I’m not going to waste a lot of space here with words of praise because I’d rather get straight to the good stuff. If you are a writer, you need Jane’s new book: The Business of Being a Writer. The end.
Is it Better to Just Have a Day Job?
If thinking about the business of writing causes you to feel, at best, uncomfortable, then it may be better to keep your pursuit of it unadulterated by market concerns. Some literary legends have never experienced conventional employment, pursuing a writing life underwritten by existing wealth or family support (Gertrude Stein and Jane Austen, for example). But many held day jobs: Franz Kafka worked for an insurance company, Herman Melville as a schoolteacher and customs inspector, and Louis May Alcott as a seamstress and governess— to name but a few. For some writers, the day job actually fosters their creative work.
When agents, editors, and other writers say, “Don’t quit your day job,” it is simultaneously the best advice and the worst advice. On the one hand, it helps moderate one’s expectations and acknowledges the most common outcome for writers: you’ll need another form of income. But it also perpetuates the misconception that writing can’t or won’t make you a living. It can, just probably not in the ways you would prefer…
As a young editor, recently out of school, I asked professor and author Michael Martone if he could tell which of his students were going to succeed as writers—was there a defining characteristic? He told me it was the students who kept writing after they left school, after they were off the hook to produce material on a deadline or for a grade. The most talented students, he said, weren’t necessarily the ones who followed through and put in the hours of work required to reach conventional publishing success.
Similarly, when Ta-Nahisi Coates was interviewed by the Atlantic, he said, “The older you get, that path [of writing] is so tough and you get beat up so much that people eventually go to business school and they go and become lawyers. If you find yourself continuing up until the age of thirty- five or so . . . you will have a skill set . . . and the competition will have thinned out.”
Few demonstrate the persistence required to make it through the difficult, early years. Some people give up because they lack a mentor or a support system, or because they fail to make the time, or because they become consumed with self-doubt. They don’t believe they’re good enough (and maybe they aren’t) and allow those doubts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I used to believe that great work or great talent would eventually get noticed—that quality bubbles to the top. I don’t believe that anymore. Great work is overlooked every day, for a million reasons. Business concerns outweigh artistic concerns. Some writers are just perpetually unlucky. But don’t expect to play the role of poor, starving writer and have people in publishing help you out of sympathy or a sense of moral responsibility. They’re more likely to help writers they see as indefatigable and motivated to help themselves—since they know that’s what the job of a working writer requires. If you find yourself demonizing people in the publishing industry, complaining as if you’re owed something, and feeling bad about your progress relative to other writers, it’s time to find the reset button. Perhaps you’ve been focusing too much on getting published.
No matter how the marketplace changes—and it always does—consider these three questions as you make decisions about your life as a writer:
What satisfies or furthers your creative or artistic goals? This is the reason you got into writing in the first place. Even if you put this on the back burner in order to advance other aspects of your writing and publish- ing career, don’t leave it out of the equation for long. Otherwise your efforts can come off as mechanistic or uninspired, and you’re more likely to burn out or give up.
What earns you money? Not everyone cares about earning money from writing, but as you gain experience and a name for yourself, the choices you make in this regard become more important. The more professional you become, the more you have to pay attention to what brings the most return on your investment of time and energy. As you succeed, you won’t have time to pursue every opportunity. You have to stop doing some things.
What grows your audience? Gaining readers can be just as valuable as earning money. It’s an investment that pays off over time. Sometimes it’s smart to make trade-offs that involve earning less money now in order to grow readership, because having more readers will put you in a better position in the future. (For example, you might focus on writing online, rather than for print, to develop a more direct line to readers.)