The Business Rusch: Why Writers Disappear (Part Two)

Business Rusch free nonfiction Freelancer's Survival Guide On Writing

Last week, I started a blog post that I thought would go relatively quickly and be somewhat short. After all, I had just given a one-hour talk on the topic, and about forty-five minutes of that had been in response to questions.

Talking something and writing something are vastly different. I only got through half of my list before I exceeded my comfortable blog post length. Please go back and read the post before you read this one. Please read the comments as well; some writers who vanished from one genre or another talk about the reasons why they moved to another. The comments section of my blog often have a lot of great insights from a variety of people, and so are generally worth checking out.

In last week’s post, I had a list of the reasons why writers disappear. I got through half of it.

For those of you who read the post, here’s the refresher.

Writers disappear because:

1. They can’t get a new book contract under that name.

2. They can’t get a new book contract because their genre has vanished.

3. They became toxic—and that toxicity trickled through the entire industry.

4. They achieved all their goals.

5. They were no longer interested in writing.

6. They moved to a different part of the industry.

7. They got discouraged.

8. They couldn’t handle the solitude.

9. They couldn’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.

10. They had life or health issues that interfered with the writing

11. They didn’t keep up with the changes in the industry.

12. They sold or gave away too many rights to their books.

I’m going to deal with points seven through nine in this post. So, here goes:


Writers disappear because they get discouraged.

It’s really easy to discourage a writer. Writers are a fascinating mix of insecurity and ego. The ego comes in believing that they have something to say, something that the world needs or wants to hear. The insecurity comes from everything else.

From parents who want their child to do something “practical,” to teachers who take it upon themselves to dismiss the less “talented” among their students, to the editors/agents/publishers who reject with forms, the entire world (it seems) exists to tell writers they shouldn’t follow their dreams and they should get a “real” job.

It’s taken me decades to say to people, “Hey, my job is real. It’s just unusual.”

There’s also an attitude, particularly among professional writers, that writers who can be discouraged should be discouraged. My reaction to that sentence, which I first heard from one of the professional writers teaching during my year as a student at the Clarion Writers Workshop, was a reader’s reaction. Why should voices be silenced? What if those voices have interesting things to say or great stories to tell? Just because a writer isn’t “tough” by another writer’s definition doesn’t mean she’s not worthy of the profession itself.

Still, those instructors have one valid point: writing is hard. Not on the rocket-science/brain-surgery side of hard or on the twelve-hours-of nonstop-manual-labor side of hard, but on the invent-your-own-path-and-survive kind of hard. It takes a tough person to handle the continual ups and downs of the profession.

What I tell my writing students is this: It doesn’t matter if you get knocked to the floor. It doesn’t even matter how long you remain on the floor, recovering or feeling sorry for yourself. What matters is that you eventually pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. (I wrote a post on a part of this topic last year.)

Those people will make it as writers and will remain writers decades later. It’s a kind of mental toughness that the arts demand of its practitioners. People who are unwilling to take the hits—and there will be dozens, if not hundreds, of hits—will move on to other things.

Most of the folks in category five (“They were no longer interested in writing”) and category six (“They moved to a different part of the industry”) are folks who move on. They looked around after their first or second or tenth hit, and decided that, much as they liked the industry, it wasn’t worth their time and energy.

Sometimes the decision isn’t even conscious. The writer finds himself doing other things, and the thought of going back to writing seems like too much effort.  The writer ends up seeing no point in continuing in a discouraging profession when other opportunities seem brighter.

What can discourage a writer?

I think the most common thing is the constant negativity inbred into the profession. Writers get told from the beginning that their dream is impractical, or they’re not good enough, or they should be writing “art,” or they should make money first or…or…or…

Then the writer achieves a goal—she sells her first short story to a major market or her first article gets published. Usually those endeavors sink without a mention, and the writer must repeat the success somehow.

Or the first book comes out and mingled among the good reviews are negative ones. Writers train themselves to hear the negative only—how else will I improve? they think—and don’t realize that the negative reviewers might be responding to taste. (I addressed this in detail last summer.)

Writers who get discouraged never understand what success they’ve already had. They don’t know that most people who call themselves writers never finish a novel or market a short story. They don’t know that the first sale is a triumph, whether that sale is to a major magazine or a sale to an unknown reader through an e-reading device.

They don’t understand that ten positive reviews of their first novel mean so much more than any negative review.

And they don’t understand the journey. A writing career isn’t a destination. It’s not one sale or twenty. It’s about a lifetime of sales, about writing more books, stories, poems, and articles than you can remember in any one sitting.

In last week’s post, I listed things that could discourage a traditional writer. The first three don’t apply to indie writers, but there are variations. Indie writers get discouraged when they’ve published one book, promoted the hell out of it, and get no sales—or very few sales. (See Dean Wesley Smith’s blog on promotion this week to learn how to do it right.)

