By Caitlin Kelly
“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money”
— Samuel Johnson (died 1784)
Few subjects will so quickly divide a room than writers talking about how much money they make from their work.
If you write blockbuster fiction, made into Hollywood movies, you might own a lovely home, or several, and shiny new cars.
If you write non-fiction that hits a cultural or political nerve — like over-rated “Hillbilly Elegy” — you might also hit it big.
If you write poetry, you might get “paid” with a copy of the journal that deigned to accept your work.
If you’re a full-time freelance writer, as I am, you probably earn a fairly wide range of fees, unless you’re primarily writing for Hollywood, or the elite tier of top-flight magazines and/or producing a Niagara of material, with very little time off.
There’s also a steady oversupply of people desperate to say: “I’m a writer!”
Blogging doesn’t pay most of us, (unless sponsored.) And yet, blogging here since July 1, 2009, has brought me more than $10,000 in income, teaching my skills to others. (I offer webinars.)
I began writing for money — for national magazines and newspapers — in my second year at university, in Toronto, where I was doing an English degree. It’s the center of Canadian publishing, home to most major newspapers and magazines. I just had to gin up the nerve to start approaching them, and one of the magazine publishing houses was, literally, a block south of campus.
I got my first assignment for a national women’s magazine after writing a furious letter to the editor, asking them to run better material. That editor, (bless her!) called me in for a meeting, and said: “I’d rather have you writing for us than to us.”
Yes, a hugely lucky break.
But I already had two years’ experience writing every week for our demanding university newspaper, so I brought developed skills.
The money I earned writing helped put me through university and paid my rent and groceries, living alone from the age of 19 in an apartment.
That taught me to negotiate for better pay, early and often.
I also overheard an editor pleading with a fellow writer, (a man, older than I), out-earning me for the same kind of weekly column by 50 percent, not to quit.
So when I see — and I see it every day — writers accepting shitty pay, or no pay, and refusing to even try to negotiate for more, or to build their skills to a level they can ask for more and legitimately get it, I lose it.
I also see some Big Name Writers telling the world they have no savings and no money put aside for retirement, as if to glorify the de facto penury of being a writer.
If you have no savings and are perpetually broke, even while earning your full-time living as a writer, consider:
Your skills are weak and no one will pay you properly for them — since so many competitors do it better, or say they can.
You’re unwilling or unable to negotiate higher rates.
You’re living beyond your means, possibly sabotaged by high rent/mortgage in an expensive city; (Toronto, New York, London, San Francisco, Vancouver.)
You didn’t realize that writing for a living is no less serious — and often just about as glamorous — as sanitation work. Just because you enjoy it doesn’t mean it isn’t work. (Sanitation workers, at least, have a union, paid sick days and a pension.)
You haven’t done enough work yet to acquire a consistent track record of achievement, when it’s more reasonable to ask for higher pay rates..
You have a weak or inexperienced network — or people don’t like and trust you enough (yet) to refer you to their decently-paying contacts; most of my work now comes through referrals.
You need to improve your marketing and sales. While people think writing for a living means actually writing, about 75 of my time and energy is spent finding and qualifying new clients.
You need more help with domestic chores or other tasks. It takes time and energy to find well-paid markets for your work, often in addition to teaching.
You write only for low-paying outlets, almost all of them digital, offering $50 or $100 or $300 for long, reported stories, (some writers think this is a lot of money). No one can earn a living at these rates, or work a healthy number of daily/weekly hours to do it. Aim for a higher-paying mix — agency work, print work, non-profit or custom publishing or branded content.
You might need a job, part-time or full-time, until you have a decent financial cushion and can turn down low-ball offers. You can’t refuse lousy jobs and terrible payment if you’re always desperate for the next gig.
You’re too slow! You have to know your minimum hourly rate and stick to it. If you waste time or work inefficiently, you’re cutting into your profit margin. It’s a business!
Caitlin Kelly, an award-winning non-fiction author and frequent contributor to The New York Times, is a New York-based journalist. Her one-on-one webinars and individual coaching, by Skype, phone or in person, have helped writers and bloggers worldwide; details here. Contact: email@example.com.
15 thoughts on “Writing for money”
Ha..I’m too slow…that must be it. All the rest I care about pretty much, after soon 15 years of authoring and illustrating. I’ve gathered contacts and I’ve taken a part time job. Fees for my litterary work comes in…but slowly. At the pace that the work is done. Working faster though…I don’t know how that would be possible.
