The Business of Being a Writer368
The Business of Being a Writer368
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|Publisher:||University of Chicago Press|
|Series:||Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)|
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Can You Make a Living as a Writer?
The ability to make a living by the pen was rare before the emergence of the printing press, the subsequent growth of a literate middle class, and the resulting demand for reading material. Even then, it wasn't customary for printers (who also acted as publishers) to pay authors, and they owned authors' works outright. For their part, writers resisted payment even when it was offered: it was considered crass to accept money for something many saw as sacred. Writers who were able to focus on their art were either of high birth or benefited from the generosity of patrons. It wasn't until around the mid-eighteenth century, not long after the first copyright laws were enacted, that it became feasible and socially acceptable for writers to live solely off book sales or payments from publishers. Samuel Johnson, in what one historian calls the "Magna Carta of the modern author," was able to reject support from a patron because his work was so commercially successful.
But exceptionally few writers have ever been able to make a living solely off what they wished to write. While F. Scott Fitzgerald made good money writing short stories for magazines, he also pursued Hollywood writing stints, which he didn't really enjoy. William Faulkner also wrote scripts. Chekhov wrote newspaper articles. Beckett translated for Reader's Digest. And so on.
To make your writing the foundation of a sustainable living will likely involve compromise. If you want to realize monetary gain, you have to be willing to treat (some of) your art as a business. No writer is entitled to earn a living from his writing, or even to be paid for his writing; once you seek payment, you have to consider the market for what you're producing, especially during a time when supply outpaces demand. This is one of the most difficult tasks writers face: to adopt a market-driven eye when necessary — to see their work as something to be positioned and sold. It helps to have psychological distance from the work, which comes with time and training. Writers who see this as a creative challenge rather than a burden are more likely to survive the cycle of pitching and rejection without sinking into hopelessness.
While there are far easier ways to make a living than as a writer, that is not because good writing is at odds with commercial success. It's because most people are not willing to learn the business and do what's required to make writing pay. They're looking for what's easy. And writing for publication isn't, at least not for most writers at the start of their careers.
That said, some types of writing are more beholden to marketplace concerns than others. Expecting to make a living through freelance writing or journalism is a very different proposition than expecting to make a living through creative writing (such as novels, short stories, or poetry). Freelancers and journalists must pay attention to the market. They are often writers for hire, and don't typically expect — or shouldn't expect — to make a living just from writing what they want. Creative writers, on the other hand, are usually presumed — and often told — to focus on their craft and mostly disregard trends, though what they write may of course be influenced by what can be sold to a commercial publisher. Either type of writing may be sustainable only with some form of patronage, whether from individuals or from institutions — as has been the case throughout history. But there is definitely a bigger challenge ahead for the creative writer who expects to make a living by writing, because there are few paying opportunities for such work outside of book publication, and the landscape is competitive.
Creative writing instructors sometimes claim that focusing on business too soon is dangerous. It's true that it can cause unproductive anxiety, but that's mainly because of bad information and gossip that passes from writer to writer. For example, some writers are led to believe they have to develop a readership before they sell a book, or "build their platform" to become more desirable to agents or publishers. That's true only in a small percentage of cases, and rarely does it apply to the types of work produced in creative writing programs. This persistent whirlpool of misinformation about the industry is yet another reason business issues ought to be addressed up front and early.
Here's where the biggest danger lies, if there is one: Business concerns can distract from getting actual writing done, and can even become a pleasurable means of avoiding the work altogether. No one avoids writing like writers. Producing the best work possible is hard, and focusing on agents, social media marketing, or conference-going feels easier. Writers may trick themselves into thinking that by developing their business acumen, they are improving as writers — but all the business acumen in the world can't make up for inferior writing.
It's also possible that too much attention to business concerns could stymie experimentation. Ideally, creative writers are always experimenting, failing, and improving in some manner. An overbearing focus on work that leads to a paycheck can derail less commercial work that, over the long term, might break boundaries or be more meaningful artistically.
IS IT BETTER JUST TO HAVE A DAY JOB?
If thinking about the business of writing causes you to feel, at best, uncomfortable, then it may be better to keep your pursuit of it unadulterated by market concerns. Some literary legends have never experienced conventional employment, pursuing a writing life underwritten by existing wealth or family support (Gertrude Stein and Jane Austen, for example). But many held day jobs: Franz Kafka worked for an insurance company, Herman Melville as a schoolteacher and customs inspector, and Louisa May Alcott as a seamstress and governess — to name but a few. For some writers, the day job actually fosters their creative work. (Elizabeth Hyde Stevens's essay on Borges's life and work as a librarian offers one example.)
