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.

 

71 comments

  • Thanks, Chuck, for more terrific words for writers. This is everything I want to tell my students of Professional Writing & Editing about, and now you’ve backed me up. I shall recommend your blog to them all.

  • Damn, you’re good. All I know is, the more I tell myself I’m a writer, the more I write.

    Though only with regular threats that if I don’t sit down and write (or edit) I’ll have to get a real job.

  • Not sure I could manage 1000 words an hour. I aim for at least 1000 words a day, which means my first draft can be done in three months. The thing is, I used to only do 250 words a day. The more often you write, the quicker you are and so the more words you get down on paper.

    Comes into your ABW rule really.

  • Hey Chuck,

    Thanks for an awesomely optimistic post.

    I’ve a question, something that other folks might find interesting too. What do you think about copywriting / content writing? Unlike writing fiction, it can be used to make money almost instantaneously, is still writing, and, well, did I mention the thing about money?

    On the other hand, taking it *seriously* sucks time away from writing fiction, something that I personally find much more enjoyable and gratifying, even though it doesn’t make shit for me yet… Is it really suitable only for those who enjoy writing copy over fiction as a career / part-time job choice? Or do you deem the ungodly business of copywriting a worthy pursuit even for those of us who just like to make stuff up and then commit it to paper (screen)? Thanks in advance should you choose to answer. :)

    • You’ve just gotta know the balance, I think. If you enjoy copywriting, then hey, that’s a win. If you don’t, and you can do something else in the meanwhile that pays better, go for it.

      • Howdy,

        I enjoy writing fiction, drinking whiskey, talking about myself, eating sosage and fucking beautiful women (womAn, if you’re reading this, WOMAN).

        Copywriting I enjoy considerably less… But I enjoy my office-rat job that pays relatively OK *even less*, so hey. And doing copywriting, like any writing, is definitely something that can teach a skill or two (eg., how do you write something in a way that makes person X do WHAT YOU WANT, oogeety boogety boo, mind control). Also teaches a lot about making every word count, working to deadlines, as well as some other things that cross over.

        Anyway, just thought I’d holler, as am somewhat at the proverbial crossroads… In the end I just gotta quit stalling and make up my mind, heheh. ANYWAY, on a completely unrelated note, Chuck, FYI — the link to the list of reasons why you should try traditional publishing goes to the SW page, not sure if Star Wars is the reason everyone should try traditional first. :)

        Peace & love,
        Max

  • I don’t have much sympathy for the people who bitch and moan when people point out the harsh realities of the job. Yes, they’re harsh, but they’er also *realities*. If you can’t deal with the very concept of someone saying that this might be hard, how are you going to handle encountering that, quelle shock, it’s really hard? Honestly, if someone is willing to give up on the basis of one blog post, they weren’t really cut out for the business in the first place.

    I’m glad to see someone making the point about the Amazon royalties thing. It just makes more sense to take a smaller piece of a much larger pie.

  • “If you want to be a writer, fuck anybody who tells you differently”

    I took your advice literally after my wife said I should quit trying to write. Thank you, Chuck Wendig, Marital Advisor. ; )

  • 1000 words an hour? Holy Grail Batman! That’s a good day for me, depending on where I’m at in a story. Different parts have different speeds. As for earning money, I started self-publishing my historical romances at the end of 2006. I knew it would take longer to equal any advance, but considering I’d never have sold my romances to a traditional publisher (because they don’t fit into any specific sub-genre) I’m quite pleased with my decision. I haven’t published a new book in two years, but my other books have still managed to increase sales year on year regardless. Saying that, I have a number of stories (yet unwritten) in other genres that I’d prefer to sell to a traditional publisher. As you say, I think it depends on the type of story. Personally, I won’t be surprised if within ten years (or less), all traditional publishers expect their “new” authors to already have self-published and to have acquired a loyal paying readership.

