For Love or Money?

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By Debbie Burke

@burke_writer

Has anyone ever said to you: “How nice that you enjoy writing. It’s such a wonderful hobby.”

Did you bristle?

Yeah, me too.

“Writing is not a damn hobby! I just don’t get paid for it!” 

 

Considering the amount of work, study, and time we put into our writing, the term “hobby” sounds insulting. Yet, try to convince the IRS that a new computer and a research trip to Greece are valid expenses to write off if one’s income is a measly three figures.

The tug of war between writing as vocation vs. avocation never ends.

A keynote speaker at a Colorado conference I attended in the 1990s posed a question: If there was no possibility you’d ever be published, would you still write?

Like most of the 400 diehards in the audience, I raised my hand.

An updated version of that question might be: If there was no possibility you’d ever be paid, would you still write?

The answer is still yes.

Way back in the last century, long before Kindle was even a gleam in Bezos’s eye, I decided to become a full-time writer. Aside from a few short stories published in long-ago college literary mags, I had zero experience.

The plight of the unpublished writer is like the job where you need experience in order to be hired, yet how do you get that experience if no one will hire you?

To jumpstart my new career, I gave away articles and short stories. Someday, I hoped, someone would think my writing was good enough to pay me.

The love of writing sustained me for years when I earned exactly zero.

Meanwhile, though, I took classes, joined critique groups, attended conferences, and studied craft books. In other words, I did my homework and paid my dues.

My first sale was a short story to a little literary magazine for the princely sum of $5. At last, I had a published clip!

However…the check bounced.

Oh well.

For years, I kept that check to remind myself never to become too cocky. It also taught me the transitory nature of the writing business. One day, you summit the mountain; the next day, you drown in the gutter of rejection.

During the time when I gave away my work, a full-time travel freelancer named Jacquie spoke to our writing group. She was the consummate pro. She shared how to earn more money by re-purposing the same article for many different markets; how to take photos that sell an article; and how to develop ongoing relationships with editors who called her whenever they needed a story. She made a good enough living from writing that she could afford a lovely riverfront condo and enjoy exotic travel with expenses she deducted on her taxes.

Jacquie also made a point that I had not yet considered at the time. She said when writers give away their work, it undermines the ability of professionals to earn a living.

That made me pause. Now I felt guilty for giving away work because that deprived someone trying to support a family. Yet that’s how most writers must do their apprenticeship.

I finally broke the pay barrier when a journalist friend couldn’t fulfill an assignment and  asked me to cover the story for her. That led to an infrequent but regular paying gig with a prestigious state magazine.

With published clips under my belt, I queried other markets and got to know more editors. Because I always met deadlines and didn’t require major rewrites, soon I was on staff for several periodicals and became a quarterly columnist for a glossy wildlife magazine. Pay ranged from a penny to a dime per word.

Do the math—no riverfront condo.

My all-time best pay came from a little 300-word profile of a jazz pianist named Nina Russell for the AARP Magazine (then called Modern Maturity).

A dollar a word. In 1995. Wow!

Unfortunately, lightning didn’t strike twice. But my going rate rose to 20 cents a word.

That paid for printing costs and postage to submit my novels to agents and editors. Yes, back in the last century, writers mailed paper manuscripts via the post office.

But… the internet and electronic publishing spelled doom for many print magazines. I used to joke that I’d personally put at least 20 of them out of business but I can’t take all the credit.

The early 2000s saw a sea change in the market from print to electronic format. The advent of Kindle Direct Publishing in 2007 revolutionized the book world.

By 2010, some authors who jumped on board early were making a decent living by self-publishing. One friend remodeled her house with KDP earnings. A few became wealthy.

But the law of supply and demand rules the market. With millions of writers publishing millions of books, articles, blog posts, etc., the market quickly became glutted.

On top of that, why pay for what you can get for free?

Thousands of websites, blogs, newsletters, and platforms like WattPad offer  information and entertainment…for free.

Articles and short stories that, back in the 1990s, would have commanded four figures from The Atlantic and The New Yorker are now available for only a mouse click.

More outlets than ever need content but millions more writers are also clamoring to fill those needs, often without pay.

