You write books, people buy them. You get paid, which means that you can write more books and people will buy more of them. That’s the romantic idea of being a writer. In reality, things rarely work like that.
Book publishing is a slow-moving and highly uncertain business for writers. Your first book might sell loads of copies. The next one can fall completely flat. Nobody can tell with any certainty if a book is going to be a success. It might be the best thing ever written, but then you say something incredibly stupid out of sheer sleep deprivation as you are doing the media circuits and surviving on 20 cups of coffee a day. You drink and tweet and regret it instantly, but the tabloids hang on to it. There’s no going back. Now lukewarm is the best you can hope for.
Throughout the history of literature, writers had relied on other ways of earning a living when they were starting out and later on to shield themselves from the fluctuating book sales. Charles Dickens started out as a journalist and later on went on gruelling public reading tours (back when travel wasn’t sitting in a business class seat watching Netflix). Ernest Hemingway made money as a foreign correspondent during the wars. Cory Doctorow runs Boing Boing. Annalee Newitz cofounded io9. JK Rowling went on to start Pottermore. John and Hank Green run several businesses and YouTube channels.
Why would writers as successful as these want to do anything apart from writing full-time? Isn’t that the dream?
Some writers choose to teach, others sell courses or editing services. Some writers run community events and writing groups. Some are public speakers, and others have plain old jobs. It seems to be true across the board: writers leverage their unique skill sets to diversify their sources of income to stay in the game regardless of whether they sell any books. Joanna Penn talks about this in the self-publishing context on her podcast all the time.
I was thinking about that a lot this week. I write, but I’m also a software engineer. I can deploy servers and build websites. Maybe I could build an app or something that would bring people value and help subsidise my quest to become a published author?
When people say that they are determined to do whatever it takes to become authors, we think of quitting jobs and working in coffee shops for minimum wage, getting by in council housing and on benefits. We think of reducing everything else in their lives to the bare minimum in pursuit of their artistic ambitions. But what if doing whatever it takes means editing other people’s manuscripts, or taking on that copywriting gig, or building that thing on the side that will free enough space in your life to write?
Everyone has some unique skills that they could leverage. What are yours?
As for me, I’ve got a few ideas for an app/service to help writers stay productive that I’m exploring right now. Sign up for my newsletter to be the first one to know when I ship something.
What I Am Reading
I’m almost done with Take the Lead by Betsy Myers. This week, I also went to a book signing at Waterstones Gower St by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders — the recent Hugo recipients for their podcast. They talked about sci-fi and writing sci-fi. It was an awesome event. I’d found out about it last minute and almost didn’t make it which would have been a shame. There goes a reminder to check the happenings at your local bookshop from time to time!
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