Chip MacGregor

November 11, 2013

The (new) MacGregor Theory of Making a Living


A few years ago, I created a talk about how an author can make a living with his or her writing. I called it “The MacGregor Theory” (with apologies to the MacGregor who came up with all the Theory X and Theory Y stuff), and over the years it’s been picked up and discussed by all sorts of writers and editors  in the blogosphere. But now, with the changes we’ve seen in the world of publishing, it’s time I go back and revise my theory of making a living. So if you’ll indulge me…

I have five rules for authors who want to make a full time living at writing:

1. You need to have four-to-six books earning you a royalty. In other words, you’ve done books in the past, you’ve had some earn out, and you currently have some books that are making you a passive income.

2. You need to have 18 months to 2 years of contracts. This is much harder to do in today’s publishing economy, but if you’re going to do this full time, you probably need to know clearly what you’re going to be writing for the next year or two. If you have your calendar filled up for the next 18 months with projects that are contracted, you’re at least afforded the clarity that comes from knowing what you’ll be working on.

3. You need to be self-publishing. These days, most successful authors have generated some sort of income by self-publishing books, novels, novellas, articles, and/or short stories. This is a new piece of the plan (well… not to those of us who started out in this business writing magazine articles, but new to everyone else), and fairly essential to make enough money to live on. The days of surviving on book advances are over, for all but the A-list authors who are getting the mega deals. In today’s market you need to discover the various pieces that will add to your income, and that means seeking an online audience for your out-print-books and your short-form writing.

4. You need to be actively involved in the marketing of yourself and your work. The days of allowing the publisher to be your primary source of publicity are over. The web allows authors access to readers worldwide, and the writers who are making a living are investing a portion of their work week marketing themselves and their work.

5. You need to have a plan in place. That plan will include a budget, a writing calendar, an accountability partner or writing support group, a writing space, adequate equipment, a clear list of project goals, and most likely a therapist, since you’re probably delusional to consider the idea anyway.

Let’s look at reality for a minute — let’s say you just got a decent two-book deal. The publisher is paying you, say, $15,000 per book on an advance, so the total deal is for $30,000, payable in thirds on each book. You get a third of the whole deal on signing — $10,000. You need to be able to live on that for the next few months while you write your book. If you can write it in three months (relatively fast for most novelists), you’ve had to live on $3333 per month. Thin, but doable. If it takes you six months to do a novel, you’re having to make do on about sixteen hundred bucks a month. You see where I’m going with this? That’s below the poverty line.

Once the publisher approves your manuscript (which can sometimes take a few months), they’ll send you your completion check for that book — another $5000, payable thirty days after they request the check. You’ve now made a whopping $15k, you’re months into the process, and you just used up all your good ideas on your first book. The next $5000 check will come when that book is published. So it’s on to book two!

Many novelists take eight or nine months to write a book. But at that rate, even a healthy advance (say $30k, which is pretty good for any novelist) means you’re getting by on a couple thousand per month. AND if you take that part-time job teaching writing at the community college or doing freelance editing for someone to make ends meet, you now find you have LESS time to work on your novel, so it takes you a year to complete. You don’t want to hurry it up, since you want to be sure and create a great novel, and writing a lousy book is sure to kill your career.

This is why I’m always reminding authors how tough it is to make a living at writing. You need to have books that are already out there earning you money, so that you know you’ve got some income from projects you are no longer working on. (Without this, you’re simply trading your time for income.) You also need to have contracts in hand that will earn you MORE money — and that money is easy to track, since you know when and how much you’ll be paid. You need to be working to self-publish some of your own works to be increasing your cash-flow.
That means you need to be spending some time marketing, so that readers know you’re out there, writing and selling books. AND you need a plan for how you’re going to move forward.

Let’s be honest: the first rule of writing is probably “don’t quit your day job.” Some writers need to stop acting like writing full time is some sort of God-given right. If you had chosen painting or sculpture or singing or dancing or any other art, you’d probably be facing even longer odds at making a living at your craft. The fact is, MOST artists struggle financially. That’s why most writers have some other source of income — either they work full time, or they work part time, or they have a job related to the industry (freelance editor, reporter, book salesperson, counterfeiter), or they are married to somebody who has a real job that pays the bills. Don’t lose sight of the fact that it takes most people years to get to the place where they are writing full time… IF they ever get there.

On the other hand, this is the best time ever to be a writer. I sincerely believe that. We’re publishing and selling more books than ever before in the history of the world. There are more people who can read then ever before. And the web has given writers a huge potential platform to reach those readers. This is the Golden Age of Writing. So thank God you’re alive and working at your craft in today’s market.

