Updated: Dec 14, 2021
One of the best, but also the hardest, things about writing professionally is dealing with a whole range of decisions and how those decisions might affect your career, your creativity and your financial security.
Lots of people, when they think of writing, think of the big names who win awards, live in castles and earn millions. The truth is those castles mostly belong in fairy tales.
Writers rarely make more than minimum wage and many make far below that.
I don’t know anyone who has chosen to be a writer for any reason other than love, or passion, or determination. But love doesn’t pay the bills, you can’t eat passion and determination doesn’t keep a roof over your head. Writers, like everyone else, need money. Either we get it from writing, which means we can give up other work to write, or we get it from another kind of job, which means we sacrifice writing time.
The good news is that there’s now a whole load of exciting, creative ways to make a living from writing. The bad news is none of them are without risk. None guarantee a living and none of them are anything short of terrifying.
I think, sometimes, writers feel that they can’t speak out about the difficulties and challenges of pursuing a creative career. We’re encouraged to behave as if we’re grateful for what we have, for being able to write. And we are! Of course, we are. But that expectation also makes it tough to admit how challenging it is to want something so much, to have to wait so long and work so hard to achieve it.
The other difficulty, which is a big problem in the artistic industry, is that anyone with big, powerful, unyielding dreams is vulnerable to exploitation. And writers are no different. I’m at a real crossroads with my writing career at the moment. I have a book. I’ve been reliably assured by people in the industry, who do not know me and therefore have no bias, that it is a good book. Is it perfect? Probably not. Could it do with a little more work? Almost definitely. But now I have a decision to make.
What kind of writer do I want to be? What kind of career do I want to have? How do I square my choices now with my childhood expectations, and with what everyone else expects of me as ‘the one in the family who was going to be a writer'?
Sometimes, the biggest barrier to success is fear. So this is me, like hundreds of thousands of aspiring writers, and established writers, and even famous writers, just trying to work things out.
I hope, if you’re at a similar stage in your career to me, or perhaps making a similar decision, this post will help.
Choices about Publishing Directions
Twenty years or so ago, maybe even less than that, if you wanted to publish a book, you needed to find an agent and then a publisher. There are millions of people aspiring to be writers and nowhere near that number of agents or publishers. This means agents and publishers can afford to be picky.
To an extent, this is a good thing: it means only the best, most developed and most original books get through the slush pile and onto the bookshelves. It means that, to be successful, you have to push yourself as a writer, to learn and hone your craft.
Or at least, it should. I’d be either lying or extremely naïve if I pretended all you needed to be a successful writer was passion and drive.
Obviously, there are a whole host of demographics currently underrepresented in traditional publishing. To their credit, the industry are trying to rectify this, but progress is slow and, like many writers, I’m sometimes skeptical about the effectiveness of their methods. But that’s a topic for another post.
Traditional publishing, through an agent or an editor, has always been the most typical route.
Arguably, it’s the most likely to win you success if that success looks, to you, like books in bookshops, nominations for awards and a writing advance. Financially, it’s not likely to pay out the big bucks.
It also means handing over the rights to your work to a corporation whose main purpose is to make profit.
This means that if your book isn’t making them money, then it may end up going out of print and the book you love essentially ceases to exist. There are other potential downsides to traditional publishing but, again, they aren’t for this post.
The other option for authors nowadays is self-publishing. Once considered vanity publishing, the demands of readers, the availability of software to make professional products and the growing worldwide market now means that self-publishers (or indie authors) are much more respected than they once were. Unlike traditional publishing, self-pubbing allows you to keep all your rights, maintain financial control and keep your books in circulation. Sounds great, right? A dream! And there are plenty of authors making a decent living through self-pubbing. But there are many more who are struggling to balance their time between writing as a creative pursuit and writing as a business.
As an indie author, you are on your own.
Publishing, marketing, sales and creativity are all down to you. Unlike agents and publishers, you don’t (to start off with) have the connections that would allow for wide distribution of your book. Very few awards will consider indie-published books and it’s much harder to get into bookshops and libraries. Being an indie author can be very lonely.
So what’s the better option? Truthfully, right now I have absolutely no idea.
I think it’s down to each individual author to decide what’s best for them.
For me, I’m not yet sure what that is. While I work it out, I’m submitting to agents, thinking that if I find the right one, that’ll answer the question. I’m also learning as much as I can about marketing, social media branding and ethical business, which will be useful however I try to publish.
A Constant State of Fear
Welcome to being an artist! It’s glorious and it’s terrifying. I tend to find that my mind swings from powerful peaks (I’m a GENIUS!) to horrifying troughs (I’m APPALLING!). There is no healthy middle ground. It can be a lonely path, especially at the beginning when you have no champions, no partners, nobody around you to reliably tell you either how to pursue your art as a career or that it is worth pursuing.
