Money, writing, and realism

This is something that I know is going to make me sound like a real ass, BUT: Writing fiction is not a short-term solution to your serious financial problems.


I know people look at the overnight successes and say, That could be me! But what they're ignoring is that there is no such thing as an overnight success. Amanda Hocking? NINETEEN NOVELS UP. Joe Konrath? FORTY. Smith & Rusch? TWO HUNDRED. Again, they just look like overnight successes because their many, many years--or decades--of work paid off all in one go.

But what about the people who do make one book work? Well, generally speaking, they've spend years building up an audience in some other way, or they have a background in marketing and don't mind doing that all the time. And I do mean all the time--I wish I could find the link, but I remember reading a story about one guy (who had, like, decades of experience as a writer, but anyway) who made one self-published novel work for him, and on an ordinary day, he spent five hours marketing that sucker. Those were not his "marketing days"--he spent more time than that marketing on the days when he was actually making a push.

And it's not just time they spend--they spend money. They buy ads, pay for reviews in places like Publishers Weekly or Kirkus Reviews (unethical, guys!), pay to enter writing contests (gee, I won my stuff for free)--OK, clearly I have a lot of issues with all this, but apparently the return-on-investment is sometimes there. (Sometimes. You're just paying for PW to consider reviewing your stuff. And be aware that they and Kirkus have gone over to the Dark Side of reviewing with this--they just have.)

What I'm trying to say here (in between rants) is that, if you have no money to pay for marketing, and you have no time because you need to work for a living, the MARKET! MARKET! MARKET! approach to overnight success is not going to work for you. You can't buy overnight success if you have no money to buy it with.

So overnight success is off the table. What should you do? Should you start looking for a traditional publishing contract?

Oh, fuck no. Seriously. Going for a traditional publishing contract because you "can't afford" self-publishing is like relying on payday loans and check cashing services because you "can't afford" to go down to your local credit union and open a no-fee checking account. It's bullshit. The financial benefits are an illusion. Assuming you actually get anywhere (which you probably won't), you'll pay up-front money to find a publisher (including maybe paying to self-publish your book! Isn't that awesome!), you'll pay up-front money once you get a publisher, and you'll pay a lot more money in the long run.

What should you do?

You treat writing like a hobby.

What!?! you shriek. I am not a hobby writer! I am a serious professional!

Notice how people like to join together the words "serious" and "professional"? I hate to break this to you, but there are many, many writing professionals out there who aren't the least bit serious. Why do you think the word "hack" exists? All "professional" really means is that you get paid.

I am not suggesting that you don't take writing seriously. Take it seriously. Be open to criticism. Do your best to make your story something you would want to read if it were written by somebody else. Be disciplined in your work habits.

If you are serious about making money writing--which is different from being serious about writing itself--you need to think long and hard about the kind of writing you're doing. Don't be like me and write science fiction: Pick a more-popular genre, ideally one where expensive cover art is not the norm. Focus on speed and quantity of output. Write shorter pieces you can sell more than one way.

But from a financial standpoint? Treat your creative writing like a hobby!

Or better yet, treat it like a small business! Control your costs! Start with the cheap and easy stuff! Expect to make no money for a good long time!

But wait! you shriek (again--you know that's no good for your throat). You always rip into people who say writers shouldn't make money!

Ah--I rip into the people who make money off those writers. If you're writing for me, and I sell your work, and then I screw you over, and then I say, "What? You're not supposed to be in it for the money!" guess what that makes me? A confidence artist! (And an asshole!)

If I say, "You are more likely to become rich overnight by buying lottery tickets than by writing books," then I am telling you the truth. I'm sorry.

Self-publishing is a better business model than traditional publishing. You are more likely to be able to make a living by self-publishing--eventually. It is more predictable than traditional publishing.

It is not perfectly predictable. You don't know when you'll start making decent money, and you don't know for sure that you will ever start making money. It is certainly not a sure-fire way to make money, especially not in the short term.

I know that's not something that anyone wants to hear. But it's the truth. Self-publishing is better than traditional publishing, but that doesn't mean that self-publishing is easy. It just means that traditional publishing is truly horrible.