Indie writers get discouraged when they realize how much work this profession actually is. More than one book? More than one cover? What about ten books that don’t sell well? What about twenty?

Those writers have to look to their skill level, their book package, and their expectations. Some writers will strike it rich by publishing their own books, but most writers won’t.

Like traditional writers, indie writers need to be in this profession for the love of writing, and when something—or someone—steals that love away from the writer, the writer has to do whatever it takes to recover the love. Sometimes that’s writing something that’s just for the writer; sometimes it’s avoiding writers workshops or reading reviews; sometimes it’s several years of therapy.

More writers quit because they get discouraged than for any other reason. And often, it’s not a conscious decision; they gradually stop and don’t notice for years. The readers notice, though. To them, the writer has disappeared.


Writers disappear because they can’t handle the solitude.

Most successful writers are introverts. They’re happy spending 99% of their time alone in their own heads. But I’ve met some extroverted writers, and they struggle with the alone time. They write in Starbucks or some local restaurant. They open an office and share it with other like-minded authors.

Mostly, though, they gravitate to writing jobs that require more than one person, like writing for television. There, writers bat ideas around in a writers’ room, sometimes writing while the meeting is going on. Many gaming writers do the same thing, and so do some comic book writers.  Journalists spend more time with people than away from people.

Fiction writers, though, even those who collaborate, do so by themselves.  And some extroverted writers often try that for a few years before it drives them completely batty. Those writers quit writing fiction, and find ways to write that require a group effort.

Often you’ll see one or two novels from these folks. Most often, you’ll see the novel by the writer of the screenplay for the movie Such N So, or the novel by the writer who worked on the TV series Famous TV Show.  That writer generally fulfills his contract with a traditional publisher or publishes his two or three trunk novels as an indie writer, and then goes back to what he knows, writing in a group setting.

From the point of view of book readers, that writer has vanished. But to those of us who actually read the credits on TV shows and movies, that writer might still be quite active.

Hollywood has made it very difficult for writers of a certain age to get jobs, however. I recall one friend of mine, an extremely successful screenwriter, who had a top-secret fiftieth birthday party because he didn’t want anyone in Hollywood to know how old he was. He was afraid that his age alone would cause him to lose work. I know some good folks are fighting this ageism even now, and I wish them the best.

So, even if writers who can’t take solitude return to the trenches in Hollywood (and gaming has started this insanity as well), they sometimes can’t get work. Their byline disappears, even though they haven’t stopped writing at all.

This reason that writers disappear has an impact on indie writers as well as traditional writers. In fact, indie writers might have more difficulty with this, because they don’t have to interact (even in a minor way) with traditional publishers, editors, and sales people. Indie writers can choose to do it all. Alone. In front of their computers. Without outside stimulation. For days, weeks, or months.

I’m an introvert, and that would drive me batty.

So this is one to watch, for all writers, introverted or not.


Writers disappear because they can’t handle the financial problems inherent in a writing career.

Believe it or not, this problem will cause more indie writers to disappear than traditional writers. The reason? There are decades of writing advice on how the income streams work for traditional writers, and very little advice that will help the indie writer.

Writers are freelancers, and handling a freelance income fulltime takes a lot of money management skills, patience, and an ability to handle stress. I wrote about this in my Freelancer’s Survival Guide (which you can get in book form as well as free on this site) and in a short book called How To Make Money.

But the shorthand version of it is this: Freelance income isn’t steady. It comes in dribs and drabs. Sometimes it arrives in large chunks and the freelancer needs to manage that money for months before another check comes in. Imagine getting your salary in two half-yearly payments with no taxes removed, and then you have the income of most traditional book writers. Those writers have to make it to the next payment without racking up high credit card bills or delaying mortgage payments.  And they have to be prepared for the next check to be late—not days late. Weeks or months late.

It chews up stomach lining. It’s uncertain. It’s hard.

It drives writers away from fulltime freelancing in droves, it discourages them (see above), and it sends them back to day jobs—where they have little or no time to write. So many writers disappear because they simply don’t have the ability—either mental or emotional—to handle the freelance income.

I know many of you successful indies are thinking that will never happen to you. After all, Amazon and Barnes & Noble pay monthly. Smashwords pays quarterly (and I wish to hell they’d change that). Other sites have a different payment schedule, but those payment schedules are usually regular.

However, sales are not. Particularly book sales.

They go up and they go down.

Here’s the hard truth of book sales, indie writers. Just because you earned $1,000 this month (and the five months previous) doesn’t mean you will earn $1,000 next month. Tastes will change. Your book might lose momentum over Christmas because people are spending their holiday dollars on a different type of book. That $1,000 per month might return in six months, along with even more money, but—unlike a salary—your $1,000 a month is not guaranteed.

Most writers come to freelancing from regular jobs. Your boss offers you a salary or an hourly wage, and you will receive that money for your troubles. Every two weeks or every month, you’ll get a check of a predictable amount.

