Mark Terry

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Writing Novels For A Living

May 21, 2008
I recently interviewed a couple physicians who also write novels. It was a pleasant enough interview and their recent novel sounds interesting. What threw me a tiny bit--but probably shouldn't have--about the interview was their acknowledgement that writing novels for them was essentially a hobby with relatively small financial gain.

That's partly because they're docs, of course, who typically have better incomes than the rest of us. And I've run into other physicians who are novelists along the line, as well as successful lawyers and business people and even TV personalities, who have written novels. In most cases, their novels net them nowhere near what their "day jobs" do. So why do it?

Well, maybe it is just a hobby. That's okay, actually. In fact, I'm increasingly starting to believe that since most novelists are lucky to make more than $5000-$10,000 per book (if that), then most would probably be a lot happier if they went in accepting that fact instead of expecting to make a fortune. What is often dismaying--and certainly it applies to myself--is how we continue on thinking the BIG HIT is just around the corner... all evidence to the contrary.

Some writers, at least publicly, are pretty cool about this. They're happy to be published, they're happy to have readers and they're happy to call themselves novelists. I struggle with this, frankly; partly because I make a living as a writer and would like fiction to play a larger part in that. I want it to pull its own weight, because I can generally spend the same time on something else that would be significantly more profitable, and nobody expects me to go out and market the final product on my own dime. (Of course, knowing this logically and accepting it emotionally are two wildly separate things).

It seems to me that there are essentially two camps out there in terms of writers and non-writers. They think either authors are all rich or they think authors are all poor, living in garrets and wearing berets.

Sometimes people think this simultaneously. When I first started out I was in the first camp. Now, all these years later, I see it not as a bell-shaped curve with the ends representing the poor, garret-living writers and the bestsellers with a large bulk of novelists making a decent living, but as a wildly steep incline-curve that almost resembles a ski jump. The vast majority of novelists make almost no money, there's a little plateau of writers who make a living, and there's a tiny proportion that make it big (and cling fiercely to the slope in constant danger of getting knocked off).

Which camp are you?

Mark Terry


Blogger kitty said...

Funny you should choose this particular topic, because I've been thinking about this exact same thing for at least a week now.

I used to think that writers made good money, because of movies -- and sometimes TV shows.

The most recent, and current, example is "Sex & the City." The fictional Carrie Bradshaw writes a column for a newspaper, which isn't the Times or even a national paper, and she lives in Manhattan in a lovely apartment (albeit small). She eats out at trendy places, drinks expensive drinks, takes taxis everywhere, and is addicted to buying shoes at least $400/pair. Not even all doctors who live in Manhattan are able to live like that.

I instinctively knew that most writers, if lucky, barely eke out living expenses. But it wasn't until I began surfing the lit agents' blogs that the notion of the "poor writer" sunk in.

My resume is very short: one op-ed back in '92 (USA Today -- and I got paid!), and one of my stories was made into a podcast (paid again!).

I'm working my way out of a lengthy bout of writer's block. I don't write with the idea of becoming rich; I write with the hope of becoming published.


6:30 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I'm quite careful to distinguish between "writer" and "novelist," because in my case I make a pretty good living writing nonfiction--magazine articles, business reports, editing technical journals, etc. More money than I made working as a genetics technologist at a major hospital.

The freelance writers like myself that I know, their incomes seem to range from about $40,000 to $120,000 a year.

Novelists, though, although I know some who make in that range and even higher, the majority of novelists I know are lucky to top $10,000 for their books.

Just writing to be published may be the sane way to go.

6:34 AM  
Blogger kitty said...

I know a freelancer who lives in Wyoming. He writes articles about the West and reviews of western books. By living the most meager life, and supplementing with occasional odd jobs, he was able to make a living. However, with the influx of wealth from other states -- people trying to avoid the high cost of living -- he's found he can no longer afford to live in his small town and is having to move to a cheaper one.

I am writing to be published, but at this point my first goal is to complete something. I entered Nathan Bransford's dialgue contest. I see you did, too ;~) With 100s of entries, I don't expect to win. Instead, I considered it good writing exercise.


6:53 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I just entered Nathan's contest for grins.

And magazines are one of the more brutal ways to try to make a living writing.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Eric Mayer said...

I think we all forget, or just can't really grasp, the number of other human beings out there, many, many of whom aspire to be writers. A bestselling author isn't one in a million. If only the odds were so good!

Just as an example, I actually have run into, in my everyday life (although I don't know them) two multi-million dollar lottery winners. One of them was the son of one of my dad's best friends who used to come with his family to visit us, and vice versa, on occassion. Another is a fellow who runs and I saw him a few times when I did road races in Pennsylvania. My mom, who did racewalking, knew him to talk to him at the races.

