On Making Money as a Writer
I was approached by a young writer on Twitter the other day, who was struggling with expanding his career in comics. After several attempts to figure out what he specifically needed help with, we eventually settled on this question: How do you make money as a writer?
This is, of course, the big question on everyone’s mind. If writing was easy, everyone would do it. However, it is possible to make a living off writing – at least supplemental income to start, and perhaps eventually your sole income.
Below are my top 5 recommendations for how to make money as a writer.
1) Set expectations
First and foremost, I think we need to set expectations. There is no world that exists where you will make a living as a writer that doesn’t involve a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and sacrifice on your part. Writing is not easy – if it were, everyone would do it. It’s hard to make it as a writer, and even harder to make it your primary income. Many writers have multiple jobs:
— Charles Soule, for example, writes 7 monthly titles for Marvel AND is a full-time lawyer
— Brian Michael Bendis wrote half of the Marvel books for years and still didn’t make enough to support his lifestyle (thankfully, he’s married to a woman with a full-time job and benefits); Brian makes most of his income from Marvel Movie consulting, and writing / executive producing for TV shows. Look for his name in the credits for every Marvel cinematic movie since Thor
— Heck, even Doug Walker was writing, producing, editing, and staring in multiple videos every week for the first 5 or so years of his YouTube carreer; now he edits a video every 2 weeks (but also produces and stars in so much more)
I, myself, work a full time day job in global marketing, and support a family at home. Then I do comics projects on top of that: 2 webcomic series, 18+ pitches in the works, 3 regularly published titles, and then all of the marketing – podcast interviews, video interviews, guest appearances on Channel Awesome, and so much more. And that’s just the stuff I can talk about.
Writing is not easy. There are three things that make you desirable for a publisher:
1) you’re good (eg: talented; like, stupid good at writing)
2) you’re fast (eg: always hitting deadlines, without fail)
3) you’re cheap (eg: your page rate is lower than the next guy)
You have to be thirsty for it. Thankfully, you already have a body of work you can show off to a publisher or a publicist to get picked up (or, keep self-publishing; more work, but more reward).
You’re also unlikely to be writing what you want to all the time. My friend Brianna writes for WatchMojo.com, doesn’t really get credit for the clips she writes, but has gained a following from it. Now she’s written a teen book about LGBT black magical girls that, in its second week, is in the top 20 books read on amazon and kindle. WatchMojo pays the bills, but it doesn’t fill her creative cup.
2) Diversify your writing
There was a time when specializing in a genre was a good thing. It can be argued that being “the horror guy” could still pay off, since you can pitch for those projects. But what happens when those genres fall out of favor? We’re seeing a resurgence in horror stories (zombies, in particular) right now with the popularity of The Walking Dead, Z Nation, and more – but that bubble will eventually burst. What do horror writers do when people don’t care about reading / watching horror stuff? They fight for the same smaller pool of work.
— Brad Meltzer is a best selling thriller novelist, but you know what he’s writing right now? Children’s history and educational books (bio-stories)
— Brad Guiger runs webcomics.com as the head editor, plus has a podcast, and also does his webcomic (Evil Inc) and then produces original content for his Patreon…the original content that he does? Porn. Why? Because it took his patreon income from hundreds per month to thousands per month
— Doug Walker, too, gave up on NC in order to try Demo Reel; while it was a failure, he learned new techniques which he uses in his new NC reviews; he used to just do clip reviews, and now does clip-less reviews (his most popular by far, based on views)
— My buddy Josh Elder started off writing children’s comics for TokyoPop, then DC; now he works in video games
Diversity is your friend, and it challenges you in your craft. It also gives you a body of work that is more marketable.
3) Build your fanbase
You say fame won’t help you, but that’s not entirely true. You need fans to sustain an income over time. People who will seek your work out and support you in every project you do, and who will advocate your work to others. This is what sustains me at the cons. Every year I put out a new graphic novel, and I have fans that seek me out at my con appearances. This past year I didn’t have a new book out, though, and they didn’t have anything to buy. What happened? My con income dropped significantly. And when I calculate the loss vs the number of people who sought me out, guess what: my decrease in sales was even to the number of books I would have sold had I put out a new book.
But maintaining a fan base is only a portion of it. You also need to grow a fan base. I’m on numerous forums where professional creators are talking about how to do this very thing. The biggest topic? newsletters. I have a newsletter that comes out every 2-3 months (sign up today: http://albertthealien.com/newsletter/), and next year I’m taking it monthly. Other writers out there, though, do it weekly. Or more often than that.
How you decide to grow your fanbase is up to you, and something many creators are trying to figure out right now. But most are using platforms with high discoverability (Patreon, for example, has poor discoverability – but if you have a fanbase established, people will support you on there).
4) Marketing is king; DIY or hire someone
Many of my friends who write full time spend about half of their time making the work, and more than half of their time promoting it. How do they do that? They don’t sleep!
Stephen King says he has a writing goal of 6-8 pages per day. What does he do with the rest of his time? Promotes, lives life and gets inspiration for writing, does book tours and interviews, etc. Read his book ON WRITING, which is part autobiography, and part “how to write a book” guide. It’s brilliant. The beginning of his career, he wasn’t who he is today. And he has to diversify his writing to carry on being who he is today. Also, he does a lot with TV (he just had his second TV show on Netflix this year green lit and launched on the platform).
If you don’t have the time to do the marketing yourself, then you have to hire a publisher / publicist, or an agent. Heck, if you want to make it in writing professionally, eventually you’re going to need one or all of those things anyway. Hollywood won’t talk to you if you don’t have an agent. Many publishers, too, won’t give work to someone without an agent.
How do you get an agent? Having that body of work helps, so you’re already halfway there.
5) (most important) KEEP WRITING
Never stop writing. Ever.
Even George RR Martin, who has been writing the Game of Thrones books since 1996. Over a decade later, he hasn’t even finished the 6th book in the series – but that doesn’t stop him from working. He has multiple short stories, side stories, producing roles, and then all the interviews and marketing he does.
Brian K Vaughn, who writes the insanely popular SAGA series from Image comics right now, says you need to write a minimum of 7 pages per day. Doesn’t matter what you write – a letter, an e-mail, a script, a novel, poems, whatever – just write.
Stephen King, again, does 6-8 pages per day.
I knock out 4-8 pages every morning during my commute into the city. Less, if it’s something very wordy. On top of a day job.
Always be writing. Never give up. It’s not going to be easy, but eventually you can make it happen.