A lot of people dream of making a living as a writer, or at least making money from it, but it’s getting harder, thanks to the Internet.
The irony is that the thing that’s made it easier for people to get published has also made it harder for people to get paid for doing it. And yet, it has also created new ways for people to get paid for writing.
But here’s the sad, scary irony — you will almost never make a decent, full-time, support-a-family living as a professional writer.
Every other novelist I know, and I know a few good ones, makes their living doing something other than writing novels. Most of them make their living as teachers, and they write novels as their nights/weekends job. (Even William Faulkner was a postmaster. One of our country’s greatest novelists, and he sold stamps!) The few magazine writers I know only write articles as a sideline. And I have yet to meet a blogger who writes for himself or herself as their only source of income. (There may be a few in existence, but I haven’t met them yet.)
- Novelists get paid advances, and then receive royalties on book sales. Advances and royalty checks are getting smaller as publishers’ margins get smaller. So unless your last name is Grisham or Patterson, you’re not going to make a living this way, unless you work it at constantly. There are a few novelists who write 10 – 12 hours per day and produce a novel a month which they sell as ebooks, but they’re few and far between.
- Magazine writers get paid a few hundred dollars. Let’s pick $500 as a nice round, almost-attainable number. If you wanted to make $60,000 per year, you would have to write 10 magazine articles per month. That’s doable, but you’re working constantly, more than you would at a corporate job. Also, you’ll take quite a while to reach that level, so be prepared for a few years of that constant work at little to no pay.
- Nonfiction book writers (me included) make squat from our book sales. I own my own business. My friend, Kate, is a freelance book editor. Other authors support their book sales with public speaking gigs, or use it to promote their actual business.
The sad truth is that it’s very difficult to make a full-time salary solely from writing, unless you’re a journalist, and even those people are facing uncertain futures.
The Secret to Making Money as a Writer
There’s really only one way you’re going to make money by sitting down at a computer and churning out words by the bushel: write for someone else.
Seriously, that’s it. That’s all there is to it.
The people who make money writing are the people who don’t get to put their name on their work. They give up the credit and recognition in exchange for a paycheck.
Political speechwriters get paid to write speeches for people who will never give them public credit. They don’t get to put their name above, and the speaker will never say, “I’d like to publicly thank my speechwriter who crafted these words.”
Marketing copywriters write copy that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars for their employer, but they never get to put their byline on a brochure. (They also rarely get any bonuses for their work, even if their work directly led to a 30% spike in sales.)
In my own company, we ghostwrite for other people, not ourselves. This blog post right here? I’m publishing it under my own name, but I won’t get a dime for it. I’m hoping it will attract the attention of a client who’s willing to hire us though. Instead, we write blog posts for clients under their name, help them win search, and convince clients they know what they’re talking about. But because we’re ghosts, we don’t tell anyone who our clients are.
For people who want to make money by, as Hemingway put it, sitting at a typewriter, opening a vein, and bleeding, be prepared to do it for other people. Farm out your talents as a hired gun and craftsman. An ink slinger and a wordsmith. The pro from Dover who does what no one else can.
Ultimately you have a choice: be well-known and struggle, or be hidden and satisfied.
My suggestion is to do both. Write for other people during the day, and write for yourself at night. Ultimately, you’ll get the best of both worlds.