Quasi-Professional Writing, Goals and Reality Checks...

Sunday, April 29, 2007


Today I read a forum post by a romance writer who gave up an extra $60,000 a year to stay in a job that allowed her to keep writing. I am currently negotiating to take up a job opportunity that will earn me a lot more money and probably cut back on my writing time (although not eliminate it). For the first time in my life I look forward to being able to give up raman noodles for good, maybe even rent a place with more than two rooms and shop in real boutiques. In affect some aspects of my lifestyle will improve and others will shrink--writing time likely being something I will lose. We all make these choices, but that's what they should be--careful, rational choices based on explicit goals.

I had long ago noticed that most fiction writers do not earn their complete living from this activity. Full time fiction writers do exist, but the majority even of full time writers either write in various trade/non-fiction venues as well as fiction, or are a member of a household supported by other income/s. Part time writing seems to be the norm either with simultaneous outside or in-home employment or alternating periods writing and periods in other employment. In e-publishing the earnings are typically lower and these tendencies (to be subsidised by other sources of income) are greater. There is typically a balance between writing for money and writing (as ralan.com says) '4theluv'.

In niche writing there is a full range for those selling a few books that struggle to reach double figure sales in an average year, to those who write for high turnover epublishers or large print presses (still a tenuous proposition if your household does not have other more reliable sources of income). There is also, in my opinion, a largely uncorrelated range of conduct from fully professional to thin-skinned hobbyist (some seem to confuse the role of a publisher with that of a clan or a cult). Those who earn the most are not always those who conduct themselves well. But worst of all, there are publishers who take advantage of writers driven by a desire to write and who are willing to overlook that fact that their earnings are slim to none. I continue to see writers strongly promoting epublishers whose typical first month sales are less than 10 copies. They may be writing 4theluv, but those taking their advice re: who is the very best epublisher out there might actually be in it for the money. You can't assume that what someone else considers great sales would be in anyway acceptable to you!

I would be interested in hearing from you all regarding how you balance writing with paying the total household bills. Certainly we need to get a simple living wage from somewhere, then comes the balancing act--writing is not the most efficient way for most people to earn money and those with other saleable skills may end up effecitively 'paying' to write. Are you investing the time in writing needed to 'break through' and write full time, or have you reached an acceptable balance right now? Is money just not an issue and you just want to reach the largest possible readership or obtain the affirmation that others will pay for your work?

My position is that I am not currently seeking large press publication, although I may look into that next year. I still feel it is important to have clear a priori financial goals to ensure I profit acceptably from my writing rather than just being 'farmed' by a publisher for their own benefit. I decided the acceptable level in advance based on my own goals and values. I do not write full time and need not strive for a living wage but I still looked around for a defintion of 'professional' pay rates. I opted for a common dividing line used to define professional level payment--3c a word, I seek this level of payment for each piece within two years of initial publication. I track my stats, I continue to write for publications that deliver this payback. I will gamble on new publishers occassionally, but not as a habit.

This approach allows me to have a professional perspective on an activity that I can normally devote only an hour a day to, often less. Other people take other approaches and other goals but for me it is very important to see my writing as something I do professionally, without needing to do it as a profession.

Sometimes I write for leisure, to support my genre or to communicate a certain point. But in these cases where I do not intend to profit I do not send the work to profit-driven enterprises but offer it to non-profit publications such as the M/M zine Forbidden Fruit. If no one profits, no one is exploited. And that is probably my point. Things that are written only for love, should be published for the same reason. To the extent something is written for money, it should earn money--and to the extent it is written well, it should be published well. And, given the number and range of presses available out there, it is very important that we don't sell ourselves short ...and that is what this website it meant to be all about.

I hope to hear you own thoughts and experiences about balancing the motivations of money and love.

6 comments:

Erastes 4:51 PM  

Cripes. I wish I was earning $60k.

or even $40k.

I would give anything to give up work and write full time. And it's horrible to think that will only happen when my dad dies.

I write - like most of us - because I have to. I've got to the stage now that I might not be driven by that inspiration that hit me to start with where I was bashing out 5k words a day, but if I don't write anything completed for a week or two I get withdrawal pangs as bad as any addiction.

I'll never be able to produce the quantity of work needed to support myself until I'm full-time, I'm sure of it. It's a worry.

Amanda Young 11:17 PM  

I'm one of the lucky ones. My SO brings home the bacon and anything I contribute is gravy. For the first year I wrote, I didn't bring in a single dime. I, in fact, had to dip into our extra money to build my website and do all the little things I needed for when my first books came out last March.

I think it's very important to go into this kind of business with your eyes wide open and know that your not going to be able to make a reasonable living off of your writing for a while. I've been told that as you build your name and recognition (not to mention lengthening your backlist) that the income will pick up, but I'm not going to hold my breath. The more money I bring in the better, but I don't count on maybes to pay the bills.