Any artistic pursuit requires ego, stubbornness. But it also tends to come with more than a fair helping of terror, self-doubt, self-criticism and anxiety.
I have many, many friends who are also writers at various stages of their writing career, and who have chosen a range of different paths for their publishing. Not one of them is without some level of anxiety. All of them require reassurance from time to time. It’ part of the journey. Sometimes, it’s remarkable. Other times, it’s all I can do to get dressed in the morning.
I think this is the hardest thing to get right.
As a creative, I feel guilty when I’m not writing or creating or brainstorming so overwhelm is a common occurrence for me.
Some days, I just want to hide under a duvet fort, and other days I’m raring to go. Goal setting is a skill I think every creative needs to master, but it’s tough sometimes. It’s tough to find time, around a paying job or jobs to create and to market our creations and then to make time for family, friends and ourselves. Something’s got to give and, often, it’s sleep. I need to get better at managing my time effectively, especially if I’m also going to have to factor marketing and publicity into my day, which I will whether I go down the traditional publishing or indie publishing route. No one cares about their book more than the author, so it will be down to me to make it successful.
Am I A Writer if I Don't Make Money?
I run a lot of workshops and writing sessions with young people. It’s part of how I support myself as a writer. I’m a qualified English teacher and performed a lot of spoken word poetry before I moved on to writing novels, so it makes sense for me to use these skills. I love teaching, I love inspiring young people and I love sharing my passions and expertise with them.
There is one thing I don’t love, however, and it’s this exchange:
Me: I am a writer.
Student: Are you rich?
Student: Are you famous?
Student: Do you have a book out?
Me: … No.
And every time, I can see the boredom glazing their eyes as they think, ‘well then, you’re not a real writer, are you?’
It doesn’t matter that I write every day, that I’m now working on my third book, that I have been working towards this goal since I was fifteen, that I’ve won competitions and spent years hand-making my own poetry anthologies.
None of that matters to them if I’m not rich and famous with a copy of my own book in my hand.
Sometimes, this attitude is utterly debilitating, especially seeing as it is so unrealistic. Most writers are not famous and we are certainly not rich. Traditionally published authors rarely make the minimum wage from their book sales, even if those sales are respectable. Self-published authors get better royalties but, with a smaller reach and less industry support, it can take a long time to get to a stage where you’re earning a decent salary from your writing, if you even get there at all.
When those you’re trying to inspire are looking up at you with judgement based on utterly unrealistic expectations and fantastical measurements of success, it can often feel like you’re kidding yourself. I have worked so hard to hone my craft, to make my work strong, to write powerful stories with clever use of language, but still ensure that the writing is accessible. The bookshelf on my writing desk is crammed full of well-thumbed writing-craft books. I’ve done course after course after course and I will continue to improve my craft. I have a solid group of writing friends, whom I trust implicitly, and we share and critique each other’s work. I hold myself to account on my work. I might not be Philip Pullman or Terry Pratchett, but I know my work is good. I know it’s above average. I know it deserves to be out there.
So, can I call myself a writer, even if I’m poor and unknown with no book on the market?
If another human being asked me that question, my answer would unreservedly be, yes. If you write, you’re a writer. The expectations of others are irrelevant if you set your own bars for success and you continue to work towards them.
Isn’t it funny how rarely we take our own advice? When I first started down this path, no one told me that writing was 80% self-forgiveness, perseverance and stubbornness. It’s also probably about 19% meltdowns and self-doubt and 1% actual writing.
So, to conclude: I am poor, unknown, currently unpublished, often torturing myself, struggling to manage my own expectations and occasionally living in fairyland.
Why bother, then?
Because life without my writing feels so bleak and colourless and pointless that I can’t even consider it. Because this is who I am. Because, although it is impossibly hard, when I’m sat at my desk, lost in the words, it feels amazing. I hold onto that feeling, even when my dreams feel so delicate, they might crumble if I brush against them too roughly.
If you’re reading this and recognising yourself in these dilemmas, please just know you’re not alone. We all feel these things.
We’re all afraid. We all doubt ourselves, and we have all been judged and put down by those around us who have no idea of the mountain we’re trying to climb, simply because we want to be more, to achieve more, to leave a footprint (however small) in the world after we’re gone.
There is no greater joy, in my opinion, than knowing my words have touched another human soul, have unearthed a truth in themselves they didn’t know they were hiding. That’s why I write.
The rest is just business. The rest is just noise.
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