There’s no predicting freelancing. One month you could get nothing. The next month, $20,000. You can’t bank on either happening the third month, but you should plan on nothing instead of something. Why? That way, you have a contingency plan.

So many indie writers will have a relatively steady writing income for a few months and think they’ve made it. They’re set for life. Then the income will go down, and no amount of promotion or cover tweaking will change it.

The only thing that will help your previous books is writing another book, but that takes time. And if you banked on the set income, you suddenly find yourself in financial trouble, which is not conducive to work.

A lot of writers have gone through this on the traditional side. They sold several books, then couldn’t sell another (see point one). Panicked, behind on the rent, they quit writing and get another job.

Better to have a contingency plan, and expect the worst.

But most writers don’t, because most writers don’t understand business. In particular, most writers don’t understand business cycles, which are called business cycles for a reason. No business—not one—earns the same amount of money month in and month out. Employees do, because the employer guarantees the paycheck. But if the employer can no longer meet payroll, the employees get laid off.

The employees never see the business’s uneven income (unless that employee works in accounting), and so rarely understand how normal this is. Most people, in fact, have no idea how precarious their regular jobs really are. (Although, after this recession, more people know now than before.)

When people who’ve had steady work move to freelancing, they expect the freelance income to behave the way that their paychecks did. They expect regular and on-time.

Because indie writers get regular checks from their distributors, this problem gets compounded. The checks feel like a salary, even though they aren’t.

And so when the money decreases, or dries up, it feels personal. It hurts. What has the writer done wrong?

Nothing, except fail to plan for normal business ups and downs.

But most writers, facing months of little or no income when they had a lot of income earlier, see themselves as failures and quit.

Indie publishing has existed long enough that the first cycle has made itself known. Lots of writers aren’t earning what they did before.They think it a failure of the system or of their own writing, when in fact, it’s the way all businesses work.

They’ll believe that the gravy train has ended, and they’ll get discouraged. Then they’ll quit.

And so, to the readers, these writers will disappear—except for the indie books they already have up. But there won’t be new books, maybe not ever, and that will be a crime.


Once again, I have too much to say in the remaining three points. I can truncate them or I can give them the room they deserve. I opt for room. So rather than two posts on why writers disappear, I’ll have three.

Thanks to everyone who visited last week, including all the newcomers. I hope you stick around for a while.

And, speaking of income, I make my living writing fiction, so the time I take each week to write this blog needs to pay for itself. That’s why I have the donation button on these posts and no others on this website.

So, if you’ve learned anything, or feel that you got something of value from this or previous posts, please leave a tip on the way out.


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“The Business Rusch: “Why Writers Disappear (Part Two),” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.


57 thoughts on “The Business Rusch: Why Writers Disappear (Part Two)

  1. > What about ten books that don’t sell well?
    > What about twenty?

    Yup, as an Indie: My count of non-sellers is about 25 books now. I sell a mere handful of copies per year. Good thing I have a day-job. This still hasn’t been discouraging so far because I’ve also figured out that I can find cover designers who are willing to read the books and produce a relevant cover picture. And that seems to be all the audience I really need. 😉

  2. I am fortunate enough, I guess, that I have a military pension, which is just enough to pay the mortgage and the regular utility bills. Everything else comes from freelancing as a writer, or as an editor, transcribing documents, from book and ebook sales, the occassional short-term temp job, and from the Tiny Pubishing Bidness that I am a partner in. That combined income is in no way predictable, as Kristine pointed out – but there is always something, sometimes out of the clear blue.

  3. Just hit 33 paper books. I have 574 e-books, short and long. 1 year in by this December, two things are happening: 1) I’ll pull my 1st $10,000 check from publishing; 2) I’ll be going back to 40 hour weeks.

    I’ll still write 5,000 words a day with one day off a week – like clockwork – but it is as you say above. I’m not out – never will be – but it’s not regular enough. I’ll do both, again.

    Good post! I’m looking forward to round 3!

  4. Just wanted to note that I’ll be soon setting up all my ebook retailers to direct deposit into my brand-new retirement account.

    I’m only in my mid-thirties, but I can’t think of a better, more hands-off way to save for elderhood. And as the monthlies get bigger — which they are, gorgeously — I’ll adjust, but for now, those monies are out of sight for the next thirty-plus years.

    Three hours of writing a day nets me two thousand words a day, which nets me roughly a book every two months.

    Thanks for all your advice, Kris (and Dean). I donated last week and will do more in the future.

