Yes, Virginia, You Can Be A Paid Writer, Too
I think I bummed some folks out last week with my “hard truths about writing and publishing” post. The goal, of course, was not to send you under your desk, blubbering into a bottle of cheap vodka while warming yourself by the fires of your burning manuscript, but rather, to present the sometimes harsh realities that you will need to overcome.
Or, as I am wont to put it, it was to teach you to harden the fuck up, Care Bear.
Just the same, I’d like to now apply the ice pack to your bruised cheek.
For all the seeming hopelessness of the publishing industry and one’s entry into (or around) it, it’s actually not at all hopeless. Difficult is not the same thing as hopeless, nor should we assume that “difficult” translates to “so hard it’s not worth doing.”
If you want to be a writer, fuck anybody who tells you differently:
It’s worth doing.
Not just because of some namby-pamby selfish “Waah it’s what I want” tantrum but rather, because stories make the world go around. Because stories can change us — both the reader and the writer. Because writing is everywhere: nearly anything that’s ever happened has happened because someone wrote some shit down. And also —
BECAUSE FUCK YEAH, WRITERS.
So, that being said, I’d like to note that (in the voice of the get-rich-quick infomercial), you too can make money at writing. No, seriously. I’m not fucking around. We writers like to go on and on about how it’s a poor man’s game and writing is a thankless job and here we are eating ramen noodles out of a hobo’s codpiece and we have the same hourly rate as those poor bastards who built the Pyramids, blah blah blah. But that’s just melodrama because, hey, we writers trend toward it like drunks veering toward the nearest bar. (Conflict is our bread and butter, after all.)
In terms of making money as a writer, I do all right. In fact, I’m doing better every year.
And I think you can, too.
And so, I figure, it’s time for some general tips on not just being a writer but, rather, being a professional writer. Further, being a professional writer who can do more than just buy an annual steak dinner with your earnings.
Here we go.
Speed: Learn to write with some zip in your fingers. A thousand words per hour is a good base level and not at all difficult to achieve.
Competency: It should go without saying that being a professional writer requires being a writer and storyteller of some competency. Some “full-time” jobs allow you to train a skill whilst on the job, whether we’re talking about mastering Excel or artificially inseminating cranky ostriches. Writing is unfortunately not like that. Which then leads to…
Time: Learning to write well and with some speed means this takes time. Do not expect to be one of those “overnight successes,” a creature as rare as a Bigfoot riding a unicorn on a saddle made of leprechaun leather. A writer’s so-called “overnight success” is just the tip of the iceberg exposed, while the rest of the writer’s time and effort and narrative R&D exist in a massive glacial mountain beneath the darkened waters. Just because the writer appeared on the world’s radar doesn’t mean that poor fucker hasn’t been working his fingers bloody for quite some time.
No, Really, I Mean It: This can be a slow process. It was about a ten year journey to go from “freshly-minted, ruddy-cheeked penmonkey” to “battle-hardened full-timer with stories wound into his bloody beard-tangle.” Be ready to invest the time and effort.
Per Word: The base level professional rate for a writer is five cents a word. This number hasn’t changed for the last twenty years — a troubling lack of development there, but it is what it is and we’re just going to have to work with it.
Average Novel Advance: That’s around $5000. If we are to assume that the average novel length is around 80,000 words, then a novel earns at a slighter higher rate than what I noted above — a bit over $0.06 / word.
Hourly Rate: If you combine all the above, what you find is that writing 1000 competent words per hour at that base level rate earns you around $50-60 per hour before editing. (Editing dings that a little, though the more competent a writer you are, the less editing will cut into your time. Though no matter how competent you become, editing should never equal zero-percent of your time. You are not perfect. Good editors are like gold. Shut up and take your medicine.)
$41,600: That is your magic number. It is an annual salary. It is not a rich person’s annual salary. But it’s comfortable enough. At fifty dollars an hour, that requires you to work 16 hours a week. This is, of course, overly simplistic. It does not factor in editing, marketing, blogging, tweeting, drinking, flagellating yourself, masturbating, or general pantsless mayhem. But, given that the average workweek is 40 hours, devoting 16 hours to only writing leaves you with 24 hours in the week that can go toward all that other authorial twaddle.
Behold, The Novelist: That 16 hours a week translates roughly to 16,000 words per week. Which translates to five weeks worth of work to get the first draft of an 80,000 word novel complete. (Yes, this is easier said than done. We’re talking perfect world scenario, here, but one that becomes more achievable with an increase in those two fundamentals mentioned earlier: time and competency.) This translates to ten novels a year. Which is ridiculous and you’re not going to do it. You probably can’t write that many a year, and you almost certainly cannot sell that many a year. Which puts our annual salary in a bit of a bind, doesn’t it?
