Can you make a living writing? This is a question that came through to the blog last week. My short answer was yes – of course, but I’ve spent some time doing a completely unscientific anecdotal poll of the various writer’s groups I’m a part of so that I can answer this question outside of my own personal experience.
Freelancing, as a rule, is feast or famine. It’s unpredictable income. Of all the freelance work I’ve done, writing for non-profits was the most predictable, but only until donations are down or some executive thinks the admin working under them who did well in high school English can write “well enough” and my hours get significantly reduced or my contract cancelled. Yes, that’s happened. More than once. (Do they come back to me after a while because “well enough” didn’t bring in as many donations as my work did? Often.)
My point is, in these situations whether you’re blogging, doing direct mail, journalism, marketing campaigns–whatever, even if you’re on staff, the writing is the easiest to change and the first thing that gets cut. Sad truth.
Here’s a book on my wishlist – Scratch: Writers, Money And The Art Of Making A Living
The answer to a reliable income as a writer is to diversify. Don’t rely on one source for your entire income, things you have no control over change too quickly. Here’s a sample of some of the replies I received (names removed).
“I’m getting close to making a living by writing, through advances, royalties, and some direct sales at events. (I’m traditionally published.)”
“I’m on my second career track. I’m making a living with writing books in my very specialized field … I have regular speaking engagements, do conferences, earn income on my membership website along with weekly TV programs. It’s taken 6 years to build but I’m seeing the fruit of my labor.”
“I diversify with freelancing, speaking, using my newsletter for advertising, subscriptions to a paid newsletter, and my novels.”
“For me, over the years, it’s been a mix of: (1) digital product sales, (2) consulting and editing services, (3) online teaching, (4) digital subscriptions, (5) book sales, (6) paid freelance writing, (7) Amazon affiliate marketing, and (8) speaking fees.”
“I was making a living wage from my editing, teaching, and non-fiction books combined for a lot of years. I don’t remember how long it took to get a full-time income from that because it was so long ago. I published my first novel in November 2016. In 2017, my income was nearly double what it was the year before, and I was doing that 99% from books. I currently sell ebooks and paperbacks, and last month I signed with an audiobook publisher…”
“It took me about 3 years of submitting myself to publications (including a non-paying column, so I could build up samples and experience) to make a living through writing. Diversifying has been vital for me, because I knew I wanted and planned to make a good income through writing. I think that’s another key: believing you can and aiming for it. Nurturing relationships with editors, publications, etc., is also helpful, I’ve found; some of my smallest gigs have led to the biggest. And applying our creativity to creating and pursuing writing work can go really far.”
Fantastic (and frightening) article about getting that coveted $100,000 cheque from a royalty publisher: Cheryl Strayed Was $85,000 In Debt When Her Memoir Wild Got Published
Over the years, I’ve diversified my income by freelance writing and editing for magazines and newspapers, schools, non-profits, and small businesses (marketing copy, event promotion, blogging, direct mail, articles, interviews, event coverage, etc.), syndicated column, consulting, teaching online, coordinating writer’s conferences, and writing fiction.
There are a lot of Indie writers making a living just off their fiction as well. Their version of diversifying is building a backlist, putting out work in multiple formats across many vendors, maybe monetizing a blog and affiliate sales, and some speaking.
Here’s some things to really think through either before jumping into the writing-as-a-living-pool or giving up on it.
- Define what a living wage means to you. Does it mean six figures? Most people can get by on a lot less. Do you need to earn a full-time wage or are you just looking for a side income because your partner has a good job?
- Freelancing offers the most freedom and opportunity but also comes with the most risk. There just aren’t many staff writer positions available any more. Be sure to set aside money in the good months for the lean months- and there will be lean months because of fluctuations you have no control over and won’t foresee.
- Network!! This is the name of the game. Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, marketing, blogging–doesn’t matter. Put out your best work with every job and build a reputation in whatever field you’re writing in. That’s how you get more work. Network with other writers. I’ve given away jobs I didn’t have time for, I’ve gotten jobs from other writers who needed a name to pass on to a client. Fiction writers are often sharing newsletter space, promoting others work to their own readers, etc. You’ll get farther faster by helping those around you and letting them help you.
- Be patient. Most of the comments above are from people who’ve spent years building up a portfolio of work and networking and working really hard. Most Indie fiction authors are saying they needed 3 – 5 books out before they were making a good living from just their fiction. It’s the backlist that keeps you afloat with each new release promoting everything else you’ve written. This takes time.
- Get really good at one or two things. I’ve spoken to so many editors who get frustrated with new writers who say they’ll write anything. While that may be true, editors are often looking for people already interested in or have knowledge of a specific sector. Get really good at book reviews and you’ll be trusted with something bigger, for instance. I got really good at interviews. When a celebrity or entertainer was in town or was coming to town (not even my town but across the country), often editors turned to me because I was able to navigate the maze of gatekeepers these people surround themselves with and get the interview, and asked questions their readers wanted answers to. Become the go-to person for that topic or kind of writing. (In my case, this involved a lot of stalking on social media, identifying and genuinely befriending mavens, unanswered emails, learning lingo, and backdoor networking–be creative in finding solutions.)
- Change your mindset. Instead of cutting your rates or giving away work for free (unless part of a strategic marketing decision), weigh the work against your end goals. Is taking this work a good business move? How will this work help me get where I want to get? Give yourself freedom to say no.
My Best Advice…
Finally, the best advice I know to give someone who wants to make a living as a writer is to keep learning. Strive to make every piece your best work, stay on top of trends and new styles and techniques, and push yourself to network and keep growing professionally.
Do you have a question you’d like to see me tackle on the blog? Usually I send a quick short answer and then explore it further here. Leave a comment here, send me an email (lisa(at)lisahallwilson(dot)com) or find me on Facebook.
Been told you should learn Deep Point Of View? Had an editor or critique partner tell you to “go deeper” with the emotions in your fiction? Looking for a community of writers seeking to create emotional connections with readers? Check out the Free Resource Hub and then join the Going Deeper With Emotions In Fiction Facebook group.