Five Ways for Creative Writers to Make Money (And Two That Don’t Work)

I had a great discussion with a new friend, @SarahSuksiri, about creative writing, poetry — I learned a lot about poetry and poets from her — and how writers try to make money while pretending they don’t associate themselves with filthy lucre.

This attitude is especially prevalent with poets, who think they should only do poetry for their art. If this is your attitude, repeat after me:

Hello, welcome to Starbucks

For those writers who want to earn a living from your creative writing degree or MFA, here are five ways to actually make some money from writing that does not involve freelancing. Or you can at least show your parents that your 4 – 7 years of higher education were not a complete exercise in navel gazing.

1. Sell ebooks

Jim Kukral is the master of promoting self-published books. He’s made his name helping new authors and. . . let’s say, “niche” authors find an audience and sell their books. Even the unusual ones. (Books, not authors. Well, authors too.)

The numbers in self-publishing make sense. Without going too much into the entire “traditional publishing versus self-publishing debate,” let me tell you what Kukral and others say about the economics: If you sell a traditionally-published book for $20, you’ll make $1 – $1.40 per book in royalties, after you pay back your advance. If you sell a self-published e-book for $2.99, you’ll make $2. Sell it for $9.99, and you’ll make $7.

Now, you may sell more books in bookstores with a traditional publisher (plus it’s awesome to have your book on a bookstore shelf), but you have to sell 5 – 7 trad-pub books to make $7, versus selling one $10 ebook. Sell 1,000 books, and you get either $1,400 or $7,000. If all you sold is 1,000 books, you won’t get that $1,400 from your publisher; that’s all payback for your advance. But that $7,000 is yours off the bat. (Warning: this takes a lot of social media marketing and promotion.)

2. Become a speaker

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

Professional speakers command a fee. If you’re a nonfiction B2B writer like me, you have a system or knowledge that you can parlay into a one to six hour teaching session, and people will pay for that (see #5 below). If you write about important social issues, whether fiction or nonfiction, you may be able to get a gig as a keynote speaker. Keynotes make anywhere from $500 to $3,000, and even more. (Of course, you need to almost be a professional keynote speaker and that takes a few years. You’ll know when you’re ready for that.)

Build up your stage legs by giving readings, teaching small classes, and doing small talks around town for free. Join Toastmasters if you’re not comfortable with speaking. Promote yourself with a blog and become active on social media.

3. Give readings or host organized events

Slam poets earn money through their readings (Slammings? Happenings?), because they treat their work like a musician or a theatre troupe. They sell tickets or have a cover charge, and they sell books in the back of the room. Depending on the size of your audience and your rates, you could make a couple hundred dollars in a single night. Not enough to pay the rent, but you’re certainly earning more in one night than working three shifts at High-Priced Boots And Pants in the mall.

Promote the bejeezus out of these events, and get a big crowd. If you don’t like marketing, you’d better learn to real quick. You want a big crowd that’s interested in what you have to say. Even if you want to be a purist who never accepts money for their work (do your events for free then), you still want a big crowd of people who clap for you (or snap. Do they still snap at poetry slams?), and run up to you afterward, gushing and stumbling over their words. Promote these events with social media and old school marketing techniques to draw that crowd.

4. Combine your work with another passion and travel

Writer Chris Guillebeau, who wrote The Art of Nonconformity, has the kind of job that lets him work anywhere. So he does it while he travels to different parts of the globe in an attempt to visit every single country around the world.

As a writer, you have the flexibility to work anywhere you want, and on any kind of project you want. In some cases, you can even work in strange new locales, like the African Bush, the Canadian wilderness, or Iowa. If you can leverage your writing skills into a real money-earner, like a freelance copywriter, go where the work is, or just work from your favorite coffee shop. If you can get a nonprofit to hire you for six months, rent a short-term apartment in that city, and go to work.

5. Teach classes and seminars

Writing coach Jeff Goins is making his name not only as a writer, but as a writing coach. He’s built his reputation and living by offering several online webinars and ongoing classes per year, as well as selling educational materials to budding writers. One of his multi-week classes can cost a few hundred dollars per student. Similarly, I’ve begun teaching classes for the Indiana Writers Center, and I was happily surprised when I was handed a check at the end of the first class. I had forgotten all about it.

