How can I make a living at writing?
October 3, 2012 | Written by Chip MacGregor
When you look at writers who are making a living at their writing, you find they come in two basic types:
TYPE 1 is the writer who writes all over the map. There are plenty of examples of this in publishing – writers who do kids books, teen books, women’s fiction, romance, thrillers, study guides, and the occasional novella. They publish with multiple publishers, self-publish some titles, do some work-for-hire or collaborative writing, and cobble together a living. This author has good years and bad, makes decent money, is certainly out there a lot. On the nonfiction side, you find this much more with journalistic types — they’re taking on a variety of projects in order to make a living.
TYPE 2 is the writer who figures out what she wants to write, then writes it. She focuses on a genre, figures out her voice, and writes to that audience. An example of this is Terry Blackstock (there are plenty of others). Terry is writing suspense novels, everybody recognizes her voice, and she’s focused on that one audience. Another is an author I represent, Lisa Samson. Lisa writes literary fiction, knows who she is and what her style is, and focuses on it.
I’ll tell you right now that TYPE 1 writers rarely hit it big. She might make a good living, but it’s tough to really hit the big time when you move around in categories. You know that feeling of being overwhelmed because you’re doing six books in four different genres? Well, that’s the sort of life a TYPE 1 author is going to lead forever, because she finds it tough build an audience. Readers have trouble following her. Bookstore owners have a hard time getting behind her because they don’t know what her next book is going to be. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do this — frankly, it may be the only way to make a living with writing these days. Some writers do this and make a great living, but they rarely hit it big because their releases are diffuse.
TYPE 2 authors have a much greater chance of building an audience, hitting the big time, partnering with retailers, establishing a brand, not working so hard or writing so many books. BUT it’s more risky being a TYPE 2. Why? Because what if your voice doesn’t catch on? Take a look at publisher mid-lists — they are filled with good authors (occasionally great craftspeople) who are writing and publishing but struggling along. I can think of a couple fantastic writers — literate, fun, insightful, with solid craftwork… but they’ve never really had a hit. There’s no guarantee that becoming a TYPE 2 author will establish you as a bestselling author. On the other hand, a good TYPE 2 author continues to get published, because she’s GOOD.
So…ask yourself what you want to be. One problem I see is that many authors writing numerous historical novels aren’t taking the long view – they started out with the goal of “landing a contract,” and they continue with that as a goal. I would simply suggest a better goal than “landing another contract” would be “establishing a successful long-term career.”
Again, there’s no right or wrong here — just differences. Would love your take on this.
Got a publishing or writing question? Send it to me and I’ll try to get you an answer.