Writing is one of the most “if you know, you know” careers in the modern world. But the only people who truly know what it’s like to have a writing career are the people who have them.
Thousands of novels, films, and TV shows have depicted the life of a professional writer in a wide variety of ways, all of them linked by a single characteristic: Near-total inaccuracy. That’s because there have been centuries of myth-making around this business of wordsmithing.
These myths not only discourage folks from pursuing a writing career, they also set unrealistic expectations that move the success goal posts into some strange territory, which discourages aspiring writers and can make even veterans feel like they’ll never truly “make it.” They persist no matter how much time goes by (along with some newer myths spurred on by the digital age).
You have to choose between making a living or writing. That choice is usually seen as one between holding down a Day Job to pay your bills while trying to find pockets of time here and there to write in, or living in squalor and dedicating yourself to your work. Humbug!
Now, writing isn’t necessarily the best-paying work you’ll find. A few years ago the Writer’s Guild published an alarming study that found the median pay for full-time book authors was just $20,300 in 2017. With first-time advances on novels typically hovering under $10,000 and most first novels failing to become bestsellers, this isn’t terribly surprising.
Being a full-time novelist is not an easy way to become a millionaire. Yes, if all you want to do is publish a novel every few years you will probably have to get used to having zero money. But if you’re like most writers, you’ll do more than write novels—you’ll make money in a variety of ways, such as:
- writing freelance articles
- reviewing books
- selling short stories
- presenting at writing conferences
Freelance writers average nearly $54,000 a year, for example, and while that may not make you rich, it’s certainly enough to live on in many areas. Now imagine you combine the $20,000 you might get as a novelist with a freelance career, plus some side-hustle money from other sources, and suddenly things don’t look so grim.
The inverse of the previous myth imagines that writing is the key to becoming fabulously wealthy, usually simply by selling that first novel. I can’t tell you how many awkward conversations I’ve had with people who assume that authors get paid a lot for a published novel.
Some writers do become pretty wealthy after just one book. Garth Risk Hallberg made out like a bandit in 2013 when he sold the film rights to his unpublished novel City on Fire, and then got a $2 million advance on top of that for the book itself. The book didn’t exactly wow critics, and the film never happened (though a streaming series is apparently in the works), but Hallberg made more money on his first and (so far) only novel than many writers make in their entire careers.
This isn’t common. Most first-time advances are pretty skimpy. Most writers don’t start making what one might charitably call “real money” until their third, fourth, or fifth novels—and then only if they manage to sell consistently and grow their audience.
While you can definitely make a living as a writer (see above), getting rich off your first novel isn’t very likely. Of course, I remember when I got a check for $7.50 for my first short story sale and I thought I was going to explode from excitement—everything is relative, including the concept of “real money.”
When I sold my first novel, Lifers, to a small publisher I thought my work was done (I also stopped going outside because I was certain I would soon be world-famous). I’d written the damn thing, after all. I’d then spent time revising and improving it and then shopping it (I didn’t have an agent at the time). The publisher paid me real money for the rights, so I figured they had some skin in the game, a reason to want the novel to succeed. So I did pretty much nothing in terms of promoting or marketing the book. I figured the publisher would do all that.
It’s a common myth. Even big publishers often do surprisingly little to promote or market your book. It’s a bit of a Catch-22—if you don’t have a great sales track record, publishers don’t put many resources behind your book launch, but you often can’t get a great sales track record unless they put resources behind your book launch. Unfair as it might seem, that’s usually how it goes, so be prepared for the reality that you have to work harder after you sell a novel to a publisher.
Of course, every deal is different. You might find yourself working with an editor who goes that extra mile, or your book might be pegged as a potential breakthrough and given extra resources as a result. But it’s best if you forget this myth and assume you’ll have to put in a lot of work.
Similarly to myths surrounding your first book sale, many writers believe that getting an agent is the key to everything, and once they have secured the services of a literary agent they can concentrate on selecting their wardrobe for the Nobel Prize Awards Ceremony (mine is based on several Elton John costumes form the 1970s and will require a retinue of several people to get me on the stage).
A literary agent can do a lot for your career. They have expert knowledge of the market and the publishers, they have personal relationships with editors and other industry professionals, and they understand the business and they understand what makes a book sell.
A good agent can guide you to a book deal faster than you might get one on your own—and generally speaking, they can make that deal a better one than you might negotiate personally. I sold my first novel without one, but I’ve had my agent for two decades now and in that time she has offered me terrific advice and improved just about every aspect of my career.
