Sunday, November 21, 2021

Cash and the Creative Long-Game


The golden dream of writing a bestselling novel that sells millions of copies, or a screenplay that lands with a multi-million payday, hangs in front of most writers when they first begin to put pen to paper. At least the honest ones. 

As they tap away at the keyboard, they dream big, and why shouldn’t they? It is human nature to dream of becoming financially-free, of buying that glorious house or vacation home in the Caribbean and taking care of family, friends and parents that have supported the fledgling writer through all the first draft nightmares and daily worries that being a writer brings.


But the dream is one that can quickly become a nightmare. Dreams are one thing, but the realistic expectations can be soul shattering for those who think writing is a quick dash to financial freedom. It is one thing to read reports of J.K. Rowling’s $92 million pretax earnings or James Patterson and his $70 million profits in 2019 (Forbes), but consider that Stephen King’s earnings dropped by $10 million while other big-hitters such as John Grisham or Dan Brown didn’t even make the list.

Unfortunately, the top 5% of authors represent about 70-80% of the revenue which can be a disheartening fact for new writers.

And even if you are lucky enough to get a publishing deal, chances are there won’t be any advance paid to you. Instead you will rely solely on the royalties paid yearly by the publishing company, and that might mean a long wait till payday. Most traditional publishers pay their authors between 7% and 10% for paperback and hardback sales, 25% for digital, usually based on Net Sales (the amount wholesalers and retailers pay the publisher).  In recent years there have been a slew of indie publishers cropping up, offering high royalties (around the 50% mark), but expecting you to do 80% of what you'd expect a publisher to be doing for such a high cut of your money.  For that, you could become an independent author, choosing to publish directly with Amazon and receive higher royalties, usually somewhere between 35% and 70% (less delivery and tax costs). A lot higher, right, but you as the author are wholly responsible for the editing, layout, formatting, cover design and all the many other minutia that goes into getting a book into print, all of which come with a cost of both time and money.

And you still need to make a living, to pay rent and put food on the table.

So how can you survive while still chasing your dream of being a published author or produced screenwriter?


There are many online and physical magazines that are accepting submissions for pieces of writing, either short stories up to seven thousand words or poems. Apex Magazine and Dark Magazine are two such magazines. These are fantastic opportunities to stretch your writing in new directions, trying different genres and styles of writing.

These publications can pay between £30 to £450 for a short story dependent on length but be expected to wait some time to hear back. Three to six weeks is the standard for most online publications, with some suggesting four to six months before you hear back. Most magazines will pay you only once a piece is finished to their satisfaction so factor in that time for editing, and you are looking at about seven months from writing the piece to getting paid – and that is only if the first place you submit to accepts your work.


Editorial services can include copy-editing, line editing, structural analysis and many other different facets that bring a manuscript from its rough draft to final, polished piece.

A quick glance on Fiver (I don't recommend this) and you can see the numerous people offering this service, and the, sometimes ludicrous, amounts they charge. From £50 for a line edit, right through to £5’000+ for a complete 12-page structural report on your manuscript including suggested edits, there is something for everyone’s budget. But are you getting what you pay for? What sort of experience does this person have in editing, and why should you trust them with your, as yet, unpublished work?

These are questions you should ask about yourself before thinking about offering editorial services. Do you also have the required skill and time to work on someone else’s manuscript? Editing at a professional level is strenuous, detailed work which demands a high degree of concentration and grasp of language.

For someone just starting out on the writers’ path, this is the option I would least recommend.


By far the most popular, widely used option to ensure an income is to find a regular job, the dreaded, and hated 9-5. Whether it’s stacking shelves, selling dishwashers, Encyclopedia Britannica’s or even small plastic goblins (all jobs I have done while writing stories, screenplays and novels), the knowledge that at the end of the week or month there will be money to pay the rent, heat the flat and feed the cat takes a huge weight off your shoulders.

There are a couple of connected downsides to having a regular job while writing. Most obvious is the time away from your writing desk. Most full-time jobs are around the 40-hour mark each week, not including time to travel to your place of work and back.

This leads into the second slight downside – you have to be organised. You need to have set schedules for your work, what you are going to write and when, plus deadlines to ensure you finish, all at the same time as going to your day or night job as well as maintaining your home.


Whatever you choose to write, the best way to ensure some form of income is having multiple pieces of writing all at various stages. Being realistic with what you want to achieve, and the realities of is everyday life key to this. Don’t expect your first ever novel to become an instant bestseller; neither should you expect the first magazine article you submit to get published.

Find work you enjoy and which won’t suck your soul from you while you pursue your writing dream. Pay your bills with this steady income, be organised and get up early to write and one day, if you're lucky, you’ll become an overnight success thirty years in the making.


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