The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career

The happy harsh truths of a writing career Tiffany Yates Martin

The Happy Harsh Truths of a Writing Career

A writing career is unlike any other career you may pursue—not just because the job description involves getting to invent people and worlds and tell stories (and how cool is that, amiright?), but because more often than not you won’t make a living at it.

Often a “writing career” turns out to be the day job you work to be able to pursue your writing.

Let’s get depressing for a moment, shall we? And then I promise things will look up—but let’s start with some publishing-industry realities.

Recent Publishing Statistics

A 2018 Authors Guild survey of more than 5,000 survey respondents among 15 writers organizations revealed a median annual writing income of $6,080, a decrease of 42 percent since 2009. Authors who identified as writing full-time reported a median income of just $20,300—not much of a living.

Industry estimates suggest that only 1-2 percent of all submitted manuscripts are published. A smaller fraction of those still are published by a major publisher. Various industry sources estimate the number of books published every year at somewhere between 300,000 and a million—and that doesn’t take into account the tens of millions of books previously published and still on the market. That’s the level of competition in this career.

The average first-book advance with a major publisher is around $5,000-$15,000. That amount is what the author gets before deducting her agent’s 15 percent (if she has an agent) as well as all marketing and business expenses and self-employment taxes, and is against sales—meaning that if she doesn’t “earn out” by selling more books than the minimum per her contract, when royalty payments will kick in, that’s all the money she’ll ever see.

The vast majority of authors never earn out or begin receiving royalties.

You also won’t get that advance money in a lump sum, but in installments—usually upon signing, turning in the manuscript, and publication.

Factor in the costs of marketing—which authors are expected to do the lion’s share of in today’s publishing environment regardless of whether they are self-publishing or with a major house—and writing books as a way to make a living or even augment your income begins to look a little bit like buying a lottery ticket for the same reason.

So What’s the Good News?

Still with me? It’s unpleasant to face these grim statistics about the career most of us dream of succeeding in, but it’s crucial for framing the way we approach it, and for letting ourselves savor all the good parts—and there are plenty. But I’ll wait if you want to get a glass of wine and recover first….

  • Going into this career open-eyed about the financial and logistical realities frees you—and it frees your writing.

I’ve spoken with many authors who’ve told me the most they’ve ever enjoyed writing was before they signed a publishing contract, or when they were dropped by their publisher or between agents. (Check out the stories of most of the authors featured in my How Writers Revise series.)

That’s when the pressures and expectations are off of you, and you’re free to write whatever you want to, however you want to write it. It’s when you’re most able to adhere to your own vision for your story—not worry about what your editor will think, or whether your publisher will accept it, or readers will buy it.

It’s when you can lose yourself in unfettered, joyous creativity and free the most original stories, the most unique voice.

Deadlines, genre expectations, sales figures, and market considerations are like corporate “golden handcuffs”—sure, you have the brass ring of being published, but it comes at a cost, one that can straitjacket your writing and leach it of the joy of writing that may have drawn you to this career in the first place.

If you adjust your expectations and realize the chances of making a decent living as a full-time author are small, that means you can stay focused on your love for the work itself, not the gritted-teeth scramble to the top of the ladder. 

  • It puts you in charge of your career.

Once you sign with a publisher you no longer own your story; they do. You may get “meaningful consultation” (an ironically meaningless term), but they will decide every element of it, from the cover to the formatting to the marketing to where it will be sold to whether you get to publish another one.

That’s what you’re selling for what’s often a mere four or low five figures, on top of the hours of work of writing the story itself.

And that can be worth it for many writers—but you’re also then a product provider for their business, and that comes with expectations and demands that may or may not be part of what you actually dreamed of when you wanted to be a writer. It frames your worth as a writer in terms of whether you’re anointed by a random company and how much they monetarily value your work.

In a pursuit that feels as if so much is out of your control, letting go of defining “success” by money or a publishing contract puts you right back in the driver’s seat of your career. It lets you create your own definition of success, one that comes organically from you, rather than defining your worth by external metrics.

Letting go of defining “success” by money or a publishing contract puts you right back in the driver’s seat of your career.

What do you want your writing career to look like? Take away that artificial carrot of fame and fortune and you get to decide why you write, what makes it meaningful for you, how you choose to do it. You set the terms. You give yourself back the power of taking ownership over your career—even if you do decide to sell your rights to a publisher.  

