Sunday, April 16, 2017

Writing as a Career Choice

Last year I was on a "So you want to be a Writer" panel.  Most of the large audience indicated that they aspired to become published writers. Among them were a few bright young things who declared that they wanted to support themselves by writing full time. This is a nice dream and one that an infinitesimally small percentage of writers achieve, and usually only after years of struggle to develop the necessary skills.*

So the panelists gave them the practical advice that it would not be a good idea to plan on a lucrativ writing career.  The economics of a writing life are brutal:  If you want to earn enough to get out of poverty (i.e. At least $24,950) so you can get out of the basement** you have to write a lot of words!  The market for short stories (100-40,000 words) pays nothing at all to a magnificent $0.08/word in genre magazines. You would have to sell (there's the rub) 300,000 words each year. Given that the average magazine short story is around 5,000 words, you'd have to write and sell sixty-five stories, enough to fill seven paying magazines! The chances of editors accepting that many from a single writer are negligible so you will be doomed to stay obscenely productive in the basement or, alternatively, trying to make your spouse understand that you have no time to clean the house, fix dinner, or have kids.

So, instead of struggling with the workload of short story production, what if you wrote enough novels to stay above the poverty line? The average published novel is about 100,000 words. If you are an exceptional writer you might get by with only writing three drafts or 300,000 words - which is equivalent to sixty-five short stories (see above.)  That novel will sell (HA!) for perhaps $12.00 a copy for which you will get about $1.50,  This means that the novel must sell over seventeen thousand copies for you to reach the poverty level. Further, to maintain that minimum income you must produce a novel year over year without fail and to a major publisher.  Don't even consider self publishing via ebooks or small press; their royalties might be better, but their sales numbers are worse. You might do better than average if you have a large family but otherwise it's a crap shoot to reach that minimum of seventeen thousand copies sold.

Regardless of distribution methods you must understand that all seventeen thousand copies won't sell immediately.  This means that you'd better produce a string of novels whose total sales are at least seventeen thousand copies a year. Not impossible, but definitely a low probability outcome for the amount of work involved.

The advice I gave the I-want-to- be-a- writer audience was this: Get a decent day job that pays the bills you'll have after moving out of the basement, find someone who loves you despite your compulsive addiction to the written word, and set aside a time and place for your writing.  It's a big exciting world.

There are better things to do.

*Also living in their parent's basement 
**Definitely NOT a metaphor                                         


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