New “Writer Problems” Series, Topic #5: Creativity vs. Money

by | Aug 23, 2021 | Articles | 0 comments

One of the most daunting questions amateur writers face is whether they can make money following their most creative pursuits. Are they too non-commercial? Will an agent be interested? Will my work sell at all?

The question of Creativity vs. Money isn’t relevant for writers whose interests are, as Frank Zappa called it, “strictly commercial.” It’s important for me to make clear I’m not putting down capitalism or writing for money. I’ve worked as a full-time professional writer myself for 20 years, and I understand what that means.

For the purposes of this post, the real issue is “writing from the heart” vs. “writing for money.” And is there a disconnect between creativity and making income from writing?

 

Being a Writer vs. Being Paid to Write

Recently I’ve been rereading Theodore Dreiser, mainly because I read him so long ago I don’t really remember it. Yes, I am that old. 

After finishing Sister Carrie, Dreiser’s first novel, I jumped ahead to the more mature American Tragedy. I’ve just started rereading it, and right out of the gate I’m struck by Dreiser’s main consideration for his young characters in both novels—that of basic survival in an inhospitable, almost cruel urban setting. Bottom line, Dreiser seems to say, it ain’t easy out there.

This line of thought took me back to my early days trying to make it as a writer. Master of Arts in English in hand, I nonetheless couldn’t find a single teaching job, much less any position as a writer. While writing my first, second and third novels, I went through a series of jobs that would make any 20th-century author nod his head in sympathy: file clerk, escrow specialist, sales rep, marketing manager. It wasn’t exactly the resume of my dreams, and there wasn’t a single entry that contained the word writer.

Cut to 2001, when I finally got my first professional writing gig at the ripe old age of 36. I held onto it by my bleeding fingernails for 14 years—though, in truth, I did apply for a few better positions that didn’t pan out. Since 2015, I’ve been 100% on my own as a freelance writer.

 

The Real Payoff

Answering the questions I posed at the outset—“Is my work too non-commercial? Will an agent be interested in it? Will it sell at all?”—I have to say there are still some unknowns there. My novels certainly aren’t commercial, and any success I’ve had has been based on discerning readers’ tastes combined with my own marketing efforts. Agents have never come calling, and likely never will, since I’m an independent author. I’d consider working with one if they only got their commission after they made me some additional sales.

As for my sales, well, in total they’ve been relatively underwhelming. Then again, I always had a tendency to want more. I know if I had a #7 novel in the charts, I’d want it to be #1. Who wouldn’t?

I’m also in a comfortable enough position that I can still afford to pursue my muse without worrying about being out on the street some day. At my advanced age, I can see the end game, and I’ve done well enough as a manager, salesman, and yes, writer, to own a home and have a little money in the bank. When I retire from freelancing, I’ll be able to continue pursuing my muse on a modest scale, publishing books and launching small marketing campaigns for them. My lack of fame no longer bothers me, though I always want to reach more readers—not so much for the income but for the experience of knowing I’ve moved people. That’s the real payoff.

What about you? Are you a writer whose goals are ambitious and more commercial than literary? Again, I’m not putting that down as I might have 30 years ago. In our always challenging market, I’m curious to see how people approach it and what they think. Let me know in the comments.

copyright

When Do You Need To Copyright Your Work?

​Over the past few weeks, I’ve written a couple of well-received blog posts on the publishing process, one of which is about the importance of having a Library of Congress Control Number (LCCN) and the other of which is called What’s the Risk to Not Having A...
family

Forget the Big “Family & Friends” Plan

About three months ago, I wrote a post entitled What I’ve Learned In Six Years of Growing An Indie Author Business. My idea was to share six lessons from my publishing experience, one for each year in the biz. As time went on, my thinking evolved. I realized these six...
Amazon

How Amazon Killed the Book Business

Okay, it’s Monday, and it’s Presidents’ Day, which really means it’s Washington’s birthday. Actually, he was born on February 22nd, but whatever. Last week was too busy to attend to this blog, and so is this week, holiday notwithstanding. So I'll be the first to admit...
launch team

Turning a Street Team Into a Launch Team

If you're reading this blog post in April or May of 2019, you probably already know that my fourth novel, Whizzers, will come out later this year. I'm working on launch ideas of all sorts, and the launch itself is likely going to be late July. For the uninitiated,...
cost

What Books Cost Their Authors: A Tale of Blood, Sweat & Tears

…”Books that cost more to write than their sales ever could repay.”  - Alan Paton   Lately I’ve had my nose in a couple of books. One is a history book on the JFK years, the other, Alan Paton’s most famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country.  I have a curious, even...