But agents aren’t magic beans. An agent’s ability to sell your work is directly related to the quality of the work you give them—and your willingness to take their advice. A good agent will probably have notes on your manuscript, instructions surrounding your social media and other self-promotion, and they will make you do things like get headshots and write short bios for yourself. They’ll make you write and re-write synopses of your novel, they’ll direct you towards opportunities to participate in anthologies and conferences that can raise your profile and a laundry list of other chores that can help your career. In other words, if you get an agent, get ready to work.
And sometimes really good agents simply can’t sell really good books. I’d personally advise anyone to sign with a reputable agent if they have the chance, but don’t imagine your work stops—in fact, it’s probably just beginning.
One of the bigger myths surrounding a writing career has to do with the role that agents and editors play in the business. With the advent of self-publishing, many writers started to wonder if they needed traditional publishers at all—we can hire a copy-editor, a proofreader, and every other service necessary to publish a book, after all, then upload it to several digital platforms and instantly have global distribution.
This in turn has led to a belief that all agents and editors do is “gatekeep”—that is, act as a barrier between you and the market. The idea is that an agent takes your novel and simply passes it on to an editor, they negotiate a price, and then everyone takes a cut of the profits after doing literally zero work.
This is absolutely untrue, of course. A good agent will improve your work tremendously, know where it might sell and what publishers it would be a good fit for, and then help you get the best possible deal for the right to publish it. And a good editor will further improve that book and guide it to bookshelves with a deep knowledge of how to sell books.
While it can be frustrating to get rejected by either an agent or an editor (and both can make mistakes when it comes to judging the marketability of a book or story), these rejections aren’t random or thoughtless. Publishing a book is an investment of time, money, and other resources, and determining whether yours is worth the investment—which isn’t at all the same thing as determining whether it’s well-written, or if it has artistic merit—is a difficult job.
Self-publishing has been a viable—and increasingly effective—option for writers for a long time now. But there’s still a stubborn myth that says self-publishing is only an option for bad books that can’t find a traditional publisher. You hear some of the same talking points over and over:
- Most self-published authors sell an average of 25 copies, mostly to their friends and family.
- Most self-published authors make a small amount of money, and many make absolutely zero.
- Platforms like Amazon are easy and offer access to a global market—but that also means your book immediately disappears, and it’s impossible to stand out.
There’s some truth to all of this (see the next myth) but self-publishing—if done correctly—can be a great option for many writers. Many extremely successful authors made their initial success via self-publishing, including Andy Weir (The Martian), Hugh Howey (Wool), and Amanda Hocking (Virtue).
Traditional publishing definitely offers some advantages over self-publishing, including the support of lots of professionals, including designers and publicists. Most importantly, it can offer time. Self-publishing can be very time-consuming, and that’s time you could be using to write.
It all depends on leveraging your career options, your available time, and your definition of success. There are many reasons to go for a traditional deal. But that doesn’t mean traditional publishing is the only way to go.
Many writers find self-publishing to be very easy. You take a manuscript file, raw and fresh from your fingers, and upload it. Slap together a cover using the platform’s free tool, and you’re set!
That’s a myth, of course—at least if you want a chance at success. Self-publishing is a lot of work because you’re taking on every role involved in the publishing process (or should be)—or paying someone to do it, which involves managing them. That includes editing, proofreading, formatting, cover and interior design, marketing and promotion (including that black hole of exhaustion, social media), and anything else you can think of.
You can skip a lot of that—but that will doom your book to failure. It’s not easy to compete as a self-published author even if you do everything right. If you choose to self-publish, educate yourself about this particular career path first (you might find out it doesn’t suit you after all), strategize, build a plan, and get tons of elbow grease ready.
The idea that a degree is necessary to have a writing career comes up pretty frequently. But, of course, it’s a myth. It’s easy to see why people think a degree is important; for many jobs (including writing jobs) an employer will set a bachelor’s degree or something equivalent as a minimum requirement. And schools that offer Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) degrees in creative writing push the idea that these sorts of degrees are vital to a successful career.
Will a degree of some sort help you? Maybe! Learning from experienced writers, reading literature and learning how to analyze it, and discussing your work with other writers in a formal academic setting can certainly help you understand your craft. And many MFA programs can offer networking and connections—you meet writers who have published and often have the opportunity to meet agents and editors and learn from them while also forging a connection with them.
But none of that is required. There are plenty of folks with multiple degrees who have never sold a single piece of writing, and many successful writers have never earned a degree of any kind. Doris Lessing, for example, won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007—after dropping out of school when she was 14 and never going back.
