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Struggling as an author? Stop writing only what you want to write

7 January 2016

From The Guardian:

I left school with a burning urge to lead the life of a writer: travelling like Byron, feted like Wilde before his fall, creating laughter like Wodehouse and crafting sentences like Nabokov. I had no professional contacts, so I wrote my masterpieces speculatively, and every path I went down ended with a rejection slip or total silence. The perceived wisdom then, as now, was that earning a living as a writer was about as likely as winning a lottery.

Then I discovered the secret of marketing: instead of writing things and trying to persuade people to buy them, I would find out what writing services people needed and offer to provide them. So, at the same time as begging publishers and editors for commissions, I made myself available to anyone who might want to write an article or a book but did not feel able to do it for themselves.

I have just finished a three-year stint on the management committee of The Society of Authors; I know how hard it is for many writers to make a living. But it has never been easy.

. . . .

Although it was about 10 years before I could support myself fully from my writing, over the course of those 40 years I have earned around £4m. Obviously there were some feasts and famines along the way, but by and large the graph has travelled upwards year upon year. From a starting point of about £1,000 a year, 20 years later I hit six figures for the first time, and for the last decade the annual figure has wavered between £150,000 and £200,000. That puts me roughly on a par with the prime minister – but with fewer perks and fewer responsibilities – a level I am more than content with.

The vast majority of that money has come from ghostwriting, some from fees paid by wealthy individuals and some in royalties from books that became bestsellers. Every time I agreed to a split in royalties instead of a fee, I was taking a gamble; sometimes I would end up writing a whole book for virtually nothing. Looking back now, however, it was also these gambles that paid off the most handsomely. One book, for instance, has earned me more than half a million. Quite a few have earned me more than £100,000. It is possible to ghost four books a year – although three is more comfortable – which means that in most years the ones that earned nothing have been compensated for by the successes.

. . . .

The odds that your passion projects alone will ever make enough money to support you in any decent style are about the same as when you buy a lottery ticket, so you are inevitably going to have to do something else to earn money in the coming years.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

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38 Comments to “Struggling as an author? Stop writing only what you want to write”

  1. Yeah, write whatever is currently popular, even if you know little or nothing about the genre or don’t even care about the material.

    Uh-huh.
    That will help you build a fanbase lickety-split…

    • Might there be some sort of middle ground?

      • There’s always a middle ground, though sometimes it’s more like being a ‘little’ pregnant …

    • Actually, I think there’s no reason to dismiss the opinions share in this article.

      We have no idea what kinds of books he has ghostwritten and I’ve not ready any of his passion projects, yet.

      I know I turned down a ghostwriting job decades ago and have regretted it ever since. A World War II veteran approached me, a survivor of the Death March on Bataan, wanting me to help him write a memoir of what had transpired. It was for many reasons the worst time in my life for me to take such a thing on. My regret is not from a writing career or publishing perspective, but because his book never got written, his story never was told, at least not in a way that preserved it.

      This actually seems to me like sage advice. I might like it if Andrew Crofts, its author, wrote a follow-on piece about how to pick ghostwriting projects – and how to say “No.”

    • Uh-huh.
      That will help you build a fanbase lickety-split…

      That would depend on the final product. Consumers don’t give a hoot about the author’s motivations.

  2. Right, write what you ‘think’ will sell — and who knows? It just might …

    Or write what you like and ignore those telling you different — who knows? It might turn into the next ’50shades’ craze …

    No one ‘knows’ what will sell or why, publishers have been proving that since day one.

    How does that line go? Build it and they will come?

    Write it and they will come.

  3. Re-read that first sentence again. Mr. Croft wants adventure, celebration, and emotional response to his writing BEFORE he talks about craft itself.

    I’ve found most writers with his mindset are often unhappy with their careers, or lack thereof.

    • He’s in it for the money — not the need to write, so it’s like any other job you do because you have to — not because you want/need to …

      And marketing is such a pain when you can’t be sure what will actually sell or why.

  4. I’m not calling this sort of work bad, and I bless you if you know how to make the connections and bring in the contracts. If I knew how to do that, then I’d have a different career. I’m afraid that this sort of work requires schmoozing skills that I just don’t have. Any job field that begins with “making contacts” doesn’t work for me.

    • The way most authors can get started, if they want to, is to find someone local you can help. Start small. Have them pay you. It won’t be anything like enough to live on, but get paid something and start there.

      If you like the experience, charge the next one you help, more, and try to find a project of greater interest to you personally and professionally.

      Take several steps in the right direction. Write your own stuff, too.

      I’m just saying it can be done, much as Andrew Croft describes it, and the connections can be built in time by those among us who are interested in the path.