  5. The rejections definitely discourage new writers from continuing on writing. We want to be validated for what we did and do. Rejections are not limited to writers only; anyone in arts suffers from the same issue. Many years ago I brought my modern art to work to show to my colleagues. One woman walked by and laughed. It hurt me and I didn’t paint again for 19 years. I paint now, and my attitude is I am an artist and I’m good at it.
    My book “Arboregal” got rejected by publishers and agents alike. What to do? Roll over and die? Maybe the critics would have liked that. After some soul searching I found the answer. Why do I write? Because I am a storyteller and I want to live in my fantasies. I enjoy my stories and writing is the easiest way to bring them to life. Therefore I write.
    I heard many times that writers need to write for their audience. I disagree. No one knows what the readers want. Writers should first write for themselves. If they enjoy what they’re doing they will never stop writing. And if they find an audience that’s just icing on the cake. Writers that got discouraged and stopped, wrote for the wrong reasons: money, fame, quite your job, adulation, etc.
    If you enjoy what you’re doing you’ll keep on doing even if money or fame does not come, quickly. Keep at it and it will come aplenty.

  6. Then the writer achieves a goal—she sells her first short story to a major market or her first article gets published. Usually those endeavors sink without a mention, and the writer must repeat the success somehow.

    Kris, why am I so surprised when you hit on something else that pertains to my situation? I should know better by now that you’re very perceptive about a lot of things (that’s why I enjoy this blog so much). This happened to me. I took a short story course, and after my 3rd attempt to sell the thing, it was bought! Wahoo! I figured I was Launched, I was going to make the Big Time, so I dived into my next short story…which didn’t sell anywhere.

    With my luck, I figured I wouldn’t be able to recapture that initial success. And that’s the problem, which is the same for a lot of actors, or anyone in the creative arts: Can I repeat my success?

    1. And in the arts, Nancy, the answer is always no, you can’t repeat your success. But…you can have brand new successes. Even ones that seem the same aren’t. That’s what’s so tough about this business. It’s always new, even for the writer.

  7. It’s really easy to discourage a writer. Writers are a fascinating mix of insecurity and ego. The ego comes in believing that they have something to say, something that the world needs or wants to hear. The insecurity comes from everything else.

    This is SO me.

    From parents who want their child to do something “practical,”…the entire world (it seems) exists to tell writers they shouldn’t follow their dreams and they should get a “real” job.

    I love my mother dearly, but this is something she said to me when I was young. And when you’re young and still taking those tentative steps out into the Big Wide World, you take comfort in such things.

    There’s also an attitude, particularly among professional writers, that writers who can be discouraged should be discouraged.

    I can understand why professional writers would do such a thing – they don’t want those coming into the fold to be hurt. Maybe because they were hurt; so they don’t want others to have to experience that.

    What I tell my writing students is this: It doesn’t matter if you get knocked to the floor. It doesn’t even matter how long you remain on the floor, recovering or feeling sorry for yourself. What matters is that you eventually pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and try again. (I wrote a post on a part of this topic last year.)

    Pick Yourself Up, Dust Yourself Off, Start All Over Again (from Swingtime, an Astaire/Rogers musical). That’s what I’ve had to do, over and over, whenever I get thoroughly discouraged. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to do that. What gets me back in the writing groove is remembering how much fun I have writing fiction. I can easily immerse myself in that particular world for hours at a time, forget my worries, and forget my physical pains. For me, in a way, it’s therapeutic. 🙂

    Thanks for this two parter. Fascinating stuff.

  8. “What do you do for a living?”

    “I’m a writer.” (Big smile)

    “No, I mean what do you do for money?”

    (Big sigh)

    If I only had a nickle…

    Excellent post Kris, thanks.

    1. I was on jury duty at the opening as they’re trying to choose a jury.

      Lawyer (to me): What do you do for a living?
      Me: I write books
      Lawyer: But how do you make money?
      Me: I write books
      Lawyer: But yes, how do you earn your income?
      Me: I write books.


  9. Great post, Kris.

    I’ve been a freelancer or had temporary contracts all my working life. I didn’t plan it that way, things just happened. I started freelancing while at university, graduated during a recession, the only jobs I could get were temporary contracts (and extensions to those contracts were often cut off by laws supposedly intended to protect people working on temporary contracts). But I still had my freelance jobs, which provided income, even though those same jobs apparently scared off potential employers. I also applied less to “regular jobs”, because I found by now that I quite enjoyed my freelancer freedom.

    Since freelancing and the unsteady money flow is what I’m used to, I keep forgetting that my situation is actually quite unusual. I notice this most strongly when I do my weekly grocery shopping and suddenly the supermarkets and parking lots are a lot fuller than usual and some people are buying enough food to feed an army. I inevitably wonder what’s up (Did I forget a holiday?), until I realize that it’s around the first of the month and that all those people in regular jobs just got paid (here in Germany, workers are paid monthly) and are indulging themselves. Yet this behaviour is utterly foreign to me, because I have never been paid that way, not even when I had contract jobs.

    The key to surviving as a freelancer is having multiple income streams and saving as much money as possible to have a cushion for the lean times. Cause if you have multiple income streams, it’s not a disaster when one of them suddenly dries up, as just happened to me this year through no fault of my own (policy changes eliminated my job, because “We no longer want that job done by freelancers” and “You don’t meet our criteria for steady employment”). But at the same time, my indie writing finally started to pay off, even though it’s nowhere near to making up for the lost income stream yet.

