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CMAP #8: Lifestyle or Job?

Misconceptions abound, and not only about the publishing industry. In this posting, I'm going to talk a little bit about what it is to be a commercial fiction author.

Most people have a very romanticized view of what it is that authors do. Firstly, there's a widespread perception that the workload involved is relatively easy — in modern western nations, the level of functional literacy is high enough that a majority of the population can read a book, and write (at least to the extent of thumbing a 160-character text message on their phone). Because there is no obvious barrier to entry as with music (where proficiency with musical instruments clearly takes practice), most people assume that writing a novel is like writing a text message — you put one word in front of another until you're done. The skills of fiction composition are largely invisible, until you try to actually do it. Secondly, many people harbour peculiar ideas about how much money there is in commercial publishing — and when disabused of the idea that selling a first novel is a road to riches, they assume it's because the evil publishers are conspiring to keep all the money to themselves (rather than the unpalatable truth — publishing commercial fiction is hard work for little reward). Finally, there's the Lifestyle chimera.

Before I get onto the Lifestyle rant, I'd like to point you at this 2005 paper by the Author's License and Collecting Society, titled "What are Words Worth?, describing the findings of a study organized by the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management (CIPPM)I, Bournemouth University. Briefly: in the UK in 2004-05, median (typical) earnings for authors were £4000 a year, with mean earnings of £16,531 — that is, while most authors earned very little, a handful earned a lot more and so the mean skews high. Once you discard part-timers and focus on professional authors who spend 50% or more of their time working by writing, the median rises to £12,330 (and a mean of £28,340). Many professional authors supplement their income by teaching or consultancy; restricting the survey to focus on main-income authors (those who earned over 50% of their income from writing) gave median earnings of £23,000 and mean earnings of £41,186.

Interestingly, the researchers went on to calculate a Gini coefficient for authors' incomes — a measure of income inequality, where 0.0 means everyone takes an identical slice of the combined cake, and 1.0 indicates that a single individual takes all the cake and everyone else starves. Let me provide a yardstick: the UK had a Gini coefficient of 0.36 in 2009, the widest ever gap between rich and poor — while the USA, at 0.408, had the most unequal income distribution in the entire developed world. The Gini coefficient among writers in the UK in 2004-05 was a whopping great 0.74. As the researchers note:

Writing is shown to be a very risky profession with median earnings of less than one quarter of the typical wage of a UK employee. There is significant inequality within the profession, as indicated by very high Gini Coefficients. The top 10% of authors earn more than 50% of total income, while the bottom 50% earn less than 10% of total income.
And so, the Lifestyle misconception raises its ugly head.

The Lifestyle misconception is this: people base their expectations of how authors live and what their lifestyle is like on media coverage of the top 10% — or rather, the top 1%. And the lifestyle of the top 1% is indeed aspirational. J. K. Rowling and Terry Pratchett are responsible for something like 5-6% of all fiction sales in the UK; Stephenie Meyer is probably pocketing another couple of percent these days. The media spotlight focusses on the stars, leaving nothing but shadows for the 50% of writers who earn less than £4000 a year from what is essentially a hobby — albeit one that involves grinding work.

So what is the job like?

Putting words in a row is wearying work. When they're flowing fast, I can sometimes reach a dizzying peak output of 2000 words per hour for a couple of hours — not in fiction, but in a blog entry or a non-fiction essay. I've occasionally had death march sessions in which I pumped out as much as 10,000 words in a day. But such Stakhanovite output isn't sustainable; a 10,000 word day is usually followed by a three-day-weekend to recover from it. A more realistic target for a full-time professional writer is 500-1000 words of finished prose per workday, corresponding to about 1-2 hours of writing, 2-4 hours of polishing, and another couple of hours of thinking about what they want to say, and how to say it. Like anyone else, they need weekends and vacation weeks and time to do the housekeeping. 1000 words per day for a 250-day working year (50 weeks of 5 days a week) works out at 250,000 words per year — or two 320 page novels.

You might think that a job that requires 3 hours of work per day is easy. But in most intellectually demanding jobs, the worker isn't delivering head-down time for 40 hours a week: we work in bursts, and the rest of the time gets filled up with administrative junk and social fluff. I have correspondence to deal with with my agent and editors, marketing folks at my publishers, booksellers, and people who want to tell me about the typo they just discovered in a book that came out five years ago. I do around 25 magazine/website/newspaper interviews a year, and about an average of one public appearance per month — which may be anything from answering questions on stage for an hour to a gruelling three to five days on public duty as guest of honour at a big SF convention. On top of this you can add all the administrative tasks of running a small business — double-entry bookkeeping, tracking expenses and cash flow and receipts, chasing invoices (where appropriate) and paying tax.

There is a catch, though. This job takes place in what is basically my spare bedroom. I have office-mates, but they're not co-workers: at best they'll stand on the keyboard and meow at me when I need a screen break. Writing is an intensely solitary occupation — so much so that many authors give up after a while and go hunt for a part-time day job to ensure that they see other human beings once in a while.

In addition to being a wildly unstable, lonely occupation with an insane income spread, there are other drawbacks to being a writer. Many American writers are forced to rely on a day job, or a spouse with a day job, for health insurance: health insurance for the self-employed is prohibitively expensive, especially for the self-employed poor. Those who don't have a job that provides healthcare, or a partner with family benefits, are never more than one accident away from bankruptcy. As the median age for publishing a first novel is around 34 because it takes a lot of life experience before you know enough to write something worth publishing, most authors are in the age range 34-70 — old enough that they're likely to develop chronic health conditions or need expensive treatments. (To be fair, it's not just authors who get the short end of this particular shitty stick: I suspect the US health insurance industry is actively suppressive of entrepreneurial start-up ventures by older folks in general.)

