For Love or Money?

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By Debbie Burke


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The plight of the unpublished writer is like the job where you need experience in order to be hired, yet how do you get that experience if no one will hire you?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



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

Can You Believe the Kindle is Ten Years Old?

by James Scott Bell

The Kindle turns ten next month. My, how that little baby has grown!

When Amazon’s ereader first came out (November 19, 2007 to be exact), I sensed most people were skeptical about the future of digital reading. The Sony Reader had been around for years but failed to take hold. “Electronic books” were thought to be the coming thing around Y2K. Publishers Weekly even started a section to cover the subject, but later dropped it due to failure to launch.

Clearly, serious readers preferred paper. So the Kindle would probably sell to some early adopters, but likely would not revolutionize anything.

**clears throat**

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey gave the Kindle her endorsement. Talk about a boost! Then people began to realize they could have all the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky on a single device which they could take on a plane or a train or (in L.A. commuter traffic) an automobile. Pretty doggone cool!

And the biz mavens realized that Amazon was (as always, it seems) making a powerful and forward-thinking business move—selling the Kindle as a gateway to their massive bookstore.

Here at TKZ, we were analyzing all this from the start. On Kindle’s one-year anniversary our own Kathryn Lilley wrote:

I think it’s time for all of us to stop mourning the nongrowth of paper book sales, and celebrate the new digital age. It’s the future. Let’s embrace it. For example, last week when I posted, I was freaking out about the changes in the industry. This week, I have decided to reframe my thoughts about the book publishing crisis, and seek out the hidden opportunities in those changes.

Because ready or not, the digital era is here. Kindle products like the Oasis are still going strong. In fact, this review of Oasis is spot on.

And what did all this mean for authors? Well, beginning in 2009 or so, it became apparent that Amazon was presenting a viable new way for writers to get published—by their own selves!

And get this: by offering authors an unheard of 70% royalty split!

The lit hit the fan.

A complete unknown named Amanda Hocking made a cool couple of million dollars publishing directly on Amazon!

This got the attention of many, including TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison, and a mainstream mystery author by the name of Joe Konrath who, via his blog, began to champion the new digital possibilities.

When I went to Bouchercon in San Francisco in October of 2010, everybody was wondering how to get in on the ebook thing without ticking off their agent or publisher. Agents (and I heard several) were warning writers not to “go there” for fear it would jeopardize their careers. Publishers were not at all sanguine about their authors moonlighting with a company they saw as their biggest threat. Some writers even got sued or terminated over this.

But the money was dropping off Kindle trees! That could not be ignored.

A funny thing happened at that Bouchercon. I was sitting with a couple of writer friends in the lobby of the SF Hyatt Regency, talking about all this, when Joe Konrath arrived and made his way to the bar area. He was flocked by fellow authors peppering him with questions.

The next day, at lunchtime, I was outside the Hyatt and spotted Mr. Konrath and one Barry Eisler walking and talking excitedly along the sidewalk. I thought, “What is that all about?”

A few months later I found out. Mr. Eisler, a New York Times bestselling thriller author, turned down half a million bucks from his publisher in order to publish with Amazon!

It was the talk of the industry. I saw it as a real tipping point. In fact, I gave it a name: “The Eisler Sanction.”

Self-publishing was getting serious.

I put my own toe in the E waters in February of 2011. Now I’m all wet.

So ten years after the birth of the Kindle, what have we seen?

1. Kindle devices and apps are awesome. I’m currently reading the two-volume memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, easily highlighting passages I want to review later. The General is bivouacked on my phone. Cost me 99¢.

2. While other ereaders have appeared—notably Nook and Kobo—the Kindle is dominant and unlikely to lose market share. The poor Nook, which is also a cool device, is hanging by a thread.

3. Kindle Direct Publishing has saved the careers of thousands of midlist writers, and created the careers of thousands more who are making good-to-massive lettuce every month. Those who are doing well have mastered some basic practices but also concentrate on the most important thing: quality and production.

