As you’ve likely figured out by now, publishing an indie book is rarely accompanied by a hefty paycheck. Royalties can be slow, erratic, and in some cases nonexistent.
For others who are still writing and fine-tuning their manuscripts, the prospect of making money through book sales feels like it’s a million years away.
But writers still need to eat, pay for housing, support families, and even cough up enough money for bills, clothes, entertainment, transportation, and all the little expenses that come with simply living.
So how do you bridge your income?
Some writers hold full-time jobs in other fields, writing on the side when they can. Others rely on part-time or contract work that allows them to take time off for writing. And others support doing the writing work they love by accepting other types of writing work that pay more reliably.
I am in the camp that makes money by writing. And you can too. All it takes is a little resourcefulness, a lot of hard work, patience, and a willingness to learn. While it’s true that creative writing does not immediately qualify you to write everything, there are other opportunities out there. You just need to know where to look.
Newspapers and Magazines
If journalism interests you, it can be a fun and intellectually challenging means of supporting yourself. Whether you’re doing interviews or features, working for print and online publications can not only steadily improve your writing (as you receive feedback from the professional editors who review your articles) but be a reliable source of income—if you have what it takes.
What you need: A fairly tough skin (pitches can go unnoticed and unacknowledged, and you need to be able to hear and heed constructive criticism); clean and highly skilled writing; a firm grasp of research, ethics, and good story structure; objectivity, resourcefulness, and high motivation; and an ability to be professional while interviewing sources
Pros: Potential for regular work, potentially decent pay rates, wide variety of publications available, wide scope of interest, likely will prove beneficial to your writing style, may open doors to unique and exciting career and travel opportunities, opportunity for networking and reaching a wider audience
Cons: Pay can be low, demanding editors may lose patience with inexperienced writers, errors are highly visible, flowery language and excessive use of adjectives/adverbs are frowned upon, laziness and late submissions are not tolerated, pitching can be highly discouraging
Our tip: If you’re seriously considering writing for newspapers and magazines, look for a reputable newswriting course or journalism certificate program, and consider seeking a mentor or someone willing to sit down and answer any questions you might have.
Publishing books isn’t the only way to get your creative writing into the world. If you pen poetry, short fiction, essays, or narrative nonfiction, there are literary outlets for your work.
What you need: A good understanding of what journals are looking for, patience (some places only publish once a year and response times can be slow), excellent creative writing skills, original story ideas
Pros: Can be good exposure to new readers and new markets, good for your writing portfolio and credentials, can potentially be highly visible to publishing professionals such as editors and agents
Cons: The more accessible publications tend to pay little, smaller audiences, many rejections, editors may be unlikely to work with you to polish the pieces
Our tip: Do your research carefully. Many publications have specific requirements for submission that must be carefully followed.
There are two ways to go about blogging. You can pick your own niche, start blogging, and hope that maybe you can generate some income from ads or use it as a funnel to generate income through crowdfunding (we’ll cover that one next), or you can try and pick up work blogging for established companies, business, and individuals who are looking for content for their site.
What you need: Good research skills; a simple, conversational writing style (being flowery or overly academic makes for slow, dry reading); an ability to take potentially mundane subject matter and make it sound interesting to readers and customers
Pros: Can offer regular gigs and regular income, increases your market and visibility, keeps you writing and learning about new things, can lead to other work opportunities
Cons: Blogging for yourself may take a long time to build a big enough audience to get advertisers; blogging for others may not offer a byline; pay scales vary widely (from lucrative to insultingly low rates); rarely offers stable, long-term work
Our tip: Branch out into writing about other interests and hobbies if the opportunity arises. Variety keeps things interesting.
For writers who are focused on books and don’t make enough to support themselves through direct sales (or want to supplement that income a bit), crowdfunding a specific self-publishing project or even your work in general (like through the site Patreon) can provide some additional coin.