The Language Of Investments: A bit of a sidetrack, for a moment, so bear with me. It’s a little stodgy to use the word investment, but fuck it, it works, and we use the words that work because WE ARE WRITER, HEAR US ROAR OR MAYBE WATCH US WRITE I DUNNO YOU SHUT YOUR GODDAMN WORD-FACE. One’s writing career — the efforts, the time, the stories themselves, and the writer that culminates through all of that — should be seen as an investment. Pay in early, it yields bigger as time goes on. You will earn more as time goes on and as you become more capable — and as you produce more work and gain more audience and garner new contacts in your industry. It’s like a role-playing game. You eventually level up and gain weapons like THE BATTLE-SCYTHE OF STRUNK-WHITE (+2 against stylistic errors).
Diversify Your Portfolio: Okay, back to the problem at hand, which is that writing ten novels a year is not sustainable, nor particularly marketable — but, by the same token, that old-school “write one book a year” is problematic in that it doesn’t get us to our target salary. What this means is you should be prepared to write across a variety of media and platforms. Train yourself to write comics, games, television shows, films, articles, VCR repair manuals, whatever. The value here is that income arrives from multiple sources and that should any one source dry up, you have others on which you may depend.
The Danger of Self-Publishing: Self-publishing is all risk. You put something “out there,” it may earn you anywhere from, ohh, zero dollars to eleven-billionty dollars. Publishing through a traditional publisher offers a reduced royalty but a stable advance — meaning, you’ll earn your five grand or more regardless of whether you ever sell a single copy. Certainly you’ll find those who have made serious bank off of self-publishing, but the nature of the risk (i.e. the chance to earn very little at all) means it’s not a stable path toward the annual salary. This is a “slow and steady win the race” post, not a “fingers crossed let’s jump out of the plane and build our parachute on the way down” post.
The Self-Pub Numbers: Self-pub advocates speak of the Amazon 70/30 royalty split (70% to the author) as the golden reason to self-publish. That rate is notable, considering traditional publishing royalties are less than the reverse of that (meaning, sub-30%). But, that percentage isn’t everything: 70% of $100 is worse than 25% of $1000. E-books as your only vector of sales is doable, but risky — physical books are still over half the sales. Trad-pub gets you there and on bookshelves, and as such, royalty isn’t everything. I can keep 100% of my royalties if I sell out of my garage, but one assumes I’m only going to end up selling to squirrels and hobos that way.
And Yet, Here I Am Telling You To Self-Publish: Behold, the hybrid approach that I often tout as being the best way forward for the average penmonkey: yes, I think you should try traditional publishing first (for a number of reasons). But I also think you should self-publish on the side. Self-publishing is great for stories too risky to entice a traditional publisher. Short story collection? Novella? Serialized content? Insane manifesto? Transmedia smut pamphlets? Living memes that can reprogram the human brain with but the push of a button? Point is, that royalty rate I note is indeed still a good one, so this will let you take advantage of it without relying entirely upon it. Use the self-pub environment as an experimental laboratory.
On Writing For Free: Writers, like hikers, can die from exposure. Writing for free has value but you have to have to be able to see that value and ensure that it’s not a meaningless risk: anyone who asks you to work for them and promises exposure is whistling lies through their asshole. As I have said before, if you’re going to be exposed, expose yourself: control the message and the release. When in doubt: don’t write for free.
Attitude: It’s worth noting that your attitude through all this is very important. Writer’s block doesn’t exist, but general malaise and depression and disinterest do, and those must be combated. Further, you gotta treat this like work. Meaning, like a job. Few people let life get in the way of their work and yet so many wannabe professional writers let life get in the way of their writing — treat it like a career, not a hobby, not a creative pursuit, not an obsession. If you treat it like a career, it will eventually yield the fruits of a career.
ABW, Always Be Writing: All of this only works if you write a whole lot. Like, all the fucking time. And when you’re not writing you’re performing tasks that are in support of your writing (which is the basis of the entire career). You descend every day into the word-arena and kick a whole lotta ass while you’re in there. Some days you lose the battle, but over time, you win more and more. You’re painting with shotguns. You’re taking multiple-shots-at-goal.
Always. Be. Writing.
And that’s it. Time, effort, competency, instinct, diversity. Not easy to do, but also not as impossible as many would have you believe. You want to be a paid professional writer — full-time, not starving or pooping in a tin-pail like some weirdo in a barn — then it’s totally doable.
Now get back to work, penmonkey.