The Dirty Business of Making Money as a Writer

JH Moncrieff - Pyragraph
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This post was originally published on J.H. Moncrieff’s blog and reposted here with kind permission.

Writing is one of the only careers where it’s considered gauche if you expect to make a living.

As writers, we survive on faith. We spend hundreds of hours putting words down on paper, not sure if anyone will ever pay us for our efforts. Or read them. Or care.

How long would you stay at your job if payment were uncertain? What if every time you asked when that paycheck was coming, people reacted with horror and told you that you should be doing your job because you love it?

Welcome to the world of writing.

Writing for love and writing for money are not mutually exclusive.

I met an extremely prolific writer recently. This woman supports herself and her two children by blogging—yes, that’s right, blogging. She writes 11 blogs. Another stream of her income comes from e-fiction. She manages to write three full-length novels each year, along with a number of shorter projects. Her genre of choice is high fantasy.

But she plans to start writing romance. Why? Because she can earn more money writing romance.

I was shocked. Not at the fact that she wanted to—and planned to—make money with her writing by coolly assessing which genres do better than others, but because she’d admitted it. Out loud.

I could almost hear the naysayers shrieking in the background. “But you have to write what you love! You can’t write to the market! You’ll fail! You can’t write expecting to make money.”

Or, that favorite old saw, “If you hope to make money, don’t be a writer.”

Bullshit. There are plenty of writers who write to make a living, and they do quite well. Ever heard of John Saul? I once heard this master of horror tell a room full of writers that he hates scary books and never reads them. That his own books would give him nightmares. So why does he write them? Because his publisher needed a horror writer.

Writing is an art form, sure. But it is also entertainment. And first and foremost, it is a business. When agents and editors are assessing our work, they are trying to determine if it will sell. Not if we’ve created a spectacular work of art, but if anyone will care enough to buy it.

Why are novelists who write for young adults suddenly in such high demand? Because all the publishing houses thought it would be great to encourage more young people to read? No, because J.K. Rowling proved that this genre can sell, and sell big. Everyone is looking for the next Harry Potter.

Shakespeare wrote to pay the bills. So did Charles Dickens. And we still know their names today because they wrote what their audiences enjoyed. Their work survived and got passed down and many people still enjoy it today.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t write what you love. Writing what you love will give you the drive to keep going, to finish the book, and maybe to submit it to publishers. Writing to a trend is dangerous, because trends change. But my writing friend is smart—she writes what has always been popular, what is consistently popular, not what is hot right now and only now. By calculating how best to spend her time, she can make a living doing what she loves. Which is writing, no matter the genre.

Writing for love and writing for money are not mutually exclusive. Why not strive for both? I’m so tired of hearing that writers who make a living are somehow less talented, less intelligent, or less high-minded than those who survive on grants. That getting published this way is better than getting published that way. That a popular book is automatically a worthless book. Can you imagine anyone telling a doctor that making a good living means he doesn’t care about his patients?

I love to write. Always have. I love writing to the point where I’m trying to write fiction for a living. That means what I write has to make money.

I’m coming out of the closet with my friend and saying that’s okay. It’s okay to accept that writing is a business, and that considering how and where you will sell your work—and who you will sell it to—does not make you a sell-out.

It makes you smart.

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  1. That’s a great perspective! I think most creative arts suffer from the “do it for love/exposure” mentality, but writing has to be the worst. Nobody guilts photographers for shooting weddings to pay the bills, even if their true love is landscapes.

  2. I love this article. It’s so true and right. Writing is a business if you do it to make money and there’s nothing wrong with that. Writing is also an artform, and if you are confortable doing it without making money from it, well then be happy because that’s okay too.

  3. So many great points! People value what they pay so why not get paid for your writing? And with all the new media (blogs, online magazines, social news, etc.) there are more opportunities to get paid as a writer so why not?

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