Making a Living as a Fiction Writer: Is It the Right Goal?

This blog is usually devoted to essays on the craft of fiction. Rarely do I discuss trends in publishing. I am struck, though, by the number of incredibly talented writing colleagues who can’t eke out a living through their fiction writing. Recent studies bear out the challenges writers face in earning a decent income through publishing, whether traditional or self-publishing.

The Guardian newspaper reported that almost one-third of published authors make less than $500 a year from their writing. Citing a survey by Digital Book World, they reported that traditionally published authors make an annual median income of between $3,000 to $4,999. Hybrid authors, those who publish both independently and traditionally, earned the highest at an average of between $7,500 to $9,999 a year. In other words, even the successful ones make less than $10,000 a year earlier, which are poverty wages. 

It’s a harsh market for writers. Most writers are resigned to the need to have a full-time paying job with benefits to support their writing. When I began writing fiction nearly twenty years ago, I had no illusions. I knew the odds were stacked against me. A number of writers who were better than me struggled to get published and, in the years that ensued, many turned to self-publishing.

The economic realities are daunting. My advice to writers is to forget the notion of measuring success by achieving traditional publication. Sure, that’s an easy thing for me to say, but it’s not likely to make writers feel better. I suggest a different measurement for writers: improvement and development as a writer. That’s a more difficult metric to measure, but it can be done. Here are a few suggestions:

–Find a strong online writing community and actively participate. Make connections with writers at your level or above your level. Volunteer to be a beta reader for other writers and seek out beta readers for your work.

–Join a local writer’s group in which you can bring in your work to be critiqued by others. These groups exist in almost every region of the U.S. 

–Once you get established as a member of a writer’s group, cultivate three to five trusted members of the group and meet separately with that group. The main purpose of these smaller groups is to test out your work when it may not be ready for prime time and to brainstorm about challenges you face in your work in progress.

–Measure your progress by the feedback you receive. A clean page with few edits is real progress. Praise from exacting critics is like gold.

I found the perfect online writing community for me in Writer Unboxed. I have made deep connections with the wonderful people in this group. Just as important to me is the West Hartford Fiction Writer’s Group, which meets monthly at the local library. This group numbers about 25 and we typically get 10-12 at our monthly meetings. Group members are insightful, intelligent and honest critics. A writer’s work must be polished to pass muster with this group. My “safe haven” is an offshoot of this group that meets twice a month at the local Panera Bread. Here, I can bring in work that is not ready for the larger group and bounce ideas off three to five trusted colleagues.

I find fulfillment as a writer not though the pursuit of traditional publication, but through validation of my development by the members of these three writing communities. Most people can’t make a living as a writer, but that’s not why most serious writers do it. There’s nothing wrong with setting a different goal: to be the best writer you can be. 




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3 responses to “Making a Living as a Fiction Writer: Is It the Right Goal?

  1. Interesting that your writing group works nearly opposite to mine: my meetup group shares work at any stage, as long as feedback is wanted; the closer to polished/published work gets, the more people really value feedback that zeroes in on problems.

    As for making a living writing, I see few that can do it while maintaining high quality and a questing spirit that keeps their subject matter fresh. Surely this state of the art will change in time (or so I hope) but in the meantime, I constantly encourage our group members to hone their craft instead of rushing to publish.

  2. I think writing, especially fiction, can be a supplemental income. That’s why retirees from full time jobs find it can reward them both spiritually and financially. And if you are busy in a comfortable environment like in a library or a garden, you are not spending either!

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