Laura Bacchi 6:43 AM  

I'm currently on the five-year plan--five loooong years (actually 4 years and 10 months... yeah, I'm counting it down) and hubby says we'll be financially stable enough for me to write full-time. I'm miserable in the day job but that goal keeps me going.

Balancing work, family life, and writing is frustrating, but the drive to write keeps me going.

Anne Douglas 8:41 AM  

My first book was written on a dare, when I sold it right away I was fairly much put me on my rear. I had to take a good long look at the industry and figure out if this was just a one off for me, or if this could be a viable career. A career, not a calling - I wanted to make money. And it seemed that waiting for NY to realise I was wonderful wasn't an entirely logical way to go about paying the bills.(I'm unlucky enough to be forced into a SAHM role due to visa constraints, so writing/royalties are at least an income I can generate legally).

After thinking about it a bit (after the first paycheck which was 5months later), I came to the conclusion that to be profitable, quickly, in a manner to commit to contributing to the household budget I would have to have a release a month, or at least every two (and I had no idea if writing that fast and writing well was a possibility for me, and now a scant 9 months on I know it's not), until a point where I had a backlist of approx 10-12 books. But even then that would only net income enough to pay maybe 1/2 to 3/4 the mortgage payment. Which in itself is nothing to be sneezed at. Of course, this reasoning was based on first month and residual sales that numbered a lot higher than some of the numbers people bandy around.

I can't even comprehend why someone would want to place a ms with a publisher that would next them maybe 10-30 sales in the month after release. Maybe these are the people who write for the love of it? Because they sure aren't getting paid for it.

Kis Lee 1:23 PM  

I've career-hopped twice in the last 2 years. I'm in the almost-full-time writing phase, and it's been a rollercoaster. My family helps out, and so does my ever dwindling savings account.

I write 3 "types" of writing:
- writing that will pay the bills (nonfiction/copy)
- writing that I like and will help pay the bills (erotic/adult)
- writing that I love and is not paying the bills now but will hopefully pay the bills later (genre/pulp)

I'm in this for the long run. I can't imagine doing anything else.

Jules Jones 8:58 PM  

I'm unemployed at the moment, and it's a good thing that Other Half has a job that supports us both (that job and associated visa issues is in fact the reason why I'm currently unemployed). I *couldn't* live on my current level of royalties, even if I were back in the UK and not having to worry about health insurance, which is always a major issue for US-based writers. And as far as I can see, I'm moderately successful by ebook standards.

Some of my friends are making a living from writing, but they're established sf writers and published in mass market paperback where they have print runs measured in the several tens of thousands, and it's taken them a while to get to the point where they can afford to write full-time. I'm not going to be in that position so long as I'm writing material that's only of interest to epublishers, and if it came to a choice between a decent job and writing, I'd take the decent job like a shot. Ideally, what I want is a full-time job that I enjoy but that leaves me time and energy to do some writing (which is what I had in my fanfic years).

But even with the writing being only a secondary income, I treat it like a business, because that's what it is. I'm going to place my work where I can get the best mix of money now and career-building for the future (which means that things like having an excellent editor will to some extent offset lower sales, so long as my publisher is in the top tier for sales).

That doesn't mean that I won't place work in low or no-pay markets, but I'd better be getting something out of it other than the money. And an epub that thinks that sales of 10 copies in the first month are good sales is certainly not giving me exposure. Commercially it would make more sense to put the work on my website as a free sample -- and I'd be thinking very hard about whether it's good enough to expose to the public if I can't manage to sell it to an epub with a better market share.

But I think that the real problem is that many people don't have any feel for what sort of sales figures they can expect from different publishers, and what sort of money that translates into. There are people who think that 10 sales on the first month *is* good, and that being published by someone else validates their writing.

The measure I used was "is this selling better than it would through the vanity presses?" As discussed in the forum at Absolute Write, the average sales for vanity published books are fairly consistent, at around 75-150 copies. That's because that's about how many copies the average person can manage to sell to their friends, family, bridge club etc, selling to the people who will buy a book simply because it was written by someone they know. Now, this is skewed somewhat for erotic romance and erotica writers, because we may not be terribly interested in selling to our family and friends. :-) But if the publisher can't sell more than 100 copies in the first year, it's not managing to do any better than a vanity press. You might as well have put it on Lulu. And a hundred copies in a year is a tiny fraction of the number of copies sold by the people who manage to make a living from writing.

If you're selling that few, it's not a serious source of income. It's quite likely to be *costing* you money, if you're spending money on promo and such. At some point you have to decide whether it's a business or a hobby. If it's a business, you need to have a serious business plan and understand what sort of income it's likely to generate over the next few years, and plan around that. And the plan needs to include whether it makes sense to give up other income. If it's really just a hobby, then it needs to be treated like one when making financial decisions -- and would you give up a better paid job to make time to pursue a different hobby?

For some people, the answer is "yes", and it's a perfectly reasonable answer. But people need to be clear about whether that's the choice they're actually making.

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