4. The traditional publishing industry was hit hard by the digital disruption. There have been mergers, layoffs, shrinking profits and even a DOJ smackdown.

5. But the Forbidden City is still open for business. And while large-advance deals for debut authors are becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby, they still happen.

6. There has been chatter about the “comeback” of print books, but it appears that most of any increase in print sales can be traced to … Amazon. (And here’s a counterintuitive development: Millennials may actually prefer print books!)

7. Big bookstores took a huge hit due to e-commerce. The massive Borders chain of stores went down, followed by Family Christian. Barnes & Noble stores have been closing steadily for the last eight years, a trend that will likely continue.

8. However, local independent bookstores may be emerging through the cracks. Oh, and guess who else is opening up physical stores? Amazon.

9. On the other hand, many niche bookstores are closing. The latest is Seattle’s Mystery Bookshop.

10. We’ve reached a period of relative stasis in the “self v. trad wars.” From 2010 to 2014 or so, it seemed like we’d get blogosphere firestorms every week cheering for, or predicting the demise of, Big Pub. There was also a lot of “gold rush” talk on the indie side. Reality, as it is wont to do, has settled things down. There’s a lot of information out there now (e.g., Author Earnings reports) and the savvy players have a better handle on where they stand.

In an episode of Downton Abbey, when it became clear that the old ways of life were on the way out, never to return, Carson the butler mused, “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

Kindle brought the flux. And a decade later, we’re living it.

What do you say, TKZers? What are your reflections on the 10th birthday of the Kindle?

It’s The Best Time On Earth To Be A Writer

Since 2009 or so, I’ve been saying to people it’s the best time on earth to be a writer. We all know why. Digital self-publishing makes it possible for a writer to earn real income outside the walls of the Forbidden City. And writers within the walls can start a separate stream of income on their own (provided they’ve wisely worked out a fair non-compete clause).

We’re far enough along now to know certain things about self-publishing. We know it is not a “gold rush.” We know you have to provide quality product, which generally means highly entertaining (fiction) or useful and unique (non-fiction). We know that the more prolific you are the better your chances of increasing your flow of income.

Now comes another report from Author Earnings, the enterprise started by self-publishing star Hugh Howey. Some of the findings in this most recent report are startling.

Self-published authors are clearly earning as much as traditionally published authors on the largest e-book sales platform in the world.

Note, this is not taking print sales into consideration. But still, it’s an astounding fact. Just think about how much the professional writing world has opened up in the six years or so since digital self-publishing began to take off.


[T]he parity we see in our author earnings charts between self-publishing and Big 5 publishing has a lot to do with the latter’s existing titles and not their new releases. How you decide to publish your manuscript today means looking at the difference in earnings due to recent works. Self-published authors are not just holding their ground with Big 5 authors when it comes to releases after 2011, they are out-earning Big 5 authors by a 27% margin.

This is huge, and comports with what I’ve found by both experiential and anecdotal evidence.

While the extreme outliers from both camps earn most of the income–similar to what we see in most entertainment industries–there is health and wealth down the long tail for self-published and Big 5 published authors alike. In fact, they almost perfectly map onto one another.

This is the real story. It is ever more possible to earn a living wage from writing IF––and this is key––you actually know how to write. This is a craft, after all. You can’t sell a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck (because if it doesn’t, it sucks).

I mentioned that my experience and my acquaintance with several self-publishing authors doing extremely well (I’m talking five figures a month) demonstrate why this is the best time in history to be a writer.  

As I step back and look at these writers, I notice that all of them were previously published under the traditional system. This doesn’t mean there aren’t non-trads earning at that level. Far from it. But it does mean that the circle I’m acquainted with all proved their writing chops first within the walls of the Forbidden City.

Which validates another thing I’ve been saying ever since I started teaching self-publishing workshops: if you are a new writer, and you do hope for a career at this, you need to put your books through a grinder that replicates what an agent or publishing house would do with them.