This is a long way of saying “your mileage may vary.” A degree or an MFA may help your writing and your writing career—but it’s a myth that it’s in any way necessary. Want to write a novel? Write one! Want to sell it? Send it out! No degree or other credentials are required.
One of the biggest process myths of all time is that old chestnut “writers write every day” (aka butt-in-chair). It’s absolutely true that you sell exactly zero of the books you don’t write, and in order to write 50–100,000 words you need to put time in. But the idea that you have to write every day no matter what is reductive and counter-productive.
Personally, I love to write. I do write every day, but I don’t have to force it. In fact, I spend most of my days writing, and I never grow tired of it. And many writers are like me—it’s our favorite pastime.
But not all writers are like that. Some can only work when they’re inspired, or when they’ve taken care of other aspects of their lives. And many simply don’t have the privilege of being able to write every day—between jobs, relationships, and other responsibilities finding the time to write a few times a week can be a challenge, much less every day.
The idea that writing every day is necessary from a craft point-of-view is also false. In fact, forcing yourself to write when you’re tired, frustrated, or sick will almost certainly result in several hundred or thousand flat, uninspired words you will have to eventually delete.
This is a true story: Shortly after my second novel (The Electric Church) published, I was at a family event and one of my cousins pulled me aside and laid the classic scheme on me: They had a terrific idea for a book—a surefire hit—and would give it to me to turn into an actual novel. We would then split the profits.
Honestly, I thought that itself was a myth, that no one would actually do that. But not only does it happen, it happens a lot—many people think they have great ideas for stories (or interesting lives that could serve as inspiration for stories), and they seem to think that the actual writing of a novel is the easy part. The myth, in other words, is that a great idea for a book is at least half the book’s value—maybe more.
The opposite is true. Think about how many books trade in plots that have, in a word, been done before. Stories about murder, about adulterous affairs, about epic fantasy realms being invaded by dark magical forces—many books are telling stories that have been told before in different ways and in different styles. And usually when I hear that a book has a unique and exciting premise I’m a little disappointed because it usually turns out to be unique only to folks who don’t read too widely.
The truth is, it’s not the idea that makes a book or story great—it’s how the writer tells it. That’s why the basic story of, say, Romeo and Juliet—which wasn’t new when Shakespeare wrote it—keeps getting rebooted over and over again. It’s not a new story, but it can be told in new ways. The idea is probably more like 5 percent of a book—the rest is what you do with it.
There was a novel published last year called The Plot that used this as a premise: A struggling writer teaches a writing class, and one of his students tells him about a spectacular idea for a book. Years later, when the teacher discovers his student died without ever writing that book—or apparently telling anyone about the idea—he steals it and becomes a famous author as a result.
Yeah, this … never happens. Or, better said, it doesn’t matter if it does. If you bring a clever twist or a refreshing concept to a story, it might feel like a state secret you need to guard with your life because another writer might theoretically use it, but that’s forgetting the real reason stories work or don’t work: You. It’s your writing and imagination that actually makes your premise or twists effective, and no other writer can steal those.
Also, theft is a primary part of the writing process. We all steal ideas because literature builds on itself. You read Hamlet in school and one day you think to yourself, “What if Hamlet was actually the ghost and he’s actually haunting everyone else?” Boom! You have a book idea, and no one is going to accuse you of stealing from Shakespeare.
For all the people not afflicted with the need to tell stories (or who have other marketable skills aside from being able to write coherent sentences), writers are one of three basic types according to film and television:
- Rich and worldly. There are obvious examples of authors being depicted as wealthy and carefree, from Richard Castle (Castle) to Robin Masters (Magnum, P.I.). Since these characters are written by other writers, one suspects some wish-fulfillment.
- Drunk and disorderly. Another iconic writer trope is that we’re all Kerouac or Faulkner, our livers glowing softly as we type, a bottle of rotgut on the desk next to us. But if you’ve ever tried writing a chapter of your book after a few drinks, you know it … does not end well (hint: It ends with a complete re-write the next day).
- Brilliant detective. Finally, authors apparently make up about 50 percent of the population of amateur detectives in this world.
The reality, of course, is much, much different—there is a surprising lack of crime-fighting, globe-trotting, or glamour in a writing career (of course, your mileage may vary; I am a sadly non-glamorous person by nature).
Writing is a challenging enough career without giving in to myths like these. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go solve some crimes, because writing doesn’t pay that well.