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.
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.
- 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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