When agents, editors, and other writers say, "Don't quit your day job," it is simultaneously the best advice and the worst advice. On the one hand, it helps moderate one's expectations and acknowledges the most common outcome for writers: you'll need another form of income. But it also perpetuates the misconception that writing can't or won't make you a living. It can, just probably not in the ways you would prefer.
If your idea of the writing life centers on a remote garret in which you scribble away in quiet isolation and then deliver your genius unto the world — then yes, you'll need a day job, or wealth. However, if your idea of the writing life allows for community engagement, working with different types of clients, or digital media prowess, then you're in a better frame of mind to make a full-time living as a writer.
THE DIFFICULT EARLY YEARS
Many early-career writing attempts are not publishable, even after revision, yet are necessary for a writer's growth. A writer who has just finished her first book or short work probably doesn't realize this, and may take the rejection process very hard. That's why publishing experts typically advise that writers start work on their next project: move on, and don't get stuck waiting to publish the first one.
In his series on storytelling, Ira Glass says:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. The first couple years that you're making stuff, what you're making isn't so good. OK? It's not that great. It's really not that great. It's trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it's not quite that good. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, your taste is still killer, and your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you're making is kind of a disappointment to you. ... You can tell that it's still sort of crappy. A lot of people never get past that phase. A lot of people, at that point, they quit.
If you can't perceive the gap — or if you haven't gone through the "phase" — you probably aren't reading enough. Writers can develop good taste and understand what quality work is by reading writers they admire and want to emulate. Writers improve over time by practicing their craft in addition to getting focused feedback from experienced people who push them to improve and do better.
As a young editor, recently out of school, I asked professor and author Michael Martone if he could tell which of his students were going to succeed as writers — was there a defining characteristic? He told me it was the students who kept writing after they left school, after they were off the hook to produce material on a deadline or for a grade. The most talented students, he said, weren't necessarily the ones who followed through and put in the hours of work required to reach conventional publishing success.
Similarly, when Ta-Nehisi Coates was interviewed by the Atlantic, he said, "The older you get, that path [of writing] is so tough and you get beat up so much that people eventually go to business school and they go and become lawyers. If you find yourself continuing up until the age of thirty-five or so ... you will have a skill set ... and the competition will have thinned out."
Few demonstrate the persistence required to make it through the difficult, early years. Some people give up because they lack a mentor or a support system, or because they fail to make the time, or because they become consumed with self-doubt. They don't believe they're good enough (and maybe they aren't) and allow those doubts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I used to believe that great work or great talent would eventually get noticed — that quality bubbles to the top. I don't believe that anymore. Great work is overlooked every day, for a million reasons. Business concerns outweigh artistic concerns. Some writers are just perpetually unlucky. But don't expect to play the role of poor, starving writer and have people in publishing help you out of sympathy or a sense of moral responsibility. They're more likely to help writers they see as indefatigable and motivated to help themselves — since they know that's what the job of a working writer requires. If you find yourself demonizing people in the publishing industry, complaining as if you're owed something, and feeling bad about your progress relative to other writers, it's time to find the reset button. Perhaps you've been focusing too much on getting published.
No matter how the marketplace changes — and it always does — consider these three questions as you make decisions about your life as a writer:
What satisfies or furthers your creative or artistic goals? This is the reason you got into writing in the first place. Even if you put this on the back burner in order to advance other aspects of your writing and publishing career, don't leave it out of the equation for long. Otherwise your efforts can come off as mechanistic or uninspired, and you're more likely to burn out or give up.
What earns you money? Not everyone cares about earning money from writing, but as you gain experience and a name for yourself, the choices you make in this regard become more important. The more professional you become, the more you have to pay attention to what brings the most return on your investment of time and energy. As you succeed, you won't have time to pursue every opportunity. You have to stop doing some things.
What grows your audience? Gaining readers can be just as valuable as earning money. It's an investment that pays off over time. Sometimes it's smart to make trade-offs that involve earning less money now in order to grow readership, because having more readers will put you in a better position in the future. (For example, you might focus on writing online, rather than for print, to develop a more direct line to readers.)
This book helps you sort through questions 2 and 3 — that's where writers lack guidance. The first question is a personal decision that I assume most writers have already considered. It's unlikely that every piece of writing you do, or every opportunity you pursue, will advance artistic, monetary, and readership goals. Commonly you can get two of the three. Sometimes you'll pursue projects with only one of these factors in play. You get to decide based on your priorities at a given point in time.