Despite the low market value of writing itself, an entire cottage industry has sprung up to support the self-publishing community with marketing, editing, cover design, book formatting, coaching, etc. Although I don’t have verifiable proof, I firmly believe most authors pay more to these support businesses than readers pay to authors for their books.

Don’t forget Bezos, who’s done just fine servicing authors.

Remember the dollar/word I made in 1995? More than a quarter century later, here’s a link to top-paying markets for freelancers. Fifty cents is about the max you can expect today. Some are down to a penny or dime/word, same rates as when I started.

Yet the gallon of gas that was $1.15 in 1995 now costs $4.

Factor in the disaster of 2020 and writing incomes dropped further. According to the Authors Guild, “…by January [2021], over two thirds [of writers surveyed] had lost a significant portion of their income—almost half of their pre-pandemic incomes on average—due to the loss of freelance journalism work, speaking engagements and teaching jobs, as well as low book sales due to bookstore closures.”

Highly respected writing/marketing guru Jane Friedman never shrinks from shining a light on cold, hard reality. She tackles the uncomfortable subject of current author earnings in this post.

Jacquie the successful travel journalist is no doubt spinning in her grave. The nice living that she once made as a freelancer nowadays translates more accurately to the revenue from your kid’s lemonade stand.

There are more authors with 15-year-old Subarus than chauffeur-driven limos.

I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer but that’s the reality of the profession we’ve chosen.

Yet…there are other forms of payment.

“Your character totally captured how I felt.”

 “I could see the place like I was right there.”

“I’m a crusty old Marine but your story brought tears to my eyes.”

“I’m disabled and don’t get out much. Your books make me forget my troubles for a little while.”

“Your book kept me up all night. I couldn’t put it down.”

How much are the above reader comments worth?

Well, they won’t buy a new laptop or pay for a research trip to Greece.

But there’s something about making that connection with readers that feeds my soul.

This year, I’ve concentrated more on marketing than in the past and book sales are gradually rising. But I’m not ready to sign a contract for a riverfront condo yet.

Meanwhile, I continue to treat writing as a profession, working as hard for unpaid stories as I do for paid ones.

Will I keep writing even though the pay is lousy?

