It’s meant to be the dream, isn’t it? Being a full time writer has a level of authority – you’re good enough to survive, you must be doing a good job!
But one of the problems with the publishing industry and writing in general is that there’s so much of a disconnect around what writers make, how they survive and how we measure success.
To someone who has never met a professional writer, they’ll immediately assume you’re a JK Rowling. You are well paid for your books and you never have to worry. Publication means you’re rolling in it.
It’s only when you explain royalties and digital pricing and everything else, that people start to get it. In which case, you’re suddenly a failure. But here’s the thing – you can write a book that everyone is talking about, but not make much money from it. You can make a lot of money on sales and still be a complete unknown only selling self-published ebooks. Money is not the only measure of success with books, in fact, I’d say it’s a terrible one.
We don’t ask what situations people are in when they’re full time writers. We don’t know if they’re self employed through other means, if they’re supplementing their income, if they’ve taken early retirement, inherited a bunch of money, sold a company, won the lottery, have a partner who works so they don’t have to, if they’re a stay at home parent. We don’t ask. We assume that those people are doing better than everyone else.
Writing is the only job I’ve had where strangers feel comfortable asking how much I make. But we also don’t acknowledge privilege when it comes to being a full time writer. That doesn’t mean those writers aren’t working super hard. It doesn’t mean it’s not a full time job. It just means it would be good if they acknowledged they probably wouldn’t have to survive on the money their books bring in.
But hey, talking about money is awkward. Talking about success is hard, and why would we want to minimise a moment of feeling successful?
That’s only the start, though. Because if writing full time is a sign of success, surely we should all want to be doing that? That should be the dream, right? That was what I was working towards for a long time. In fact, I started my writing career as a full time writer – I ran writing workshops, tutored in English and creative writing and did everything I could to survive and thrive. It was a badge of honour – this was what I trained for and I was doing it.
But it was hard! It was so hard! It was lonely. There was so much pressure on my books to sell, on me to write more and more quickly. I had to have a quick turn around in order to survive. I had to be grateful and not make waves because I depended on those book deals. And I wasn’t building anything, beyond an author name. No pension, no savings, no work life balance.
So I got a regular job. And, as much as I resisted it, it actually improved my writing. I wrote more regularly, I loved it more. It removed the pressure, it allowed me to write what I liked.
That was what success looked like to me. And maybe, one day in the future, I’ll want to return to writing full time. When it’s not about the money. When success is reduced to its purest form – seeing people read and love your work.
So when you don’t feel like you’re doing enough as an author, remember:
We all measure success differently!