A book that strongly influenced how I think about my writing career is The Art of Possibility by Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander. In it they write, "Many of the circumstances that seem to block us in our daily lives may only appear to do so based on a framework of assumptions we carry with us. Draw a different frame around the same set of circumstances and new pathways come into view." Consider, for example, the assumptions that art can't pay, that great writing is created in isolation, or that serious writers never consider the reader. These are all frameworks that can hinder you. An open attitude about what the writing life might look like — based on your own, unique goals, not someone else's standards — is an invaluable asset. While some may consider the Zanders' perspective to be hopelessly idealistic or naive (or both), writers rarely coast into a paying, satisfying career that's free of trouble and frustration. So the ability to reframe dilemmas rather than viewing them as dead ends is like rocket fuel to continued progress.
Finally, I've witnessed many writers hit their heads against the wall trying to publish or gain acclaim for a particular type of work, even as they succeed wildly with something else — that they don't think is prestigious or important enough. Getting caught up in prestige is perhaps one of the most destructive inclinations of all. Paul Graham has written elegantly on this, comparing prestige to a "powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you'd like to like." Avoiding this trap is easier said than done. Most of us live under the weight of expectations put upon us by parents, teachers, peers, and the larger community. Breaking free of their opinions can be liberating, but what others think of us also contributes to how we form our identities. It's not a problem you can solve as much as acknowledge and manage. Still, if you can at least let go of the many myths about writing, and pursue what you truly enjoy with as much as excellence as possible, you can shape a writing life that is not only uniquely your own, but one that has a better chance of becoming a lifelong career.
The Art of Career Building
It is no great thing to publish something in the digital era. Many of us now publish and distribute with the click of a button on a daily basis — on Twitter, Facebook, and retail websites such as Amazon. The difficult work lies in getting attention in what professor and author Clay Shirky calls a world of "cognitive surplus." Cognitive surplus refers to the societal phenomenon where we now have free time to pursue all sorts of creative and collaborative activities, including writing. While rarely called by this rather academic term, it's a widely remarked-upon dynamic. Arianna Huffington has said, "Self-expression is the new form of entertainment," and author George Packer wrote in 1991, "Writing has become one of the higher forms of recreation in a leisure society."
A writer today is competing against thousands more would-be writers than even a couple of decades ago. Still, committed writers succeed in the industry every single day, especially those who can adopt a long-term view and recognize that most careers are launched, not with a single fabulous manuscript, but through a series of small successes that builds the writer's network and visibility, step by step.
A reliable way to upset a roomful of writers is to promote the idea of "brand building." Unless you are already comfortable with the idea of running your writing career like a business, it goes against literary sensibilities to embrace the idea that you, or your writing, might be boiled down to something so vulgar. It can also feel suffocating — who wants to feel beholden to their "brand"?
Excerpted from "The Business of Being a Writer"
Copyright © 2018 Jane Friedman.
Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 First Steps: Making a Life as a Writer 7
1 Can You Make a Living as a Writer? 9
2 The Art of Career Building 15
3 Generating Leads, Gaining Exposure 28
4 Pursuing an MFA or Other Graduate Degree 36
Part 2 Understanding the Publishing Industry 41
5 Trade Book Publishing 43
6 Magazine Publishing 53
7 Online and Digital Media 64
8 Literary Publishing in the Twenty-First Century 71
Part 3 Getting Published 81
9 Book Publishing: Figuring Out Where Your Book Fits 83
10 Understanding Literary Agents 91
11 Researching Agents and Publishers 98
12 Book Queries and Synopses 106
13 The Nonfiction Book Proposal 117
14 Working with Your Publisher 128
15 Self-Publishing 137
16 Publishing Short Stories, Personal Essays, or Poetry 143
17 Traditional Freelance Writing 150
18 Online Writing and Blogging 160
Part 4 The Writer as Entrepreneur: Laying the Foundation 171
19 Author Platform 173
20 Your Online Presence: Websites, Social Media, and More 180
21 Turning Attention into Sales 195
22 The Basics of Book Launches 208
Part 5 How Writers Make Money 223
23 Starting a Freelance Career 227
24 Freelance Editing and Related Services 233
25 Teaching and Online Education 239
26 Contests, Prizes, Grants, Fellowships 245
27 Crowdfunding and Donations 253
28 Memberships, Subscriptions, and Paywalls 257
29 Advertising and Affiliate Income 261
30 Pursuing a Publishing Career 266
31 Corporate Media Careers 269
Appendix 1 Contracts 101 279
Appendix 2 Legal Issues 287
Appendix 3 Recommended Resources 293
Acknowledgments and Credits 297
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