Making a Living as a Writer: Challenges
We’ve talked about volume and variety as the two keys to making a living as a writer. But we need to face the fact that there are some serious challenges to making this dream of “full time writing” come true. As much as you love to write, it may or may not be the life for you. Here are a few thoughts on some of the obstacles:
1. Your publisher limits your ability to publish “on the side.” Traditional publishers make a significant investment of time and money in each book they commit to produce, market and sell. Consequently, there are restrictions built into the publishing contract designed to protect their investment. For example, if your publisher is selling your suspense novel for $14.99, and you decide to self-publish a suspense novel on Amazon and sell it for $1.99, you’re undercutting your publisher, unfairly competing with them and hampering their ability to sell your book. So they have contractual safeguards against this.
These contractual “non-competes” are a bigger topic than we can fully cover today. As publishing continues to morph, agents will need to work with publishers to carefully hammer out a non-compete clause that is fair to the publisher and protects their investment, yet doesn’t unfairly impede the author’s ability to profit from their writing. (We’re already trying to do this, with mixed results.) The bottom line here is that when you sign a contract for a publisher to produce and distribute your book, you’ll be obligated to help protect their investment, and this puts limits on your freedom to publish wantonly in order to create volume.
2. You have limited time. It takes considerable time to do all the writing and marketing, not to mention chasing down new leads and opportunities. And a certain amount of your time must be spent in revenue-generating activities, whether that’s your day job or writing. Only you can determine if it’s possible to organize your time in such a way that the full-time writing life is possible.
3. You can’t create volume because your books aren’t selling enough. Sadly, this can be a reality for many writers. Maybe you have a couple of books published and you’re trying to create that “long tail” but your books aren’t selling well enough to be getting royalty checks. Maybe they’re not selling enough to interest a publisher in contracting more books from you. You’re trying, but the long tail just isn’t materializing. Does this mean it never will? No, you can always try different strategies. But we definitely need to face the fact that sometimes this just doesn’t work out the way we hope, or as quickly as we hope.
4. There’s NOT a lot of security in the writing life. If you’ve become used to things like health insurance, a paycheck every couple of weeks, and actually getting money back from Uncle Sam at tax time, the writing life can be a rude awakening. It can quickly take you back to the days of living paycheck to paycheck… except you’re never quite sure if or when that next paycheck is actually coming. It means you’re always hustling for the next job, because after all, you’re an entrepreneur now—a small business owner. I’ve helped authors through these stresses more times than I can count. So I recommend you assess yourself carefully and honestly. Are you cut out for it?
As I was writing this series on making a living as a writer, it occurred to me that maybe the most important key, beyond volume or variety or acknowledging the challenges, is this: that in order to make a LIVING as a writer, we have to stop romanticizing it.
That doesn’t mean we take the joy out of it, but it means we take off our rose-colored glasses and truly approach writing as both our calling and our business. (I actually think this can make it an even greater joy. ) At some point we have to stop saying “I write because I have to” or “I write for the pure joy of it” and change the inner mantra to something like, “I’m aiming to make a living from doing what I love, and that means treating it like a business. I can still love it, even if it’s a business.”
So what do you think? Did you ever dream of the full-time-writing life, and if so, do you still? What are some other challenges you’ve come across?