Don’t Be A Starving-Artist

I read an article the other day by a writer who, out of one side of his mouth, suggested that writers aren’t paid enough. We are often “forced” into taking secondary jobs like teaching or writing nonfiction, because Amazon’s policies “force” publishers to artificially raise their prices and “force” and “force.” The net result is that today’s great literary writers have to work so hard that they just don’t have time to write their masterpieces.

On the other hand, like many, he seemed to feel that writers should suffer for their art. Only solitary geniuses scratching away in their garrets are worthy of praise.

What a crock! As a writer, I have one of the funnest, cushiest, and most-fulfilling jobs in the world. I can live anywhere I want, almost never have to deal with corporate politics, and get to set my own hours. Anyone who is stupid enough to whine about having to actually work at it really doesn’t deserve any pity. In fact, it’s obvious that this “writer” didn’t have a clue what the job entails, and he might as well go find a new chosen career—something in waste management or fast food.

Most writers in this business fail not because they are bad at writing or storytelling, but because they fail to understand the very fundamentals of this business.  Maybe they fail to understand the fundamentals of any business.

So here is the truth: If you want to be a full-time writer, you have to learn to understand the business of writing. Writing deathless prose isn’t enough. This is a business.

As a writer, this is your job: You write manuscripts. You are a manuscript factory with a workforce of one. No one else will do your work for you. You write a manuscript, and when you are done, you write the next one.

Once you write a manuscript, you go out and sell it, usually with the help of an agent or manager. A manuscript is a global product. You don’t just sell it to publishers in the United States, or Canada, or whatever country you happen to live in—your job is to liquidate the global rights of your manuscript in as many countries as possible. In other words, you need to understand that you are selling rights to republish your work. (Many authors don’t understand this. Recently I heard of a couple of authors who refused to let their works be published because they didn’t want to sell their rights).

And not only should you sell your literary “intellectual property” (IP) as a novel in twenty or thirty or forty different countries, you should also sell it into various mediums. Thus, you sell your novel’s film rights, audio rights, stage rights, reprint rights, translation rights, and so on.

That’s how authors make money. As a writer, you are a global businessperson with one employee.

Most authors never learn to see themselves as factories. Indeed, most authors, I’m certain, have what I call a “hobbyist” mentality. They write as a hobby. Many of them don’t try to make money. In a recent survey of 14 writer’s organizations, 55% of the people who defined themselves as “full-time” writers made absolutely nothing last year–$0.  

I can’t figure out how that would be possible.  Even if you only wrote one book in a year, then put it up on Amazon and sold a single copy to your mother, you should make something.  

Don’t misunderstand me. There is nothing wrong with writing as a hobby. Most of us writers start that way: we write a few short stories or poems, discover that we have some talent, and then move into it as a career.  Even if you’re a fine writer, it takes time to learn the business of writing.

But don’t be deluded, either. Once you start publishing professionally, your goal is to become a working writer. Your publisher needs two main things from you:

  1. Your publisher wants book of high quality.
  2. Your publisher wants books written quickly.

That’s pretty much it. Not every book has to be an unmatched work of genius. Even Shakespeare couldn’t manage that. Give them your best. Your publisher doesn’t want to have to rewrite your novels or tell you that you’ve just produced a steaming pile of crap.

And don’t take twenty years waiting for inspiration between short stories.  The writers who get promoted in New York are the ones who understand the value of turning in books like clockwork—one every three to six months.  Publishers understand that when a reader buys a book and likes it well enough to learn the name of the author, they want another one quickly.

Over the next few weeks I’ll talk about the business of writing, but before I get into it, I want you to shift your focus: Start now to define yourself as a working writer. Don’t whine about how you have to work to make a living—that’s true in any field that you go into. And don’t blubber about how tough the industry is. The truth is that if you understand this field, it’s not that tough.

Now, the life of a writer is often varied and misunderstood. Today I will do some work teaching—recording a new writing course, editing some assignments. That’s great. I love teaching, and if I didn’t love it, I’d do something else. But I’ve also got writing to do. I’ve got a screenplay to finish, and I have a couple hundred pages left to go on my next novel, and I want to have that done in seven weeks.

So if you want to be a writer, quit acting as if you’re just a hobbyist. Figure out how to make time to write today—and go for it!

***

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One thought on “Don’t Be A Starving-Artist

  1. Ai Datwei

    “And not only should you sell your literary “intellectual property” (IP) as a novel”

    I prefer that you say *license your rights to your IP as a novel*

    When you suggest that authors “sell” their IP this implies that they should accept a one time offer for their work and lose the opportunity to control that work – and derivatives of it. Yes this sounds pedantic – but it’s important to get the terms correct.

    Authors should license a right to their work, for a limited time, in a limited format, in a limited geographical area – so they can do it all again. They should do so even when a corporate publisher asks for it – otherwise they own your work, including for movies, toys, comics – the whole shebang. 0 without having to pay you a cent. Don’t sell your IP – license it.

    Reply

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