So here's the truth about the writing lifestyle: it sucks. It is an unstable occupation for self-employed middle-aged entrepreneurs. Average age on entry is around 34, but you can't get health insurance (if you're American). You don't have to be a complete loner, but it helps to have a solitary streak (or a bad talking-to-cats habit). It also helps to be an inveterate optimist, because you'll probably need to supplement your income (about 70% of the mean for someone in a skilled trade, never mind a professional job) by taking on other work such as teaching, journalism, or consultancy. As a business, it's a dead-end: you can't generally expand by taking on employees, and the number of author start-ups where the founders have IPOd and cashed out can be counted on the fingers of a double-amputee's hands. And then, finally, when you go out in public and people ask you what you do for a living and you tell them, they look at you as if you've just sprouted a second head because they know that real authors are millionaires with country estates and private jets who work an hour a day, languidly dictating their next bestseller to their secretary, and who the hell is this poverty-line loner freak anyway?

No, it's not a fucking lifestyle — it's a job. And if you'll excuse me, I've got a book to go write ...

90 Comments

1:

what I've always wondered about in cases like that (i.e. people who work from home are kinda lonely), why there are no arrangements where you can rent a desk in an office building where other creative people also rent desks .. so you can kinda "go to work" every day and give your day some structure as well as social interaction with the other people there.

Probably because people who might be interested in such a scheme don't have enough money to spend on it to make it viable, I guess.

2:

Charlie, why are you still writing?

3:

I think there's a flip side to the Lifestyle misconception: people look at the most interesting 10% to 1% of a "typical" writer's job and think, "Gosh, that seems like a lot of fun." Attending conventions, consulting on TV shows/video games, licensing their works for RPGs... While I fully understand that these things are also hard work (as you've pointed out), mostly people just think, "I wish I could get paid to do that!" They end up comparing the most interesting 1% (or even less) of your job to their average day, and decide they've gotten the short end of the stick.

4:

Brilliant post. There's nothing like the cold wind of fiscal reality to blow the away the idle fantasies that all of us share.

5:
So here's the truth about the writing lifestyle: it sucks.

Would you give it all up for a well-paid desk job that didn't involve writing?

(Okay, leading question. I know what almost every author says to that)

A more realistic target for a full-time professional writer is 500-1000 words of finished prose per workday, corresponding to about 1-2 hours of writing, 2-4 hours of polishing, and another couple of hours of thinking about what they want to say, and how to say it.

This reminds me of misconceptions people have about software development. A good coder averages about a hundred lines of code per day, once you account for debugging and rewriting. That includes time spent on useful meetings (with coworkers) but you must then deduct time spent on useless meetings (mostly with managers who don't understand what you're doing and treat the development staff as personal tutors).

6:

@Michael, such a scheme was tried in some rural areas about twenty years ago - such places were dubbed "telecottages". I think the idea started in Sweden and I had a friend who was helping to set one up in rural Wales in late 1989 or there abouts. These made sense back then when there wasn't even any public dial-up Internet access to speak of, and during the next few years when dial-up was still expensive and patchy, but with the advent of ubiquitous broadband, I suspect the economics no longer made sense, as you state.

7:

Don't forget constant rejection.

8:

I've been really enjoying this series of essays but I do disagree with this one. Last year I sold my debut novel and quit my job, and so far writing full-time has been every bit as rewarding as I'd hoped. My discipline isn't quite what it needs to be, but I love not having a real job. The only drawback so far is that when I used to work in an office, I still got paid even if I came in with a hangover or in a bad mood. As a writer, if I lose a day for some reason, then I've genuinely lost a day.

9:

The idea that you can't get health insurance, as an American, is simply false. I'm 40 years old, currently unemployed, overweight. 3 years ago, the last time I was laid off, I went looking and _easily_ found health insurance for about $50/month more than I'd been paying getting health insurance through my employer (about $250/month total). Is this 'go to the doctor when I have a hangnail, because it's so cheap' insurance? No, but it was good enough to keep me from falling into the preexisting conditions trap when I found my next job, and I kept it rather than getting the job-provided insurance once I was working, because it wasn't significantly worse, or more expensive than what I was offered. It covers major problems, and minor ones I pay for myself.

10:

Ned, get back to me when you're a decade in (like me).

It's true, we wouldn't do it if we weren't obsessively driven to write (whether or not we were paid to do so). But I suspect you're still coasting on the initial rush. There will come a point when you don't wanna write, but if you don't write you don't eat ... and that's when it'll turn back into a real job. Once it does that, there'll be good times again when the writing comes easily -- but never forget: it's still work, and you still have to do it when your muse takes a rain check.

11:

Rent-a-desk shops do exist, at least in the U.S. (here's one from the American Cambridge; here's another). But they mostly cater to consultants of one kind or another, and the rents (typically in the range of a few hundred dollars a month) may be out of the literally-starving-artist range. In areas with enough of these folks, you can also find de facto coworking spots at coffeehouses, library reading rooms, and the like.

12:

Skip, I know plenty of Americans who don't have and can't get health insurance. An anecdotal data point of one -- namely, you -- is not sufficient to disprove the existence of a massive problem.

13:

Can you blog about why you are attractive to this profession if it is so hard and lonely?

why not cut back to part time writing and get a full time job with benefits?

14:

It is possible for most Americans to obtain individual health insurance. It is not, however, a simple matter for most Americans to afford said health insurance, particularly those with families. This is especially true for married couples, as women are more expensive because they can get pregnant. (No, I am not making this up.)

Charlie, you're dead on when you say:

I suspect the US health insurance industry is actively suppressive of entrepreneurial start-up ventures by older folks in general.

It is. It's actively suppressive of anyone who doesn't believe themselves to be basically invincible. What I still can't figure out is why Republicans ever put up with this enormous drag on the entrepreneurial spirit.

Context: I am an early-40s, medically healthy, moderately successful entrepreneur who has been independent for most of a decade. I recently obtained family group health insurance when my wife lost her job, which had been supplying our health insurance. The cost for all four of us is around $800/month, and if we add another child it will be about $1,000/month. Note that I got group insurance through a local small-business coalition. Had I gone it alone, on the pre-reform-bill individual market, the cost would likely have been at least half again as much, so assume about $20,000 per year in insurance premiums for a family of five.

