Chip MacGregor

October 3, 2012

How can I make a living at writing?


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. 

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  • Ardis Van Boxtel Nelson says:

    Thanks Chip! This was very helpful. I am a new writer. I got my first break writing devotionals and slanted them toward my passion of recovery and being vulnerable. I’m not doing that anymore, but it helped me with my confidence to write. Now I have branded my writing more and am more focused. It was great to read about the differences and to confirm and label my ‘Type 2’ path for what it is. If nothing else, my writing is an investment in my own healing and finding my voice.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think a lot of us feel as though our writing is for ourselves first, Ardis. Good point. Thanks for coming on the blog and saying something.

  • Chip, I would love to write Hillbilly Bibles for a living. I don’t know if that will ever happen, but I still have faith that someday it will.

  • Bethany Macklin says:

    That was really helpful. (As was the one day conference you did for Inspire Writers in August–thanks!) Two points stood out in this post in regards to the Type 2 path: focus and long term perspective. They seem to go together. So many successful people–in every field–cite “focus” as the fuel behind enduring success. It makes me think of “branding.” When I was told I had to “brand” myself as a writer, at first, I was frustrated. However, I’m learning that it helps me focus on one theme, hone my message, and communicate it with more power. For me, effective “branding” is the result of focus and long term planning. Thanks, Chip!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Glad you found it helpful, Bethany. And I agree — I think too often the industry gets hung up on “branding” a new author, when in fact it may take a new author a few books to figure out who they are and what they write. Once they have their voice and identity, the brand is easy.

  • Bruce Brady says:

    I agree with your take, Chip. I started out as a Type 1 writer but quickly lost interest because I lacked focus. I wanted to make a living as a writer. Now, I’m Type 2. I love fiction and that’s what I;ll write, even if I’m never published. However, I don’t believe you can pour your heart into something, intent on enriching others’ lives and never have success.

    Thanks for your posts and your heart to help writers discover their potential.

  • Paula says:

    Thank you for this post, I like that your advice is straight to the point.

    Here’s my question:

    If a newbie writer has two completed manuscripts, each in two different genres, should the writer stick to pitching only one of the MS’s to Agents who they KNOW represent that particular genre? OR should the writer pitch both MS’s to various types of Agents, hoping at least one of the agents will be interested?

    I ask this because, while it seems logical to pitch both MS’s to various agents, what if two very different Agents are interested in the writer’s two, very different, MS’s… Is it ever OK to have two Literary Agents?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      This is just seat of the pants, Paula… I’d say the best thing is to take your best project and pitch it to the agent that’s the best fit for it. Then you can talk about the other project later.

  • Denise Hisey says:

    I can’t imagine making a living writing. It seems too good to be true. If I were able to do either type, it would be #2. I write to help others (and in the process I help myself, too).

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It’s tough no matter who you are, Denise. But it’s a great time to be a writer — more opportunities than ever before.

  • Cherry Odelberg says:

    “fly high and wild; and if you should fall, remember you almost had it all.”

  • Jason Byerly says:

    Wow, this is exactly the crossroads I’m at in my writing career today. I am a type 1 trying to figure out if I need to become a type 2. It’s hard to give up the security of type 1 projects for the possibility of even greater success by focusing on a single genre, but settling for type 1 sometimes feels like a cop out. Great questions you’ve raised.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Neither is a cop-out, at least not usually. It’s a choice. Some people are more comfortable being one type of writer or the other. And yes, some people slide from being a Type 1 to being a Type 2.

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