    Finally, it’s also important to keep looking for new income streams and take the necessary steps (e.g. acquiring knowledge, getting new qualifications, etc…) to get them.

    1. Very important point, Cora, and the one that the people Thomas E. (below) don’t often see. They only see one income stream, and then when it dries up or doesn’t pay enough think writing is impossible. Thanks for this.

  10. I think the discussion of the financial aspects of writing, and being prepared for lean months, is extremely important. Thank you for this insightful and thoughtful post. (Were I not flat broke, I’d donate, too.)

  11. “… in the U.S., a hobby is something you make no money on and aren’t doing for the money.”


    I know you don’t mean that as a put-down, it’s just a definition, but some of us are a little sensitive to being called “hobbyists”. That word implies that the writer is not serious about her writing. But the truth is, making money off of writing is as much luck as hard work. Trust me, there are plenty of writers out here who work their butts off and make nothing. We don’t make money, but it’s not for want of trying. There can be a hundred reasons why a book, or a bunch of books, don’t sell well, and none of them are within the control of the writer. But to be dismissed as a “hobbyist”, after sometimes decades of writing, is painful to hear.

    1. Sarah, please read the next two sentences. If you’re not trying to make money, you’re a hobbyist. If you’re trying to make money, even if you’re not, then you are a small business. “a hobby is something you make no money on and aren’t doing for the money. Otherwise, you’re running a business even if you lose money on it. That depends on attitude.”

      That’s what I said, however inelegantly. I believe that almost everyone who comes here is a business, not a hobbyist.

    2. Don’t be ashamed of being a hobbyist or of being called one.

      All the same, I agree with Sarah here.

      In the visual arts we divide things up in several ways. Since it’s nearly impossible to make a living as a serious fine artist, we often use other measures to differentiate the serious artist from the hobbyist. You don’t have to be even trying to make a living at it to treat art as a career. (That’s what teaching jobs are for.)

      And in the arts, the hobbyist may very well be running a business and making a great living — not just painting Velvet Elvises and garden placards, but also hiring others to paint them to be sold.

      Before indie publishing, though, writers didn’t really have that option. There was only one path to publication, so your motive didn’t matter.

      With indie publishing, you have a whole gradation of options.

      Am I a hobbyist? Frankly, I don’t know. I don’t write to make money. I would like to make money with what I write so I can write more, so I don’t have to do anything else at all with my life. Because it is my career, ahead of anything else in my life.

      I make an effort to make money, and I run my business like a business.

      But what I do is more than a business. I’ve run businesses before. This is something else. This is what they call in the arts an “avocation.” A calling. If I can’t make money at it, I still do it, and not for fun. It’s a duty.

      Which means I still do treat it like a business, even though it’s not about making money.

      One of my favorite writing quotes is from August Wilson: “You’re entitled to the work, not the reward.”

      Don’t be surprised if you don’t have a number of people who believe that way reading this blog.

      1. I was actually thinking of the tax distinctions. I actually put it in the comment, then removed it, because I’m tired of the caveat that I’m not a lawyer or an accountant. Didn’t mean to push people’s buttons. Writers are writers are writers are writers.

        1. A very good point. Many writers are not aware of that distinction; I’m married to an accountant, who handles my books, so I know the difference and schedule my expenditures accordingly. And I hate it that a faceless government bureaucracy gets to decide that what I’m doing is “a hobby”, merely because it may or may not cover my expenses. Under that rubric, Shelley (both of them), Keats and Byron were all “hobbyists”. God bless such hobbyists.

          If I reacted to your statement, Kris, it’s because lately I’ve been getting dismissed a lot by people who say I’m just a hobbyist because I publish my own work. The implication is that a “real” writer would not get discouraged and “give up” on traditional publishing. I haven’t given up, I’ve decided not to play by rules that keep shifting, and not in my favor. But people who have a vested interest in the traditional book publishing business, or people who know nothing about the writing business at all, still think that self-publishing is the hallmark of failure, and call me a hobbyist. In that respect, your columns are very supportive of us self-publishers, and I really appreciate them.

          1. No problem, Sarah. I don’t mean to insult people. Heck, I’d be writing if civilization ended and I had to scratch my stories in sand. So the idea of me dismissing writers who are doing it for the love is somewhat hypocritical (if indeed that was what I had been doing). I get it, believe me. I’ll put in the tax remark and caveat next time. 🙂

        2. Yeah, I suspected you were thinking of tax distinctions there. I would have let it go, and just said “Hey, nothing wrong with being a hobbyist” but I wanted to be clear that the serious amateur has a lot to gain here (and on other pro blogs like Dean’s), and you probably have more of them reading here than you think.

