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Making a Living

I had a conversation with my good friend, Chris Ransick, on Friday.  Chris, who is the Denver Poet Laureate, spoke at our local library about 25 ways to get kids to read.  He was entertaining, and he listed several ways I'd never heard of.  The hour of his presentation was well spent.

Afterward, we grabbed a bite to eat, and conversation turned to money.  Chris is mostly a poet and occasionally a short story writer.  He's won the Colorado Book Award for poetry and the Colorado Authors League Award for fiction, so he's well recognized within Colorado's literary community, which means, of course, that he makes almost no money from his writing.  He's a poet, after all. 

He thinks, though, that it's possible he'll be able to retire from teaching and make his living through writing related functions (but not the writing itself).  He'll do it through speaking and teaching engagements like the one he did this weekend.  These gigs pay well and he sees the possibility of scheduling enough of them to make a steady income.

Chris's situation struck me as being similar to the plight of the short story writer, and for many novelists.  There isn't enough money from the sale of the work itself.  There is, however, for the savvy writer, money to be had in other ways, teaching and speaking being two of them.  For myself, for example, I made as much money from speaking last year as I did with fiction sales.  A good hunk of the income came from a single appearance, where I was a speaker at the Mesa State College Reader's Festival (I spoke on Science Fiction and the Heart of Darkness).  They paid me $1,200 for a one-hour talk and my presence at the other festival functions.  This year I'm scheduled for several paying events, so my income looks like it will arrive in the same proportion as last year.

This reminds me of Cory Doctorow's article called "Science Fiction is the Only Literature People Care Enough About to Steal on the Internet."  One of his arguments is that because the way we distribute media has changed, the kinds of artists who succeed has changed.  For a writer today to be successful, she has to diversify her cash flow.  In many ways, personal performance has grown in importance, and for an author to make more money, she has to be able to do more than write.

Mind you, I'm talking money here, not art.  Writing is writing and is its own reward, but for a writer to make money it seems there generally has to be more going on than creating stories and putting them in the mail.  Speaking, teaching, editing, workshops, nonfiction, etc. are other ways to produce income, and these activities feed into the success of the writing.  The more people are the fan of the writer, then the more likely they are to seek out the writer's fiction and recommend it to others.  The more people who are fans, then the more opportunities there are to make money through activities connected to the writing, which produces more fans.

What this means for the writer who wants to make money is that there are a lot more skills and responsibilities necessary than just word smithing.  Also, for most writers, the income stream will develop slowly.  A reputation as a writer takes time to establish, and the extra income opportunities have a tendency to come with reputation over time rather than a quick strike.

So, imagine an outstanding year for a short story writer:  she sells a story each to Analog, Asimov's, Realms of Fantasy, Jim Baen's Universe, Clarkesworld, and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (this would be both the culmination of the best dream possible and an entire career for some writers I talk to).  For argument's sake, lets say the average sale was $400 for a total of $2,400 for those six sales.  (although I've sold regularly to several of those magazines, any instruction that starts with "sell a story" sounds a little bit like the recipe for grizzly bear soup: "First, kill a grizzly bear").  Sprinkle in another six small press sales at $100 each for $600 more.  One of the stories is picked up for a year's best reprint for another $100.  The short story collection, out a year ago, earned $500 in royalties this year and might earn a tenth of that next year. 

Total fiction income for the year: $3,600.   Right away you should notice that a short story writer (like a poet), isn't doing as well as a novelist.  If a novelist sells a book for $10,000, and can do one a year, the money is better (remember, just like saying "sell a story," the phrase "sell a novel" means "first, kill a grizzly bear").  Novel income seems incredibly flaky to me, by the way.  A first time novelist might get a smaller advance at a major publisher, say $6,000.  But novel advances have huge discrepancies.  A friend of mine just signed a multiple book contract for way more than $10,000 a book, and another started small, but her first book sales were good enough that the next contracts came in bigger.  Plus, she's earning royalites.  Just like short stories, though, a novelist has to continue to produce to continue to produce income.  An out of print book produces no income.  I know at least three novelists who are doing kick-butt successes in the novel world right now, but none of them feel they have the income to depend on the books for their living.