I don't know how our recent insurance reform bill will change that environment, either short or long term, but I do know that affording health care as an individual policyholder is a tough row for many to hoe.

Anecdotes away!

15:

Bob, I can't. Because I've wanted to be a novelist since I was about seven or eight years old. It's like any of the arts: you don't do it because you want the lifestyle, you do it because you can't not write, and you might as well make the most of it.

16:

Thank you for injecting some reality; I hope folks read this post and get a wakeup call.

Being a writer is like trying to be an academic in English; most folks end up overworked, poorly paid adjuncts who get no respect. Publishing is a tough career as well.

So I played coward and went off and became a secretary in a permanent full-time position, and the publishing I do (hard work it is, too) I do as a "hobbyist".

I find it very interesting, all the things people do as "hobbyists". Stuff that at their skill level they might have been paid to do a generation or two ago. Electronics builders, publishers, filmmakers . . .

It says a lot about a society when you look at what people can get paid to do and the work they do in their "spare time".

17:

Michael - I would find trying to write in such an environment to be highly distracting. At one time in my life, I was able to write short stories in longhand on the bus on my way to work, but the presence of other people now makes concentrating on being in that world I'm building nigh on impossible.

...Which is something my husband still has trouble grasping. :P

18:

I hear you Charlie. Thanks for taking the time to be clear about this stuff. I already knew a little, but it's helpful to have it spelled out more.

That being said, I've been meaning to ask for a while how I (and by extension, others) can help. I love your writing, and every book of yours has been a real delight - if occasionally a disturbing one!

I'm not expecting my support to suddenly make your job be 20 times more sociable and make you big cash, but - other than buy your books - what can I do as a fan to make your job easier/more fun?

19:

Cough Cough GRAD SCHOOL Cough Cough

In most of the sciences, you have <10% chance of getting a tenured job after a decade or more of poverty-level wages. Since I'm a cynical SOB, I'd suggest that the only reason we don't see GINI statistics on academic sciences is because the whole system runs on grad students and underpaid postdocs. As with agriculture, they don't average the fieldhands with the farm owners. Authors aren't alone on the sucking end.

Not that you asked me, but in many other fields that pay better, you're not being paid for increased competence, relevance, and utility. Rather, you're getting paid as a prostitute, and the money's there to buy your silence over the soul-destroying things you're doing to get that paycheck.

Not that authors don't suffer--I've been edited and rejected, thank you, and there's more of that to come--but at least your core product is something you and your customers can believe in. In many other writing jobs, the only reward is the money, and then you're expected to blow all of it to have a class-appropriate lifestyle.

Just my opinion, and I hope whoever's about to object to this actually has a good job.

That said, thanks Charlie for posting this. I'll go back to writing now.

20:

the number of author start-ups where the founders have IPOd and cashed out can be counted on the fingers of a double-amputee's hands

Not that I am disagreeing with you in general, but in specific, I can think of a very, very few counterexamples.

Tom Clancy outsources his name. "Tom Clancy's Ops Center", "Tom Clancy's NetForce", "Power Plays", and then the nonfiction stuff which actually gets a co-author name on it -- over fifty books now, I think, plus video games and movies. I think that's the equivalent of IPOing and continuing on as management.

Several series of books outsource the writing while maintaining the illusion of a single author. I suppose that's a writing business similar to being an author.

James Patterson -- well, wikipedia says: "His prolific output is partially owed to the relationship he has with his many co-authors who share an authorship credit on the cover. The authors, in their agreement with Patterson, have agreed not to disclose the terms of their working relationship, including how much involvement Patterson has on each co-authored book."

21:

I'm extremely lucky, because a few years ago my state decided to come out with an affordable health plan for people with pre-existing conditions. This is not common; were it not for that, a serious health problem that turned up three years ago might by now have killed me.

I looked at a lot of options that didn't work out before finding this one. My sister in another state couldn't get insurance that was worth anything (until her ex retired and a divorce settlement clause kicked in).

22:

On the other hand:
1. You are your own boss.
2. Heavy labor is not involved. There is no need to work under harsh conditions.
3. For people who have trouble doing 9-5, it's more congenial.
4. Many US states offer an assigned-risk health care plans. They are expensive, especially as we age, but they are available, and if income allows, they are worth purchasing.
5. It's possible to make a decent living if there are two modest salaries in a household--it's not great, but not hopeless either.

There's a substantial minority of us (25%?) who are comfortable doing pretty much any job. For the rest of us, we have conditions, and if we can satisfy them and make a decent living we're much, much happier. A lot of people will work at jobs they hate for years, and think they're better off. I keep wondering--in what sense "better?"

23:

As a working home alone, self-employed for the last 20+ years, one person company entrepreneur, this post is dead on. Though I write software, the parallels are striking.

24:

Regarding the "rent-a-desk" thing: there are plenty of companies that rent office space on a short- and long- term basis in exactly this way. Check out their prices. Then, when you fall over at how expensive it is, start a company that does it for considerably less. (I'll happily give you my business plan for that, though you'll have to fix the things that made it cost more than you think.)

V@16: People can get paid something resembling a living to do what they'd otherwise do as a hobby if they're willing to work it right. It might be a lot less money, and a lot more stressful (often involving starting your own business or something similar), but it can be done. I've done it. Which brings me to Ned@8: Charlie is absolutely right. The first year or two is actually relatively easy, even if you don't have savings to coast on as well as enthusiasm. For me it was around year four that I started to burn out. It's not hard, after a few years, to hit the point where you don't have the living you'd hoped you'd make, and you wonder if you'll ever again have the energy to do what you love and are very good at.

My question for Charlie: how much "wastage" do you end up with? I.e., how much stuff do you end up writing, and perhaps editing to some degree, that you then chuck out, or at least don't foresee ever using?

I found myself, starting a "just for fun writing what I think" blog (where the standards obviously aren't incredibly high--nowhere near a novel or essay), that about 30% of the stuff I've written is languishing in the "I should get around to rewriting and editing that one day," pile.

