In this episode, Belinda Pollard, Alison Young and Donita Bundy discuss the realities of earning income from writing and publishing in today’s world. They consider the practical side for both traditionally published and self-published writers, and also the spiritual side of whether and how we earn.
Scroll down for audio, video, and a full transcript, or find the podcast on Apple Podcasts here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/gracewriters-podcast/id1519376330
In conversation in this episode:
- Belinda Pollard, author of mainstream crime novels, accredited editor with quals in theology, and Gracewriters founder
- Alison Joy, romance author
- Donita Bundy, writing teacher, preacher and author of young adult urban fantasy
Topics covered in this episode:
- Is it true that writers can earn a lot?
- Practical realities for both traditional and indie publishing.
The spiritual side of whether and how we earn.
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Belinda Pollard: Welcome to the Gracewriters podcast – Christian writers changing popular culture. Connect with us at Gracewriters.com.
Today on the podcast, Earning Income as a Writer. I’m Belinda Pollard. I’m an author, editor and writing coach with a theology degree and 20 years in the publishing industry. Find links to my books and blogs at belindapollard.com.
Alison Joy: Hi, I’m Alison Joy. I’m a romance writer and I live in sunny Brisbane in Queensland and you can find my information on alisonjoywriter.com.
Donita Bundy: Hi, I’m Donita Bundy. I’m a writer, a blogger and a creative writing teacher. You can find out more about me at donitabundy.com.
Belinda Pollard: Our topic today, Earning Income as a Writer. Such a vexing issue for so many of us and so many strange expectations and so many disappointments along the way. So, there are three main topics that we will look at under this topic. Is it true that writers are earning a lot of money? What are the practical realities from both traditional and indie publishing? And the spiritual side of whether and how we earn as writers. Alison, you’ve been doing some research for us. Is it true that writers are making the big bucks?
Alison Joy: The number of writers that are making the big bucks is actually quite small. In fact, I had a look at some statistics and normally they don’t just have one book or two books, they have multiple books. So, I saw some stats and someone who was earning about 100 thousand K’s, which I’m assuming is American, have something, on average, like 30 books in their catalogue. A few to go before I get there! But I guess that’s the thing, you’ve got to be prolific to be able to earn a really good income from writing. I think Joanna Penn is one example that, I think, we’re all familiar with, but she has quite a lot of different income streams that she uses to gain income.
Belinda Pollard: And a lot of her stuff is not just books, is it?
Alison Joy: No, and that’s one of the things they suggest. Like, when you invest, you don’t put all your eggs in the one basket, so when you’re trying to earn an income, you just don’t do it from one income stream, you have to try and develop other ones. So, some people might have courses, some people might be speaking or consulting, or editing or teaching. So, you’ve got to come up with different ways, I guess, of adding possible income streams so you can actually earn a living as a writer.
Belinda Pollard: And what did you find, from the ones that are making a go of it, what did you find about what they are doing or about their mindset?
Alison Joy: I think, one of the things was the amount of time they spent. Apparently, I’m just going off the stats I have so I can’t say, people who make a living out of writing would spend quite a lot of time actually doing it. For me, I’m an emerging author, so I’d spend probably 20 hours a week writing, maybe, and, people who are doing better, write probably double that in a week, easy, or probably even more. They produce a lot of content over a long period of time. So, they just show up, do the work and put in the effort. They want to build a body of work. They’re there for a long term, not for a short term.
Belinda Pollard: And I think that can be a thing too, can’t it. We’ve got to figure out whether this is something we want to do long term. And it isn’t necessarily for everybody and that’s okay if it’s just for a season but not for the rest of your life. But if we really do want to do it then it is about building and building and building.
Alison Joy: I think the first steps, people think they’re going to write a book and automatically going to be able to give up their day job and that’s just not practical. And one of the things that I saw over and over again is they say, “Don’t give up your day job! Don’t give up your day job!” And I think someone said that the best piece of advice that they could come up with, which I thought was quite good, is that you’ve got to think about your day job as being in service to your career as a writer. So, if you’re waiting on tables or you’re teaching or you’re working in an office, whatever it is you do to fill your bank account so you can put a roof over your head under which you can write. And I felt, “Wow, yeah, that’s good sage advice there.”
Belinda Pollard: It does sound like good advice and I think it’s one of those little daydreams that a lot of us have that one day I’ll be able to write fulltime, I won’t have all this other stuff cluttering up my schedule, I’ll be able to sit at my keyboard and beautiful words will pour forth, and cheques will roll in and everything will be just as I imagined it will be in this perfect world. And then the fact of the matter is, a lot of people find if they do ever get to the point of writing fulltime it’s just such a lot of work, because there’s so many things they’ve got to do. It’s not this beautiful, imaginary world of sitting and writing, and imagining and doing whatever you want whenever you want.