So what if you charged $200 for a 4 week online class and got 15 students to sign up? That’s $3,000 a month. It’s not downtown-penthouse money, but for a young writer who has a roommate or spouse-with-a-job, it’s a significant contribution to the household income. And what if you could repeat that model every month, or even run it twice a month on different days, but only did it a few times a year?

Further, if you have an MFA, you’re qualified to teach writing and English at a local college or university. (Actually, if you have a master’s degree in anything, you’re qualified to teach undergraduates in that field.) It’s not great pay — I get anywhere from $700 – $1,000 a month for a single public speaking class. And you certainly don’t want to build a career on being an adjunct. But if you’re looking for beer money, or a little something to boost your income, this is a great way to use your degree and your passion.

And now for the two don’ts: I’ve seen other people try this, and it’s rough. A lot of people have started down one of these two paths only to realize the numbers don’t work, and they’re out all that time and expense.

1. Start a website or journal that relies on banner advertising

Ad sales are a hard, scary way to make money. Even big city newspapers aren’t making a ton of money from them. Advertisers only want to pay per thousand displayed ads (some even only want to pay per click). These advertisers will only pay between $10 – $20 per thousand visitors, which works out to $.01 – $.02 per view).

So if you want to earn $50 for a single article, you have to generate between 2,500 – 5,000 visitors to that one page page. But if the advertiser is paying by the click, you may get $.20 per click, but if you want $50, you need 250 clicks. And if the click-through rate on an ad is 1% (which is actually kind of high), you need 25,000 visitors to see that ad. If you could bring in 25,000 visitors a month to your website, you need to sell ebooks, not display ads.

2. Traditional publishing

(Otherwise known as “my editor is going to hate me now!”)

While everyone wants to have that big blockbuster that makes them more money than J.K. Rowling and John Grisham combined, seriously, what are the odds of that happening? I’ve written three books and ghostwritten half of another. If I tried to live on the royalties of those books, I’d have a very fancy cardboard box under a bridge.

No Bullshit Social Media in New Release Shelf

When I saw this photo, it was one of the proudest days of my life. My mom, not so much.

Even if you’re lucky enough to get a publishing deal, you need to sell hundreds of thousands of books in order to get rich; several tens of thousand per year to earn a salary. Let’s say you get $1.20 in royalties for every published book you sell. If you want to earn $48,000 a year in royalties, you need to sell 40,000 books every single year.

Don’t get me wrong. Traditional publishing is great. I owe Que Biz-Tech and Pearson Publishing a lot. So much of what I’ve been able to do has happened because they took a chance on me. I love knowing that my books have been printed, occupy a physical space in the world, and I got a thrill knowing that No Bullshit Social Media was seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of impressionable children walking into a Barnes & Noble. I encourage many writers to try to get their books published by a real publishing house before they take up the self-publishing baton.

But — and this is the point I want to stress — traditional publishing is not how you’re going to make a long-term living. The numbers just aren’t there anymore. Not at $1.40 royalties per book. You’re going to push, promote, and shout about your book to as many people as you can, whether you self-publish, or you go the traditional route. Either method involves the same amount of work. The only difference is there’s a bigger payoff in the self-pub route than in trad-pub. (On the other hand, you’ll never see a self-published book in a Barnes & Noble.)

Having said that, having a traditionally published book is an excellent way to build your reputation, which makes numbers 2 – 5 that much easier to accomplish.

Now that I’ve crapped on your dreams or given you a great idea, what are some other ideas you have for writers who want to make money? If you’re making money from your writing, what are you doing that earns a steady (or at least significant) income? Leave a note in the comments.

No Bullshit Social Media Interview with Peter Clayton of Total Picture Radio

I had the chance to be interviewed by Peter Clayton, producer/host of TotalPicture Radio, for his Online Strategy Channel podcast about No Bullshit Social Media. I met Peter, and spoke with him for several minutes at BlogWorld New York in June. It was at a party Pearson threw for its authors. So I was there, my No Bullshit Social Media co-author Jason Falls was there, as was our favorite editor, Katherine Bull, as were several other authors and potential authors.