And how much time do you spend on these prolific blog entries? This one is close to 1500 words: for me that would be a solid 3-4 hours of effort, to do it at something approaching your level of quality. Are you just that much better than me, that you can bang these things out in an hour?

25:

I just came from a 17 career as a Silicon Valley Software Engineer. I also wrote a book last year and am publishing and selling it myself. Comparing the two careers, it's a no brainer: coding in C++, designing large scale systems, and dealing with code reviews, bugs, and on-call systems that drive you for 10 hours a week 7 days a year, writing is a walk in the park. It's the easiest thing I've ever done.

Once having written the book, shipping and selling the book has also been relatively easy. Giving talks takes more work and practice, but isn't as difficult as surviving a typical interview at a Silicon Valley startup, for instance.

I have no problems understanding why a competent software professional makes upwards of $150k a year and a decent writer makes only $40k a year. The writing job is much easier. MUCH. The top writer makes millions, and so does the top software professionals, so at the top level it doesn't matter much.

26:

A lot of writers of books supplement their incomes by writing other sorts of text. For instance, freelance journalism.

27:

Anthony trolope wrote for 2 1/2 hours each morning, writing (longhand, dip pen) at the rate of 1,000 words per hour, timing himself at 250 words ler 15 minutes.

Then he bathed, shaved, and went of to put in a full day's work at the Post Office.

28:

Uh, Skip... I'm so glad you can afford to pay $250 a month for a healthcare plan, but that cost is prohibitive for lots of folks, especially when unemployed. Finding health insurance might be possible (if you don't have any pre-existing conditions), but affording it isn't possible for a huge chunk of the US population. I don't mean to sound snarky, but health insurance hasn't been something I could afford for several years now, so hearing someone sniff haughtily at the notion that people here have trouble getting insurance kind of gets under my skin.

29:

Trollope must have had the constitution of an ox. One of the things not usually mentioned in these discussions is that good physical condition makes it all easier, because people in good physical condition have more energy.

30:

A lot of the same things can be said for working in the computer game industry. A lot of people look at the people at the top and think it's all like that. But, for every Modern Warfare 2 there's a Barbie Horse Adventures that needs to be done, and there are a dozen "shovelware" games that make money by virtue of not having a lot of money invested into them. It can be soul-sucking.

The main difference is that games aren't really a solo activity. At the very least you're going to have to outsource or find some cheap resources. And, while "indie" games are becoming more fashionable, it's still hard to make a reasonable profit off of a smaller game.

And Charlie is right about the U.S. health care system punishing older entrepreneurs. As I'm rapidly approaching middle age, I'm hesitant about striking out and starting my own company again. In fact, one friend of mine didn't join me in my previous job because he wanted health insurance while his wife was pregnant. Perfectly reasonable, but the health carrier would only cover the company if we all got the coverage, and the amount I'd have to pay per month was more than the salary I was paying myself at the time.

In the end, it's exactly as has been said: you work in a creative industry because you have to and can't imagine yourself anywhere else.

31:

One way to address the solitary nature of this type of work (writing, research, art, coding, designing, etc.) is by going to cafes or bookstores and paying coffee and cookie tax to sit among humans. Better still is the growing co-working movement and better than that for most people, are Jellies (Google "work at jelly" - there's one in Edinburgh, too...). Unless I require a private workspace for meetings or fancy equipment, a safe place to sit, an outlet, wifi and basic human conveniences (water, air, toilet) are all I really need. I've tried a range of options and prefer the informality of jellies as an occasional workspace. The less I need the simpler things get. I like the move towards sustainability aspect of owning less and sharing more.

32:

I wish I could recall who said it, but someone remarked that "When people say they wish they could be a writer, they really mean they wish they could be famous for having written something."

In my teens, I fantasized about being an SF writer and attending cons where I would be a center of attention. But I was realist enough to know that (a) I can't think of plots and (b) writing even a very short story is damned hard. So I just give my adulation (and $$) to those who can produce the works I love.

33:

Just my two cents:

1. Far-fetched, but just for the sake of being provocative: what if our gracious host paints it blacker and more bleak than it is to reduce possible competition? I do not believe this, but one aspect of the market-like portrait of authorship leads easily to conclusions like that.

2. More to the point: I like the comparision with the scientific field. And the question remains: what do people do who are inspired, productive, create works of high quality - but are not in fashion?

34:

From [i]yet another[/i] Aspiring Young Writer (a.k.a. more optimistic cannon fodder):

Very interesting!

I've been following these CMAP postings closely and have gleaned a lot from them. Today's post reminded me of Patrick Rothfuss's assertion that if you want to make it as a full-time writer from the word 'go', one of the most important things was finding cheap-ass accomodation ;-)

Nonetheless I still plan on being a writer. Thankfully i've never had any illusions about what it's going to be like: I have an uncle/auntie who are full-time writers and journalists, and clearly it's tough work.

Regardless,(second job or not) I WILL be writing. Building upon what you and many other posters have said, I have a [i]need[/i] to write that's simply not going to go away :-)

However, I have taken onboard what you and others have mentioned about burnout. Then again, I think that that principle applies to most things. The novelty fades, the adrenalin rush you first felt receeds and what was once an unbridled joy becomes (at least for periods) a slog.

35:

the question remains: what do people do who are inspired, productive, create works of high quality - but are not in fashion?

I'm in one of those fields, The traditional answer is 'starve in a garret' The modern equivalent is that you have, or find, an alternative method of paying the bills. A day job or companion job. The joke is it's the same as Charlie describes. your customer/client assumes that you're overcharging whilst in reality your profit is about the minimum wage when you finish factoring time and overheads. The fancier the client the more likely they are to assume you ought to give a discount - say 25% or so for the pleasure of them purchasing from you.

To pick an example from history; possibly the greatest wood sculptor Grinling Gibbons spent years carving ornate frames for mediocre portraits to survive. Okay he ended up in the JK Rowling catagory but never made her wealth.