  • I assumed your previous post was more of a “if this dissuades you from writing, you probably shouldn’t be writing” kind of post. You’ve done that in the past. I kept writing :)

  • Another great post. I started with the “let’s shoot for 1,000 words an hour” thing last year and have challenged myself to up it to 1200 this year. So far, with a mere 8 sessions behind the computer, I’ve been barely able to do it. I do like the ABW creed…print it on tee shirts and watch them sell, sir.

  • Good morning Chuck,

    Great article, as per usual. I have to confess that your articles, both the aggressive and the encouraging that disabused me of my romantic (read: naive) notions about writing. (I still hold onto some notions about editing)

    Thank you, so much, for kicking ass when it is needed.

  • Another great post Chuck. One line of income I pursue besides writing is editing, which is not the same, but related. I’ve got a background in journalism, so still do a bit of that, but I also branched out into copy-editing other people’s books when I took up writing full time (except when I’m editing. I could be pedantic about this. I’ll stop). Wielding a red pen is good work if you can get it, for the following reasons:

    i) You get to read books. I like books. I’m sure most of the people here like books too.
    ii) You get paid to like books.
    iii) You get to see other writers’ mistakes before they are cleaned up. You can benefit from this in a number of ways, depending on your baseline personality type, but I prefer to let them teach me to be more alert to my own. We all mess up, seeing the mess-ups of others is instructive.
    iv) It exposes you to a range of books that might lie outside your customary range of preferences.
    v) I did mention the money, right?
    vi) It’s better than reviewing, which I also do, because you can make suggestions, and so you don’t turn into a raging, bitter, angry housebound crazy-man who throws books out of the window at passing schoolchildren.

  • I’m hugging this post to my bosoms. I have a plan to take some of my already “published” stories that were for Flash Fiction Friday and gussy them up (ie, fix what sucks), add a few new stories, and get a book together for my friends and family – maybe a physical book, maybe an e-pub version only, haven’t decided – and then maybe if people like it enough, see if I can sell a few copies. Meanwhile, I’ll continue to work on short stories to shop around for pocket change (and publication that’ll earn me that SFWA membership I covet). It’s a start. Anything’s something, in the beginning. Right?

  • I’ve got a question I’ve been wondering about for a while as, out of the corner of my eye, I’ve been checking out the possibility of self publishing. How do you handle the editing? I’ve gone the trad-pub route before and the editor on that meant that I ended up publishing a much better book than I otherwise would do. But I’m not sure how you’d go about finding a decent editor if it’s you paying them rather than their employer paying you – or alternatively if there are reliable ways to be your own editor?

    • Ultimately, there is no reliable way to be your own editor. You can go a long way–but you will never catch what another person would.

      I use old friends from grad school. If you don’t have any handy English majors lying around in your life, I’m not sure how you sift through the million or so editors out there. Heck, I’m even thinking about hanging out my shingle. Maybe start by asking some writers whose self-published works are above the usual run of poorly-edited drafts, and find out who they use?

  • 1000 words an hour is doable. 1000 passable words has been an challenge. I wish I could create an app that shocks you every time you use the passive voice or a word in the wrong context. I’d be charred at the end of the week, but I’d be a better writer, goshdarnit.

  • Holy shitballs, so good.

    I’m far from religious, but if someone started up a Church Of The Wendig, I’d be devout.

    Amazing to be pushed toward diversity by someone who’s made it work. For ages I’ve been primarily writing short stories and feature-length screenplays, with a few books started, some TV show concepts hashed through, and comic and Web comic ideas (all of the above across various genres) — along with some tabletop game designs being hammered out — and have been told by a number of professionals to just focus on one thing. One format, and one genre. All to build a name for yourself in that industry. So to hear that more diversity is better, to allow for multiple potential income sources? Done my heart a world of good. Thank you.

  • “1000 words an hour…” Julie’s first thought: ‘You’re shitting me.’ Julie’s second thought, ‘Hey, wait a second.’ Julie counts the words from her daily 5 a.m. free hand 20 minute power writing session on manuscript. 763.
    How is it that when I sit in front of the computer, my inner editor emerges and I’m immediately afflicted with constipation of imagination and I can barely squeeze out 200 words in an hour? Free hand, it flows. Must think on this. Must find better mental image of myself as a writer that does not involve excrement.

