How do authors make a living? (or, approaching the middle class of writerdom)

It surprises many people to learn (people not in the industry, anyway), that the majority of authors do not make a living off of their writing. Not exclusively, at least.

I’m not saying it’s impossible, or that it doesn’t happen, or that it won’t happen for you. I honestly hope it does! Between advances, royalties, and options I’m sure Stephen King doesn’t have to consider whether to take that editing job or not.

I think it’s good to be aware, though, that most authors are in what Cory Doctorow refers to as “the middle class of writerdom.” i.e. they have day jobs. Same goes for every kind of artist: dancer, actor, musician, painter, etc.

Below, in an interview with Bill Kenower, Doctorow speaks of having been surrounded by “working authors” when he was young, which gave him an appreciation for where he is today.

Even though I have quit my day job, and I earn quite a good living writing, I never take it for granted, and I never assume that all writers will do it or that it’s just hard work and talent. I understand that what I’ve got is the combination of, yes, hard work and talent, but also a lot of luck.
~Cory Doctorow

I know authors who have gotten sweet advances, who have become self-published successes, who have optioned their books as movies, or who write 3 books a year and consistently end up on the best seller list. And those I know who live solely off of their writing work extremely hard to do so (they’ve also become marketing machines, which truthfully is time not spent writing, but part of the game these days).

But mostly, I know authors who are teachers, librarians, microsoft workers, A/V workers, and accountants. And I know other artists who are dog-walkers, bartenders, and event producers. As long as they find time for their creativity, they’re not going crazy.

Some people, like my husband, get panicky at the thought of not having a regular paycheck every 2 weeks, while the idea of having a 9-to-5 job makes me short of breath. For the past 20 years I have primarily lived my life contract to contract and pieced together a living for myself. My finances have always fluctuated.

Yes, I still fantasize about that mega hit that will keep me afloat for years to come, but in the meantime, I’ve created my own “writer’s life.” It all depends upon your level of comfort and if others are financially dependent upon you. If you prefer the consistency of a 9-to-5 job, by all means, stay there while you carve out your writing life.

But I do encourage you to take risks. I believe if you reach toward a writing life, and allow space for it, if you’re willing to get creative with your lifestyle and career, you can do things that are related to your art and may fulfill you more than just another “job.”

My other two loves are teaching and performing, so I’ve been fortunate to be able to incorporate those into my career. Below is a list of all the things I’ve done to earn money to supplement my income since my first novel was published:

ESL tutor
creative writing tutor
story editor
script reviewer
studio teacher
creative writing instructor
school author visits
book club author visits
convention instructor / speaker

Other than ESL and studio teacher, everything else has been related to being an author, which makes me happy. If you assess your skills and passions, I’m sure you, too, could create a satisfying life that supplements your writing.

What have you done to create your author life? How have you gotten creative around your work?

6 Comments

  1. Tyrean
    Feb 27, 2013

    Great post! I think it’s a healthy thing to go into writing with the knowledge that it might not be a moneymaker. We can always hope and dream, and then get back to work. For most of us, writing is an integral part of our lives and we do it no matter what.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Feb 27, 2013

      I think it may be more than healthy. It may be why Doctorow is as successful as he is. He worked from a space of knowing what it would take, rather than crashing and burning because he was too unrealistic. Not that we shouldn’t reach for the stars; everyone knows I’m a star-reacher. We simply need to enjoy the entire ride there. We have to love all of it, especially the writing!

  2. Akoss
    Feb 28, 2013

    I’ve always known about this (from reading author blogs and such). But it’s one thing to know about it and another to actually be in it.
    Thank you for a great post (even for the unpublished writer) :)

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Mar 1, 2013

      Akoss, you are probably better prepared than I was. I had no idea going in (well, except that I had never made a living writing poetry, but I thought that was different). But you can still create a life around writing, which is 80% of what I do now. And I’m loving it.

  3. 4amWriter
    Mar 1, 2013

    Yup, this is my life, too. I work as a freelance writing coach and I teach creative writing classes to kids. Those are related to writing. My other side jobs are subbing at elementary schools and medical billing for a local psychiatric nurse practitioner.

    But I also chose this route because I wanted to be home when my kids are home. This way I can pick my own hours and work around their schedules. If they’re sick, I can stay home with them and still work. I can keep them at home for summers and long school breaks rather than getting a nanny or sending them to YMCA because I can work out of the house.

    It’s hectic, requires a lot of running around and juggling jobs, but that’s the way I wanted it. So, it works for me as it also give me my time to write.

    • Danika Dinsmore
      Mar 1, 2013

      Exactly! You have created a great writing life. If you’ve figured out how to juggle it working primarily from home (and, frankly, along with taking care of your kids, I don’t know how you do it!), and are enjoying it, hooray. It’s a conscious choice, yes. I have to remind myself of that when I’m feeling overwhelmed, going in too many different directions.

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