36:

You think the fiction-writing life sucks, try TV writing, where everyone including the janitor believes they know way more than you, where just getting someone to read the f**king synopsis is a Mt. Everest climb, and where the money's good - unless you've been a starving artiste so long, just getting back to even appears unlikely in this lifetime.

Why? Because everyone watches TV 60hrs a week for the bulk of their lives and, as a result, think 'any idiot could write that crap.

"You write that crap?" is the general response from others. And, no, I don't write that crap. I write other crap, thanks for asking.

Real job? "Hmm. Let's take a look at that resume. So you've been sitting around 'writing' for a few years. Before that you were a story analyst? Hmm... and then all these other jobs, a year here, a year there... It doesn't seem like you'd be a good fit with this company, with the instability and the fact that you'll leave the second you make your next sale...'

On the other hand, the starving artiste diet sure does keep ya skinny...

37:

When I was young I thought "Starving Artist" sounded romantic. I quickly learned it was an accurate description!

38:

There are arrangements like that, Michael, where you can join a writer's co-op--there are various types--and rent a desk. Or you can do what I do, which is pay $4 a day for a latte, which comes with the privilege of sitting for two hours in, in my case anyway, an environment full of fantastic characters and beneficial noise.

(This may make me sound richer than the average, as described so accurately by Charlie above, but in fact my reality is exactly the one he describes. I teach, write non-fiction, and have a spouse with a full-time 9-5.)

39:

Charlie, you have described an unsustainable model.

You have described a Hobby, and are insisting on living on what you make doing your Hobby. That's fine, that's great, as long as you don't mind being one down year away from bankruptcy. But you cannot fool yourself into thinking that you are a commercial author.

Commercial Fiction is where you make at least ten times more per book than what you are making now.

Commercial Fiction is getting out of the genre ghetto and publishing in mainstream fiction.

Publishing in the SF marketing genre is hobby writing. It always has been. The few people who made it more than a hobby are rare, and had success outside the field which made it easier to sell their genre work outside the genre.

Didn't you ever wonder why Stephen King, etc..., does not belong to SFWA. It's because he makes a living writing commercial fiction, and SFWA does not represent commercial authors. The contempt I observed from members when King's name came up was astonishing. It made it clear to me that selling in the SF marketing genre would always remain a hobby, so I better have a main source of income that does not depend on that hobby.

In ten years, you will either have retooled your skill-set and be working for a retirement (Been there, done that--achieved the Dilbertian Dream of Retirement--and am now moving on.) or you will shift over to commercial fiction and be making a real living writing books that millions of people want to read, which allows you to publish the occasional SF genre novel as a hobby for your 3,000 loyal SF fans.

I wish you good luck.

40:

@Skip, $250/month is $3000/year, which is fully half of the £4000/year median income. If half the median income doesn't count as "prohibitively expensive", I don't know what would.

41:

You said it. A while back I fantasized about becoming an author, then I got to know a large number of mid-list authors through a Seattle literary organization. Being a pretty well-paid IT professional, I said to myself "Um, why not write for a hobby and keep getting the bucks?" So I did.

Actually, times like these, I wish you'd put a tip jar on your site. I'd like you to keep writing and I appreciate reading your stuff wherever I can find it - want to keep supporting you.

42:

You said it. A while back I fantasized about becoming an author, then I got to know a large number of mid-list authors through a Seattle literary organization. Being a pretty well-paid IT professional, I said to myself "Um, why not write for a hobby and keep getting the bucks?" So I did.

Actually, times like these, I wish you'd put a tip jar on your site. I'd like you to keep writing and I appreciate reading your stuff wherever I can find it - want to keep supporting you.

43:

Till @ 33: "I like the comparision with the scientific field. And the question remains: what do people do who are inspired, productive, create works of high quality - but are not in fashion?"

In academia, they are typically denied tenure, and end up working (simultaneously) as a part-time instructor at three different community colleges, mostly teaching "remedial $_fillintheblank". Or, they take a position as Assistant Editor (and staff writer) at a distinguished journal such as Modern Sewage Treatment Systems. (See, among others: Algis Budrys, Gene Wolfe.)

44:

Trollope himself said
"The experience I have acquired in being active in its cause forbids me to advise any young man or woman to enter boldly on a literary career in search of bread. I know how utterly I should have failed myself had my bread not been earned elsewhere while I was making my efforts. During ten years of work, which I commenced with some aid from the fact that others of my family were in the same profession, I did not earn enough to buy me the pens, ink, and paper which I was using; and then when, with all my experience in my art, I began again as from a new springing point, I should have failed again unless again I could have given years to the task. Of course there have been many who have done better than I,—many whose powers have been infinitely greater. But then, too, I have seen the failure of many who were greater.

The career, when success has been achieved, is certainly very pleasant; but the agonies which are endured in the search for that success are often terrible. And the author’s poverty is, I think, harder to be borne than any other poverty. The man, whether rightly or wrongly, feels that the world is using him with extreme injustice. The more absolutely he fails, the higher, it is probable, he will reckon his own merits; and the keener will be the sense of injury in that he whose work is of so high a nature cannot get bread, while they whose tasks are mean are lapped in luxury. “I, with my well-filled mind, with my clear intellect, with all my gifts, cannot earn a poor crown a day, while that fool, who simpers in a little room behind a shop, makes his thousands every year.” The very charity, to which he too often is driven, is bitterer to him than to others. While he takes it he almost spurns the hand that gives it to him, and every fibre of his heart within him is bleeding with a sense of injury.

The career, when successful, is pleasant enough certainly; but when unsuccessful, it is of all careers the most agonising."

And you forgot to mention that he left the post office in mid-afternoon to go foxhunting.

45:

Charlie, I wanted to thank you for all of the CMAP posts. I work at big name brick n' mortar bookstore in the States. I wish I could show this post to customers when they complain about the price of a book or say that it is cheaper online.

