How to earn money as a writer

Yesterday I got sucked into an internet hole of articles about writers and money, including this controversial piece about going broke after a six-figure advance. Before I published a book myself, I used to Google this issue a lot. Was it even possible to earn money as a writer? Could you do writing as a day job? Since I was at the time working a full-time job I absolutely loathed, I didn’t want to hear anything to the contrary. When I got my first book deal – a five-figure sum for two books – I immediately handed in my notice. My parents, hard-working Irish Catholics, thought I was insane. In a way, so did I. How could something I’d written in my spare time become my career? But since I’d also lined up a part-time job I could do from home, I made the choice. I felt no doubt whatsoever. I hated my job, and I was leaving because I could.

I don’t regret this decision, even though I did run into some major cash-flow problems in the second year of freelancing when a big chunk of money was paid very late. Staying in that job (which I commuted to for three hours a day) would have crushed me. And I had the other job and the lump sum you typically get when you first sign a book deal, and I also lived with someone who had a good job, and we’d moved out of town so our expenses were lower. Calculating the saving on my commute, it was worth it. Just.

I’ve written before about whether you should quit your day job to write. The question is not as simple as yes/no. You might decide to quit this particular job for a few years and enjoy the writing, especially if you have a two-book deal, then get another job later. You might have a partner or family who can subsidise you for a few years. There might be kids involved in the decision. You might choose to move to a bothy in Scotland and live off the land (this does seem appealing at times). Or you might realise that giving up that lovely monthly salary is daft and you’ll keep the job for now because you like your luxuries such as shoes, Netflix, and eating.

I love being freelance, and I think I’m good at it. I’m reasonably organised, I’m fast, and I will do almost anything to avoid working in an office again. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you then you can make it work. Here’s how.

First, there’s the money from writing books. I read a statement yesterday that ‘debut authors aren’t getting six figure advances any more’. That isn’t true (I know several who have), but it’s unlikely. If you write a commercial/genre novel though, you may well get somewhere in the region of five figures. You’ll get this in chunks until all the books in the deal are out, which might be three years. Don’t forget to take off tax and agent’s fees. If that’s still a nice chunk, use it for a while, but don’t expect it to last forever. And don’t forget those lovely overseas rights, if you hang on to them! Those have kept many an author afloat. There’s also TV and film options, which can bring in some extra pounds. Depending on your publisher and how your book does you might even get royalties.

The main thing you have to do and quick is write another book. Then another. At least one a year. If you have the luxury of not working for a while, for God’s sake do get on with it if you can. Many people can write one book – making a career from it is different.

Then there’s all the other stuff you can to do to earn cash. I’ve got a part-time university post, which is great, and I also teach quite a few other workshops. I read other people’s manuscripts. I sometimes write articles for magazines. Events sometimes pay a fee (thank you, Scotland, I love you). Or maybe you have another freelance skill, such as video editing or massage or teaching yoga, like the woman in the article. Maybe you can get a part-time job, either from home or somewhere else (if you’re one of those weirdos who value human interaction). There are lots of ways to make bits and pieces of money. The key is to be realistic, manage your time well so you don’t waste it on non-profitable tasks, and look at the cold hard cash. Can you live off this? If not, can you live more cheaply? If not, can you very quickly marry a millionaire? If still not, you will have to get a job. It’s that simple.

I really sympathised with what this article said about not feeling like a writer when you have a day job. I’ve been there – it can be a shock to be back in a world that couldn’t care less about your name on that cover, and respects you no more for it. But that isn’t about your job, it’s about how you feel inside, and only you can really fix it. Getting a tough inner core of self-belief should be your first task as a writer. You’ll need it. It’s also easy to get drawn into wanting to be the best at whatever your other job is instead of at writing, and that comes down to prioritising and clear goals. Not easy, but achievable.

I do also sympathise with people who find out the hard way that being freelance (and it’s not just writers; my boyfriend’s a musician who’s been freelance all his working life and still struggles) is a challenge. It almost happened to me in that second year of writing. People don’t talk enough about money or the mechanics of making a living. But the challenge is the whole point. Of course freelancing is more work; you have to create your own job. No one’s going to dump money in your lap or check your bank accounts for you or tell you to put some aside for tax. You’ve got to go out and run the work down, like an ancient hunter dragging a mammoth back to the cave. In return you get freedom, flexibility, and the ability to work from bed. There’s no point complaining about it or about shrinking advances since the glory days of everyone getting a hundred thousand pounds before they’d got out of bed (was this ever the case?) We have to work with the reality of what we’ve got. There will also be harder years, like if your millionaire spouse leaves you or your car breaks down or your advances suddenly dry up, and that sucks, but you can get past it, even if you have to get a job again for a while. Nothing is forever.

And if you ever find yourself with a decent advance and some free time, for the love of all that’s holy get that other book ready as soon as you can.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. Maria says:

    I thought of writing to earn an income. Probably for a bit of extra cash initially then thinking of making a living with it in the future but I have been discouraged quite a few times. I thought I might have something but there are times when I feel I’m not good at writing. I try to improve by reading magazines, going to events and joining writing groups, but I’m not sure if it’s even possible to get better. Is writing a talent that you’re born with or a skill you can get better at? If it’s apparent that you’re not really good at it, when is the time to realize that one should probably dream of something else instead?

    1. Hi Maria, I think it’s a bit of both, you are born with the ability to get and express ideas for writing, and you can also improve it. A writing course should help you improve by giving you constant feedback.

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