Chip MacGregor

June 24, 2016

Ask the Agent: Is it realistic to think of making my living at writing?


I’ve been talking about authors trying to make a living at writing recently, and a couple people have written to ask me, “Is it realistic to think of actually making a living with my words?”

To me, the answer is personal. One author may feel she is making a living when she’s earning $1500 per month; another may feel she isn’t really making a living until she’s making $3000 per month; still another won’t feel she’s really making it until she’s at $6000 per month. I think you have to pick an amount based on your own situation, look at your options, and determine if you can make it work. What are your household income needs? What’s reasonable for you to earn over the course of a year? How much time do you have to devote to writing?

There’s nothing sacred about making a living at art. Some can do it; others (who are just as good artists) struggle to do it. Today’s book publishing market makes it easier to try than it used to be, since you can post projects on Amazon and SmashWords and try to generate income. Just recognize that it’s hard. Our industry tends to get filled with people claiming they’re making huge money self-publishing, when in fact  making real money at writing (or at ANY type of art) is hard. I believe in writers making something from their self-published books, but I’ve grown tired of the BS from those claiming all you’ve got to do is post a book on Amazon and suddenly the Publishing Fairy will show up and sprinkle you with golden coins.

The fact is, whether you’re writing books or painting pictures or playing your guitar or dancing on stage or acting in a play, art is a tough way to make a living. So most of us probably don’t do it for the money — we do it because we have a story to tell, or we have a message to get out, or we have voices in our head that we have to write down because it’s our creative expression and the place we find meaning and freedom. I’m all for that… I just don’t want you confusing “creative expression” with “money,” because they don’t always go together.

When I started free-lancing, I was working other jobs (I hosted a radio show called “On the Record with Dr Chip MacGregor,” taught some classes, spoke here and there). At first my writing income was slim, but I had set a goal when I started of just earning $100 per month from writing pieces. I did articles and reviews and wrote PR copy, then I discovered editing and rewriting other people’s work, and it turned into a business. Over time I had more writing and editing projects coming in, and I saw my monthly income from writing move from $100 to $300, then quickly to $500 then $1000 per month. I had a big jump from $1000 to $1500, then to $1800 per month. When I began making an average of $2000 per month, I realized I could make more money if I gave up my part-time jobs and just focused on the writing and editorial work. Granted, this was a number of years ago (I think Coolidge might have been president), but I had three kids and a mortgage payment, and making more than $2000 each month was enough to live on. (Amazon didn’t exist back then, unfortunately — so let me just say again that Amazon and SmashWords are a fabulous blessing to all authors, and if you can use them to make a part of your living, then you should.)

Now, if you’re thinking about making a living with your writing, I think you need to ask yourself, “How much do I need to make?” You may choose to set a small goal from your writing at first, then grow it over time as your writing career moves forward. You have to begin to see “words” as “money” — that is, your writing having value. Even though it’s art, I think you have to begin to see words as a commodity. One of the things you’ll discover is that when you look at words that way, there are an enormous number of avenues for you to make money with words besides just writing books. Maybe you can teach writing classes, or start a collaborative writing business. Perhaps you can do freelance editing (every publisher is looking for good copyeditors, in my experience). You might be able to do some work for local organizations who will pay a writer and editor to help with newsletters and online information. Or you can write for your local newspaper, or check into local or regional magazines — even mid-sized cities often have monthly or quarterly magazines that feature tourism and business news about the local area, and what every magazine publisher will tell you is that each edition is a monster that has to be fed. They need content to fill up pages, and nobody is going to feel sorry for them if they don’t have enough words with interesting stories to fill those pages. The days of e-zines have pushed many of the print magazines to the background, so while you may find at first that e-zines aren’t paying much, the real money on the web is in business.

Every business and organization in America has a website, and they all need content for those sites. (Quiz: Who writes content for most websites? Marketing companies. Which is to say, “a lot of high school grads.”) When the web first started (or, as I like to say, “when Al Gore first invented the internet”), websites were similar to billboards along the freeway. You’d stop at a site and it would read, “Don’s Plumbing: Great Service, Low Rates – Call 555-1234.” But businesses quickly learned there was no reason for readers to ever visit again. So if you go to the website for Don’s Plumbing today, you’ll find the company history, a profile of each plumber who works there, a section where you can make an appointment, another page where you can order parts, a fix-it-yourself guide, and a history of indoor plumbing. Um… SOMEBODY has to write all that text. And then somebody ELSE has to go back and edit it, because the first version of it was probably terrible, since it was edited by the owner’s son. So writing and editing online content for businesses and organizations is a huge market right now, as is any sort of marketing writing. (And the concept of marketing writing requires its own blog posts, but probably for somebody else’s site.)

As I noted the other day, there are more people reading than ever before, and more opportunities to read than ever in the history of the world. So… don’t get stuck into the mindset that all your writing income must come from books. Books are often one part of the equation, at least when you’re getting started on your career. Set a financial goal, start to work toward it, and look for opportunities to generate some income from your writing skill. That’s how you get started making a living at writing.

I’d love to hear from some of you who are doing it. What advice would you have for writers who are just starting the process of making a living at writing? 

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