Uncommon Sense

November 17, 2020

Making a Living as a Writer

Filed under: Business,writing — Steve Ruis @ 10:38 am
Tags: , ,

Recently I extolled the writing wisdom provided by both C.S. Friedman and Mercedes Lackey on the Q&A website Quora. As an example of this, here is Ms. Lackey’s take on “making a living as a writer” (the question was actually different but it equates to this):

First: Never, never, never, never, never pay anyone anything to publish your book. People who ask you for money to publish your book are frauds and scammers.

Second: You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be able to make a living at writing, especially from the very beginning.

When you start, you will suck. No one has ever been a good writer without writing about a million words of crap first. You have to learn how to write well by writing a lot and studying writing. This will take years.

Of all of the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, only about 10% make a living from writing. Only about half of the ones making a living from writing are making a living from writing fiction exclusively.

“You are more likely to be struck by lightning than to be able to make a living at writing.”

Get a day job that doesn’t suck; there is nothing harder to do than to sit down to write after a day so exhausting that your brain has turned off. This is the job you are going to be having for a while, so make sure it’s something that doesn’t make you want to open a vein rather than go to work.

If you are really serious about wanting to make a living from writing, decide, right now, what the minimum amount you can live on is, because that is probably what you’ll be doing for years and years. Learn how to make and stick to a strict budget.

If you are really serious about wanting to make a living from writing, you will be sacrificing your social life. You will not be able to play games, hang with friends, go out for drinks, go to the movies, watch the Big Game, or watch television, much less binge. You will be writing every hour before or after work (some people write better when they first get up, some write better after work) and every weekend, or whatever free days you have. There is an entire 10 year swath of popular culture I know nothing about, because that is what I was doing.

You will be ready to quit that day-job and try full-time writing when you have five published books or screenplays that someone else paid you for, each one has paid better than the last, you have contracts in hand for three more books or screenplays, and you have a year and a half of expenses in the bank. Why the bank account? Because shit goes wrong, and without that cushion you could wind up unable to keep the lights on.

You might decide that you can’t do all of that. That’s fine. Remember what I just said, only ten percent of most writers write full time for a living. There’s no shame in being part of the ninety percent.

But don’t take my word for it. Here’s Charlie Stross, saying basically the same thing.

Common Misconceptions About Publishing

And someone else, talking about how she can write only because she has other people supporting her:

A dirty secret: you can only be a writer if you can afford it


  1. Related … and if you decide to publish your own writings, for gawd’s sake — HIRE A PROOFREADER!!!

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Nan — November 17, 2020 @ 11:25 am | Reply

    • Lots of luck with that. Ever since intelligent women were allowed by our culture to take jobs that men normally had (When is the last time you saw a male casting director for a film or a male real estate agent for that matter), the number of proofreaders has sunk like a stone. A job that requires extensive education and a willingness to accept meager wages is not going to be in demand … ever again. In professional publishing houses, they are depending upon spell checkers (which only catch about 60% of mis-spellings at best) and copy editors (as if they didn’t already have enough to do). Consequently, even best sellers are hitting the shelves with typos, egregious typos.

      Part of the problem is ebooks. Many are made by scanning of old books and scanners and ocr are quite error prone. Those made from original manuscripts require conversion into ebook formats, which are also error prone.

      Recently Amazon’s Kindle Publishing Service changed their process yet again. In the past you submitted a PDF for the cover and another for the interior text and from those they made the hard copy versions and the ebooks. Now the PDF route is fine for the paper version but they no longer take the PDFs to make the Kindle versions, now they will only take some variant of a Word doc. The problem for us is we do not lay out our books in Word. We use a professional page layout program (Quark XPress and occasionally Adobe InDesign). These programs allow us to export as PDF but not as a Word doc. So we have to convert the PDF to Word, which I have software to do, but again, it is error prone and KPS tends to gag on certain layout elements.

      There are more modern versions of XPress and InDesign that create both paper and KIndle versions, but you have to lay both out somewhat separately (it is complicated) and I don’t have the $1000 or so to upgrade to those versions.

      Now, I am not just telling a sob story but that we start from a ms. that has been proofread, proofread, and proofread. And then software transitions cause typo after typo after typo. This doesn’t exactly help create error-free books.