I tell you, I felt like a real writer that night, boy. When people walk around handing you drinks and little deep-fried tacos while you talk about books in a New York bar, that’s when you truly feel like a writer.

(We also got to hear a young lady, one of the waitresses, sing opera that night. She was awesome.)

During our interview, Peter and I chatted about why businesses are afraid of using social media, why they need to consider social media marketing as one of their best options for it, and how companies need to rethink their attitudes toward not only social media, but how they need to change their entire mindset to be ready for the 21st century.

Peter was kind enough to share the mp3 of our interview, which you can listen to here. (Sorry, no opera.)

The No Bullshit Social Media conversation with Erik Deckers

One important issue Peter and I discussed is that if you trust your employees to answer your phones, give sales and marketing presentations, receive and count your money (and not steal it), and to pay the people who work for you, but you don’t trust your employees to use social media without being struck stupid and unproductive, then you don’t have an employee problem. You have a management problem.

We also talked about how we can monitor social media marketing efforts, and determine their ROI, even while marketers are still struggling with how to accurately measure the results from billboards, TV commercials, and newspaper ads.

Keep Calling It Social Media ROI: A Response to Copyblogger

I hate it when people try to change the name of a well-known concept, just because they don’t think it accurately describes what that thing is anymore.

Some teeth grindingly well-known examples include:

  • Changing radio theater to audio theater “because you don’t just listen on the radio anymore — CDs, podcasts, and the Internet are also channels.”
  • American Public Radio changing their name to American Public Media for the same reason.
  • Debbie Weil wants to stop calling blogging “blogging,” because the term is outdated. It should be called “the social web” (I heard her say it on Doug Karr’s Marketing Tech Radio show last year).

Trust me, this list goes on and on and on.

Last December, Copyblogger did the same thing. Sean Jackson (CFO of Copyblogger) and Sonia Simone (CMO of Copyblogger) wrote a blog post called There Is No ROI In Social Media Marketing.

But the truth is, marketing will never produce an ROI.

Sonia: OK, you’re still sounding insane to me.

Sean: I’m not done yet.

Marketing will never produce an ROI because ROI is not what you think it is.

A pure definition of ROI is simple to quantify.

ROI = (Gain from the Investment – Cost of Investment)/Cost of the Investment

The problem for marketing professionals is that marketing activity is not an investment.

An investment is an asset that you purchase and place on your Balance Sheet. Like an office building or a computer system. It’s something you could sell later if you didn’t need it any more.

Marketing is an expense, and goes on the Profit & Loss statement.

Yes, this makes sense. But it makes sense in the same way that telling an 8-year-old that eating Brussels sprouts will help him grow up to be big and strong. And on one level, the 8-year-old wants to be big and strong.

On the other hand, it’s the dumbest thing he’s ever heard, because Brussels sprouts taste like shit.

We Need ROI

Frankly, I don’t care if you don’t think it’s accurate. I don’t care if you think there’s a term that better reflects all the subtle intricacies of whatever it is you’re involved with. I’m not just talking about the difference between investments and profits (that’s more than a little subtle).

I’m talking about the difference between the words you use, and the words everyone else in the world uses.

When I was in crisis communication at the Indiana State Department of Health in 2006-2007, I had to constantly stop the epidemiologists from referring to the bird flu as the “human flu pandemic.” Whenever we had a news interview, I had to remind more than a few of them not to use “human flu pandemic” when they spoke with reporters.

“But ‘bird flu’ isn’t accurate. It may not even come from birds. And it certainly won’t be limited to birds by then.”

“Okay, then call it ‘pan flu,’ because that’s the term the general public is using.”

They didn’t like it, because it wasn’t completely, technically accurate, but I was satisfied because the public was going to know what the hell they were talking about.

We saw it again in 2009, when — turns out the epis were right — it was the swine flu epidemic that got us. And predictably, the media types and general public were all talking about swine flu, swine flu, swine flu. Predictably, the CDC tried talking about the “human flu pandemic,” and no one knew what the hell they were talking about.

Word reached the CDC, and they started talking about H1N1 instead (it helped when the US Swine Association and other hog people told the media that the term “swine flu” was hurting their sales).

It was still accurate, it didn’t offend the epis, and it was still short and sound-bitey enough for the media and public.