So, that gets us back to the other incomes.  If a writer is really interested in making money from the writing (along with making art), then she ought to look at the other opportunities.  There is money out there beyond selling the work.


( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Mar. 23rd, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC)
Agree with all the above. Well done.

I've picked up a little money here and there over the years writing nonfiction for magazines. Somebody like Cosmo or Modern Bride pays per word rates that make other writers call you a liar.

Would-be novelists: be happy with any offer from one of the big publishers. If the book makes them money, the next deal will be much larger.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 09:01 pm (UTC)
Killing a grizzly is often easier than selling a story, but, yeah, I get your point. Still, doesn't it matter how successful a writer you already are before you can start approaching a college for speaking fees or teaching or whatever?
Mar. 23rd, 2008 09:04 pm (UTC)
Yes, the writing reputation comes first, and a reputation that would draw speaking engagements generally takes a few years of success to establish. I've been speaking (occasionally) for money only in the last three or four years, but I started publishing in 1990.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 09:05 pm (UTC)
These are wise words, and I can tell you they apply to other artistic fields just as well. In classical music, opera specifically, my estimation was that perhaps the top 5% could make enough money to live on simply by singing (not there there's anything simple about that!) Most of us also taught voice and related subjects, sang in church choirs, and so forth. And yet--hard though the work was--we got to sing, and that was something many folk would love to do but aren't able to. I feel the same about writing! The writing is its own reward. It's awfully nice making money, though.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 09:08 pm (UTC)
One thing I would like to see more published authors do is get themselves on the teacher in-service workshop circuit. I know that most of us--even lightly published teachers like myself!--would do a better and more dynamic job of teaching how to remediate and teach good quality writing than the in-service writing circuit types out there. I don't know what your in-service experience is, but mine is pretty pathetic--to the degree that the teachers in our district run scrambling away from several so-called experts who a.) can't write their own way out of a paper bag if given a road map, b.) think that rehashing reading comprehension techniques piecemeal suffices to teach good writing technique, and c.) just don't recognize what it takes to write something of quality.

There's a reason why writing scores have been stagnating for a quarter century while reading and math scores show progress. Writing is perceived as a difficult skill to master and teach by many people, teachers and teachers of teachers alike, when I think in reality, the issue is that people just need to learn to practice writing and acquire the skills they need to be competent. Not everyone is going to be a published, professional writer--but everyone can be a competent, effective writer.

Okay, this is a rant I need to post on my own blog. Meanwhile, would some of you pros (I'm lookin' at you, Jay, and you, Mary, and you, David, and you, Jim--you know who you are!) figure out how to get on that teacher training circuit and do it? I'd like to work toward developing that skill myself.

It's a real need, and I think it'd bring in some decent pocket change for some of our writers out there.
Mar. 23rd, 2008 09:33 pm (UTC)
I've been able to use my children's playwright background to land a couple of playwright-in-residence gigs at local grade schools. They pay well, but it's a ton of work--and stress, when working around those dreaded standardized test schedules! But, for writers who connect well with kids, it's yet another potential source of income.

Funny thing about getting a reputation first: I have a friend who has no screenplay sales at all but has turned his stalled screenwriting career into a moderately successful career teaching workshops, seminars, and community college courses on screenwriting. Once he discovered he was a better teacher than writer (and he could make consistent income), the writing all but stopped. I have to wonder how happy he'll be years down the road about making that choice so early on.
Apr. 2nd, 2008 04:44 am (UTC)
Throw in a couple hundred more for foreign/translation sales.

It's not unheard of for a short story to be optioned for a film either.

Still not making a living, but it's also not like most people are writing short fiction eight hours a day, five days a week.
Apr. 2nd, 2008 12:17 pm (UTC)
Hi, Nick. I haven't made much money on the foreign/translation side of the equation. I haven't really investigated it (my bad). The film optioning route is the writer's equivalent of the lottery. There's real money to be had there if one knows how to go about getting to it, which is another area I don't know much about. I'd love to find some good advice on that score.
Apr. 2nd, 2008 02:03 pm (UTC)
Enjoy Doug Smith's Foreign Market List:

I've had success with Phantastich! (German) and Ennea (Greek), selling multiple stories to each. The strong Euro makes these markets especially attractive right now. (€.03 is about 5¢ these days).
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )