, you’re going to feel short-changed. So write what you want to write and make it darn good and you’ll make yourself and your readers much happier. This is linked to the next point …
8. Know your genre, but don’t let it throttle your originality because you’re chasing the cash: As an editor and literary consultant, I often talk to my writer clients about the genre of their work as it’s absolutely true that agents and publishers like to be able to slot a book into a genre in order to sell it. Indeed, my friend’s bestselling novel was nearly not published because publishers didn’t know where to put it. It’s important then to know where you work sits in the market and the kind of authors who write stuff similar to your work as it gives publishing folks an idea of how to pitch you. But please don’t get so caught up on your genre and trying to conform to its rules and be like certain the famous scribblers that you forget who you really are as an author.
Even J.K Rowling was turned down by 11 publishers (who are still crying!) because they hadn’t seen anything like her work before and didn’t know what to make of a kids book which could also reach adult readers. At the end of the day, those who will really make the big bucks and/or create a big legacy are those who create trends, not those who follow them. Agents and publishers are risk-averse as a whole and try to just follow what has been previously successful, but, now and then, someone takes a chance on something truly outstanding and original that shifts the market. The big rewards are reserved for those writers who build a new bandwagon, not those who jump on the back of someone else’s.
9. Go literary legacy shopping, not shopping shopping: I love shopping as much as the next gal, but, at the end of the day, maybe because I’m primarily a literary author or maybe because I know a lorra cash probably isn’t coming my way as a writer, I would be much happier if I knew my work had a positive influence on readers and other writers and that it might even do a little to encourage their creativity and increase their stores of hope after I am gone.
Perhaps that’s as idealistic as wanting to make money from writing, but it’s WHY I write – touching others with my words – and I think we all need a WHY which goes beyond making money to keep us going. Writing is very up and down as a career – Erica Jong said writing is a career of feast and famine – so our WHY can provide us with a sense of our values, which, in turn, can keep us anchored through creating long projects, a difficult submission process or even when facing bitchy reviews. Think about what you want in the long game from your writing, other than the royalty cheques that may not come or add up to much. (This TED talk from Simon Sinek might help!)
10. Don’t get so caught up on copyrighting everything in sight: Yes, you should copyright your work before sending it out, but a simple C symbol and your name and the year in the footer will do. You don’t have to worry about including huge, long legal disclaimers when submitting to editors, literary consultants, agents and publishers.
How does this relate to money and writing? Well, such heavy copyrighting smacks of a fear that others will steal your ideas and profit from them, when, actually, these folks are professionals and most would never dream of taking your concepts. Hence it makes you seem paranoid or even arrogant because you believe that your idea is so special and bound to make millions that you need to even watch out for the people who you need to make your career work … Yup, the fact is, you can’t develop a good working relationship with people you think are going to knife you in the back and publishing folks might find your excessive protection of your work insulting. (Really not what you want when you are trying to convince them to take you on!) Also, remember my earlier points – there’s hardly any cash in this writing game, so it’s not like you’ve got the patent to a new renewable energy here – you have a story idea and, in reality, most stories have already been told in general terms, but what is unique is that they’ve never been told by you. And that uniqueness of yours cannot be copyrighted.
11. Just 0.5% of manuscripts are ever traditionally published: This is just the statistic I was told starting out, but I don’t know if it still holds true – pretty darn depressing, huh? Can you see why I’m begging you to not write for money? Because that would be a really, really bad business proposition!
But I also would advise you to NOT play the odds and write your books anyway! I mean, look at all the millions of books that are published each year and the millions which fill the shelves in my home (well, almost!) – every single one of those authors beat the odds. So I say, spit in the face of the odds and keep writing anyway!
But don’t do it for mountains of dirty cash – it may come and you can send me a picture of you waving from your mansion (would you like a resident writer and cat in your pool house?), but, if you’re like most of us pretty wonderful writer types, there won’t be much economic return for your creativity and that’s okay. Cash or no cash, you will have the one thing in life most people crave and can never get, no matter what their bank statement says: you’ll have followed your heart, your dreams, your gut, your purpose, your creativity – whatever you call it. And that is so rare and UTTERLY GOLDEN.
I don’t know what my future writing career holds for me, but I know I am doing what I dreamt of when I was a kid and not many of my peers get to say that. I also get to support my own writing life by helping other authors to follow their dreams and that warms my cockles.
The outcome isn’t in our hands, after all, when we write – we can’t predict whether a book will get published (even if we’ve been published before) and we can’t tell whether a book will sell or be well-received. So the only way to stay sane as a writer to focus on the process, the time we spend on the page. If money comes as a result, then it’s gravy, but if it doesn’t, we still got to do what we loved in this life – and that is priceless.
If you would like to ask me questions about thriving as a writer, emotionally, creatively and financially, please come and join my private Facebook group. I’m in there most days chatting with a lovely group of scribes. Hope to meet you in there soon!