A question I get asked every so often is, “What does someone have to do to become a writer?” I assume I get asked this because of my standing as a global literary icon whose words breathe life into millions of obsessed readers the world over. Heavy is the head that wears the crown, and yet I am humbled by your veneration.
Or maybe it’s because my LinkedIn profile calls me a writer, and if you can’t trust LinkedIn profiles, then what can you trust?
In any case, I do get asked this question from time to time by people who think they might want to take a stab at the writing trade. I got asked it just the other day. I got asked about it a month before that. I get asked about it five to ten times a year. I’m not always sure how to answer it, though.
For one thing, the question seems to assume I know the answer. More on that later.
For another, the question itself provides the only answer that really matters. The word “write” is literally right there in the question, and there’s your answer. If you want to become a writer, then write.
Of course, the real question being asked is, How can I get published as a writer? Part 2 of that is: How can I earn money as a writer? Part 3 is: How can I become rich and famous as a writer?
Part 3 is easy – you can’t. It’s an exclusive club, and you’re not invited. Neither am I, if it’s any consolation. The members of the Rich and Famous Writer’s Club meet in a secret monastery in Peru every year, dressed in black robes and gold crowns, and it is there that they decide who’s in and who’s not.
You’re not, and neither am I.
The club is so exclusive that a list of the world’s 20 richest authors can’t even come up with 20 actual writers. The list published by the Wealthy Gorilla website, based on Celebrity Net Worth data, includes people who are only “writers” in the loosest sense of the word – new age guru Deepak Chopra, hypnotist Paul McKenna, pastor David Oyedepo. It even includes a couple of publishers, for reasons I cannot fathom.
The real No. 1, of course, is J.K. Rowling. She’s worth about $1 billion – all of it from her writing, and the Harry Potter industry it spawned.
Everyone on the Wealthy Gorilla list is very, very rich. Suzanne Collins, who ranks No. 20, is worth an estimated $80 million. Do you know how many books you need to sell to build a net worth of $80 million? Neither do I.
Most writers on the list are reasonably famous. But only two – Rowling and Stephen King – have attained the kind of uber-fame that transcends the book world and reaches into all corners of popular culture.
I don’t know how many authors become “rich” by modern standards, such as building a net worth of a few million dollars strictly from their writing. There isn’t a lot of data about that. I’d be really surprised if the number were much higher than 100 in the entire world. You can’t include people who aren’t writers by trade. No lifestyle gurus, celebrity chefs, sports heroes or movie stars who cash in on their fame by writing books.
The list should only include those who earn their living as writers, and nothing else. In this case, you have a better chance of getting rich on the cryptocurrency exchange. You definitely have a better shot at getting famous on TikTok.
I’m not even sure how easy it is to earn a decent living from writing, at least if you focus solely on fiction. My guess is that you either get pretty rich from it, or stay poor from it. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of middle ground. How many fiction writers earn a middle-class income – enough to pay the bills, raise a family, save for retirement, take vacations in the tropics, etc.?
I keep googling the net worth of authors I like, and they are either in the millionaire’s club or don’t appear at all. You don’t see many writers with net worths of, say, $148,000. It seems to be either $2.8 million, or “is an adjunct professor who writes in her spare time.”
Which leads us back to the question: How do you get published as a writer? When it comes to fiction, I’m not exactly an expert on this, either. I’ve had a few short stories published in books and other media, but that’s mainly because they placed high in writing contests.
My new novel Voodoo Hideaway (buy it here!) was accepted by a publisher, but I had to share some of the costs. I was willing to do that because I couldn’t find another avenue – I tried, trust me – and I believe in my book. This is what modern publishing is like for those of us who can’t latch on with the big publishing houses where the real money is made. You share the costs and do much of the marketing yourself.
If you want to have a book published the old-fashioned way, where the publisher foots the whole bill and gets you reviewed in The New York Times and finances your world book tour, the only advice I can give is the same advice everyone else gives.
