Few fiction writers live off their stories. Most authors, even published ones, tend to have a day job that may or may not involve non-fiction writing, editing, or teaching. For my part, I don’t make any money with my fiction, but then so far I haven’t even tried to. I’m not bombarding you with self-published e-books (you’ll find just one on my site, and I’ve never bothered about marketing it), fund-raising campaigns, or ads, and I don’t feel frustrated in any way. On the contrary, I am happy. Let me tell you why.
The great benefits of writing are in the process itself, as well as in the way of life of the writer. If you feel the urge to write, if you write every day, you know what I mean.
Don’t worry about writing a book or getting famous or making money. Just lead an interesting life. — Michael Morpurgo
Being paid for what you write is of course a sign that you are becoming an author, and most of us who write cherish the hope that one day we will be able to live off our books. But in our day and age, when the Internet and the proliferation of e-books make online publishing and self-publishing sound so easy, I believe there is the danger to turn to these new channels to push writing out there in the world as soon as possible, even if it’s not yet mature or worthwhile.
It’s easy to start with noble intentions about the craft of writing and then to get stuck in the world of self-publishing and online publishing and become, before you know it, a marketer, a seller of beautiful covers, and to fill your blog with ads and e-books, and your posts with marketing slogans and links, and even worse, to change, consciously or subconsciously, your style and your writing to fit those mediums in the hope of generating more sales.
Don’t get me wrong — I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with online publishing or self-publishing. On the contrary, I endorse them: I have this blog, and I do have a self-published Amazon e-book, don’t I? Platforms such as WordPress or Amazon encourage us to be more productive, and they also help us share our writing with the world. But most people don’t read literature online, nor do they have an e-book reader (I have a Kindle and I love it). What’s more, online publishing and self-publishing can be distracting and can encourage laziness. Let me ask you know, isn’t it easier for you to write a blog post than rewrite that troublesome chapter in your novel?
When it comes to fiction, whose value and significance can be subjective, the medium and format in which it is presented influences perception and worth. Most serious readers buy their books in a bookstore or borrow them from friends or libraries. As a Romanian reading in English, it’s more convenient for me to read on my Kindle, but even so I hardly ever buy books from contemporary authors — I stick to the classics, many of which are available for free in the public domain. Why then should I try to sell you a format I myself wouldn’t buy?
One thing that I think was very important about my literary career was that until I was forty years old, I never got one cent of author’s royalties, though I’d had five books published. — Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, in a Paris Review Interview
A lot of people would gladly quit their day job to write all day. But that can create a disabling tension. It can lead to mental and emotional constipation. There’s nothing wrong with being a writer and having a day job. After all, all the greats had day jobs, and they were often tedious affairs. Albert Camus, Franz Kafka, and Guy de Maupassant all started as clerks. It’s better to have a day job and work five days a week to earn a living and then write in the evening when you come home, than expect to make money with your writing from the beginning.
Because if you write fiction, writing well isn’t a guarantee that you will make money with your books. No. You need writing informed by experience, and most of all, writing that says something, that has a value beyond its linguistic beauty, a value often hard to define, and you need, of course, that other secret ingredient which we can vaguely call ‘luck’. It’s a bad approach to expect and perhaps even to hope, in the beginning at least, to live off the money magazines or self-publishing platforms bring you. Do that and you may become disillusioned with what being a writer means and stop writing entirely before you’ve even reached your potential.
For my part, I feel fortunate that I am able to sustain myself by working as a freelance writer. It’s a part-time affair that, combined with my minimalist lifestyle, leaves me sufficient time for working on my stories and my novels. I want to enjoy the benefits of the writing process itself and then later on, if money will come, so be it. But I’m not in it for the money, and if you’re an aspiring writer, I think you shouldn’t kid yourself. Don’t expect to make any serious money with your stories, at least not in the beginning. If you want to make money, maybe you should go work in a bank or start a business.