It’s easy to hang out at a writing conference and assume that “everbody else in writing is making a living at this except me.” That’s just not true. Many of these folks are doing something to pay the bills. (For example, I’m a model for Speedo.) I’m really not trying to dissuade you from making a living at writing — I’m just trying to help you gain a realistic picture of what it takes to make a living in this business.

Five things. That’s the new MacGregor Theory.

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  • Vanessa Davis Griggs says:

    This is wonderful and on-time advice. I was nodding in agreement and was able to check things off with what you wrote here. I have 12 books published by Kensington that are all still selling in multiple versions (and being reprinted to stay on the physical shelves). I took two novels that were published by BET Books & out of print and published as e-books (money that was being left on the table). Thanks for your wisdom and for freely sharing!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Great to hear this, Vanessa. (And Kensington is a wonderful group to work with.) Glad it’s working for you — I really appreciate you coming on and telling a bit of your story, so others can see that it’s possible to make a living at writing.

  • Love the way you spell out the realities so clearly. I found a day job that fits well with my writing and am able to enjoy the benefits of both. After a decade of translating Ecclesiastes I now get to take it out to churches as a one person dramatic piece. Great fun and as Kohelet says “eat your food with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart for today your work is blessed by God.”

    • chipmacgregor says:

      What a lovely start to my day, Vance. Thanks for coming on and sharing some of your story.

    • Actually with my day job (Exex. Dir. of the Canadian Badlands Passion Play) my novels and the touring of Ecclesiasts my days are so full I don’t have a lot of time for reading. I only subscribe to one blog and that is yours. Keeps me in touch with what is happening out there in the real world. Thanks for all you do.

  • Jeremy Myers says:

    Yep. I just read the blog post of one popular author who said he makes barely any money from selling books. Most of his income comes through advertisements and affiliate sales through his (also) popular blog.

    I am getting a couple hundred dollars a month right now as an author, but am realizing the truth of what you said…. don’t quit my day job!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      But a couple hundred is better than none, I imagine, Jeremy. Congrats on that. The next thing to do is to increase the goal and try to move from a couple hundred to, say, $500.

  • Susan Sleeman says:

    Great post, Chip. I think I’ll try that counterfeiter thing you mentioned to supplement my income. Do agents post bail money?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I think you’d be good at that, Susan. (And for those who don’t know, Susan is an established suspense author who I’m pleased to represent.) Nice of you to come onto the blog and comment!

    • Susan Sleeman says:

      I’ll get right on it. Ha-ha! In all seriousness, one of the things I really appreciate about you Chip (though there are many things I appreciate) is that you counsel writers in how to go beyond the creative side of writing to succeed in a writing career. The advice you share in this blog to be intentional about your writing is the advice you share with all of your clients and readers of your blog can gain so much by following it.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks for saying something, Susan. As a guy who had to learn the process (and who had people like Steve Halliday help me figure it out), I’m always happy to pass along stuff I think others will find helpful.

  • Miriam Cheney says:

    Great advice. I especially appreciate “… and most likely a therapist, since you are probably delusional to consider the idea anyway.” Ain’t that the truth? 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      It is. I’m thinking of quitting the agency so I can become a “writer’s counselor,” Miriam. :o)

  • Judith Robl says:

    Of course, if you are retired and have a retirement income, the picture skews considerably. 🙂

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Absolutely it does, Judith. Also if you’re married to someone with a nice income, who is supportive of you being an artist.

  • Cecelia Dowdy says:

    I laughed out loud when I saw the sentence in #5 about needing a therapist!! Funny!!!

  • Peggotty says:

    Another keeper, Chip. Here’s to the Golden Age of Speedo, um, I mean, Writing!

  • Good stuff Chip, as usual. But I just can’t get past the Speedo comment. Really?

  • JeanneTakenaka says:

    I appreciate the insights you’ve shared here, Chip. Thanks. Reality is always a good thing.
    And, just curious. Is there ever a time to quit the day job (as in you being a Speedo model…..?). 😉

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sure — I was a part-time freelance writer, and quit my day job when I was making my financial goal. More on that in the next blog!

  • Kathy Nickerson says:

    Thank you for being so honest with us. Reality is important even for a fiction writer.

  • :Donna Marie says:

    THANK you, Chip 🙂

  • Rob Brunet says:

    Excellent, coherent, actionable advice, Chip! The best kind.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I appreciate you saying something, Rob. Looking forward to seeing your book in print some day soon!

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