Chip MacGregor

July 10, 2010

Understanding the Financial Side of Writing


Amanda asked, “What do beginning writers need to know about the financial aspects of writing?”

There are only a few thousand people in this country who make a full-time living at writing. Don’t assume, just because you’re hanging out at conferences with people who all write books, that the world is made up of full-time writers. An average novelist may take eight to ten months to write a book. With time added for edits and galleys, that works out to about one novel per year. Yet that novelist, unless he or she has a breakout book, is no doubt going to be paid less than $30,000 for the novel – sometimes considerably less. That means you’d work an entire year to scrimp by on wages barely above the poverty line. So think carefully before you quit your day job.

Here’s what I did when I decided I wanted to write for a living: I set a monthly income goal for my writing. When I first started writing (on a very part-time basis), my goal was to make $100 per month. I would sell articles, write advertising copy, create newsletters, make up back-cover content – in fact, I’d do just about anything to produce some income from my writing. I edited manuscripts, worked as a ghostwriter, created study guides, and worked with pastors to turn their sermon series into books. Eventually that figure jumped to $300 per month. Then $500. Then $1000 per month. When I set a goal of making $1500 per month, that’s when I figured I was going to become a full-time writer. (And yes, that was more than 20 years ago, when $1500 went farther. Sorry to sound like my own grandfather.)

That said, there’s nothing in life that says you are necessarily called to follow that same path. As I have said in other posts, publishing a book doesn’t validate your life. Perhaps you are called to write to your local community, or to your family. Perhaps the words you write are only for you, to understand yourself and your world better. There’s value in writing, not just in getting published. So don’t assume you must try and move toward writing as a full-time career. Many of the authors I now represent have other jobs, activities, and sources of income – that doesn’t keep them from making an impact on the world through their writing.

Ted asked, “Should a writer who is struggling financially considering becoming an editor?”

I would say that writing and editing are very different jobs. A good editor is not necessarily a good writer, nor are the best writers going to make great editors.

I suppose some editors I meet are probably frustrated writers. But if a beginning writer was thinking of becoming an editor, I’d encourage him or her to get some good training in the art of editing. Take a class, read up on editing, and by all means find venues to practice your skill. Offer to edit the work of local writers. Talk to local organizations about editing their publications and web site content. Try to link up with professional editors and see if they can occasionally steer a project your direction. If you're interested, you might want to check out the editing classes Writers Digest and other organizations have to offer. And if you're serious about getting a good overview, purchase a copy of Copyediting for Dummies, then buy yourself a copy of The Chicago Manual of Style. You'll need that if you're going to work in the world of books. For most magazines, you'll need The AP Style Guide. 

And Patrick asked, “Since good writers are always wide readers, what two or three books would you recommend that are a bit out of the norm?" 

In the Beginning, by Alister McGrath. Every writer should know about the invention of movable type and the genesis of our industry, and Alister has created a great overview of how the printed book got started. It's a wonderful read.

Dickens Fur Coat and Charlotte’s Unanswered Letters, by Daniel Pool. A fascinating look at how publishing moved from the realm of the wealthy and powerful to the streetcorners and homes of everyday working people. I wish every novelist had a strong sense of the history of their craft.

The First Five Pages, by Noah Lukeman. This book is written by an agent, and helps beginning writers see how to significantly improve your writing – and your odds for getting published.

There are plenty of others, of course, but those three popped out of my head. All of them will help a writer begin to see some of the economic questions that have shaped book publishing. Hope this helps.

Some big news: Gina Holmes' novel Crossing Oceans is on the CBA bestseller list! Gina is the creator of the very influential Novel Journey website, and this is her debut novel… so it's GREAT to see her reach the bestseller list right out of the gate. Kudos to Karen Watson and the gang at Tyndale house for taking all the right steps to make this happen. 

Hey, in two weeks Lisa Samson and Susan Meissner are leading a writing retreat in Lexington, Kentucky, entitled "Adding Depth to Your Fiction." They're hosting it at Lisa's tea shop downtown — two full days, Friday and Saturday, July 23-24. The cost is $349, but they're doing a discount for ACFW members. If you want more information, write to Tiffany Colter (who is helping coordinate the event) at tiffcolter (at) gmail (dot) com. 

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