What ROI and Swine Flu Have in Common

(Nothing. It was the pithiest sub-head I could think of.)

But at the same time, we do have to recognize that, for good or bad, people will use the term ROI forever. Like Jackson said, “I’m seeing ROI taking on a mythical status in marketing — a benchmark used to compare every decision to some financial metric of return.

It’s not just marketing people, it’s businesspeople everywhere. We all use the term “ROI,” even if there’s really not an “I” in the first place. Same way KFC is now just “KFC.” It no longer stands for “Kentucky Fried Chicken,” they’re just “KFC.”

I think the term “ROI” is taking on the same meaning. We know it means something, but it doesn’t reflect what the letters stand for anymore.

Now, ROI can refer to investments in capital products, it can refer to marketing campaigns, it can refer to your website, your cell phone, your networking events, or anything you spend money on and hope to make money back.

(Because if you want to get even more technically accurate about it, most capital items don’t have a return; you use them until they wear out. And my personal finance friends remind me that an investment only refers to things that can appreciate in value; so a house is an investment, a car is not. So should we start referring to it as Lack Of Return On Investment, or LOROI? No, because that’s stupid.)

So Should We Change The Term “ROI?”

No, we should not. Because all the variations I hear — Return on ENGAGEMENT, Return on INTERACTION, Return on EFFORT — are about as mentally repulsive as a cold, half-chewed Brussels sprout in an 8-year-old’s mouth.

Just like with blogging, radio theater, and public radio, we need to stick with the term that people know. Rather than taking a prescriptive approach to language (i.e. “we have to follow these rules, because they’re the rules”), and changing the name of something to be as perfectly accurate as possible, instead just chalk it up to “common usage,” or the idea that too many people are doing it this way to change it.

Rather than complaining about the term, why don’t you instead try to get people to understand that social media is 1) measurable, and 2) can make money? That’s the more important battle to fight, rather than the ticky-tack little details that only matter to a select few people in an already tiny niche.

 

 

No Bullshit Social Media coverJason Falls and I talk extensively about the ROI of social media marketing in our book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing (affiliate link).

Five Universal Truths of Social Media for Business

Despite what we may think about the power of social media, there are still plenty of business owners and corporate executives who dismiss it with a wave of their hands, and pooh-pooh it as nothing more than people who want to talk about what they had for breakfast.

Nothing is more annoying to me than for someone to dismiss an idea or tool without ever having even looked at it, let alone used it. People who repeat their dislike of that idea, just because they heard other non-users say it is about as accurate as thinking you understand fraternity life because you saw “Revenge of the Nerds.”

So I can’t help but feel a little schadenfreude when those same people who dismissed social media as a passing fad of food-sharers and and parents’ basement dwellers find themselves in a panic when a social media mob comes after their company with virtual pitchforks and torches.

Plato from Raphael's School of Athens

If anyone knows about Universal Truths, it's Plato.

Nothing has disrupted marketing more in the last 90 years than social media. Everything in marketing that came after the advent of radio has all been one-way broadcasting — the advertisers talk, we listen. There’s no way to talk back. But social media has changed all of that. Now we have a channel that lets us talk back to advertisers and lets us talk to each other. And it has helped drastically change what is happening in the business world.

After writing No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls, we started to hear from more businesses about how they were using (and not using) social media for marketing, customer service, and PR. After hearing from these people, I began to figure out these five universal truths about social media in the business world.

Five Universal Truths of Social Media for Business

  1. People are no longer listening to marketers, they’re listening to each other. Gone are the days of people listening to the trained marketing professionals. Now they’re reading customer reviews and making their decisions based on what their friends, and sometimes complete strangers, are telling them. This is why review sites like Yelp.com are so popular, and why people stand in Best Buy reading reviews on the store’s site before buying a piece of electronic equipment. (I once bought a digital camera based strictly on user reviews, and didn’t read a single pixel of marketing copy.)
  2.  

  3. Your brand is no longer what you say it is. Now, thanks to people telling each other what is good and bad about a brand, your ability to define yours is nearly gone. That has been lost to your customers. They are the voice of your brand. Sure, you can put out brochures, commercials, and any other marketing piece, but as people’s voices get louder, you’re fighting to be heard in an increasingly-crowded room. What are people finding on the search engines? What’s being said about you on Facebook and Twitter? What are people saying about you on their blog that reaches thousands of readers? That’s where your true brand lies.
  4.  