You are a writer because you write. That makes you an author, too—whether or not some group of employees at some business decides to put a seal of approval on you.

  • It lets you enjoy the process, rather than the product.

Compulsive gamblers go to Vegas and blow through their fortunes waiting for that big payoff.

My husband enjoys gambling too, but he does Vegas differently, earmarking a sum he’s comfortable risking and then letting himself fully enjoy whatever he’s playing simply for the experience of it, the entertainment he’s bought himself for that amount of money.

He’s not waiting for some unlikely jackpot to make it all worthwhile—it’s worthwhile for him all along even if he loses the full sum, because he enjoys playing the games. And he decides in advance exactly what that’s worth to him.

Without the expectation of that elusive golden carrot, you determine your reasons for writing, its value to you. You let yourself enjoy the process of the writing itself for its own sake, rather than focusing so much on the product or the results.

You’re not waiting to arrive as a writer—if you write, you have arrived already.

You’re not waiting to arrive as a writer—if you write, you have arrived already.

  • It lets you find a livelihood that fulfills you.

Knowing the financial realities also means you don’t think of your “day job” as just a grim necessary slog to make money until your publishing ship comes in and you can write full-time. Knowing that it will likely remain your livelihood, you can let yourself seek out fulfilling work that you love.

Maybe you can even use your passion and skill for writing in a way that offers you a living but also feeds your creative soul. The same Authors Guild survey I cited above also showed a shift in book earnings to other writing-related activities, such as speaking engagements, book reviewing and teaching—markets that are growing. That’s how I wound up becoming an editor—which turned out to be my true passion. Maybe you will find you have other fulfilling passions as well.

The bleak statistics of the publishing marketplace are often quoted as a way of discouraging authors from pursuing a writing career, or “forcing” them to face the harsh realities.

But accepting these long odds can have just the opposite impact, allowing you to pursue a lifetime of creativity on your own terms, one that lets you savor every step along the way, and keeps you in touch with the important part of the phrase “writing career”: writing.

Tell me about your writing careers, authors. What’s your “brass ring”–do you have one? And is that what motivates you? How do you keep your motivation and focus when setbacks happen–or nothing is happening? Do you relish the freedom and autonomy of not being under contract–or is that the carrot that keeps you trotting along–or the stick…?

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19 Comments. Leave new

  • Thanks so much for this! I write because I must. The words must be set free and the stories told. But I’ve begun my indie publishing career precisely because of the reasons you’ve outlined: access to the marketplace and creative control. My stories are my own to tell and sell, and so too are my successes and failures. But that’s okay.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 12:22 pm

      I love this, Paulette. Sounds like you’ve spent some time examining what you want out of your writing career and taken ownership of it. I find that so freeing! Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

      Reply
  • I enjoyed this piece enough to tell you that the emailed version has the sentence beginning “I’ve spoken with many authors …” repeated in the text –surely something to annoy an editor. Thanks for reminding aspiring authors of the soundest basis for their labors.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 12:36 pm

      Ah, thank you, my friend! You’re right, such things do vex an editor–and I know exactly how that happened, now that you mention it, on a clumsy cut-and-paste…and there are zero things I can do about that now that the email has gone out. I’m learning to let go of such things–but man, sounds like you know it can be hard! Appreciate your reading, Joseph, and taking time to offer some feedback both technical and contextual. 🙂

      Reply
  • Barbara Linn Probst
    February 10, 2022 3:33 pm

    Brilliant piece, Tiffany. These are all the things I’ve been saying, feeling, and advocating—brought together in one coherent, compelling, beautifully written essay. I’m going to share it with all the writing groups I’m part of, because I think it’s a vital part of the conversation about why we write and how we think about ourselves as writers—how we navigate the landscape of writing as art, business, and identity. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 6:19 pm

      Thank you, Barbara! I’m with you–I think it’s crucial that we go into this field with eyes fully open. We can’t choose the path we want without fully knowing what each entails…and what we want from it, at our core. Thanks for stopping by!

      Reply
  • First want to say thanks for yet another timely email. It helps bring me home to why I write.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 6:18 pm

      Thanks, Jerry–that’s everything I could hope for from the blog. I appreciate your being here.