Yup.

~~~

TKZers: Would you keep writing if you never got paid? What’s the best reader comment you’ve ever received?

This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, #writerslife, #WritingCommunity, A Writer's Life, Author Earnings Report, Jane Friedman, Writing by Debbie Burke. Bookmark the permalink.

About Debbie Burke

Debbie writes Tawny Lindholm Thrillers with Passion. The first book in the series, Instrument of the Devil, won the Kindle Scout contest and the Zebulon Award. Additional books in the series are Stalking Midas, Eyes in the Sky, Dead Man's Bluff, Crowded Hearts, and Flight to Forever. Debbie's articles have won journalism awards in international publications. She is a founding member of Authors of the Flathead and helps to plan the annual Flathead River Writers Conference in Kalispell, Montana. Her greatest joy is mentoring young writers. http://www.debbieburkewriter.com

51 thoughts on “For Love or Money?

  1. Good morning, Debbie. Spoken right from the heart and the bowels of reality. It’s a tough go to gain traction in the indie fiction market but, once it happens, it’s so worth it.

    Answer 1: Absolutely. 100 percent.
    Answer 2: A Tweet to me on my book In The Attic – “You. You kept me awake until 4am and I had to work in the morning.”

    • Garry, you’re a great example of how to market successfully. Thanks to your generous guidance, my income from fiction is climbing to match my income from nonfiction.

      Nonfiction has always had a bigger market than fiction and therefore is much easier to sell. But fiction is so damn much fun.

  2. Absolutely. I feel very special being the first person ever to get to read my characters’ stories, and I’m honored they share them with me.

    Too many books and stories and reader comments to pick out a “best” comment, but the most surprising comment I ever received was on a short story called “Old Suits.”

    I didn’t like the story very much to be honest. But I’d written it and I was trying to learn that it isn’t my place to attempt to predict reader taste. So I slapped a very drab cover on it and published it anyway because what do I know? (You can see it at https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00KMBSW2U.)

    Maybe two weeks after I published it a lady emailed me from France. She said the story reminded her of Hemingway’s stories, and that it was one of the best short stories she’d ever read. Natch, I was besided myself. That’s when “Never attempt to predict reader taste” moved from a casual thought to a mantra, set in concrete for me forever.

    • Harvey, great point. You can never anticipate how readers will react.

      I learned that from my first book club appearance where readers were fascinated by parts of the book that I found dull yet they didn’t notice (or at least mention) other parts that I thought were wonderful.

  3. Interesting question. I would keep writing because the stories have always been in my mind, are still there, and I can’t turn them off. Besides, writing, finding just the right word, twist, turn of phrase, is fun.
    I received a letter from a reader who had fallen in love with a male character in one of my books. She was insistent that I tell her who I’d based him on. Glad he wasn’t my husband, as she might have made a play for him, I explained he was no one real. I have never based a character on a real person. Not sure she believed me, but it was nice to know I’d created a fictional character who appeared so real on the page.

  4. Thanks for discussing this topic, Debbie Downer. Great post and discussion. I’m glad you kept writing and are part of this TKZ community!

    For love or money. I would keep writing even if wasn’t getting paid. That’s the love of writing. I’m also leaving a legacy for my grandchildren.

    My favorite quote: My fourth middle-grade fantasy, HEART BRAIN 180 ( a parody on cell phone addiction), was published a few days ago. One of the beta readers made my day with this quote after he read the book: “Wow! What an ending. That might have been the best book I have read in the last couple years. P.S. I’m now a huge fan.”

    • Thanks for your kind words, Steve.

      I don’t mean to be Debbie Downer but whenever I hear of a newer writer who quit their day job or took out a second mortgage to finance what they hope will be their bestselling career, I cringe. Inexperienced writers need to be aware of the reality of the marketplace.

      A legacy for your grandchildren is worth far more than money!

  5. I never expected to make money from my writing, so it’s all gravy. I’ve said it before here–I write because otherwise I’d be expected to clean the toilets.”

    A reader email that stuck with me was from someone who “only read literary fiction” but she’d been given a copy of one of my books. She was reading it as a diversion on a trip and wrote that “she was so caught up that while she was sitting in the terminal waiting for her connecting flight, she forgot to get something to eat.”

    • Causing a reader to forget to eat is high praise indeed, Terry!

      The “gravy” mindset keeps a writer from going crazy. A friend sets aside her fiction income as “bonus” money. Over the years, the bonus keeps adding up and has allowed her to extensively remodel her house.

  6. Debbie, Thank you. So smart and on-target!

    Your story about the $5 check that bounced reminds me of something an old-time successful paperback writer (he’d written 100s of books) once told me. He said he only believed a check from a publisher was any good until after he’d cashed it — and spent it. lol

  7. Beautiful, Debbie. I think most writers write for love not money. Getting paid is much nicer, though. 😉 Have you considered doing book events? I had the best signing of my career last weekend, and I’m still riding the high.

    To answer your first question: Yes, I would still write if I didn’t get paid.
    The compliment that brought the most tears to my eyes: Sage and Niko are my best friends.