  5. People want to be heard, not shouted at. Consumers are going out of their way to avoid being advertised to. We record TV shows on our DVRs just so we can skip the commercials. We watch Netflix and Hulu because they’re (mostly) commercial free. We listen to iPods and commercial-free Internet radio stations. We block ads from our web browsers.

    So when we do interact with companies online, we want to communicate with real live people. We don’t want marketing speak. We don’t want canned responses. We want help, information, answers. We want to know how your product or service will solve our particular problem. That means someone needs to be monitoring social media for our queries. And given Universal Truth #2, someone needs to be monitoring for unhappy customers as well.

  6.  

  7. It doesn’t matter how stupid you think social media is. Your customers love it. Why do you advertise on TV, because you love a particular program, or because your customers watch it? Why do you advertise in a particular magazine, because you love the stories, or because your customers read it? What about going to trade shows? Because you love being away from your family, or because it’s the best place to reach your target clients in one location?

    You may hate a particular TV show, think a particular magazine is shallow and pedantic, and despise a particular trade show. But you go because your customers are there. It’s the same thing with social media. With more than half of all Americans on some sort of social network, you’re missing a big piece of your audience just because you think it’s stupid. Know who doesn’t think it’s stupid? Your competitors, who are stealing your customers.

  8.  

  9. You have to play in it personally before you understand it from a business perspective. The best business accounts are those that are led by people personally. If you’ve been on social media for a while, you already know, and have a few favorite, people and brands that you like to interact with. But if you haven’t, you need to join it, use it, and understand how it really works.

    If you can get a feel for what works and doesn’t work for you as user, you’ll start to understand how you want your favorite brands and people to interact with you. And you’ll want to interact with your own customers and clients that same way. But if you’re not using it regularly yourself, you won’t understand how you want people to react to you.

    (h/t to Chuck Gose for #5. He said, “The people you see who are doing dumb things socially with their business are not the people you see using social media themselves.” Well said, Chuck!)

 
It’s easy to tell you what social media tools you need to use — how to use Twitter, what to do on Facebook, whether blogging is a smart marketing strategy for your business (hint: it is). But if you want to truly understand what you need to do with social media for your business, you need to understand these important truths about what’s happening to your business, how your customers are using it, and what they expect from you.

Awesomize.me is Still The Awesome

I just got a very nice comment from Tatiana Sorabi from Awesomize.me very politely pointing out that I can be a big whiner at times. After my last post, Should I Cover Up the Name of No Bullshit Social Media?, Tatiana responded a couple days later with this very nice comment.no bullshit social media link cover-purchase on amazon

Erik, We are working on the issue. You jumped on this too quick. Your inquiry was forwarded to me last week. This was the first incident for us. We are still in startup phase and lacking resources.

To avoid ending up another myspace, we have put in place a strong policing system to keep the spammers and offenders away. We fully realize you are neither spammer nor offender. We are trying to come up with a solution how to separate your case with others. Once, the solution is in place, I send you a note.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to create a page for your company and book on our site. You can use the “Add Product” Template for your book.

So, I rescind my complaint, and will add my product for my book. AND I’ll rename my book to No Bullsh*t so they have plenty of time to work on their solution.

Should I Cover Up the Name of No Bullshit Social Media?

Update: Awesomize.me contacted me with a great response addressing this issue.

I wrote a book with a naughty word in the title.

My latest book, No Bullshit Social Media, which I wrote with my good friend Jason Falls, has generated surprisingly little controversy. It’s been placed cover out on all the shelves in all the Barnes & Noble bookstores. It was even on their New Arrivals shelf, top center, where everyone could see it.

Of course, there has been some controversy. I’ve given presentations where I had to refer to the book as “No BS.” One group asked that I not mention the book at all, and since they dealt with a lot of very conservative Christians, who would be attending the conference, I was fine with that. (I covered up most of the offending word, and kept the cover one the last slide of the slide deck though.)