    Chuck- thank you. You made me laugh. You made me think. I’m not able to quit my day job (well, since it involves alcohol, I’m not really keen to), but I’m amazed at how much I am able to accomplish in the few hours I have each week to write. From those brief power sessions of freehand writing 2/3 of a novel has emerged. In a few short months. Still going. The doing is the thing. The only thing.

    • Obvious answer you’ve no doubt already thought of: do all your initial drafts longhand. Use the process of typing what you wrote as a) a chance for an initial edit, and/or b) a way to jump-start the next hunk of prose.

      I’m another who realized that while I barely manage 1000 words a day, I do most of it in about an hour, so the speed is there–it’s endurance that would need to be seriously upped to do it all day. That, and getting someone else to do the laundry.

  • Wise words as always – although as someone who finally got around to serious writing comparatively late in life, I suspect that I’ll never be able to diversify enough to support myself only by writing. Besides, IT pays a lot better and more reliably!

    For anyone wondering how to up their output, I strongly recommend Rachel Aaron’s book “2k to 10k”:

    http://thisblogisaploy.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/how-i-went-from-writing-2000-words-day.html

    I’m still working on improving my productivity, but discovering that I write fastest in 30-40 min sprints was a big help!

  • You are my current cheerleading squad. (I picture you in a little short skirt, beard & all, with pom-pons.) Much of what you say would have been useful knowledge indeed to my 25 year-old self.

  • Thanks for the peas on the black eye, Chuck. Both posts reflect what I’ve learned in the last 12 years writing. [BTW: people were telling me this stuff when I first started but I didn't listen to them.]

  • My friend and coworker is a newspaper editor. They have agreed to proof my novel once I have a draft I’m willing to share. If it is purchased, what percentage of the profits would you consider fair for their efforts?

    • @Dawn –

      That’s between you, the editor, and the gods you worship. Generally, in my experience, an editor will get a per-word rather than a cut of the profits, not to say editors do not deserve that cut. :)

      But a per-word fee ensures they get paid for their work.

      – c.

  • Thank you for this. I enjoyed all of it, but the section about time rang big bells for me. Recently, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Outliers”. One of the chapters deals with the 10,000 hours it takes for anyone to master a skill, whether it be microvascular surgery, becoming a top athlete or performer (there’s a great bit about the amount of time the Beatles spent at a seedy club in Hamburg, Germany, before they ever made it big. Honing their skills, they were), or being a writer. It takes time to master the skills of writing.

    I’m learning.

  • I learned a long time ago that 1000 words in thirty minutes is perfectly doable (and if you put thirty more minutes for editing, it balances out–sorta. Depends on how long editing takes). All it takes is to build momentum, which requires focus.

    So a NaNoWriMo draft can be finished in under thirty hours, and maybe twenty-five. I’m too lazy to do more complicated math.

    Now, let me get a few of my daily tasks out of the way.

  • “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.”

    The real trick is finding those 16 hours (plus some percentage of the other 24) when you still need the ‘day-job’ that already demands 40 to 50 hours per week.

    (Not complaining, just saying you’ve got to find another gear to get up that mountain.)

  • Okay, so here’s my query.

    Take your statement: “Because writing is everywhere: nearly anything that’s ever happened has happened because someone wrote some shit down.”

    Couple with the whole $.05 a word going rate.

    What if we just stopped until it went up, even say to $.07 a word….? No stories. No reviews. No scripts. No blogs. No newspaper or magazine articles. No nothing…

    Think we could start a revolution?

    Yeah, that’s what I thought. We’re all too busy working (like now when I should be in bed, I’m reading, writing, networking, editing…).

  • It’s really amazing, Chuck, the advice and motivation you dispense here regularly for free. I can’t tell you how much it means to me, and I’m sure hundreds (if not thousands) of others!

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