You need to be objective and you need to be hard. Heck, you may even need to reject yourself. I mean it. How many first novels have ever sold? Or sold well? Or should have ever seen the light of day in the first place?

Most first novels are like that first waffle coming off a lukewarm griddle. Chuck it and start a new one. If the new one tastes right, then keep them coming. Pile them high and don’t be stingy with the butter and syrup.

When I was first starting out as a writer, there was a stat I read somewhere that said the average yearly income generated by fiction writing was around $3000. This was sobering indeed. It wasn’t going to stop me, because writing fiction is what I wanted to do with my life. But it did have me planning to keep on practicing law for forty years.

Now that stat seems quaint in its irrelevance. That was a traditional-only statistic when print books in bookstores were the only game in town.

I have no way of knowing what the average income of productive fiction writers (meaning at least one novel a year) is today. But for a self-starter who knows his craft and is willing to write for the rest of his life, the future is a heck of a lot brighter than 3k a year.

There is also good news for writers who write for other than commercial reasons. If you’re into literary or experimental fiction, or if you have a subject you’re passionate about, you can now give those books life without having to pay four thousand bucks for a print run (and then suffer the indignity of ten boxes of unsold tomes in your garage for the next twenty years, until you finally give up and donate them to the library, which won’t take them because there are too many). 

Anyone can publish a book now and, if there’s quality attached, you can generate a following. It may be small but it will be heck of a lot larger than when you were unpublished.

Today the acton is with what I call the ownlist writers.

And for those writers who still desire to enter the Forbidden City, the gates are not closed. They are guarded with more vigilance, however, owing to the high risk of the business these days. The purse strings are tightening and deal terms can be fraught with peril. So caveat scriptor. Work with a good agent and get to know contracts. As my grandfather used to recite:

A wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he heard,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Now wasn’t he a wise old bird?

Keep your eyes and ears open, listen and learn about what’s going on in the book world, what to avoid, what terms to walk away from. Don’t leave your fate completely in the hands of another, ever again. Be a partner, not a patsy.

All writers should dip at least one of their quills in the rushing stream of self-publishing. As I said a couple of weeks ago, take risks and don’t be afraid to fail.

Technologies and markets will ebb and flow. Godzilla and Mothra will sometimes duke it out. But the game has changed forever. The future is now. And now is the best time on earth to be a writer.

Carpe typem. Seize the keyboard!

On Author Earnings and Author Yearnings

The dust is far from settled in the writing-publishing-indie blogosphere. It was kicked up by Hugh Howey, the hugely successful indie author who has begun a data gathering project to help authors make more informed decisions about where to publish.
His Author Earnings Report was like a bomb going off in a pillow factory. Feathers flying all over the place. The gimlet-eyed Porter Anderson provides a nice overviewof the math and the aftermath. Criticism of Howey’s methodology came in furious bursts, notably here, here, and here.
The mildly opinionated Joe Konrath jumped in to defend Howey, by way of  “fisking” one of Howey’s prominent critics, Mike Shatzkin.
Mark Coker, of Smashwords fame, took to PW with a “moderate” view of the “revolt.” For an agent’s perspective on matters, you can check out Chip MacGregor’s post “Author Earnings, Amazon, and the Future of Ebooks.” 
Howey himself has defended his research in various comment sections, including the one in the Shatzkin post referenced above.
Passive Guy had this to say about the blowback to Howey’s data:
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the entire Author Earnings episode for PG has been the extraordinarily overwrought response it has engendered from traditional publishing and its assorted hangers-on.
Indie authors just can’t, can’t, can’t be selling more ebooks anywhere on Amazon than tradpub is. Indie bestsellers just can’t, can’t, can’t be making more money that tradpub authors are. They just can’t.
The vitriol and mathematical illiteracy have flowed like half-priced beer during Happy Hour.
What are we to make of all this? I’m no statistician, and all I really know about the field is that old saying: There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.In other words, it’s easy to look at a survey and come to divergent conclusions, depending on whose ox is being fed or gored.
Hugh Howey has provided his own bottom line:
There’s no guarantee you’ll get rich from self-publishing. There’s less guarantee you’ll get rich from querying agents. My contention is this: Most people will be happier getting their works out in the wild and moving on to the next project than they will reading rejection letters.