It’s working for someone: get this stuff done, meet these deadlines, get your work in, go here and speak at this group, do a teaching seminar for here to boost your income. There’s just so many things going on and these are for the ones who are traditionally published, where they don’t have to pay for their editing and various other aspects, they’re still just working very, very hard to be a fulltime writer. And the same with a lot of, you’ve mentioned Joanna Penn, she’s an independent writer, an independent author and a lot of self-published authors, some of the really successful ones, are working 12 hour days and writing one book after another and they’re just constantly in a process of generating ideas, sitting down doing the work.
They’ve got certain blocks of the day that they’re working on their marketing, or they’re working on networking, connecting with people, dealing with their service providers, their editors and their cover designers. It’s full tilt. It’s very, very, very busy work. So, yes, that’s great stuff, Alison, and I think the giving up your day job thing is a really big issue. And I think the key to happiness, in terms of earning income as a writer, is to have realistic expectations. I think realistic expectations are the key to all kinds of happiness but particularly in this because there’s so many false expectations circulating about writers.
We imagine they travel in stretch limos and get paid six figure advances, or we see on Facebook these ads urging us to become rich through self-publishing. And just quietly, I think most of the people who become rich from those are the people creating the courses and books for how to get rich through self-publishing. Okay! They’re not the only ones, there are some people who become rich through self-publishing but they’re these people we’ve just talked about who are working 12 and 14 hour days and being very, very strategic and really working on meeting their target readership and all of these extra aspects.
Alison Joy: I mean, let’s face it, fiction writing is not a salaried position. You don’t get paid by the hour, it’s fits and starts if you get anything. It depends on the market or it depends on people’s opinion, whether they want to buy your book or not. It’s not like you’re going into a job and you know you’re going to get at the end of the time you’ve worked, you’re going to get this amount of money. You can put in all the time and effort and you still may not get anything out of it.
Belinda Pollard: That’s right. It’s a bit unusual that way, isn’t it? I’ve got some stats that I often share when I present workshops for writers. These date back a couple of years, it just depends when the most recent surveys came out, but in the U.K. in 2018 the average fulltime author income was £10,500, which is right on the poverty line in the U.K. So that is a fulltime author we’re talking about there. That’s someone who has given up their day job and is so successful that they’re able to write fulltime. So, poverty-line income.
The top selling contender on the 2018 Booker Prize shortlist sold 5,200 copies of their book before the announcement. 5,200 copies for a Booker Prize top contender.
In the U.S.A. in a 2017 survey, the average fulltime author income, and we’re talking here again about traditionally published authors, was US$6,080, which is well below the poverty line in the U.S.
In Australia, there’s a great survey that was done by the University of Melbourne, this one goes back to the 2007-2008 financial year, and it was a survey of commercial publishers in Australia. They found that 90% of titles sold – are you waiting for this, just brace yourself – 90% of titles sold fewer than 120 copies. Half sold fewer than 6.
This makes a big difference to how I feel about my successes as an author, I have to tell you! And how I feel about the success of – the majority of my clients these days are self-publishing, and they are doing a lot better than that! So, it just helps sometimes, like sometimes that might cause despair to hear those statistics, but it also can help us to get a more realistic view of how much money is being made from books. With self-publishing statistics, they are hard to get in terms of something that is really accurate and there are widely varying reports, but one estimate is that about $1,000 a year is kind of the average for self-publishers.
So, obviously some are earning a lot more than that, and some are earning a lot less, but that’s about the average. So, and there are obviously outliers who are making a lot, lot more. There are some making a fulltime income and as we’ve said, a lot of those are incorporating multiple streams of income, not just books and they are working very hard and very strategically. One of the things that I often say to my self-publishing clients is to have a solid sense of how long it’s going to take to get there.
So, if they’re in it for the long haul then they will probably see some rewards eventually, but to expect it to take two years to break even on the costs of self-publishing. So, that is what I’ve seen over the years. It varies. Some take longer than that, some do manage to come in sooner. But it is what it is.
And as we’ve said, most fulltime writers, most writers have day jobs or supportive loved ones that help them. Sometimes there’s another income in the house or maybe a great uncle died and left them something fabulous. I don’t know, but they’re not living on US$6,000 or £10,500 in the U.K. or 120 copies in Australia. They are living on various things.
So, it’s good to have, I think, these views and it’s good to understand that the job that you have might be actually fabulous. When you become a fulltime author, you are running a business and running a business, speaking as someone who runs a business as an editor and whatnot, you end up working 60 to 80 hours a week. Whereas if you have a job where you go out and work for someone else, you might only be working 40 hours a week, so you’ve got more time to write. So, just keep that in mind.
Donita, did you have any thoughts from the spiritual implications? How big a role should the financial aspect play in whether we decide to write? What does it have to do with calling and purpose? What does God think about our desire to earn some income from our writing?
Donita Bundy: Well, I think that last question, Belinda, is the most pertinent. Taking time out to seriously consider this and coming before God and praying about it because above all we are called to be good stewards of what we’ve been given. Everything we have comes from God and everything is a blessing to be used for His glory. So, it’s a huge thing to step out of fulltime work or even parttime work and just move into writing, whatever kind of writing that is, for a career. And I think another question that needs to be asked is, do you have the personality. Are you the kind of person that can get up every day and go to work when work’s in your own home and have the discipline to stop when you need to?
