Why I Don’t Write for a Living

At this moment, I’m sitting here at my computer ripping a 17-CD Audiobook into iTunes.  So I figured, hey, I’ve got some time, why not write a blog post?  The only problem is, I have no idea what to talk about.  Therefore, let’s discuss something everyone’s interested in: Money!

More specifically, the business of writing fiction.

For a long time, actually up until probably just the last couple of years, I always thought that anyone who was able to get a novel published was made in the shade.  If they could finish that novel and get into an agents hands, and eventually sell it to a publisher, that was it.  They would be set for life financially.  On the surface, this seems to be the case.  You hear all the time about author’s first novels busting out and becoming huge successes, about how they go on to sell the film rights and make a killing.  You look at the big guns like Stephen King, Dean Koontz, James Patterson, John Grisham, Tom Clancy, etc etc, and it’s hard to see how an author could not find a way to be rich beyond their wildest dreams.

The only problem is, the whole thing is a huge farce.

You calling me a liar? Come at me, bro!

There’s no doubt that the author’s mentioned above make some serious dough, but the idea that their success is typical is absolutely false.  Of course, no one believes that every author who gets a book published becomes as prominent as they are, but I think the general perception is that, if you have a physical book in a bookstore that was picked up and distributed by a major publishing house, you’re probably doing well.  Well enough to not have to work any other jobs, right?


I recently read an article over at Cracked that talked about one writer’s experience publishing his first book.  The publisher payed him something like a $30,000 advance, plus royalties from sales of the book. Doesn’t sound too bad on paper, but the truth is far less optimistic.  $30,000 sounds nice, but when you consider that it took him over a year to write and edit the book, that’s not so hot.  On top of that, he had to pay his agent a good chunk of it, and there were taxes of course, so let’s say he ended up with $22,000.  If you work a 40-hour workweek, that’s just over $10 an hour.  But of course, he probably put more like 50 or 60 hours a week into writing this thing, so that realistically becomes more like $7 an hour.  In other words, less than minimum wage.  Oh, but we forgot about the royalties!  Yeah, here’s the thing about royalties.  Remember that $30k advance?  That wasn’t free money; he has to pay that back out of the royalties from his book.  So only once he’s paid back the full $30k does he actually start making any money off of his book.  And by then, who knows how successful it will be?  It may fall off the charts within the first week or two, assuming it ever gets there in the first place.

If you become a writer, this guy will make more money than you.

This might sound like an exaggeration, but from everything I’ve read on the subject, this is actually quite typical.  And what’s worse is that many writers can only dream about that kind of success.  Many writers who are still trying to break into the business write a lot of short stories with the hope of submitting them to literary journals and magazines.  The competition for a coveted spot in even some of the more obscure journals is fierce.  We’re talking maybe 1 out of 100 stories is accepted, if that.  If you happen to write a story good enough to be accepted, and if you were lucky enough to be accepted by one of the few of them that actually pays professional rates, what kind of money can you expect?  $0.05 a word is typical, and most places won’t take anything over about 6000 words or so.  So at most, if you hit the jackpot in terms of selling your story, the most you can expect to make is about $300.  Unless you can bang these things out at a rate of about two a week, and somehow sell every single one of them, there’s absolutely no way to seriously make any money in the short-story market.

For reference, I’ve had two stories accepted so far for publication.  One of them doesn’t pay anything, it’s basically just for me to have the writing credit.  The other one actually does pay pro rates, but since my story is under 1000 words, I’m barely looking at enough money to take my family out to dinner at the Olive Garden.  Not that I’m complaining of course.  This publication is probably struggling to even pay me that much, so I’m more inclined to just donate the payment back to them to help them out.  But as you can see, it’s no way to make a living.

So where does that leave us?  Everyone wants to find a way to take what they love and make a living out of it.  I love to write, and lots of other people do too, so it’s natural that we all want to be wildly successful and become famous authors one day.  Realistically though, the chances are against it.  Way, way against it.  Does that mean that I give up writing altogether?  If financial success were the only measure of worth, then the answer would be yes.  But we all know that isn’t the case.  We do it because it’s what we want to do.  It is a compulsion, driven by some desire inside all of us to create something out of nothing.  If we can find a way to get paid to do so, then that is a wonderful thing.

As for me?  As much as I love writing, I also love not being poor.  I’ll never give it up, but I also won’t be giving up my day job any time soon.

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