    • And yet, Lynn Viehl (“Paperback Writer”), has spent the last few years successful working on ghostwriting projects, and she has described herself as not really good at the whole making contacts thing.

      I suspect the only contact you need to make is with a company that outsources ghostwriting projects, such as Gotham Ghostwriters. (Note: Not an endorsement; they’re the only ones I know of).

  5. I write what I want to read, regardless of genre, wouldn’t know the first thing about being a ghost writer, and seldom have aligned interests with what’s “popular” at the moment.

    I’m good with how my decision’s working out for me.

    • I looked into write-for-hire several years ago, but even then I did not pursue anything that wasn’t interesting to me. If I don’t want to read it there’s no amount of money that will get me to write it.

  6. I should at least try to write commercial fiction. The books I do write because I want to, don’t sell well at all. I’m my only best customer really. Waa

  7. The book that did the best for me was the one I had no interest in writing. It took two weeks from, “OK I WILL DO IT!” to published.

    I’m a non-fiction author and the topic (the energy of 2012) didn’t interest me personally. However, it was SUPER popular with the public. Too bad it had a built in expiration date…… I sold a lot of them.

  8. It doesn’t need to be a binary choice. A writer can do both and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to make money.

    And if you look at it in a slightly different light, making money from more “commercial” projects might open the door a bit wider to your creative side by removing the financial weight allowing you to pluck a wild and crazy one, sow it in the ground, and see what grows.

  9. The world is full of people working at jobs they don’t like. Many execute those jobs very well. Somehow they manage to do it, feed their families, and live a comfortable life. Many put the welfare of their families above their personal likes.

    Is there some reason to think writers are deficient in this regard?

    • Not exactly, but I think the difference is that working at jobs one doesn’t like isn’t generally thought of as creating art, which is what many think writing should aspire to.

      Not saying that’s true. Just offering a possible reason.

      Also, a lot of people give up their dreams of arts (be those arts writing or acting or singing or whatever) in favor of the (frequently illusory) stability working at jobs one doesn’t like is supposed to provide. Like, yes, employment terms can vary, but a great deal of people are going to go to work tomorrow morning because they were hired to do so, and they will be paid, per their contract, for the time they put into those jobs.

      Writing usually doesn’t offer a similar guarantee of stable(-ish) income.

      • Writing usually doesn’t offer a similar guarantee of stable(-ish) income.

        Exactly. If I’m going to work on spec, I have to enjoy the work. And I’m of the opinion that if I’m not committed to what I’m writing, that will come through loud and clear to the reader.

    • It’s different because it’s wearing. It’s a creative task that relies on the energy you put into it, and if you don’t have the energy to pursue that project, it can become terribly wearing.

      TV scriptwriters don’t necessarily have that problem, I think, because they tend to work in groups, breaking down the story and the beats, which can be invigorating. Then, you go off and write, and it doesn’t take six months of your life. A couple days, and you have a script. Plus, the pay is great.

      There are some people who are perfectly fine with it. To them, a romance novel is the same as a how-to on building a shed. It’s putting words on the page, and they find it engaging. It comes down to YMMV.

  10. External inputs (be they work-for-hire or looking at the market) don’t have to be the death toll of creativity. I think sometimes it makes you ask yourself questions and consider things you hadn’t.

    Creativity isn’t such a fragile thing that it needs to be secured in bubble wrap.

    • Some of my most creative work has come when I’ve been working inside the constraints someone else set for me.

  11. I’ve just finished my thirteenth ghosted/edited project of 2015. I’ve also written two of my own books in that time. The balance can be struck.

  12. There are different kinds of writers…Those who write to make money regardless of their feelings for it (it’s just a job) and those who let their passions guide them and the money is the icing on the cake. I’m sure there are in-betweeners, but I tend to be the latter. I’d love to know the formula for making $$$ but I’ve just felt blessed to make a little every month, at least enough to cover a few expenses. I didn’t start writing because I wanted a job to make money. I started writing to express myself. Over time, one does adapt the successes we see in the market (and part of that for me is because of what I enjoy reading, so it influences my writing), but we still put our own spin on those concepts based on our own research, experiences, and passions.

    That’s how I see it.

    • I agree. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeing writing of any kind as “just” a job. Many people in this world have jobs that are just jobs.

      I used to believe that if writing started to feel too much like a job to me, I’d quit and do something else to make a living. I’ve begun to realize I don’t think I would. It’s something I know how to do and I do it well enough to get by. Why bother finding another job I might or might not like when I have one right here that isn’t half bad? 😉

  13. Back when I was doing tabletop game design, I did a number of books “just for the money,” and I grew to profoundly dislike the experience. In fiction, I’ve basically written whatever I felt like writing. The results have ranged from middling (my first series, which is chugging along), to disappointing (a horror series that never took off and has sold less than 300 copies in almost a year), to shockingly successful (my latest, military science-fiction, currently sitting at #150 on Paid in Kindle’s ranks). I’ll keep chugging along, trying new things, and enjoying myself.