What you need: An account on a crowdfunding site; a willingness to share your banking information with that site; lots of time, energy, and commitment; ideas for generating bonus content for your followers and supporters; and a willing to engage with readers regularly
Pros: Extra money, can be lucrative (if you invest the time and effort), contributes to a reader following, source of feedback
Cons: Many sites take a cut of your earnings or charge fees; contributors may expect regular communication (updates, emails, freebies); can drain your time; disappointing results; added pressure on writers and authors to make others happy
Our tip: Read the fine print for any crowdfunding site you join. See what other writers and authors are doing and how their readers respond. And pay it forward when you can.
Being a reader and writer means you already have some of the key qualifications to become a book (or music or film) reviewer. If you also have an impressive knowledge of books and publishing—and an easy understanding of what readers like from their favorite genres—you might be able to hire yourself out as a reviewer. This could be for print or online publications, but some reviewers run their own book blogs or charge authors for reviews.
What you need: Ability to deliver constructive criticism and outline both the positive and negative traits of a book, knowledge of publishing or comparable books in the genre, objectivity
Pros: Lots of free reading material, can provide regular work (and income), can increase your reader/social media following
Cons: Pay can be low, potential to make enemies of authors/hate mail, charging authors to review their books (or increasing fees to guarantee a “positive” one) can compromise your reputation and trustworthiness, can be difficult to keep a negative review from sounding mean-spirited
Our tip: Working for reputable publications can be challenging if you’re just starting. Seek out a smaller book blog or online magazine to build your portfolio and get some experience before you approach larger publications.
Work for Other Writers
Almost every writer has a weak spot—some part of writing they loathe. Don’t be afraid to offer your services to help other authors with their synopses, book descriptions and promotional copy, pitch letters and book proposals, or even press releases.
What you need: A clean, succinct writing style; an understanding of what is considered professional-quality business writing; knowledge of publishing market submission process and marketing/promotion; good interpersonal skills; an ability to take constructive criticism
Pros: There are a lot of writers who are willing to hire out the work; great networking opportunity; good work means referrals and endorsements from other authors; free books; potential for barter/exchange of services if there’s something they can help you with
Cons: May need to work harder to convince authors to hire you, small budgets may mean low pay, you’ll need to be more aggressive in selling your services
Our tip: Like small businesses, individuals have their own particular ideas about how things should be done, and they aren’t always as comfortable releasing control to others, so this can make your job—and pleasing your clients—much, much harder, which may eat into your bottom line. Make sure you clarify expectations up front, draw up a short work-for-hire contract, and restrict the number of revisions they can request for free.
Many businesses look for experienced writers to assist with marketing content. Website copy, social media posts, press releases, articles, blogs, brochures—these are all places you can help out. But remember that your creative writing experience—while a distinct asset for appealing to different demographics—can actually work against you when it comes to writing lean and effective copy.
What you need: The ability to listen to what a client needs and then deliver it to them in a fresh and compelling way, strict editing skills, an ability to read a sentence from different perspectives, an understanding of consumer behaviors, comfort with putting your creative vision aside to make your customer happy
Pros: Potential to earn a living wage (and then some) depending on your skill and experience, potential for regular work, creates a marketable skill set that can be applied to almost any job, lots of flexibility in terms of the kind of company you work for, referrals, opportunity to advance professionally if a company thinks you’re the right fit
Cons: Steep learning curve, sloppy or poor quality work can negatively affect your reputation, highly competitive market (which means you’ll be fighting for work from people who are highly experienced), easy to undervalue (or overvalue) your worth, project scope can change quickly, can be time-consuming, demands of corporate environment can create stress
Our tip: Keep your writing clean, tight, and be sparing and precise with your adjectives. Don’t write twenty words where eight will do. When I am consulting, I tell my small business clients to think about “writing with intent.” Thinking about what you are telling customers and how you want them to respond or feel. Don’t be afraid to research different ways of writing effective copy or even taking a marketing course or two and, if you’re new to this work, start small and keep your rates commensurate with experience.
Hannah Guy lives in Toronto and is a professional writer and copywriter who specializes in books, books, and more books. Follow her on Twitter at @hannorg.