During the pandemic, they were saying there was a spectrum of how people were coping from working at home. Some people found it really hard to get up and go to work because they were in their home environment which is not their natural workplace. And other people found it hard to stop working because work was always there, there was no distance, you don’t get in a car, you don’t get on the bus to go to work, it’s always there, always tempting.
So, are you the kind of person who has the discipline that’s required to get up and go to work and be creative everyday even when the muse isn’t around? You can’t wait for creativity to arrive; you just have to get down and do the work. So, you need an awful lot of drive and desire to do it full time, writing at home, and to be honest it’s a step of faith to step away from a paid income into writing fulltime.
I recently read Warren Wiersbe and he has some great questions to ask if you’re living by faith or wanting to live by faith. First is, am I doing this for the glory of God or just to please myself? So, what is behind the choice to do writing fulltime. Secondly, am I rushing in impetuously or am I willing to wait? It might be the thing to do but is now the right time to do it? Have you done the research? Do you have what you require? Do you have an audience? Do you have the skills? Are you ready to quit your job and work part-time or full-time in writing? Can I defend what I’m doing from Scripture, is Wiersbe’s third question. We’re all called to be stewards of what we’ve been given. Is this the responsible move? And lastly, he says, as I contemplate this move, do I have joy and peace within? Is it something that brings great excitement at the thought?
So, all of those things in balance are good questions to ask as we step into a career in writing. But even if it’s parttime or fulltime, we need to see ourselves as professionals and unless we have felt called to be a charity, the work that we do needs to be paid for. We need to have paying clients and just because we’re Christians doesn’t mean that we need to give our work away. We deserve to be paid, as the Bible says, “Do not muzzle the ox.”
So, we have a right to be paid for the work we do. But on the other end of that spectrum is just because we’re Christians, even if we’re doing work for other Christians doesn’t mean that we get to do a haphazard job. We need to do the best we possibly can. And a verse that I love is Colossians 3:23, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart as working for the Lord, not for human masters.”
If you’re working fulltime as a writer or diversifying in the field of writing, you are working for the Lord, and so He is your main audience, He’s the main person you’re working for. And I can just share from my experience, I had to quite fulltime work because of illness and health and I gradually came into writing. I started writing a book and then finding out how expensive that was. I had to do that well, and then I learnt all the other things that I needed to do, to be a writer, like blogging, and public speaking and all the other things which I spent a lot of time learning how to do and developing and starting off.
And then public speaking, so someone offered a place in a school, so I started teaching creative writing. And then, because I enjoy photography, I was offered a position taking photographs for a website. I’ve taken up work designing covers, doing whatever I can, I’m making money wherever I can to be a writer, but as of yet, my writing isn’t paying the bills. So, I’m selling more than six books a year but I’m not yet paying for the cost of producing the quality work that requires editing and proofreading and all of those things.
So, I’m not yet at the point but the diversity of my income is helping outweigh the expense of writing. For me, I find the tricky thing is carving time out of all the other jobs to do my writing. I would call myself a fulltime writer, but I struggle to find the time to actually do the writing.
Belinda Pollard: We do need to earn a living in our society. It’s not just automatically provided for us and there are always those complications, aren’t there. Do you have any final thoughts, Alison?
Alison Joy: It just takes time, I think. Time to build an audience and you’ve got to be persistent. I think that’s the main thing, persistence.
Belinda Pollard: Yes, I think persistence is just a really good quality for us to have as writers and as believers, as Gracewriters. Any final thoughts, Donita?
Donita Bundy: Just that if we’re stepping out into that, make sure, spend time and make sure that it’s what God is challenging you to do, and do your research. Find out what is required of you in the industry. Prepare yourself well. Talk to other people. Find out their stories and what they do and how they do it and then pray. And then if it’s something that you’re called to do, just embrace it and enjoy it. I love what I do, but I’m so blessed that I have someone else in the house earning a fulltime income. So, I’m blessed, and I love it.
Belinda Pollard: Yes. And I think we can also live on less than sometimes we think we can. And I work very long hours, but I love what I do. Everything that I do, nowadays, is related to writing and books and I really get a lot of joy out of that. Not just shallow happiness but a deep joy and sense of purpose and a nourishing strengthening through that.
Donita Bundy: Absolutely.
Belinda Pollard: How about I just pray for the Gracewriters before we finish.
Heavenly Father, we thank you that you are Jehovah Jireh, our provider and that your grace is sufficient for us. Just quoting an old song from many years ago there. And we thank you Lord that you do provide for us. That you own the cattle on a thousand hills and you will provide for us. And if you have called us to write, you will make it possible. And we pray that you will help us to lean into you and to see the possibilities that you are creating and opening up for us. And we pray that you will give us peace about it and possibilities and purpose. And we commit it to you in the name of Jesus. Amen.
Alison Joy, Donita Bundy, thank you. I’m Belinda Pollard and we will see you next time at the next Gracewriters podcast.
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