          1. I guess I’d say I’m a hobbyist because I’d write even if I wasn’t making any money at it. My writing isn’t my full-time job (specifically for the money) although I put in some serious hours. It is nice to be making money at one’s hobby though…

            And people like me do get a lot out of these kinds of blogs. I’ve been reading Dean’s blog for a while now and today is my first visit to yours. Thanks to both of you!

  12. This series can be as long as it needs. 🙂 As someone who almost gave up (and is struggling not to let one of my pen names die out completely) due to a couple of different factors, these posts are important for me. Makes me remember I’m not alone, and motivates me to not give up.

  13. Boy you hit some big ones here. As an introvert, I guess I don’t understand the folks who can’t hack the loneliness — but I do understand needing to get away from the keyboard and interact with real humans once in a while.

    But money and discouragement — yeah, those are big for many writers I know. I have too many stories to write to get discouraged, but it depresses me to see so many enthusiastic people lose their enthusiasm.

    I wrote about this earlier in the year, The Times That Try Writer’s Souls.

    It’s about finding your strength in the work itself, mainly.

  14. This series of articles is very interesting, Kris.

    I do think there are an awful lot of writers who give up because they come to the conclusion that they can’t make enough money at writing to support their families.

    If you only want to write in a genre like science fiction it is hard to make the figures work… 1 book a year as a newish midlist SF writer is not enough money.

    Of course if you can write more books or become a regular bestseller it is much more possible.

  15. For my day job, I work for a largish software company. I recently attended a talk that I think is relevant here, about resiliency. You cannot plan for every emergency. All you can do is have general emergencies plans in place. That way, when the emergency happens (and it will) you have a clue about what to do, instead of being paralyzed or running around, pulling your hair out.

    For my company, we’ve grown largish, to the point of coming up on 1 billion transactions a day. You know that corner case of awfulness that has only a one-in-a-billion chance of happening? Guess what? It could happen every day now. There’s no such thing as a perfect storm of conditions. The company has grown to the size of “that’s just Tuesday.”

    So though I’m not a large company, just a small, indie-press, I’m trying to build resiliency into my plans. Not just that wall of cash, but what to do in case of emergencies, both specific and in general.

  16. Mike Zimmerman is absolutely correct about having that “wall of cash,” though that’s only part of the story.

    Here’s a plan that worked for me: When I (surprise) sold my first non-fiction book, I got a $1,000 advance (in 1958). I had a day job, so I decided to open a savings account and put every penny I earned from my writing into the account, to be used only if I needed the cash to be able to keep writing. That account (later invested more aggressively, but wisely) produced the wall of cash that allowed me to keep writing through a handful of life rolls that would otherwise have ended my writing career.

    One of the other parts of the story, though, is the outflow side. Although you can’t control the inflow of cash (very well), you have much more control over the outflow. So many of my (potential) writer friends have used that first check not to build a wall of cash, but to build a hole in that wall through which expenses leak. One example: “Now that I have this money, I will redecorate my office. It’s so important that a writer have a good-looking office.”

    Even worse is taking on recurring expenses, like renting a more expensive apartment. If it doesn’t really contribute to your writing more words, then put it off for a while until you can afford it out of money you can actually count on (and there’s not much of that kind of money these days).

    And, third, be careful of lifestyle changes that you may not notice, but add up to significant added expenses: a fancier hairdresser, an extra latte every day, a bigger gas-guzzling car, slightly fancier clothing, …

    IOW, if you want to be a successful writer, you must learn to manage both the income and the outflow of money. Even if you have a steady best-seller income, if you habits are bad, you can always outspend it.

  17. I know what you mean about the money coming in drips and drabs, especially in the (war)gaming industry. Been working freelance for a gaming company, writing both fiction and sourcebook material, and while it would be a good second income, it’s a lousy first income. (Which right now, it is.)

    At least, I’m an introvert. I don’t mind being by myself most of the time. That and an active imagination I think are my strongest assets as a writer. Right now, I’m using my freelancing with the gaming company as a RL exercise in honing my skills — for example, the editor liked I story I’d written, but wanted me to cut 1500 words from it. So, I had to sit down and cut 1500 words out of what I thought was a good story, and discovered a better story that was 1500 words shorter.

    Discouragement? Yes, writers can be discouraged by a lack of good reviews or just bad ones. I’ve had both happen with stories I’ve written. People who’ve commented on my stories have called them “predictable,” and one gaming supplement was a poor example of grammar and spelling that was all my fault.

    But I’m stubborn. Writers who want to succeed are. They are stubborn enough to read a bad review of their work, walk back to their computer, open the file of the story they’re working on and continuing writing. They shake off the bad, but not after making sure they’ve gotten all they can from the experience and learn from it. I’m learning, and that I think is the best defense against discouragement.

    Kris, thanks for another great post!


  18. LOL Thanks for this, Kris! It explains why a friend kept insisting that I couldn’t write in solitude for very long without going crazy. He’d always want me to join him and a couple other friends for writing sessions, but I could never get anything done with the constant interruptions. He was a screenwriter back in the ’80’s. Now his behavior makes so much more sense.