I also wanted to give your readers a look at what the people on the front lines selling your books make. I have a college degree and I still work at a retail bookstore. The "industry job" I got after college paid me less than the bookstore job I had since high school. I work 40 hours a week and make less than $1800 a month after taxes, and I pay almost $100 a month for health insurance. I only make this much because I have been with my store for about nine years total. Most of my co-workers have two jobs. Booksellers probably make the least out of anybody in the publishing world, yet we are the ones who put books in people's hands. I do this for a living because I love books, I love talking about them and the best feeling I get is when someone comes to me and says "I really enjoyed that book you suggested. What should I read next?"

46:

Allynh: You have described a Hobby, and are insisting on living on what you make doing your Hobby. That's fine, that's great, as long as you don't mind being one down year away from bankruptcy. But you cannot fool yourself into thinking that you are a commercial author.

Commercial Fiction is where you make at least ten times more per book than what you are making now.

Er, no.

What I've described is not unsustainable; it's merely harsh, unstable, and badly underpaid. Also note that it's common for authors to be married or in stable relationships (they tend to be middle-aged) and for the spouse to have a reasonably secure day job. Although trying to live off £4000 a year as a primary income would be insane, as a secondary income it's nice: pays for the family vacation or a new car every 3 years.

(As for myself, I earn considerably more than the mean that I quoted from that survey. For the first few years I didn't, but I'm one of the successful ones who contribute to that huge Gini coefficient. So your advice about changing genres is somewhat ill-informed.)

47:

>starving
I don't know how many of you have come close to genuine hunger, when you don't have any money to buy your next meal it's awful, but compared to that starving is _much much worse_.

48:

Two of the more memorable comments on writing I've read were from Robert Heinlein and David Gerrold.

"writing is not a profession it is a disease"
Robert Heinlein 'Tramp Royale'

"writing for television is like prostitution, banging and climaxing every fifteen minutes"
David Gerrold 'The Trouble With Tribbles, the complete story of one of Star Treks most popular episodes'

Any thoughts?

49:

Just wanted to say thank-you for doing it for us...the readers. We know you work hard turning out the material that we can't wait to grab off the shelf and immerse ourselves in - engaging characters, alternate worlds to explore.

It may feel very lonely for you and a one way effort at the production stage, but know that it's so appreciated by those of us that receive it a few months later!

:-)

50:

Everytime I hear about U.S. Health Insurance, I'm extra happy for being Canadian.

I have had broken limbs, an emergency appendectomy, some other 'stuff', and have never once paid for the care I received (directly, there's always taxes).

51:

And then there are those in their 40s, suckers who bet the farm on selling a debut novel in their 30s. They spent their 20s daydreaming about selling a debut novel, spending most of their time drinking with their friends on the weekends, boasting about the short story they had published in the undergraduate degree, then just a few years earlier. They wake up in their 30s in relative isolation, having forgotten how or why they've committed themselves to the godforsaken profession. They've become a cynic, though deny it to whoever is listening, which isn't sentient anyway. Whatever connections to the outside world they had in their 20s and 30s have long since withered and died, and they find themselves teaching elementary school in South Korea, pawning off their self-published novel as a real book. Most people don't know the difference between 70,000 words formatted in Word or Adobe InDesign. He formatted his book with Word, and its glaringly obvious now. Now that he's learned a bit about traditional publishing from freelance editors and graphic designers who swear that a good self-published book has a chance of making it in the real world of publishing. He appreciates nature now, how the trees compete for sunlight, strangling one another with their roots. He finds himself addicted to painkillers at 41, then anti-depressants. His moods begin to swing with increasing frequency, and his co-workers and students begin to see that cracks in the facade. So he puts his head down and continues on writing 500-1000 words a day, dreaming of catching a break before his world collapses in on him. This is my life.

52:

I listed 'author' on my tax return for three years in the late 90's. Most of this is spot on, but compared to the job I have now (writing database code) there were the joys of working on my own schedule and such. There's nothing quite like running into a problem with a piece, needing a break, and going to see a matinée for five bucks with nobody else in the theater. Then back to work.

The cats bit is funny. I have a solitary streak that on occasion resembles an anti-social streak, but I've always said writers have cats because with a cat you can pretend you're not talking to yourself.

53:

I had an interesting "natural experiment" in writing earlier this year, when a couple of really bad decisions in finalizing the files for a short book for Steve Jackson Games resulting in the main text being irretrievably erased. I had to re-create the whole thing from my memory of its content. The re-creation took me ten days; the original draft had taken just about five times as long. That is, some 80% of the work seems to have been spent on thinking about the book, and only 20% of it on getting the words onto the screen.

A couple of caveats:

* The recreated draft actually was better in some ways than the lost draft; I had a clear understand of what was in it and was able to make more cross connections. Nonetheless, I wouldn't recommend this as a way to polish manuscripts!

* This was quite a short project; I had a clear and detailed idea of the entire content. The relationship wouldn't necessarily scale up to a longer project, such as the 256 pages of my last full-scale book. I would still bet on the recording of words being a minority share of the work time.

54:

@charlie: Very interesting stats on the dispersion of writer's income. I wonder has the Gini coeff been increasing as the book industry becomes increasingly global and concentrated, exacerbating the "winner takes all" phenomenon?

The issue you don't mention is that of continued creativity. SF writing seems to require developing new ideas and I wonder how often writers just fail to come up with anything new and burn out, or try to change genre and lose their fans without really acquiring new ones.
Seems to be one hell of a treadmill.

55:

@54:

Very interesting stats on the dispersion of writer's income. I wonder has the Gini coeff been increasing as the book industry becomes increasingly global and concentrated, exacerbating the "winner takes all" phenomenon?

This is why I don't really consider myself particularly liberal: the gini coefficient doesn't really tell us how much of that income was actually earned. In Rowling's case, or King's, they're multimillionaires several times over because they have written books that have sold extremely well. Iow, they've actually produced salable product. So unless there's some sort of payola going on, to the first order the gini coefficient for (sf) authors is merely a stand-in for sales. The same can be said for others in the entertainment industry: Will Smith is well-paid because he puts butts in seats, ditto for any number of sports figures (has anybody got a gini coefficient for those poor bastards?)

