Mark Terry

Friday, September 08, 2006

Making A Living As A Writer

September 8, 2006
I'm a fulltime freelance writer, editor, and novelist. That's how I define it when asked and how I put it atop my writing resume. Ultimately I'm just a freelance writer and the editing gigs and novelizing gigs are just part of it. But I do make a living at it and I can say, a decent living. Of course, "decent living" is a relative term. I know people who think anything less than $100,000 to not be a good living, in which case, in their eyes I'm probably destitute.

That reminds me of an interview I once read with Richard North Patterson, who said early in his career his last book had sold only something like 180,000 copies, and he didn't think it was worth it, so he was about ready to quit. His next book became a bestseller. My sympathy for the man dropped sooooo low... I'll be ecstatic with 180,000 copies of THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK selling and I'm pretty sure my publisher would be, too.

Here are some other people who I know make a living as writers: Doug Stanton, Tobias Buckell, Eric Mayer, Mary Reed, J.A. Konrath, Barry Eisler, Lee Child, Jeff Cohen, Lee Goldberg, Paul Guyot, Robert Gregory Browne...

Here's something else I know about most of us: we write a lot of different things. Let's look at that list and take Lee Child and Barry Eisler out of the mix. J.A. Konrath makes a living as a writer and primarily a novelist, although he sells quite a few short stories, the occasional magazine article and, last I heard, did some teaching. He also promotes like crazy.

Doug Stanton is a journalist and writer of nonfiction books. Tobias Buckell, fairly recent to the fulltime freelance game, has published over 25 short stories, 1 novel, and makes a living writing business and technology blogs. Eric Mayer writes (correct me if I'm wrong) a lot for legal publications, as he is a recovering attorney. He's also a novelist with his wife, Mary Reed, who is also a freelance writer, primarily, I think of whimsical journalism/feature type writing. Jeff Cohen is a novelist, journalist, and ghostwriter. He's written 2 nonfiction books under his own name and has ghosted quite a few books under other people's names and he regularly writes for newspapers and magazines, as well as selling the occasional TV script. Paul Guyot wrote for TV's "Finding Amy" I believe, before moving out of the L.A. rathole and moving to St. Louis to write TV pilots, short stories and that novel we're all waiting for him to finish. Robert Gregory Browne has worked in both film and TV, I believe, and is currently awaiting his first novel, KISS HER GOODBYE, to come out in January 2007 (I'm looking forward to it).

Lee Goldberg is kind of my poster child for the point I'm trying to make today. He has written on-staff for TV shows, freelances ("Monk," "Psyche," many others, including "Spenser: For Hire") as a TV writer, has published his own novels ("The Man With The Iron-On Badge" for instance") and writes TV tie-ins for "Diagnosis: Murder" and "Monk." He's also written several nonfiction books and worked his way through college as a freelance journalist for publications like "Newsweek" and, I believe, some of the movie/TV industry trade publications.

And me? I have two books published with the third (THE DEVIL'S PITCHFORK) coming out October 1st. I used to review books (The Oakland Press) as well as write features for them. My magazine/trade articles have appeared in publications as diverse as Genomics & Proteomics, BioPerform, Drug Discovery & Development to Mystery Scene Magazine,, and Lowe's for Pros. I've also written for corporations such as the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute. I'm the editor of The Journal of the Association of Genetic Technologists and am currently working on a book-length business report for Washington G-2 Reports. Although the bulk of my nonfiction focuses on clinical diagnostics, biotechnology and medicine, I've also written articles about plumbing, electricians, personal finance, business management, computer security and a whole plethora of other topics--because that's how it's done.

I think it's a very lucky writer who gets to write a book a year, fiction or nonfiction, and that accounts for the entirety of their livelihood. I hope someday I'm in that position, but I'm pretty happy with the diversity of work I have and it more than pays the bills. I've made more money this year SO FAR than I made yearly working at Henry Ford Hospital in the cytogenetics laboratory (ever), and can only hope that trend will continue. I know the mix for my income varies a great deal. Sometimes I'm doing a lot of editing. Sometimes I'm doing a lot of technical materials. Currently I'm doing a lot of business writing, which is a fairly new area for me, but a lucrative one.

Lawrence Block once noted in a column he wrote that one of the things he noticed about fulltime writers was that they got a lot done. He was commenting at the time that he had a friend who made a big chunk of his livelihood off short stories--and to do so he wrote at least one a week! I typically aim (not quite rationally) for at least three invoices a week when I'm doing straight journalism. The current biz writing has made that unnecessary, but I can tell you, I get antsy if I don't invoice at least three times a week. (And I'm behind this week, I believe, having only invoiced twice. On the other hand, it was my 170th invoice this year!).

I'm not going to sum up. You get the point, right?

Mark Terry


Anonymous Ron Estrada said...

Get the point. If my only remaining choice was remaining in the auto industry, I'd be diving into freelancing with gusto. My job now provides my with plenty of writing assignments. Since it's basically a family business and an industry I enjoy (RVing), I'm not compelled to leave. However, my retirement will certainly be shored up by all the writing I can handle.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Eric Mayer said...

Yes, that's a decent description of what I do, although I have to say I've never been an attorney. While going to law school I realized practising law was not something I could stomach so as soon as I got my law degree I went to work as an editor/writer at a legal publisher. For the past 12 years I've worked on a freelance basis for several different legal publishers.

Some of the stuff I do is so technical that some people might not consider it "writing" but it's all arranging words and putting books in order so I think it's fair to call it writing and editing. Of course you might be familiar with some of the bestsellers I've worked on such as Michigan Legal Practice, Taxation, Pennsylvania Law Encyclopedia, Employment or Corpus Juris Secundum, Wills. Or maybe not...

There's a difference, certainly, between my full-time technical writing and someone doing various sorts of entertainment writing or even the magazine articles you do which are probably a lot more like "real" writing.

It's pretty amazing that you are making more writing than at a regular job. A tribute to entreprenaurship!

9:57 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

"Some of the stuff I do is so technical that some people might not consider it "writing" but it's all arranging words and putting books in order so I think it's fair to call it writing and editing."

Actually, that's about how I would describe this business report I'm writing. In fact, despite the money, which is significant, had I been clearer on the fact that I was going to be responsible for creating much of the data--(It was originally described to me this way: "It'll be about 250 pages long, but don't worry about that. A lot of that is figures, which we'll supply." Hmmm, yes, they'll supply the graphic person who turns MY data into figures. I was very much under the impression they would be supplying the majority of the data. My mistake.)--I'm not sure I would have taken the job. Well, okay, yes, I would have. Maybe. Like many big-paying gigs, the reality of the job doesn't always match up with the advertisement for the job. iIt's been a real education, though. The big conflict for me is exactly what you're describing: Is it really writing?

I don't have an anwer to that. I will note that the more things seem like work, the more they actually seem to pay. Not completely true, but there's definitely some truth to it.

10:12 AM  
Blogger Alyson ~ said...

I've been making a living for about 18 years as a writer, ghostwriter and editor. But I'm about to put out the first book with my name on the cover, and after all these years of telling other people not to worry about it, part of me is terrified! It's great to find your blog today, and a community of already-published writers. Thanks, Alyson

12:03 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

Congrats, Alyson. And best wishes for many more with your name on them.

2:28 PM  

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