The real choice is that 99% of you can write a novel, pour your heart into it, and watch as every agent you query rejects the thing. And then you can give up. Feel like a failure. Walk away from your dream.
Or you can self-publish, have the pride of having done so, hold a copy of a physical book you wrote in your hands, see your e-book up on Amazon, get a sale or two, hear from a reader, and want to write more.
It isn’t about getting rich. It’s about having the opportunity to feel pride of accomplishment.
I’d like to offer my own take on the current landscape from the perspective of a professional writer. I’ve made my living from the clacking keyboard for almost twenty years. I believe in writers making money. I like that whole concept.
Professional writers know that striking it rich (as in Wool or Harry Potter or Hunger Gamestype rich) is out of their hands. If it happens, it’s lightning striking. We’ll take it if it comes, of course, but getting hot and bothered about it is pointless.
Professional writers pursue a steady and increasing income. That we can control, by being good and productive. “Pride of accomplishment” is fine for a first book, but after that I’d venture to say that 99% of those who yearn to write also yearn to earn.
The questions are how, where, and how long will it take to make bank as a writer? Let’s answer all three:
By working hard at your craft. All consistent readers of TKZ know this is the drum I beat most often. I believe writers can get better and I have a library of material to help them. I also have hundreds of emails from writers, many of whom are now professional. I’m gratified my instruction has helped, but I know that these authors have added the most important ingredient themselves: a work ethic.
I don’t care how badly you want to make money from writing. Unless you produce the words, on a regularly scheduled basis, you’re going to stay stuck on yearning. 
Where should do you publish? Do you seek a traditional contract? Should you go right into self-publishing?
It does not have to be either/or. There is no longer a stigma attached to self-publishing. There used to be, big time. Now there is no reason a new author can’t put out work independently while, at the same time, looking toward a possible traditional contract.
In fact, trad publishers are on the lookout for self-publishing successes. Why? Because it lowers their risk. The only question then is whether the writer would be better off staying exclusively on the self-publishing course. The answer to that will be in the terms of the deal being offered. Many have taken such a deal. Others have turned trad deals down, even when they run to seven figures.
I will state here what I say to audiences of writers, published and unpublished: Short-form work (like my Force of Habit series) is a great way to get your feet wet in self-publishing, and every single author working today should have at least one wet foot.
As long as it takes. A professional writer is not going to give up, ever. You have to love to write. It has to be a sort of compulsion. You have to have calluses on your forehead from banging it against various doors. There’s plenty of rejection and dejection to go around. You take it for an hour or so, then get back to the keyboard.
The more and better you write, the better your chances of earning an income. It may not be enough to quit the old day job, but I’ve never been an advocate of doing that too soon. A day job keeps your feet on the ground and soup on the table. There may come a time when you’ve got this thing humming along and you can ditch the daily salt mine. But in the meantime, concentrate on producing a certain number of words every week. Doesn’t matter how few. Just do it. And study the craft at least one hour each week, too.
So here’s my take on the Author Earnings Report. I like Hugh Howey. I like his enthusiasm for, and support of, his fellow writers. There may be valid criticisms of how much you can extrapolate from his data. But professional writers don’t spend much time extrapolating. They spend their time typing and making up more stories.
Wayne Gretzky used to say, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

So take your shots. And when the fur starts to fly and the blogosphere gets too noisy, pop on the headphones, cue up Steely Dan or DragonForce, and write some more. 

So what do you perceive to be the terrain out there in publishing land?