It's only when you have both numbers approaching one and that this is the result of gate-keeping or rent-seeking that I have a problem with inequalities like this.

56:
you do it because you can't not write

Interesting choice of phrase. I think Asimov was one of the first to say that; it now seems to be quite common.

57:

@scentoviolets 55:

I once heard that US actors (with a union card) had a median income of <$5000 a year, not surprising as most are forever waiting on tables hoping to get a career break.

While charlie's figures shouldn't really be compared to country stats, they are a useful stat to understand how income is distributed in a particular job or profession. The more that an individual can leverage skills/talent to compete with others, the more likely income distribution will skew. Acting and finance are two obvious examples, whilst gardening services are likely at the other end.
What the stat tells you is that effort may not be rewarded well, as income may be due as much to luck or fashion as quality, and may even be self-reinforcing due to network effects, reducing the ability of other players to earn incomes.


58:

Yeah yeah, whatever. When do we get to see pictures of your gold-plated toilet?

59:

@Charlie: Aren't there members of SFWA who write part time and work during the day? ARen't there writing jobs in communication departments at large corporations that have benefits? I don't know about the job market for your profession, but if its so hard, you could just write part time.

Then again, it might be hard to get a corporate job if you own your own business. They may not want to hire you, since you have outside income.

60:

The general solution is to look for freelance work -- journalism or technical writing or editing, for example -- or a low-level job where the question of you running a part-time business on the side doesn't emerge (shop sales staff, secretarial worker, or similar).

NB: This is not a problem I currently have: I'm part of the lucky 10% at the top who get to earn a comfortable living. No gold-plated toilets here, though.

61:

Yes, most writers have day jobs. Their day jobs may or may not have anything to do with their writing.

Fiction writing pays abysmally. This is not new. This does not make it a hobby -- acting also pays abysmally, and most actors have other jobs. Most painters do as well. But then so do a lot of teachers.

62:

you didn't say whether your book was fiction or a C++ book, so I'll address both possibilities.

C++ - Not only is it apples to rocks to compare a technical book to fiction, but you also spent 17 years doing the prep for it. Not really a direct comparison at all.

Fiction - Get back to us once you sell it as your main income. Of course its "easy" to write a book- a 3rd grader could do it, its just a bunch of words. The hard part is writing something that several hundred thousand other people actually want to read, and then convincing someone to publish or stock it.

In any case, coming in and bragging about how it's "so easy" to write a book in an author's blog post about the difficulty the average author has in supporting themselves solely through writing is really rude.

-Java/C++/C/Python programmer, but not an author

63:

Charlie @ 15..
and 56
I've heard that before!
From Roger Zelazny, of all people, at a con, lo, these many years ago .....

64:

Charlie

Well, I'm just so glad you keep writing, and are managing to make a reasonable living at it.

David

65:

"what do people do who are inspired, productive, create works of high quality - but are not in fashion?"

Starve, or get day jobs.

...and most young writers are out of fashion when they start out.

66:

This is the sad fact that I've recently learned (from reading the CMAPs here and other writers's blogs as well) that has has kept me from ever jumping in eyes-closed.

Luckily I have a day job, and other marketable skills. Unluckily, once you've spent your day on that, there's not really a lot of time left for, you know, writing.

67:

Good.

A relative didn't heed my warnings, and ended up taking a year off of work to write her masterpiece historical fiction novel... which nobody would buy. This then leads into the troubles with self-publishing, and the difficulty in getting a job after two years being unemployed.

This doesn't mean "don't write." It means go into it with appropriate expectations and goals.

68:
a competent software professional makes upwards of $150k a year

Uh, where are you finding those jobs? I'm pulling teeth to get $30/hr from people as a contractor, and that's with a great resume including a Google internship and a degree in math.

69:

What you say about publishing in the SF genre being mostly hobby writing is on the mark, though as Charlie said it doesn't apply to him because he makes enough money to put his work firmly outside the "hobby" category.

However, it's a message that beginning SF-only writers need to understand. To be successful as a full-time fiction writer, the less risky path is to work on mainstream novel writing first. After enough success with that, an SF novel could be attempted if a publisher is willing to pay a large enough advance.

70:

Yes. What Charlie said. One hundred percent agreement from me. (I'd say a million percent or something, but we is numerate, innit?)

As for deliberately writing to a genre, guys... forget it. The most important thing is for the writer to believe in the story, and that only happens if the story's burning inside you. The genre is whatever category other people will want to place your book in later.

As far as you're concerned, this is a non-deterministic process.

Plus... Whatever is the up-and-coming thing in newly published books is the Zeitgeist of two years ago (when the writers were starting their novels) and it'll be another two years before your book appears so guess what... It's gonna be a whole other instantiation of Zeitgeist by then.

71:

Something I've said often in reality ® but not online, so I'm going back to my own blog in a second...

Writing's not a profession, it's a psychiatric condition.

72:

@Piaw Na #25:

coding in C++, [...] 10 hours a week 7 days a year

Yeah. And don't forget the relentless attention to detail, an important and rare characteristic that all really successful software people have.

It's the easiest thing I've ever done

Writing is easy. Writing well is not so easy. All we know is that you've self-published a book; until you're actually making a comfortable living from writing (are you? I'm guessing no), you might want to avoid coming here and telling a successful author (who, you might recall, has in fact worked as a software developer) that he's wrong about how much work writing takes.

a competent software professional makes upwards of $150k a year

A competent *and lucky* software professional *in Silicon Valley*, perhaps. I know plenty of very competent software professionals who are not making $150k per year.

73:

And the not-writing part is hard, but I have the better-paying job of the two of us and right now where I work has had mandatory weekend overtime of 16 hours each for the past couple of weeks, and before that it was a lot of effort learning the job.

I thought I'd be able to write more while I was unemployed, but the anxiety of looking for work/paying the bills/etc. overwhelmed me. I sort of got over it, then I got the current position (which I was hired as 'seasonal, three-five months, which does not get one health insurance--which is another worry) and I'm slammed because of it.