    Whenever the thought of ending the Grafton County Series pops in my mind, I think of her and write the next book. And sure enough, she’s the first person to arrive at all my book signings, eager to see what her best friends are up to now.

    • Thanks, Sue. We hardcore writers write b/c we can’t not write.

      Congratulations on your successful signing! Your first-person-in-line fan is a wonderful blessing but you also earned her loyalty with great books.

      Yes, I love book appearances and am planning another for Labor Day weekend.

      Reminder to readers: TKZ contributors are glad to talk to your book club or writing group via zoom. Just click on “Request a TKZ speaker” in the banner at the top of the TKZ site.

  8. Thanks for an eye-opening and somber post, Debbie. To answer your question…oh, yeah. If you have stories to tell you have to tell them, period. Besides, you meet the most interesting people along the way.

    Have a great day!

    • Joe, you are one of those interesting people I’m glad to have met along the way.

      I don’t mean to sound somber but these are things I wish someone had told me when I was starting out.

      Oh yeah, someone DID tell me–I just didn’t listen!

  9. I have a lot of hope but I’ve always kept my expectations low. That helps me a little more than trying to shoot for the gold medal.

    This article reminds me of the quote of the day I just sent out – “If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t you’ll find an excuse.” – By Jim Rohn.

    Have a great week.

  10. If there was no possibility of ever being paid, heck no, I wouldn’t keep writing books. Maybe some short stuff for amusement. But a quality, readable, full-length novel is hard work. If I knew starting out there was not one penny to be gained, I’d be a blockhead to continue (“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” – Samuel Johnson).

    Thankfully, your hypothetical is only a mental exercise. There is always the possibility–nay, the certainty–of getting paid for our writing, if we are diligent, professional, and business minded. That payment may only be Subway money, but it will include chips and a drink. You then have to decide if that return is worth it. If you see an upward trend each time, your decision will be easier.

    Add to that the reader connections, which have a value all their own. My favorite email of late is: “You’re my new favorite author! I’m on book 3 of Romeo and love this series. Keep writing…thanks!”

    I’ll keep writing.

    • Jim, you are the pinnacle to which the rest of us aspire. You earned your success and reputation through decades of hard work and superior performance.

      I’ll keep reaching but I fear I won’t live long enough to approach your achievements.

  11. For years, I was on the forefront of the book pirate and anti-copyright wars. In one public discussion, one jerk said, “Writers have to write so they’ll do that even if we don’t pay for it.”

    I replied, “But the good, published writers won’t publish and give it all away for free to jerks like you.”

    Later on, I followed through on those words for other reasons and retired because the crap just wasn’t worth it for what I was making. All my new stories are floating around in my head, now.

    • Marilynn, thanks for your work on behalf of us writers. You’ve been in the trenches. Now you share your hard-won wisdom in your comments here and I appreciate that.

  12. Yeah, Debbie, I received a comment from the IRS on our taxes a couple of years ago. HOBBY!

    Grrr….if I could have replied, I would’ve said, “It’s a darn sight better than sitting in your little windowless cubicle staring at numbers and playing with other people’s money…” 🙂

    Three beta readers for a current WIP all stated they couldn’t put it down. Ka-ching! (Not the sound of money, though.) And one said she immediately identified with the MC and asked if I’d been spying on her.

    Might not be gold according to the money guys, but it’s pure gold to me.

  13. Great post, Debbie. I love the story about the $5 check. It’s a good reminder to all of us.

    I would definitely keep writing no matter what. I have found much satisfaction in the whole process of creating a story and putting in the hard work of getting it published. In addition to touching the lives of other people, I find the act of writing refines my very being.

    This is probably not the best reader comment I received, but it’s one that caught me by surprise recently and gave me an adrenaline rush. It was an email from Will Shortz, the editor of the New York Times crossword puzzle and NPR Puzzle. About a year ago I sent him a copy of my first novel since it was a puzzle-based mystery and I thought (but didn’t really believe) he might be interested. However, I sent it via the New York Times and he only received it a few weeks ago. He kindly took it up, and here’s what he said:
    “having a little time to spare I started it — and to my surprise I couldn’t stop. I finished a little after midnight… Nice job!”

    I’ll include another one just because it’s so cute. This is from an Amazon review:
    “I wish y’all could see me right now because I’m jumping up and down in giddy bibliophile delight over this newly discovered author and her Watch series… you don’t often find inspirational cozy mysteries so that has me all in a twitterpated state as well. 🙂 I can’t wipe the Cheshire grin off my face.”

    I don’t know who the person is who left that review, but I hope they write their own books. He / she certainly knows how to turn a phrase!

    • Kay, you just never know who will read your work when you put it out there. How cool that you captured Will Shortz’s attention.

      “Twitterpated” is high praise!

  14. 1. No question, I’d still write.