    On the other hand, I also work hard at trying to market my stuff – I write because I love doing so, and I do marketing because I want to make a living doing what I love.

  14. We need to put Dean W Smith and this guy in a room, grab some popcorn, and then watch the show 🙂

    • That is such an evil idea, Shantnu. I love it! 😆

      *running to get popcorn*

    • I wonder how much they would disagree. DWS has done a ton of work for hire and ghostwriting projects in the past. I remember reading he mostly got out of them due to the bad contracts but maybe I’m misremembering.

      I have a feeling they might drift off into arguing about who had the worst project, or worst ‘co-author’, over a few hours.

    • Dean Wesley Smith

      Wouldn’t be any fun. Wayne would be right, we would just talk about the horrid projects like accident survivors.

      I wrote, between media and ghosting, about 80 full novels for traditional publishers. With the exception of one, I never worked for another author, was only hired by New York publishers to fix a problem another writer had (like not turning in a book). The rest of my hundred-plus traditional novels were books I wanted to write outside of media but mostly under pen names.

      I have now gone past my media writing numbers with original books I wanted to write and I am making more money by far than I used to do. But considering I spent a decade on the other side writing other people’s work and understand it, I sure don’t put down anyone doing it. But it is a burn-out path and a grass is greener mirage.

      If you want to be a long term, happy and successful writer, you write what you want through the down times and the lack of sales times and just keep going. But clearly this guy wouldn’t agree. Luckily, there’s room for all of us.

      • Great advice, Dean.

        When I started writing fiction set in China, I was told there wasn’t a big enough market for it. I kept writing, kept submitting, and lo and behold, found out there is a market for it. I have considered writing mainstream under a pen name, but for now my numbers are good enough I can continue to write what I love, and make a great living at it. Sure, it’s stressful and the more successful you get, the more the pressure is on, but it sure beats sitting in a cubicle in the corporate jungle. So glad those days are over.

  15. I have written work-for-hire books in the past, and they paid the bills. One even brought some extra money in. I also wrote marketing materials for publishers for twenty years. I consider such work a writing bootcamp. I learned a lot. Back in the day, a book packager could get a series into Walmart and my one book in that series might do very well (or not). But fast forward to today, and I no longer write marketing materials for others or do work-for-hire projects. I don’t even create book proposals any more. I have decided the “luxury” of following my heart and writing only what I want to write is more important than anything. A part time day job pays bills and I can focus on my own projects, whether they pay or not. The books that have sold the best and lasted the longest (for me) have been books of the heart, not a marketing plan. I don’t condemn his approach, but it’s no longer for me.

  16. I was interested in how much per year he considered to be necessary for living in “a decent style”. £150,00 to £200,00?

    • With British tax rates, that’s not a lot to live decently on. Before I left, I worked out that the government got about 65p out of every extra pound my employer paid me. And a decent small house around where I worked was about £300,000, if you didn’t want to live where the chavs would set your car on fire if you left it parked outside in the street.

    • That makes a big, big difference. There’s a writer I heard on a podcast. She teaches at a university, and she talked about selling 30-50 ebooks a day before Kindle Unlimited tanked her sales. After making some changes, she’s recovered and planning on retiring to write full-time.

      My wife and I figured, conservatively, that she was earning about $40K from her books, yet she didn’t quit her job. It might be she has a mortgage and other expenses, but that (assuming I could get health care) would be doable for us. But we have a paid-off house and no debts. We’re outliers.

  17. I see absolutely NOTHING wrong with this. You can ghostwrite in more popular genres, or even write those under a pen name, to bring in money to feed your passion projects. Writing does NOT have to aspire to be art at all times. Good grief, how pretentious is that? Books can be written to entertain. There’s nothing wrong with that. Good for this author for finding the balance that suited him.

    • Just replying because I mentioned the idea of writing aspiring to art up above, and I really hadn’t meant that to come off as pretentious. My personal belief (emphasis on both words) is that art is achieved, not merely created, and I think good entertainment does so. Stories you can’t put down, pictures you need to hang on your wall, songs you can’t help dancing to — all are examples of art. They move.

      But I also note I think that’s what entertainment does. It delights. It inspires emotion.

      There are lots of stories and pictures and songs that are disposable, and are fine for a couple hours or minutes of escapism. Don’t have to think. Forget them soon after. Nothing wrong with those. Nothing wrong with books you forget a week after the last sentence, the song that plays in the background while you’re looking for your exit, the photo that came with that wallet you jus t bought.

      Good for those producers of content, for sure.

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