    1. Sounds so familiar! I have a dear friend who loves to write as a team. “Let’s write a story, back and forth, in real time!” Guess what?! She’s a scriptwriter, too! Me? Don’t call until my five hours of concentration are done for the day. Let me get lost in my own creation.

      BTW, I am retired (Thank God) and I can now pursue the dream I have worked toward since age 13: writing full time.

  19. “They don’t know that the first sale is a triumph, whether that sale is to a major magazine or a sale to an unknown reader through an e-reading device.”

    I’ve been thinking about this. I’m indie and my sales were almost (not quite, but almost) non-existent during the summer. They have not picked up yet this autumn.

    I have found that discouraging.

    But then I think about the 2 sales that I know absolutely were to readers utterly unknown to me.

    (I had many sales to family and friends. And possibly more than 2 to strangers, but no way of confirming it.)

    The 2 sales to utter strangers amaze me. Both liked my novel well enough to give it a rating of 4 out of 5 stars, and one bestirred herself to write a positive review, saying she would definitely be looking for more books from me.

    Given that I am new to indie publishing and that I have only 1 novel, 1 novella, and 2 short stories currently available, I think I need to be more patient than is my natural tendency. I also need to curb my worry about whether my stories are good or not and just write. Knowing that 2 strangers really liked my work helps. So does my natural stubbornness. I’ve never quit anything that really matters to me. I refuse to start now!

    1. Good attitude, Noire. Stubbornness got me through a lot as well. And if someone liked your work well enough to review it and wait for the next, then you’re doing something very, very right. Keep doing what you’re doing.

  20. Excellent post, Kris, especially on the third point about the swings in freelancing income and business cycles. After living and traveling overseas for the better part of a year, I’ve adopted the following life philosophy: hope for the best plan for the worst, follow the path of least regret. It sounds like that kind of approach fits the writing life pretty well, too.

    Take care, and thanks for sharing!

  21. Kris, the financial issues you write about here CANNOT be understated. I went fulltime freelance in 2006 and bailed to go back to a fulltime staff job in 2011 because of this. When I quit in 2006, I thought I had plenty of money saved. I was wrong. I thought I had plenty of contacts and avenues of work. I was wrong. I thought that doing freelance work for outfits I was friendly with — and they with me — would mean I’d be paid in a timely manner. I was wrong. Biggest of all, I thought that I’d be able to meet the monthly health insurance nut for a family of five. Sooooo wrong. For five consecutive years, we spent enough on health insurance and deductibles to buy a brand-new Honda Accord EVERY YEAR.

    Then, in March of 2009, I lost 3 magazine feature assignments AND a nonfiction book when the magazine associated with them was killed. One Monday morning, one stroke of a pen, boom, I lost a metric shit-ton of money. So what do you do? You scramble to replace the work. Guess what? You’re in a major recession. The folks who have been giving you work are giving you as much as they can. So you branch out. You call in favors (and you have favors to call in because for years you’ve been a pleasant professional to work with). You get introduced to major players at major magazines that have decades of pedigree associated with them. And these players love your stuff, think you can do good work for them. But here’s the catch: They’ve been working with other freelancers for years, so those folks are getting the available work. You? You’re welcome to pitch ideas, but your ideas have to be better than a) the current freelancers’ ideas, and b) the editorial staff’s ideas. That, friends, is a writing challenge.

    I was able to recover to a certain point, but in the end, financially, since that blast that killed that magazine, I was playing defense the rest of the way. Now, don’t think I’m bitter about this. I hope my tone doesn’t come off that way. It’s more about urgency. I just want everyone to understand that whatever the obstacle will be in your situation…you won’t see it coming. It won’t be what you think.

    My advice: If you plan to go fulltime freelance, you’ll think you need a certain amount of savings socked away to help out in the lean times. Double that number. Triple it. And be prepared for surprise losses — losing a contract, a mom, a lawsuit, a finger. The ONLY thing that protects you from these losses is a wall of cash. Not equity. Not credit. Not retirement savings. A wall of cash.

    Build it, and the rest will come.

    Mike Z.

    1. Exactly, Mike. Thanks for this post. I’ve talked in previous posts about 9/11 and how all of the companies we did business with shut down for a month, and then were in extreme (understandable) crisis afterwards. We had money due in Sept–a lot of it–and we didn’t get a check until May of 2002. Of course, we didn’t squeak either, which we usually would have done. It just wasn’t something I could do after that tragedy, which had a personal impact on everyone in NYC in one way or another.

      Tough times happen, and Mike’s right. You never know when or what they will be.

    2. I seem to remember Piers Anthony at one point saying that the most important thing a writer can have is a working spouse.

      I kind of like having a day job, because then I don’t have a lot of pressure on my writing. Too much pressure and I get not good. So I’m not quitting my day job until we’ve paid off some debt. And even then, my husband (who makes almost three times as much as I do) will still have a day job (with health insurance.)

