Writing is one of the only careers where it’s considered gauche if you expect to make a living.
As writers, we survive on faith. We spend hundreds of hours putting words down on paper, not sure if anyone will ever pay us for our efforts. Or read them. Or care.
How long would you stay at your job if payment was uncertain? What if every time you asked when that pay cheque was coming, people reacted with horror and told you that you should be doing your job because you love it?
Welcome to the world of writing.
I met an extremely prolific writer recently. This woman supports herself and her two children by blogging–yes, that’s right, blogging. She writes eleven blogs. Another stream of her income comes from e-fiction. She manages to write three full-length novels each year, along with a number of shorter projects. Her genre of choice is high fantasy.
But she plans to start writing romance. Why? Because she can earn more money writing romance.
I was shocked. Not at the fact that she wanted to–and planned to–make money with her writing by coolly assessing which genres do better than others, but because she admitted it. Out loud.
I could almost hear the naysayers shrieking in the background. “But you have to write what you love! You can’t write to the market! You’ll fail! You can’t write expecting to make money.”
Or, that favorite old saw, “If you hope to make money, don’t be a writer.”
Bullshit. There are plenty of writers who write to make a living, and they do quite well. Ever heard of John Saul? I once heard this master of horror tell a room full of writers that he hates scary books and never reads them. That his own books would give him nightmares. So why does he write them? Because his publisher needed a horror writer.
Writing is an art form, sure. But it is also entertainment. And first and foremost, it is a business. When agents and editors are assessing our work, they are trying to determine if it will sell. Not if we’ve created a spectacular work of art, but if anyone will care enough to buy it. Why are novelists who write for young adults suddenly in such high demand? Because all the publishing houses thought it would be great to encourage more young people to read? No, because JK Rowling proved that this genre can sell, and sell big. Everyone is looking for the next Harry Potter.
Shakespeare wrote to pay the bills. So did Charles Dickens. And we still know their names today because they wrote what their audiences enjoyed. Their work survived and got passed down and many people still enjoy it today.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t write what you love. Writing what you love will give you the drive to keep going, to finish the book, and maybe to submit it to publishers. Writing to a trend is dangerous, because trends change. But my writing friend is smart–she writes what has always been popular, what is consistently popular, not what is hot right now and only now. By calculating how best to spend her time, she can make a living doing what she loves. Which is writing, no matter the genre.
Writing for love and writing for money are not mutually exclusive. Why not strive for both? I’m so tired of hearing that writers who make a living are somehow less talented, less intelligent, or less high-minded than those who survive on grants. That getting published this way is better than getting published that way. That a popular book is automatically a worthless book. Can you imagine anyone telling a doctor that making a good living means he doesn’t care about his patients?
I love to write. Always have. I love writing to the point where I’m trying to write fiction for a living. That means what I write has to make money.
I’m coming out of the closet with my friend and saying that’s okay. It’s okay to accept that writing is a business, and that considering how and where you will sell your work–and who you will sell it to–does not make you a sell-out.
It makes you smart.
Speaking as someone who’s friends with many photographers, I recognize where you’re coming from and agree. There’s nothing wrong with art for art’s sake, but there’s also nothing wrong with recognizing that art has an audience and creating something pleasing to that audience.
I wonder where the exaltation of the ‘pure’ artist unsullied by commerce came from, as I suspect it’s a relatively recent historical phenomenon.
Thanks for your comment, Chris. I think it came from people who can’t or don’t write, or those that write stuff with a very small audience who are bitter as hell and want to feel better about themselves. 😉
What I find tiresome is the way different writing genres are regarded in certain circles.
Tell someone you’ve been published in a newspaper and it gets a stiff, almost uncomfortable nod. Mention that your story is in a literary journal, and suddenly you are a true writer.
Of course, the newspaper pays in hard cash, while the literary journal pays in a hard copy or two, which won’t be accepted as currency at the local supermarket!
Thanks for comment, Margaret! I agree, and this is the same type of literary snobbery. I would venture to guess that the people who judge newspapers are the same people who think publishing in literary journals, or winning fancy awards for “meaningful” work or getting grant money is the only way to go.
It’s the same with writing genres: literary is worthwhile; everything else is crap. Unless you write a literary book that thousands of people read and enjoy. Then it’s probably crap, too.
It’s all BS in the end, perpetuated by a bunch of frustrated wanna-be writers and critics/reviewers. (Who are often the same people.)
It has been said that those who do, do. And those who can’t/won’t teach. Same thing with writing. I have written for work since I was in my early teens. Writing is not just what I do, but being a writer is part of who I am. It is, for me, an art form.