First, write a completed, edited and re-edited manuscript that is either brilliantly written or nail-bitingly suspenseful. Next, research publishers to find the ones who are the best fit for your genre and writing style. Read some of their work, visit their websites, study their submission guidelines, and then study them again. Submit your book or story according to the exact letter of their submission guidelines.
Then wait for the rejections to come pouring in. Because they will. Publishers make their living publishing books, but they spend most of their time rejecting submissions.
Just don’t be discouraged. Keep submitting, submitting and submitting some more, until you have reached the far limits of your sanity, and your soul has been ground into dust, and your hopes of ever getting published have smoldered into fine ash and blown right off the planet.
Then, submit some more.
In terms of making money with fiction, I can only say this: I earn about enough money from it to feed a dachshund for a couple of years.
What I do know about earning money from fiction is that you need to write constantly, every single day, hours at a time, no exceptions. This builds the writing muscles and hones your skills. It also builds a body of work that you can then submit to literary journals, fiction sites, writing contests, and other places that accept manuscripts. Write everything – poems, short stories, flash fiction, novels, novellas, all of it.
Next, find out where to submit your work. Google “fiction contests,” “fiction publishers,” “fiction sites,” “literary journals accepting submissions,” “short story publishers,” “teen lit publishers,” “fantasy fiction contests” – whatever. There’s just a whole shitload of information out there on who accepts stories and manuscripts, what they pay, and what their rules are. Learn those rules. Commit them to memory. Then submit and submit and submit and submit.
You’ll get rejections, sure. Some will come via silence – you just never hear back. Others come in form emails saying thank you for considering us, unfortunately we don’t find this the right fit, but don’t be discouraged, best of luck with your writing!
But again: Don’t be discouraged. Keep writing, keep submitting. Keep thinking about that magical day when your story finally gets accepted for publication, and you get to see it in print, and you get a nice twenty-dollar payment from the publisher that you can spend on a celebratory night out at Burger King. Because that’s what a lot of these publishers pay for a short story or poem (this, I know from experience).
You could always skip the traditional process and kick it 21st century style by going digital and DYI. Start a blog or website featuring your fiction, and try to sell subscriptions. Put your writing on platforms like Patreon, which lets you build a base of subscribers who will pay to read your work. Self-publish your own work and toss it on digital platforms, maybe find a lucrative genre like literary role playing game (LitRPG), where novice writers can and have made millions selling their online books to a rabid community of LitRPG fans.
I can’t offer much advice about the latter. Ask a millennial.
I can offer advice about how to earn money at writing non-fiction, because that’s something I actually have some success with. My expertise, if I have any, is in journalism and web content. Some of the sites I write (and get paid) for include GOBankingRates, The Business Download, and Market Values. All involve business, money, personal finance and/or sustainability.
When it comes to non-fiction, here is my best piece of advice: Build expertise in a particular field. I cannot stress this enough. It could be personal finance, gardening, healthy living, real estate, animal care, spirituality, whatever. Something you have a passion for and know something about – and that has a market of willing readers.
Websites, newspapers, magazines and digital publications need and want content that shows an authoritative voice and a good grasp of the subject matter. You can’t write authoritatively about gardening if you’ve never planted a seed. You can try to bullshit your way through it, but you won’t succeed.
My second-best piece of advice is to think about good story ideas, and then research, report and write them on your own. Content sites love being pitched good story ideas and then receiving a finished piece shortly thereafter. Their job is to publish dozens of articles a day. Your job is to grind them out.
And that’s what you will have to do if you want to earn a decent living – grind them out. Four, five, six a day. It might not be the same kind of writing you dreamed about when you were young and seduced by the majesty of the literary arts. But hey, it pays the bills.
And that’s sort of the point of the original question, isn’t it? If all you want to be is a writer, then write. If you want to get paid for it, then learn the trade, put in years of practice, and research who pays for what. If you want to get rich and famous from it, buy a virtual reality headset and plug in the right algorithms.
Your readership awaits….
*You think I didn’t hear you laugh at the headline? Haterz….
Note: The photo was taken 4.5 years ago as part of a promo campaign for a launch party for my short story collection, “Money, Love and Blood” (buy it here!). I paid for most of that, too….