    2. A critique partner recently commented about the first five pages of my WIP. When she reached the last page I’d sent her, she turned it over, looking for more. Her reaction was, “Where’s the rest of the story? You can’t just stop me here. I have to know what happens next.” You can probably still see my grin.

  15. The check bounced? Oh Debbie, that’s sad, but I laughed so hard.

    1. Yes, it stimulates my brain and is so darn satisfying to put words down. At the same time, I won’t submit stories to non-paying markets for the reasons you gave.
    2. So far, I have one published story in an anthology called The Vampire Connoisseur. A reviewer said, “The climactic scene is so poetic, so full of grit and grace, that I felt like simultaneously crying and cheering.”

  16. “Would you keep writing if you never got paid?”

    Depends on how you define “writing.” If in the journaling/emailing/having-fun-with-words sense, then sure. I write (as I speak) as a form of interpersonal communication. I don’t expect payment for that.

    But if in a commercial/marketplace sense (and all of my multiple careers have been very “commercial”), then NO. Because I’m not a Writer in that sense. I’m an Author/Publisher (Indie). It’s a business. And business requires an exchange of value. I provide books, stories, licenses, etc. and receive some kind of payment (whether cash, in-kind, whatever) for the value I provide. If that didn’t happen I would find something else that did.

    But great topic!

  17. I’m a rookie in this line of work and green as green corn gets, but I reckon that if all the people at the conference felt suitably chastened and never wrote another line that Jacquie could not show that she had one more dollar in her purse.
    Just my opinion, mind you.

    • Robert, your observation is accurate. The reason I mentioned Jacquie is she caused me to consider a perspective I’d never thought of before.

      No shame in being a rookie–we all start out that way. Glad you’re here–TKZ is a great place to ripen. 🙂

  18. I’ve always loved to write but judging from the previous comments, I might be mercenary.

    For years, I wrote poetry and never expected to get paid for it, especially since I never submitted it anywhere. Then I got paid 10 cents a word for my first published article, which was for a library trade publication. A few years later, I was hired to write fifteen articles for a higher rate. Shortly thereafter, I became hooked on writing flash fiction for publication in small literary journals, sometimes for payment, sometimes not, but it was so much fun to write.

    After a few years of writing and submitting flash fiction and prose poetry, I published my first novel. Novels take me a long time to write without any interim payoffs in money or satisfaction. If nobody bought my novels, I would stop draining my time and energy writing those and go back to writing flash fiction and prose poems.

    • I forgot to add: I wrote the nonfiction articles for money and professional advancement, which was rewarding but not necessarily fun. Although I learned a lot from writing those articles, I wouldn’t go back to writing nonfiction on a regular basis, even though the pay rate was good. I much prefer writing and publishing fiction.

      • TL, you don’t sound mercenary at all.

        I always liked alternating long projects like novels with short stories and articles. The short work delivered faster gratification in publication and pay while you’re waiting for a novel to grind through the long haul.

  19. Nice hobby. Oh, you’re a parent, nice hobby.
    Hmmmm.
    There are a couple of lines from the Rolling Stone song “”One Hit” (Dirty Work album) that explains how I feel about writing.

    Oh your love is a sweet addiction
    I can’t clean you out of my veins
    It’s a life long affliction
    That has damaged my brain

    Work for money, hah. It isn’t work. It’s therapy.

  20. Coming late to this post, today, Debbie. Yes, absolutely I’d write regardless of whether I was paid or not. For many years, my goal was to make a living from my writing, to be able to quit my day job. But, it’s the writing itself that matters. I under a thousand dollars from my writing between 2001 and 2016, nearly half from one contribution to a rule playing book, the rest from short stories and a few articles. I started self-publishing novels at the beginning of 2017. Since then, I’ve earned several times that each year.

    Not enough to live on, but enough to reward myself and keep a “war chest” for future publishing. But, now that I’m retired from my day job, and can write full time, writing for the love of it, that’s my motivation. To create compelling stories and novels and share them readers by publishing them on all the platforms and in multiple mediums.

    I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to do so.

    Thanks for a very moving post today. It’s a long road for many of us, and truly, I believe it’s the journey that counts the most.

    • Thanks, Dale. I also feel incredibly fortunate and look forward to work every day. The journey is also where we meet kindred spirits…like you!

  21. When I started writing, I adopted a rule that served me well: “Write for money.” I was writing articles for hobby magazines at the time, and I realized that if I aimed at being paid for everything I wrote, it would add a level of challenge I wouldn’t have if I did a random walk through the Writing Zone. The next year I sold my first nonfiction book to a major publisher (who quickly went out of business, but it wasn’t my fault, I swear!). These writing credits made it child’s play to embark on a full-time technical writing career at interesting companies.

    I later relaxed this rule (I’ve written more than one novel-length fanfiction, for example), but it served me well in the beginning.

    • Robert, challenging yourself like that shows your commitment to your goal and it worked well for you. When you raise your expectations, you tend to live up to them.

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