I’m not ashamed of the title. I’m not sorry I did it. I understand that some people don’t like saying it, and I’m fine with that. If they want to call it No BS, they’re more than welcome to. I won’t tell someone to do something they’re not comfortable with.

But what’s bothering me today is a particular social network, awesomize.me is covering up the title of the book completely. In my bio, I included the title of my book, spelled out in all its 4 letter (8 letter?) glory.

However, the “no naughty words” algorithm covered up the word, and recast it as No @#$% Social Media.

This actually bothers me. I can’t tell you why. It’s not censorship, because awesomize.me is a private company, and they can do what they want. If they want to make a rule that says “no swear words,” then they’re free to do it.

But at the same time, I’m annoyed by the fact that on a social network made up of grownups, I can’t use a grownup word. Not in a gratuitous, shocking, let’s-make-everyone-giggle kind of a way. But in a this-is-a-real-book-title way.

The easy thing to do would be to just change the title of the book myself to “No BS Social Media,” or “No Bull***” or even “No Bullsh*t.” But I don’t want to. That’s not the name of the book.

Am I overreacting? Should I just toe the line and change the title of the book in my bio? Or should I stand firm on principle, and refuse to change it, even if it means that people are going to wonder what @#$% stands for?

What would you do?

A Little More ‘HELL YEAH!’ A Little Less ‘I Guess So’

Derek Sivers has time management all figured out.

Derek Sivers, creator of CD BABY, is taking an “It’s either ‘HELL YEAH!’ or no” approach to whether he takes on projects, works with people, or even attends conferences.

If said project, person, or conference doesn’t make him go “HELL YEAH! I want to do this!” he doesn’t do it. He said it’s been incredibly freeing, letting him focus on the things he really wants to.

HELL YEAH!

HELL YEAH!

I’ve been trying this myself. I only say yes to certain meetings, projects, and even clients that make me go “HELL YEAH!” I don’t do this all the time, and I’m not really faithful to it. But I’m a lot better than I used to be.

I don’t fill my days up with meetings, wondering when I’m going to get work done. I don’t take on every project I can find, because it takes away from projects I really care about. And I don’t take on every client, because some are more of an energy drain than others. I only take on those things that make me go HELL YEAH. Otherwise, I just say no.

At other times, though, I try a “HELL WHY NOT?!” approach. Personal development trainer Sid Savara came up with this approach, because, he says, there are times when you can’t say no to things that you should be doing. And sometimes you just shouldn’t.

Sid said he would never have started running if he had waited for a HELL YEAH. He would miss out on meeting new people because they weren’t a HELL YEAH. In fact, Sid says that a lot of things that have become a major part of his life started out as a hobby he had a small interest in. But they weren’t HELL YEAH moments.

HELL WHY NOT goes something like this: someone calls you up for coffee, and you say “Well, I’ve got all this work I’ve got to — HELL, WHY NOT?!” That meeting turns out to be a major turning point in your life and career.

Your friend has two tickets to tonight’s game, but you’re thinking that after the day you had, you just want to go home and — HELL, WHY NOT?! And you have an awesome time at the game. Much better than you would have had at home.

Or the day Kyle Lacy asked me to help him write a book. I was busy, didn’t think I had the time, but said HELL, WHY NOT?! Not only was Twitter Marketing for Dummies born, but that lead to writing Branding Yourself (affiliate link) with Kyle, and now, No Bullshit Social Media with Jason Falls.

That one HELL WHY NOT lead to two more HELL YEAH moments, with more to come.

It’s an interesting place to be, in the middle of these two responses.

On the one hand, an overenthusiastic YES! for specific opportunities. On the other, the most committed and energetic non-commitment you could ever have.

Admittedly “why not?” is not something you want to hear from someone when you ask them to come work for you, go to lunch with you, or even marry you. But HELL WHY NOT is hollered with that enthusiastic “that’s so crazy, it just might work” slapping-the-table gusto.

So I’m trying this out. I’m trying to agree to new opportunities and meetings if I can muster up either a HELL YEAH! or a HELL WHY NOT? If I look for a reason not to do something, if my first response is to groan loudly and roll my eyes, then I won’t do it.

We’ll see how it goes, and I’ll keep you posted on the results.

Only if I feel like it though.

Photo credit: DWizzy (Flickr)