      Reply
  • Thanks so much for elucidating the hazards of embarking on a writing career. Kindness sometimes requires citing harsh realities. And there are more, such as having a publishing company fold during your debut novel’s first year out, being dropped by your agent, failing on submission. I’m now indie publishing, because I grew tired of navigating the slalom course involving traditional publishing. I’ve written for enjoyment ever since I stood up in fourth grade class and read my comic Halloween story and got big laughs from the class. Hooked. I write because I love it, and I love having readers, however many or few. I think of it as a calling, and I don’t measure it in income. Love your newsletter!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 6:22 pm

      Oh, Rachel, OUCH. My heart hurts for you at this list of setbacks. I do hope you check out the How Writers Revise feature–I’m inspired every month by stories of how authors have overcome setbacks and charter their courses. But it sounds like you’ve already reexamined why you do this and what you want from it, and chosen a path that suits those goals. I agree with you–I don’t measure my success at this by income or some arbitrary external bar of worth. If I don’t do it because I love it, there’s no point for me. Sounds like you feel the same way. Thanks for sharing this–and for your kind words.

      Reply
  • You email resonated so much with me I had to come here and say thank you for writing it and sending it out to your subscribers. It only fuels my motivation to keep writing! As GaryVee often says, love the process. That’s basically what you’re saying here. He also talks about not being afraid of failure or of not reaching a goal by a particular deadline because having patience and loving the process frees us from being chained to a definition of “success” that’s usually been defined by others instead of ourselves. I really appreciate the tough love/reality check you gave us about this industry, but how it doesn’t have to weigh negatively on us. I’m fired up now!!!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 6:24 pm

      Well, then we’re karmically even, because your email put a big smile on my face and reaffirmed why I do what I do, too. 🙂 Love what you say about GaryVee’s advice–I’ll have to check him out. Thanks for sharing your thoughts about the post, April–you made my day by saying it fired you up to write!

      Reply
  • This thought swirls around in my head…. I wonder how many writers write for the love of it if they are never published.

    Hang on….

    We all know the stories of famous rejections from Rowling to Dr. Seuss to King, etc. Their stories are about that 1st book (or the 3rd, 4th) finally selling after dozens of attempts to get published. This goes for not so famous authors too. Well, they did finally get published. Did the validation drive them forward? Would Stephen King be OK with 32 unpublished novels on his hard drive and keep writing? Maybe. It’d be harder because he would be holding down another job.

    I’d like to meet the writers who have a dozen of polished, finished, could-submit, and/or rejected manuscripts just sitting on their hard drives, but simply keep writing for the love of it and are happy to avoid the “traps” of the corporate publishing world and the hassles of the self-publishing arena. I need friends like this to help keep me positive and moving forward. I love writing, but I want to be published.

    If you are here and fit this description, please reply. What keeps you going after a dozen (or whatever amount) of unpublished novels? Are you happy writing book after book for yourself? Will you keep going until time or energy run out?

    It’s hard to write a book.

    How long will we keep writing ONLY for ourselves? Is it worth avoiding the things in publishing and self-publishing that are not pretty and stay safely unpublished?

    I’ve been published. I sold 2 short stories on first submissions. I think I can write, but I want to be published again…in book form. But how long would I go if I never sell a novel? How many novels will I allow to accumulate on my hard drive before I say “Enough!”? Will I just write another novel or three and not bother sending them out? Because I need to write? I hope so.

    This posts makes us asks ourselves if we love writing enough to do this.

    I know of only 5 other writers. Three stopped writing after their first novel was repeatedly rejected. The other two are still writing….but…. they’re published! They have books out there. I know that propels them.

    It seems we all — loving writing or not — want publication. I want to see my books “out there.” I want students, like the ones I taught for 31 years, to read what I wrote. I want librarians to see my books worthy enough to place on their shelves.

    Without publication, would Rowling still have written her 7-book Potter series and be on her umpteenth novel now, while all her unpublished books just sat in her drawer? She’s too good to not be published, I know. I’m just pondering a point here. Maybe should would have. But She’d also be holding down a job. It would be very hard.

    We love writing, but I think we need some sort of validation too, no? Don’t quit if the stats on publishing bother you. One day I might say, “I have never sold a novel, but I love writing so much that I’m on my 11th straight novel and I don’t care about it’s destination.” But if that were the case, they’d probably all be first drafts (one and done 😉

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 9:20 pm

      Oh, Jerry–I love so many things about this comment! How clearly heartfelt it is, for starters…your tangible love of your craft–and also that you know yourself well enough to know that one of your goals is publication. A goal I share–I write partly for myself, but also partly because I want to share my work with others, both fiction and nonfiction. How we fulfill our goals, I think, though, can be fluid and variable, especially in the current pub environment, with more channels for that than ever. Honestly, this comment speaks so closely to what I wrote this morning in a flurry of this same kind of thoughts of my own about this topic.