So far I've only had short stories published, which also don't make much money, but I'm working on a new novel and hope to resume the stuff I had to let go a few weeks ago.

74:

As Sydney Smith said, if you didn't pay the bishops extravagantly (Pratchett & Rowling) you wouldn't be able to con thousands of educated people to do the badly-paid hack work as curates, all hoping to be the one that breaks through. Also like the mafia (cf. Sopranos), only for educated read violent.

75:

Charlie, thank you for writing, and for writing well. That's not something I get to say to everyone whose work I appreciate, so I'm especially glad when I can.

76:

Josh Robbins: However, it's a message that beginning SF-only writers need to understand. To be successful as a full-time fiction writer, the less risky path is to work on mainstream novel writing first. After enough success with that, an SF novel could be attempted if a publisher is willing to pay a large enough advance.

WRONG.

"Mainstream" is itself a genre category -- genre being a convenient tag that tells bookstore staff where to shelve books. Figures from memory: SF/F accounts for about 7% of fiction sales in the US market, while Mainstream is around 11%; crime/thrillers are around 16%, and romance is the 500Kg gorilla in the room at 52%.

But the 7% to 11% ratio is misleading. There are many more people who think they can write the Great American Novel than there are people who want to write the next Lord of the Rings; consequently the entry-level competition in mainstream fiction is ruthless and ghastly beyond the comprehension of anyone working in the genteel, polite backwater of SF. Deliver poor-to-middling sales with that first mainstream novel and your career is over before it gets a real chance to begin.

The advice to get established in one genre then switch to another is dangerous and bad, too. Some genre readers are willing to try work in other genres; for example, if you start in SF/F, develop a following, and publish mainstream or thriller works, some or all of your readers will follow you. But if you start in mainstream, most mainstream readers regard SF as being somehow beneath them; they won't follow you over. And try to imagine shifting sideways from two-fisted manly action thrillers into romance! It's simply not going to work -- you'll be starting over again from scratch (and confusing the poor bookstore sales clerks as well, unless you adopt a pseudonym).

(Edit: Sorry, don't mean to jump on you personally with the size 12 boots -- but your suggestions are exactly 180 degrees away from the way the industry works, and I didn't want to risk anyone mistaking a lack of vehement opposition on my part for active agreement, lest they end up crashing and burning a career before they even begin.)

77:

@ 70

So another instatiation of the zeitgeist ??

Would we call that an:
Eigenzeitgeist ?

78:

Romance is 52%? Brandon Sanderson said on his website that they are 35%. Where are you getting your numbers?

Who is reading all of these romance novels? Guys typically don't read them? Is it all women who read them and wish their guys were like the guys in the stories?

As a guy, I can't stand romance novels.

79:

> There will come a point when you don't wanna write, but if you don't write you don't eat ... and that's when it'll turn back into a real job.

IOW, that's when you become a professional writer and graduate from waiting for inspiration.

80:

I have read (perhaps in another CMAP?) that genre publishers prefer authors who can maintain a certain rate of output: i.e., if your first novel comes out in 2010, they'd really like to have a second novel queued up for 2011, so that the buzz generated by the first novel is put to good use.

So what happens to mid-list writers who can't sell enough books to quit their day jobs, but can't write fast enough in their spare time to keep up the pace that their publishers want?

81:

My thoughts on this glorious profession:

It's an exotic way to starve.

I hope, after 30 years of up and down struggling, to make it more than that. It is rough going, but it's what we were born to do.

Part of me wishes I were able to repair dishwashers, but I'm not. So be it.

82:

DM@68: Google "Piaw Na Google".

Piaw: Tech writing is a different beast than fiction writing. The first comes naturally to many -- but not all good geeks -- but does not include many of the skills necessary for the second.

83:

The Gini is distressingly high among theremin players.

84:

If there's one instrument you don't want to be mediocre at, it's a theremin.

85:

The U.S. health care system is indeed a travesty; it's also extremely complicated because every state's laws are different. For instance, New York is one of five states that forbids insurers to discriminate on the basis of preexisting conditions. (The new federal bill, thankfully, bans this nationwide.) The effect of this is twofold: It's easier to get insurance, but that insurance tends to be more expensive.

It'll be a while before we know the effect of the "exchanges" that are supposed to allow individuals and the self-employed access to insurance at more competitive rates. Those, too, are being set up state by state, though they're federally funded. Meanwhile, freelancers are best served by organizations like Working Today/Freelancers Union (which has had a number of problems itself with insurance) or Mediabistro.

86:

I once tried to write a sci-fi novel. Banged it out on a smith-corona typewriter, xerox'd a bunch of copies, and sent it off to various publishers for evaluation. I pray no copies survive, otherwise I'll have to change my name (I didn't use a pseudonym).

87:

Those kinds of places do exist, especially in cities like NYC. But, they are mostly rented by small biz people, consultants, etc. Writers just go to an office that other people call a cafe or coffee shop.

88:

ObThurber:

"decided to take up journalism, possibly on the ground that when farming went to hell he could fall back on newspaper work. He didn't realize, of course, that that would be very much like falling back full-length on a kit on carpenter's tools."

My advice to a would-be author would be to develop a back-up skill which is likely to be in at least some demand - nursing, block paving, electrical installation, delivery driving - rather than using the raw hell that is freeelance writing to balance back up and subsidise the raw hell that is writing novels. Yes, Charlie managed it, but I would imagine that it was far easier for a first-rate writer to get gigs writing intelligently about software in the 1990s, than it is for a first- (or second-, like most of us, including you, dear reader) rate writer to get gigs writing intelligently about almost anything today.

89:

David McCabe #84 - and the bagpipes.

90:

Unions are the way to go for industries with high Gini coefficients. In the US, having a corporation organize your health care is a million times easier than having a bunch of individuals buy on their own, and is much cheaper. See the SAG or WGA in the US for examples of how writers could organize.

Tea party trivia: Ronald Reagan served multiple terms as president of the SAG union.

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