      5-10 years and I should be able to write full time. 5 years if nothing horrible happens even if I get no additional income. But in the meantime I’m still writing, so if I get lucky it’ll be 5 years even with all the usual setbacks.

      1. Right on, Mercy. I’m a full-time programmer earning a good salary (a job I also love), so I don’t have to rely on the royalty income from my books to pay the bills. The downside is that I don’t have as much time to spend writing. Of course the time I do have I can spend writing whatever strikes my fancy, without worrying about its commercial viability.

        The wonderful thing about self-publishing is that it’s been flexible enough to allow me to keep my day job while living a dream I’ve had ever since I was very young. I couldn’t be happier.

        Sounds like it’s working out well for you too.

  22. Another great post! I’m a stay at home mom so I don’t have a steady income so this fluctuating income won’t be so shocking. I’m trying right now just to get the writing done and make it the best it can be and then publish it and then move on to the next one and the next one after that and so on.
    The only thing I have to figure out is this out of pocket expense for some editing.

  23. I did a library event a year or two ago and one of the writers was a very successful novelist. We got to talking about the changes in the industry and she commented that she still got very large royalty checks from her first novel. (The royalty checks were larger than any of my advances have been, which isn’t saying much, but it was significant). Then with the shift to e-books, her backlist wasn’t selling and her publisher had been slow in coming out with an e-book version (and knowing how traditional publishers and e-book royalty rates are, she was probably getting almost nothing on the e-book anyway). And this money that she apparently counted on like a regular paycheck almost disappeared, going from thousands of dollars to a couple hundred.

    And I remember thinking, there are probably some advantages to not being in that position, of not being so successful that you EXPECT the money train to keep rolling.

    1. I know that in the next five years, the money that bestsellers have seen from each individual book will go down. The hardcover sales are being cannibalized by ebooks, and those don’t pay royalties in the same way at the same amount. You’ll hear a lot more bestsellers shouting about sales decreasing, and wondering why many in the midlist aren’t joining them, as we earn so much more from our indie books.

  24. Thirty years ago, I got discouraged.

    Two years ago, I got better. And thanks to kicks in the pants from you and Dean and others, I got persistent.

    Last month, I sold a story to Analog.

    Lesson learned. Don’t get discouraged.

    1. This is VERY encouraging to me (after being discouraged since around 1997). Thank you so much for sharing it, and, though we obviously don’t know each other from Adam, I am sincerely proud of you. Congratulations and keep going!

  25. Kris,

    define “sell well”. Meaning, by my definition, if you are a starting writer and you have your first 10 books straight selling… “unwell”, they you’d have no *choice* but to leave writing, at best, to a pro-am level. Well, for me, would mean “it pays its bills”. If by “well” you mean NYT list level… that opens a different can of worms.

    “It pays its bills” is, itself, ambiguous, however. The meaning is different if that’s your fulltime job, part-time or amateur. If it’s fulltime, then it should pay your bills, all of them. If it’s amateur it should pay as much of its own costs (computer, paper, printer…) as you need to be able to afford your hobby. In general, you must be able to *afford* writing. Preferably by writing itself. Something on the lines of “[…] the time I take […] to write this […] needs to pay for itself”, which I recall reading somewhere.

    Also, some “paying” is difficult to count. How much does a story in the NYT pay? Suppose that they won’t give you a dime (because, after all, they are… the NYT!), but they reprint one of your short stories. Wanna bet sales in your other works would rise? How do you _count_ that? For starters, only a posteriori.

    Fiction writers and extroverts… I gather comics and VG are not considered fiction? Also, I’m not sure your example of the extreme indie introvert is quite applicable here. In the States people can actually live pretty isolated. It’s much more difficult in Europe (population density, physically closer relatives and so on).

    Take care.

    1. Ferran, “sell well” depends on the person. I won’t put my definition on it, except to say in the U.S., a hobby is something you make no money on and aren’t doing for the money. Otherwise, you’re running a business even if you lose money on it. That depends on attitude.

      As for the NYT, it doesn’t buy fiction, and it pays for its non-fiction.

      I also think you can be introverted in a place with a lot of people. In most cities, food gets delivered and there are people who never leave their apartments. It’s possible, and here, at least, a lot of people live that way.

  26. Thanks for bringing up the income issue again. I knew and understood that already, yet it’s still good to get reminded every now and then.

    On the discouragement:
    “They don’t know that the first sale is a triumph, whether that sale is to a major magazine or a sale to an unknown reader through an e-reading device.”

    So true. Someone finds your sample interesting enough to actually spent money on the whole book – how great is that?

    “They don’t understand that ten positive reviews of their first novel mean so much more than any negative review.”

    Also “they” don’t seem to understand that for 11 reviews you’ll have to have a ton of sales usually. And most of the buyers found the book good enough to not warn other potential customers.

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