Short Story Contest

As we head into September, I'm struck by how quickly this year has flown by. I have a radio interview in two days and a book fair next month, and I'm sure there will be much more happening as I go full bore with marketing campaigns for Miles of Files, Jana, and...

What a Character

I was recently reading another author's blog, and saw a post about the writing process, and in particular the naming of characters. I wondered, Are people really interested in reading about this? I couldn't help thinking that only writers are so interested in other...
department

Yes, I’m The Head of My Company’s Marketing Department

A few months ago, I wrote a post called What I’ve Learned In Six Years of Growing An Indie Author Business. The idea was to provide six bullet points, one for each year I’ve run my publishing company. Ultimately, I realized that each of those six points could use some...

Communication? Keep It Simple, Sweetheart

Last week’s blog post was all about business. This week, I’m still going to talk about business a little, but really it’s more about writing. And if there’s one lesson we should take to heart in writing – in fact, in all our communication – it’s Keep It Simple. Today...
characters

It All Starts With Character

“Sahno offers a compelling vision of a community whose need for companionship and support in the face of life's struggles is stirring.” “The characters are deep, well thought out…” “I read this novel in a few short days, drawn in by a believable plot and characters...
self-promotion

What’s The Problem With Shameless Self-Promotion?

While I still find it somewhat hard to believe, I've been on Twitter for almost eight years. I know this not only because Twitter shows Joined March 2015 on my profile but also because, even if they eliminate that feature, I use a tracker called Who Unfollowed Me? If...
MLK

MLK Day 2023

Here’s wishing everyone a safe, sane Martin Luther King Jr. Day. For many of us, today is always something of a day of mourning: not only mourning the loss of a great civil rights leader, but also mourning the turn our great nation seemed to take in recent years....

Twitter Tips for Authors in 2023

If you follow my blog, you probably connected with me via Twitter, whether you’re a fellow author or not. In 2020, I wrote a post about Twitter for fellow writers that got a good response. Three years later, the landscape has changed, but some Twitter best practices...
rails

Going Off The Rails (But Not On A Crazy Train)

Last April, I wrote a blog post called Back on Track With a Work-In-Progress. Part of that post was to talk about the difference between a “plotter” and a “pantser” (and to describe myself as a hybrid of the two, a “plantser”). Another, less obvious motive, was to...
French

Those Tricky French Authors and Their Obsessions

Today’s blog post was originally going to be Write Whatever the @#$% You Want, Pt. III. However, after seeing parts I and II lined up, I decided to call an audible and make it something less repetitive. Somehow the SEO gods have gotten into my head. As I’ve mentioned...
scared

Write Whatever the @#$% You Want, Pt. II

In last week’s post, I mentioned a pretty well-known author who has publicly reported his publisher “wouldn’t touch” a new release, in part because a character in his novel referred to herself as “fat.” I heard this story on a podcast, and I remember thinking, “Wait...
censorship

Write Whatever the @#$% You Want

I’ve been stewing on this for a while. It’s been brewing for quite a while. I could probably write a song about it (how about a rap?), but I don’t think I will. This is more of a blog post topic, and it might even deserve a series. And that’s the title and topic of...
gratitude

Should Every Month Be Gratitude Month?

When I was a kid, I loved Peanuts by Charles M. Schulz. I read it daily and collected nearly every paperback volume of the cartoon, so I could see what I’d missed since the comic strip’s inception in 1950.  Certain things stuck: quotes like “happiness is a warm puppy”...
robot

More Thoughts On Robot Writers and The Tech Dystopia

A couple of months ago, I wrote a blog post here called When Will the Robot Overlords Replace Us? Apparently, I’m fairly obsessed with this stuff, because every time I come here and empty my brain, it seems to come up again. Today is no different. Part of the reason,...