On the other hand, how many bestselling authors have I ever spotted "in the wild"? None. And I think that's not just chance. I believe there are far less bestselling authors than there are million dollar lottery winners.

9:29 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

An excellent point, Eric.

And let's expound on it for the folks out here. Take your state--sorry, if you live in New York, Maine, Florida or California, you're kind of screwed. Now, take your state and add up the number of bestselling authors that live there.

I live in Michigan. I can think of one genuine bestseller--Elmore Leonard, and I think he's now splitting his time between Michigan and Florida. I would think Mitch Albom, for sure. And probably Jim Harrison, although I'm not entirely sure he's a bestseller.

Are there others? Well, Loren Estleman, but he's not a bestseller. There are a couple others I've run into who through collaborations may from time to time creep onto the bestseller lists. William Kienzle was, but he died quite a number of years ago. Doug Stanton had one book that was a bestseller, but that was years ago. I'm not sure Michael Moore counts, although he apparently owns a vacation home or something in northern Michigan.

9:46 AM  
Blogger Erica Orloff said...

Hi Mark:
I am a realist. Like you . . . my goal is to have novel-writing be the bulk of my income. In the last 5 years, that has been the case. But as the economy shrinks, and college tuition for my daughter rises, and the cost of four kids total, plus health care and so on. . . . I find I am more apt to go where the money is, writing-wise, and sometimes that is business writing.

Also, though I make my living primarily as a novelist . . . I have to write three books a year to do so, plus write proposals. It's a grueling schedule.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

I noted Loren Estleman on my list of Michigan authors who make a living as novelists, but he's published over 50 novels! He writes a minimum of two novels a year with a whole slew of short stories.

Many, many of the novelists I know--you among them--that primarily make a living as novelists seem to write more than one book a year. Sometimes many more.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Stephen Parrish said...

My brother (who doesn't read my blog, let alone yours, so I'm safe) suddenly decided, after twenty years of working as an engineer, to quit his job and become a novelist.

He hadn't read a novel since high school. In college he called English and other non-technical subjects "garbage subjects." You get the picture.

He figured anyone could write a novel. It's just expository writing with dialog added.

Nonfiction: George Bush is an idiot.

Fiction: "George Bush is an idiot," she said.

Perhaps needless to say, after a year or two of flailing he gave up.

The other camp (living in garrets and wearing berets) doesn't really have a choice. Tell a boy who wants to be a priest more than anything that he'll go his whole life without money, time off, and chicks, and he'll say, "Sign me up."

10:54 AM  
Blogger Mark Terry said...

Well, siblings... what ya gonna do?

I think this gonna-get-rich thing is probably pretty prevalent in all the commercial arts--writing, acting, music--where you know, there is JK Rowling and Brad Pitt and Bruce Springsteen.

I don't know many sculptors or painters that they're thinking to be Picasso or Rodin, but maybe they're just as deluded as the rest of us.

But really, most writers I've met, would-be or otherwise, seem very driven by money--hell, I am, still. And that's at least partly because I can read something by somebody who got a 6-figure deal and compared it to my 6-figure deal (2 of those figures on the right side of the decimel) and say, "Huh, I don't get it."

12:26 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

I don't know where I sit. Writing's just a portion of paying the bills. I really don't make much at all, way on the low end of the spectrum, but I get to keep it all (no agent, although that's a drawback), it's not doled out in little pieces (I get the check within one - six weeks of turning it in, usually), and I only spend $80 on advertising a year for a website.

I make about 25% of my income from writing, mostly since writing has very few expenses for me. (I deduct books, but a good portion of the deductions I could take, I take under the studio, like home office, etc.)

I have to write a lot (for me); I average about five - seven 40,000 - 52,000 word novellas a year, but there was a year where I sold 56,000 words a month like clockwork. (That was rough.)

I pretty much need to make more money with everything I do. I've hit the ceiling where I am with everything. I have a couple projects up my sleeve, but the only thing that has potential to grow is writing.

Until then, one foot in front of the other, I guess.

1:31 PM  
Blogger kitty said...

Rodger Jacobs writes for the money. He used to write porn under the name Martin Brimmer and claims to be "the highest paid screenwriter in the history of adult cinema." He commented recently: If it was written in the late 80s-90s and contained a serviceable plot beyond “Extra sausage with your pizza,ma’am?” then I probably wrote it. He made very good money back then.

But he got out of the adult movie business and now writes under his given name. And he's printed three books using

Just thought I'd add his name to this post.


3:07 PM  
Blogger spyscribbler said...

Kitty, now there's a man I can relate to. ;-)

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