      On Tue, Nov 17, 2020 at 11:25 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 3 people

      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 17, 2020 @ 11:41 am | Reply

      • You have a point — as related to Kindle Publishing. I didn’t know about these changes, but then I’ve not had occasion to discover them. My book was written way before all this came about.

        Nevertheless, to many of us “word people,” it’s massively disturbing to see all the typos and misspellings — hardcopy AND ebooks.

        Liked by 1 person

        Comment by Nan — November 17, 2020 @ 11:56 am | Reply

        • I agree. When attending book signings/readings I try to ask the authors if they feel pressured to submit very clean manuscripts. The last time I asked this of a panel of three authors, each gave me a look of “Oh, someone understands!”

          Part of the problem is that the generations of students most recent received high grades for mediocre work. I recall reading short essays near the end of my career and I realised I was seeing misspellings I had never seen before. After quite some time, I began to realize where these came from. When we read we are recognizing the shapes of words more than their letter content. I was now seeing words used that were quite incorrect … but they had the same shape as the word they were looking for. I had never seen that before as I was used to seeing a great many substitutions of words that sounded the same as the desired word, or was a spell checker guess that was incorrectly selected, but shape substitutions were new.

          So, modern writers have spent less time immersed in dictionaries and more time trust spell checkers (which are hardly reliable), and less time actually proofreading to gain any expertise at it. One publisher I worked with gave me a list of the writing mistakes I was making and suggested, rather strongly, that I needed to proofread the entire ms. I had created for each of those errors. This was a huge amount of work but it also led to me making those mistakes far, far less frequently.

          On Tue, Nov 17, 2020 at 11:57 AM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 2 people

          Comment by Steve Ruis — November 17, 2020 @ 1:06 pm | Reply

  2. Well, THANKS Steve. You’ve utterly SMASHED, CRUSHED, and OBLITERATED any hopes/dreams I had of becoming a decent writer, let alone a career I could live off of in luxury. 😩


    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by Professor Taboo — November 17, 2020 @ 3:58 pm | Reply

  3. This made me laugh out loud and think, thank you!


    Comment by And Or Theory — November 17, 2020 @ 5:10 pm | Reply

  4. You’re absolutely right. I was a technical writer for a while being published in very small market computer magazines a long, long time ago. Lots and lots of work, very low pay (if any – a running joke among a lot of writers dealing with magazines is that the payment policy with a lot of them is “Payment upon lawsuit”). If you’re writing for the magazine market, even if the magazine accepts your story/article it doesn’t mean you’ll get paid for it. The policy with a lot of magazines is payment on publication, not payment on acceptance. They can sit on an item for months, even not publish it at all. I had a software review accepted by – I think it was Antic or maybe Compute magazine back in the 80s. They sat on the damned thing for 6 months, then one day I got a letter that they’d decided it “didn’t suit their needs at this time” and I was free to try selling it elsewhere. Well, by that time the game I’d reviewed was no longer popular so I ended up doing all that work for nothing. Sigh…

    Liked by 1 person

    Comment by grouchyfarmer — November 17, 2020 @ 10:34 pm | Reply

    • For our magazine, we pay within 30 days of being published, and if we accept an article, we also assign it to an issue. (Easy for us to do, we only just recently had more submissions than we could publish.)

      This is a very hard business to make any money in. We discovered that we were losing money every time we printed an issue, so the old saw about “banging your head against the wall is a good thing because it feels so good when you stopped” applied. In order to survive, we had to go digital, which we did in 2006. We survived, but we lost every damned advertizer we had (not that there were many, but a couple thousand dollars per issue was nothing to sneeze at). We are now “subscriber-supported” by the simple expedient of having lost all of our advertisers.

      On Tue, Nov 17, 2020 at 10:34 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


      Liked by 1 person

      Comment by Steve Ruis — November 18, 2020 @ 7:40 am | Reply

      • Wow, trying to make a transition like that must have been very stressful. I was mostly involved with magazines supporting the Tandy Color Computer and computers using the Motorola CPUs like the 68000 series and I don’t think any of them ever made a profit. They were lucky to cover their expenses every month.


        Comment by grouchyfarmer — November 18, 2020 @ 10:42 pm | Reply

        • That is really ground floor publishing. We are in a niche market … a very small niche market … helping archers and archery coaches improve. Another recipe for losing money.

          On Wed, Nov 18, 2020 at 10:42 PM Class Warfare Blog wrote:


          Liked by 1 person

          Comment by Steve Ruis — November 19, 2020 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

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