      You ask a question I often pose to authors–in fact, I just wrote it this morning, in that follow-up post that will run next week: If someone told you that you would never be published, would you keep writing? I don’t know the answer–I don’t think there is a “right” one. But it’s a big way I think writers can start to consider the question of why they do this–kind of slaps the rubber to the road, right?

      Author community–please weigh in here! Jerry (and I) would love to hear your thoughts. And, Jerry…hang in there, my friend. I do firmly believe that if we know what we want as creatives, and we continually grow our skill, and we just stay in the damn game, we will get there. Persistence is the greatest common denominator I have seen among authors who become published and sustain their careers. This can be a long and brutally challenging road, but if we can’t make ourselves get off of it, or want to, I really believe it gets us to our destination. Eventually. 🙂

      Reply
  • Vaughn Roycroft
    February 10, 2022 10:32 pm

    Hey Tiffany—I recently decided to drop my pursuit of a traditional deal, and it’s been years since I’ve felt this happy with my writing journey. I sent my first query letter in ‘09, so I spent some time in the trenches.

    I had imagined it would be freeing, of course. I suppose it’s a bit like carrying something for a very long while and then being suddenly unburdened. It’s difficult to describe how much I love the freedom and control I’m finding along the path to self-pub. I see things in a totally new light. It’s never really been about the money for me, but I didn’t really recognize how much I longed for recognition and validation until I stepped back.

    I thought I’d say it here on the off chance that someone else is on the verge of stepping back and needs a nudge. If it’s not really about the money for you, the creative joy is still there for you. You have but to reclaim it.

    Thanks, I always love your perspective.

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 10, 2022 10:42 pm

      This made me a little emotional, Vaughn–I really feel what you describe about letting go of that weight, and especially the external validation. You sound deeply at peace about this decision–and happy. I can relate to that too.

      It’s so easy to slip into defining our worth and value as writers by that specific carrot, isn’t it? A carryover, I think, from the heyday of trad pub and its position as the anointer of authors. Yet I’ve read so very many stories that are as good as most and even better than some of what’s traditionally published that wound up in drawers, or whose authors small-press or indie-pubbed. I saw it when I was an actor too–some of the most talented folks I knew didn’t “make it.”

      It’s based on so much more than a story or author’s objective merit–especially these days, with marketing and the bottom line being king. It helps, I think, to remind ourselves of that if we deem traditional publishing the only arbiter of whether a story is “publishable” or worthwhile. Congrats to you, my friend, for honoring and celebrating yourself and your creative pursuits according to your own standards. I look forward to reading your story when it’s ready. Thanks for sharing this.

      Reply
  • Vaughn Roycroft
    February 11, 2022 12:30 am

    Aw, thanks so much—what a kind and supportive reply. My wife and I were just talking about your post over dinner, and we got a little emotional, too. She reminded me that without that decade of striving, this moment wouldn’t exist. Not just fully appreciating the freedom, etc. The finding of belief—the sort of faith in myself and my story that provides this sense of being at peace, without the validation.

    I know that not only have you found that, too, but that you help others find it for themselves. How cool is that? What greater calling can there be? Thanks again, and cheers, my friend.

    Reply
  • Tiffany, your article resonates deeply with me. I recently quit my job to write full-time for one year, knowing full well the odds are stacked against me as a new author. Yet, I feel liberated. I’m learning so much and my 13 year-old twins have said that they are inspired by my decision. They watch me write every day and laugh with me (hopefully not at me too much) as I read them select passages of my novel series to get their input (I write upper middle grade fantasy fiction which is right up their alley). My year of writing is an experience we all get to share. I so appreciate your honesty and encouragement. Thank you!

    Reply
    • Tiffany Yates Martin
      February 28, 2022 11:46 pm

      Good for you, Kristen! How wonderful you have the chance to write full-time, if that’s one of your dreams. What a great opportunity to dedicate yourself to your writing–and I love that your kids are inspired by seeing you honor your goals. What a fantastic example to set. (Nice that they are also a built-in test audience for your writing!) I hope the year is everything you hope for–good luck with your writing. Thanks for sharing that!

      Reply

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