Some work just can’t be rushed!
I produce mostly journalism, which — sad to say — is pretty formulaic. I know how to do it both well and quickly. And very few stories now run longer than 1,200 words; a pay rate considered good (which it isn’t — they paid it 30 years ago) is $1/word. For $1,200, you might get a week of my time and not much more of it.
Your pieces always make me think. Thank you! Any particular reason you describe Hillbilly Elegy as overrated? I haven’t read the book or any thorough reviews of it, but it’s been repeatedly mentioned in different circles. I wasn’t interested enough to read it now but figured I’d get around to it eventually. Just curious to hear your thoughts.
I came to it expecting, wanting and needing some insight into why struggling Americans chose Trump. That’s not what Vance gave, and if Trump hadn’t won, (nor if he hadn’t met best selling author Amy Chua at Yale Law School), he would not have become a NYT best-seller. His ascent from poverty to hanging out with Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel is hardly typical; so much of his success is social capital.
The book is adequate at best. It’s not poorly written, but it leaves a lot out, and he’s 31 and not a journalist or writer…those 3 elements conspire against his ability to plumb the depths this topic needed.
Ahhh…. after a quick search, I remembered why I wasn’t moved to rush out and buy the book. Then your reply nailed thoughts/feelings I couldn’t exactly put into words when I first heard of the book. Thanks for sharing!
Obviously, it’s just my opinion. But in a recent FB thread of a good friend whose writing I really admire, most of us ended up sharing that not-so-impressed view of the book — several recommended George Packer’s instead.
I think my problem is the size of my readership and that I have barely any marketing skills. I’m working to change that, but for the moment, I’m thankful that I have a good job with great pay and benefits that allows me to feel like I’m giving back to the community. And with certain changes in how I market my work…who knows? I’m trying to get a publishing contract these days, so maybe within a couple of years that’ll happen.
It’s a very difficult business. Good luck!
I agree – writers have to be business-savvy, for sure. I suspect, these days, that’s actually the first and prime talent…writing is second. It’s kind of odd in a way. The other side of it, though, is that writing for money raises that inevitable issue of writing being seen as ‘art’ and therefore somehow ‘voluntary’ (paradoxically, set against it, is the fantasy of authors being rich). Here in NZ there is definitely a sense among the snobbish literati set that anybody who writes in ways designed to maximise financial return lacks talent and ability. This is the same social set who append ‘…and poet’ to their self-appointed tag-list of how they like to be seen. To which I say ‘ptooey’ – this community sits on top of all the public funding, literary publishing and review opportunities and their underlying world is explicitly a bully culture. Every one of them is a tenured academic or has some other sinecure that removes any financial worry for them. My take is that quality of writing is even more essential in the competitive world of freelancing – it’s a gig-based economy, every post has to be a winning post, and absolutely authors need to assert the value of their work.
All of this!
The States, being a much bigger place, does offer more possibilities — whatever the sort of writing. Yes, I write for the NYT (which carries the clout it must) but I also write for others much smaller and less prestigious. As you and I know (!), the mortgage company and dentist and gas station attendant couldn’t care less where the $$$$ comes from as long as we produce it.
That sort of snobbery and gate-keeping also exist here — the gates being attendance at Ivy League universities and graduating from a Big Name MFA program. Neither of which I have and which have definitely shut me out of many good options. And (sorry) but being male is an additional advantage here as well.
it must be such a balancing act and even the most talented writer will not make money, if they do not know how to value their worth and market themselves.
I see this a lot…women, especially, being afraid to ask for more money or better terms. It’s a recipe for disaster.
I gather the comics industry is paying creators what it was paying them in the 1970s – not in a relative sense, but the exact same numbers. American comics creators die young, often as a consequence of having no medical cover. I think the top end of the industry sees creators as disposable and easily replaced, because there’a always someone desperate or keen enough to do the same job for less, or for nothing. I don’t have any easy answers, although projects like patreon and the power of the kickstarter give me hope.
Thanks for this….and how depressing.
This is also happening within journalism, with “normal” digital rates so laughably low I have no idea why anyone bothers. I turn away more low-ball work now than I can afford to take on — as our costs have risen massively and rates have fallen. Lousy combo.