Why or Why Not?

“I read a piece in Marie Claire titled “I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim – and Then I Promptly Went Broke.” And I caught my head nodding in agreement with the writer. http://www.marieclaire.com/career-advice/features/a22573/merritt-tierce-love-me-back-writing-and-money/

“About once a year I find myself at a crossroad in my writing. I love freelancing, and Funds for Writers, and novel writing. I wish I could do just one of them, but the fact is these days you cannot just do one. You must diversify and spread your name (and talent) around to reach all the pockets of readers out there. It takes diversification to earn a living.” – Author Hope Clark

You would think, wouldn’t you, that if an agent accepts your novel, sells it to a big New York publisher, and the book becomes a bestseller, you’d be ready to work as a full-time author of fiction everybody wants to read. Hope Clark and I read the same article and, as she said in today’s newsletter, she does several things to maintain her income even though she wishes she could pick one of those things and work on it full time.

One way or the other, we need to ask how we can diversify and make it all work. A lot of writers teach. That’s their full-time job and, like most regular jobs, it provides the health insurance and other benefits. Well known writers can make money with speaking engagements. Others work for magazines, newspapers, corporate public relations departments, and other places who need writers. Many, of course, work full-time at some a job totally unrelated to their fiction.

If you have a family, your time is even more limited whether the children are in pre-K and grade school or are in high school or college. Having a family is a joy, if it’s meant for you, but it also carries a lot of time-consuming responsibilities. If you’re working full-time and then coming home to maintain a household and chauffeur your kids around to activities, your writing time during most weeks might be slim to none.

I worked as a technical writer, a job that’s not so much in demand any more. What I liked about it was that–except when my company was kicking off a new software package–the job seldom required overtime hours. On the other hand, when I worked in corporate communications, I always had to contend with deadlines that extended my working hours, or that involved after-work activities.

When a full-time job and one’s family take up most of one’s time, it’s very easy for the writing to fade away. For one thing, assuming you publish anything, it’s probably not going to bring in enough money to justify spending multiple hours a week away from your other chores. So, if you want to write books, the challenge is discovering why you want to and how to manage those reasons into why you want to (or have to) do the other things on your plate.

Simplistically, keeping up with fiction writing often means staying home when everyone you know is at a party, ball game, concert or outing at the park. It probably means that when the fall TV schedule begins, you won’t be able to watch all the new shows. So what are you going to do? Watch this season of “Survivor,” “How to Get Away with Murder,” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” or slog it out on a novel a few hundred words per evening? And, as most writers discover early in their marriages, the spouse is likely to be unhappy if you sequester yourself in your den every night instead of doing something together whether that’s watching a favor TV show or cleaning out the garage.

So, why are you writing? Perhaps wanting to write isn’t quite enough. Yes, I know, a lot of writers say during their first interview, “I always wanted to be a writer.” When they first started feeling that way, they probably thought they’d pay their dues by writing for pennies, then nickles, then dollars, and then ultimately have an agent and a big publisher behind them helping ensure a steady income. This is like every kid who plays sandlot baseball thinking they’re going to be accepted by a major league ball club. Chances are slim to almost none.

Maybe we don’t know why we write. We just do it because we have to. Okay, that might be enough as long as we understand the realities of the money side of this business. Or, perhaps you have a more complex reason and that lends itself to your involvement in multiple kinds of writing in addition to novels, or in work in businesses and groups that relate to the WHY of your writing–justice, the environment, law, politics. Perhaps that WHY is the foundation for a diversified income that fits hand-in-glove with the time required for writing.

Let’s hope we all find what that WHY is so that we can make our careers work.




Is having your book ‘out there’ enough for you?

This article (Only 40 Self-Published Authors are a Success, says Amazon) has prompted some people, including me, to ask why Amazon defines financial “success” as having sold a million e-books over the last five years. Self-published writers tend to price their books between $3 and $5, and often at only $0.99. They can earn up to 70% of the retail price. In my view, one can sell a lot fewer than a million copies and still be earning a decent income.

amazonlogoAt the same time, the article has prompted others to say that just having their books “out there” is all they need to feel successful. They feel that if they do a great job of writing a story, have a great editor and a wonderful cover artist/designer, they are fine with the results of their avocation. Far be it from me to criticize that view. One might have similar feelings about creating music, making art, sewing quilts and other creative arts and crafts.

I am grateful for each reader, for every honest reviewer, for having a wonderful publisher and editor, and for all of those who’ve interviewed me, talked about my books, and otherwise been supportive. All of that is a viable form of success.

If you sense that a “however” is coming, you’re right.


Even the IRS considers that if we never show a net profit as a writer, we aren’t really a business. Writing books isn’t a free undertaking. One has to buy reference books, a computer, an Internet connection, office supplies, travel to locations where the novel is set, and (if self published) pay for your editor and cover designer. If these costs exceed the amount of money from royalties and direct sales, then one is running at a loss. Whether one calls his or her writing a business or an avocation, those costs can reduce the happy feeling one gets for having his or her books in print and getting some good reviews.

The people who run stores will seldom hear about self-published books.
The people who run stores will seldom hear about self-published books.

I grew up in another era, long before e-books and Kindle Direct Publishing, so I believe writing (fiction, especially) is always a long-shot proposition. One can never expect to earn a John Grisham or a J. K. Rowling income, or even enough to write full time. Most writers can’t survive on writing income alone and, as more and more readers expect 99 cent or free books, it’s getting harder and harder for most writers to cover costs, much less see real profits. So, my “however” is that if one wants to have a successful writing career, that “success” has to at least provide enough income to cover expenses.

Creative people are somehow expected to take pleasure in the work they do even if they are bankrupt. I suppose you can say that writing passion exceeds having a viable business, or that we feel at our best when we’re creating what we create. However, while I don’t need to sell a million e-books to feel successful, I do need not to be running in the red. I don’t think that’s too much to ask in order to feel successful in a career where–some have said–winning the Powerball is a better bet.

So, having my books “out there” is not enough. It’s wonderful, but if “out there” is all there is, it’s not paying the bills. Worse yet, it’s costing writers money and taking them away from their families.

If you’re a reader and/or a writer, do you think it’s possible to feel successful as a writer–or any other creative artist–if you’re expenses are higher than your sales?

See alsoFalling book prices could force authors to abandon their keyboards – The article notes Amazon’s penchant for running at a loss with low prices and low payouts to writers.