The economics of writing

It’s probably invaluable to have someone tell you, at some point, that you’re unlikely to ever become rich writing fiction. To me, this essentially comes as a given, being a reader of books and having taken a couple of statistics classes. Go to a bookstore, the larger the better. Chances are that the only authors there even making a living off of their writing are ones you already know. And unless their last name is Rowling, they probably aren’t exactly rich.

That’s not the key takeaway of this. The key takeaway of this should be that writing can make you a lot of money, provided that writing isn’t what you’re falling back on.

My academic background is engineering, and as I found out in school, writing and the highly technical fields have a tumultuous relationship. To be more blunt, engineers can’t write. I knew plenty of fellow students in undergrad who were not the best at written communication. Being that we were all very smart and mathematically gifted beyond most of our peers, there was an underlying sense that the results would speak for themselves.

This simply isn’t true. Technical communication, though hardly the province of innate talent like good fiction writing may be, is a skill that requires practice, and as many people have probably rudely found out at one point or another, is a prerequisite to getting anything you want in the world beyond college. But if you are more than competent, if you are at least a little bit good at technical communication, it’s worth a fair amount of money.

This is hardly news. But this goes back to fiction. I do technical writing as part of my job. When coupled with underlying research and other forms of communication like visual data design and presentation writing, it pretty much is my job. I’d guess that anyone with a relevant Master’s degree and a desire to do research could probably get a job like mine…in addition, there are technical writing positions available outside the purview of research that would not require an advanced degree in most cases. as 8% of people in the US have a Master’s Degree, and 31% of people in the US have a bachelor’s degree, let’s say that you have a 15% chance of being qualified for a job focused on technical communication…or roughly 50/50 if you have at least a Bachelor’s degree.

The acceptance rates for fiction are somewhat difficult to track down, but the most authoritative number I found was about 1 in 10. This makes sense at a basic level, even taking into account how many rejections you will have to join that 10%.

Now the depressing part: The money.

Imagine the technical communication gig again. Unless you’re at a particularly cutthroat consulting firm, your pay will not depend on your output, even if you have compensation that is largely merit-based. At the lower end of straight technical writing gigs, you will still make 40-50k a year. In a research gig where you hold qualifications in your field, not just as a writer, that number will be higher.

On the fiction side, the average advance for a novel-length work is somewhere in the neighborhood of $5000. If you publish short stories, you likely won’t get any royalties, maybe a one-time fee in the hundreds of dollars. And for that novel, you end up earning royalties roughly equivalent to a dollar a book. If you really do hit it big, you’ll make 20 grand and pray for film optioning.

The sick thing is how much your bosses are making…or not making. That novel will likely make a publisher one or two hundred thousand dollars over its life, unless it’s actually a bestseller. If you’re doing consulting or other piecework in a research shop, a month of your work is probably worth around a hundred grand. Since you’re under salary, you will make your employer five to seven times more money than an author will in a given year.

And ultimately, that makes sense. That’s one of the reasons researchers get salaries and office space, but authors may never meet their editors and correspond entirely through e-mail. As a technical writer, you are human capital that is worth something. That isn’t really the case when you’re an author. 

It all comes down to statistics. I’ve dreamed of writing and selling a novel for years. I never dreamed of becoming a researcher or technical author. In fact, my first technical writing gig was taken out of expediency, because I had nothing else to do and needed to make money. If you’re qualified to do it, technical writing is a safe and decently paying gig…though without real technical know-how to back it up, it can also be dead-end. But either way, you need to prove your mettle at the outset, and not everyone is qualified.

To try and be an author requires no qualifications. My random guess is that somewhere between 25 and 50% of all submissions to agents and publishers are literally hopeless…the person making them is so far out of their element with regards to writing that nothing they say, do or try will make them salable. And for everyone else, beyond needing to be beyond reproach with writing technique and word economy, you also have to be writing something that the publisher wants to sell, when the public wants to read it. Nothing will kill a good book faster than bad timing.

Here’s an example: I’m reading a book right now that’s about a dystopian future where corporations rule, and the main character is a rogue hacker. Neuromancer, you say, that breakout hit from 1985? No. The book is called Shockwave Rider, it’s written by John Brunner, and it’s from 1975. It’s utterly fantastic, but it didn’t quite resonate with its audience like Cyberpunk did later. The late 60s and early 70s were not a time to try and posit the computerization of society as anything other than fanciful. In 1985, it was on everybody’s minds.

There’s a reason I used the sci-fi example, because the timeliness of science fiction is even harder to get right.For all the stereotypes we have about science fiction fans being nerds, to write a successful science fiction novel you need to have your finger on the pulse of culture at the time…all science fiction is is an author’s manifestation of anxieties of today. The only other alternative is to be Timothy Zahn and expropriate other people’s worlds. It’s a living, if nothing else. And through that we come full circle.

As I started to allude to, of course there are ways to make fiction for the money. The odds are against you, though. And if you want to choose writing as a career, there are other safer and more lucrative ways. But creative output isn’t about money. And I’m saying this knowing full well that even if I do buckle down and write a damn novel, it probably still won’t get published. But if I get to the point where I’ve done it enough justice that I want to go back and read it, that’s good enough for me.

I’ve already been published, and I’ve already made money off of my work. Neither of these things involved writing fiction. Fiction is a purely emotional outlet for me. That’s how I’d recommend keeping it…the numbers don’t lie.


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