Two years ago, I quit my job as a winemaker to become a full-time writer. I had plans to stay in the wine industry intermittently, particularly during the busy harvest season, but my goal was to dedicate myself to writing full-time during the off-season. I can say with confidence that I’ve done that. In the intervening years, I’ve acquired a literary agent, secured a publishing deal for my first solo book, finished the first draft of a novel I’ve been thinking about for four years, and written my first articles for the local paper.
It sounds great, right? And it is. Don’t get me wrong. It’s fucking awesome.
But there are a lot of things people don’t talk about.
Like how hard it is to make a decent income.
Or how stressful freelancing can be.
Or how you need a serious strategy – not just boundless enthusiasm – to achieve success as a writer.
I’m here to break down some of those myths, because I wish someone had told me these things two years ago, when I quit my job with little more than boundless enthusiasm for writing in hand.
Let’s start with the first myth: how hard it is to make a decent income.
Making money as an author is harder than ever. Publishing houses are paying authors minuscule advances – and the share of royalties hasn’t gone up noticeably. I got what amounts to a nominal advance for my forthcoming book, Literary Libations – a little more than half of what I would make in a month at my winemaking job in California. And only the first half of that advance was paid up front – the rest isn’t paid until the book is released. So, essentially, I’ve made less than a thousand dollars to date for a book that took me three months and probably a thousand hours to write. I could make more money picking tomatoes at that rate.
But simultaneously, indie authors are crushing it on the Amazon algorithms. Authors are using Amazon and Facebook ads to make a killing in e-book sales on Amaon Kindle. But the trade-off? You sell your soul to a company that’s quickly taking over the world. Donald Trump isn’t the most powerful man in the world anymore. Jeff Bezos is. And I’m just enough of an anti-authoritarian rebel to have a serious problem with that.
Despite the fact that The Sowing was optioned for a film, my co-authors and I won’t see any serious money from that unless the film goes into production. And that’s a huge if. We chose to work with our producers at Big Picture Ranch because they’re good at fundraising and they love our story. But there are still dozens of massive hurdles that must be cleared before the movie goes into production – and we won’t see anything beyond a nominal fee until then.
Which brings us to the second myth:
If making money as an author is so hard, why not turn to freelance writing? Great idea! Except that you have to work for months or years to build a portfolio and a list of clients who are willing to pay you more than pennies for the word. Freelance writing can be incredibly lucrative in the long run – but you have to either have a track record at a marketing company, giving you a pre-existing client list when you strike out on your own, or you have to be willing to toil for months or years to build your portfolio and your client list before you start making good money.
But Amira, don’t you do a lot of freelance editing? Aren’t there a lot of aspiring authors who want to get published and need a professional editor? Remember how I told you above how hard it is to make money as an author? You think all those people are eager to give editors their hard-earned cash? Precious few authors have any idea of the true cost involved in hiring a professional editor for their manuscripts – and when they see the cost of my time, they disappear. In my experience, editors are chronically undervalued in today’s market, which is why so many seek jobs at the big publishing houses, where they may be overworked and stressed, but at least they’ll get health care, a 401k, and a half-decent salary.
Not to mention, editing is a tough game anyway. So many authors come to us with fragile egos, looking more for a cheerleader than an editor. I’ve been shocked by the number of times I’ve had an author balk when I’ve returned his or her manuscript, appalled by how many red marks there are in the manuscript. Rather than looking for constructive criticism, they’re hoping for a pat on the back and the assurance that their work is literary genius and will make them millions. (Link takes you to a very funny YouTube video about the naivete of many writers.)
And then there are the clients who refuse to pay. Recently, I had a client commission me to edit her novella. Our policy is to ask for half of payment up front, and the second half upon completion. Despite professing how happy she was with my editing job, she disappeared as soon as I sent her the second invoice, and hasn’t responded to any of my emails since. I’m not going to lie, that experience really soured me on freelancing as a whole.
So what’s the answer? Obviously enthusiasm and (what I hope is) professionalism and talent aren’t enough to guarantee success as a full-time writer. It’s not enough to look at soaring book sales and think, “This is going to keep up forever!”
You need a strategy. If you’re planning to quit your job and attempt to replace your income with writing, you need a comprehensive strategy for how to make it work. Just like any business, you need a five-year plan in place for how to make your dream a reality. This includes a strategy for how you’ll grow your client list or book royalties to a sustainable volume, and how you’ll support yourself until you get to that point. You need a social media strategy – how you’ll grow your following, how you’ll link the disparate pieces together, how they’ll feed into each other. And it all needs to flow into a machine that, ultimately, generates revenue and profit. This is what I’m doing right now – creating a comprehensive five-year plan that will get me to where I want to be.
Which brings me to the second thing needed for success…
You also need gumption and perseverance. Pitching to newspapers, magazines, or freelance clients is no more or less daunting than pitching to literary agents. You learn to expect a lot of rejection before you get a fish on the hook. You need to be brave enough to put yourself out there (which I am not always, particularly when it comes to copywriting or business proposals) and persevering enough to push past all the “no’s” to get to a “yes!” (which I am, at least when it comes to journalism).
And finally, you do need boundless enthusiasm. That first criteria will never go away. You need limitless enthusiasm for writing, reading, and the business of publishing. You need to be brave enough to never stop trying. I heard someone say once that the only difference between a successful writer and an unsuccessful writer is that the successful writer never gave up.
So for all those of you who are struggling: Chin up. Count your milestones and remember how far you’ve come. There’s a long road ahead of us yet, but we’ve all come so far from where we started.
We can do this.
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