I think part of the prejudice comes from two places: one where people think writing is easy. (HA!) and the other from the pulp days when writers who wanted to eat wrote what was wanted by the consumer. Louis L’Amour famously did this for many years, and he managed to weave in his passion for adventure and the west until he could do as he pleased.
I probably won’t be a popular success (Three Quarter Down is getting good feedback but I’m not done, I’m stuck) but by spending time with writers I admire, working with them doing research or providing feedback, we are honing one another. Iron sharpens iron.
I rarely trust critics, unless they are writers as well. Stephen Hunter is a good example of a writer critic whom I trust, although I don’t always agree with him. 🙂
Some of the work I’ve written is important, but popular? Uh no. Some of my work is dear to my heart and some I’m happy I got paid for it.
There are so many ways to write, and fiction authors have such a freedom as do poets. They can spread their wings and soar to new heights (or dig new depths!) . Technical writing, not so much 🙂 but I do love it anyway.
It is like my other loves – the doing as much as the end result. Write! Photograph! Bake! Scrapbook! Craft!
Anyone who is able to do what they love, and get paid for it. should be cheered and encouraged! And for those of us still getting there – do what you need to get where you want to be.
I love making money writing fiction, and I run my fiction like a business. Could be that’s why i’m making money at it. Ya think? Its a brave new world out there in self publishing, and if we can ditch some of the old myths (like “good” writers only produce one book a year) we can make our own rules. That said, diversification is my strategy so I have two books being shopped, a romance, an attempt to penetrate the print market, an ebook only on all platforms, and seven books out in the mystery genre–all of which I’ve written in the last four years. If you’re willing to work hard AND smart, you can make good money writing, and enjoy it too.
Thanks for your comments, ladies. That’s some great fodder for discussion.
@ MM – Thanks for sharing your story. You bring up some great points. I actually sometimes think writers are the worst critics and beta readers, because it’s hard for a writer to judge a work on its own merit without their voice and how they would have written it coming into play.
Unless we’re independently wealthy, one of the end goals has to be getting paid for our work. Unless we want to keep working at a day job and leaving writing for our “spare” time.
@ Toby – It’s nice to hear from someone who is making a living as a fiction writer. I think diversification is the smart way to go, but not everyone is prolific enough to do it well. It’s great that you’ve been able to make it work.
I hate that myth, too. That slow writers are good writers. Not necessarily! Even in my j class people assumed my stories must be crap because I wrote them so quickly. Not so. I had one of the highest marks in the class and was one of the few who was able to make a living as a journalist. Some people just write faster than others. I’d love to see a world where all kinds of writers–fast, slow, self-pubbed, traditionally pubbed–of all genres are respected and supported by each other.
I absolutely choose which ideas to keep based on what’s selling. I AM limited a bit on writing in genres I’m good at, but I certainly take a look at my ideas and pick the ones that are way more marketable than others — and yep, that’s based on money. I also have chosen to write in one genre over another (contemporary romance/etc. vs fantasy) at this moment in time because I know it will sell more. I think it’s great that you came out and said this. 🙂
It’s always makes me so happy to see a comment from you. Thanks for being here, Michelle. It’s also nice to hear from another writer who is making a living.
Isn’t it kind of crazy that it’s a risk or brave to say that writers should get paid for writing? For any other profession, it would be a given. I don’t think there’s anything wrong in the choices you’ve made–they’re smart choices. Even the BIG authors usually wait until they’ve “made it” to write the so-called risky books. You can do that when you’re just starting out and when you’re super successful, but in between it’s kind of important to pay the bills.
This is a fantastic post. I’ve heard both sides of this: that if you write to a trend or to make money you’re not doing your writing talent justice. I admit that I’ve believed that, and that a popular novel these days must not be any good. But you’re right; all that mess is just crap. We are writing to make a living doing what we love to do and that is writing. Who cares what you write as long as you get up every morning and you are true to yourself and what you want to do with you life. Business owners do it; lawyers, doctors, and dentists do it. Housewives do it. Why not writers? Yes, we do need to write what we love, to feed our soul. But we also have to feed our bellies and keep roofs over our heads.
Thanks for your comment, Jen. Welcome back to my blog! I’m glad you got something out of this.
Are people in any other career so judgmental of each other? I wonder. “She writes fast–it must be crap. She got a huge advance–it must be crap. Her book is being turned into a movie–it must be crap. Tons of people bought her book–it must be crap. She won a Governor General’s award–wow, it’s probably high-quality literature that no one will ever read.” 😉
And the sad thing is, it’s writers doing this to other writers! It needs to stop, but I doubt if it ever will.
Thanks for commenting.