Earn Six Figures as a Writer With This One Weird Trick

Image: a person's hands holding forth a pretty gift box made of foil-stamped paper and bow-tied with iridescent ribbon.
Photo by Porapak Apichodilok

Today’s guest post is by Allison K Williams (@guerillamemoir). Join her for the three-part class Build Your Developmental Editing Business, beginning on Wednesday, November 1.

“I went with a small press, but I didn’t need my book to pay the bills.”

“It was a nice rejection, but ‘great voice’ isn’t gonna pay the bills.”

“A lot of really great writers still aren’t getting paid enough to pay the bills.”

In a writers group online, my colleagues commiserated—about how hard it is to sell books, about the “memoir industrial complex” that promotes a very few big-deal successes while other authors shell out thousands for classes and editing and invest their time in “building platform” that is still statistically unlikely to get a book deal. Over and over, I see this phrase: pay the bills.

While enough to pay the bills is a perfectly valid colloquialism for “an amount of money that emotionally balances the time and effort I’ve put in,” it’s also a terrible goal. I mean, first, screw this pay the bills crap, why not aim for a life-changing amount of money? If you’re aspiring, reach high. But more importantly, very few authors earn enough to pay the bills in any meaningful way.

Do the math. A generous six-figure advance—we’ll go with $200,000 to make it easy—often gets doled out in four chunks: on signing the contract, on submitting the final manuscript, on publication, and then some months after publication. Usually those chunks are about a year apart. Deduct 15% for the literary agent, 30% for taxes, and congratulations, you’re paying the bills with $27,500/year. Just enough to disqualify a single adult for Medicaid in most US states.

Most full-time writers pay the bills with teaching, speaking, offering classes, freelancing, or as magazine/newspaper staff. Most writers making a living are part of a two-income household, in which writing means less childcare than temping and fewer parking problems than adjunct teaching.

You already know this. And I’m not here to amp up our collective bitterness at the unfairness of our calling. I’m here to say it’s possible to pay the bills as a writer, with one weird trick.

I am a writer. I’m also an editor, a retreat leader, a webinar teacher and a public speaker. I love all of these things—nothing makes me happier than a writer discovering their voice—and they are all possible because the foundation is writing. They also all focus on the reader. The person who needs what I have to teach, write or talk about, and how I can serve them.

I’m embarrassed to say that I’m proud of my income. But I sure do tick off on the Excel sheet which day of the year I hit my goal, and if I can make it earlier in the year than last year. As an editor I get to watch TikTok nuns, listen to Kae Tempest and analyze Legally Blonde and it’s all on the clock. I’ve worked from Starbucks in Hong Kong, the tallest building in Vietnam and my mother-in-law’s porch in Jamaica, and coughed up $17 for airline wifi to send back time-sensitive edits over the Atlantic Ocean from business class. When I lead retreats, I’ve learned to allow two days before and after with room service and a spa, to top up my own emotional reserves after tending to writers for a week.

I live this life due to one weird trick: generosity.

I give away about a third of my time to literary citizenship. Even if a writer didn’t sign up for my paid class, if the agent I used on an example slide might be the right agent for them? I’m sure going to tell them when they post on Facebook about finishing their book.

I listen a lot. I jot down what writers love, what writers complain about, what writers fear, what writers hope. We make ourselves approachable when we listen, and we make ourselves hire-able when we are approachable.

I write a lot, and I don’t worry about undercutting my book sales by sharing knowledge. Dealers have always known: give away a sample of your very best stuff, and you’ve got a customer for life. Given how many authors I work with who are writing about their struggle with addiction, I’ve seen this secondhand. I’ve seen this firsthand in my years of work as a street performer. When my partner and I appeared on Dragon’s Den Canada (known as Shark Tank in the US), we began our presentation with, “We have developed a product so compelling, we can give it away on the street, and people line up to hand us money even though they could leave with no penalty.”

The investment we won was six figures. We paid the bills.

The second part of generosity is sharing with your colleagues, not just your audience. When I was a trapeze artist, the industry of performing at corporate events was very secretive. Established performers didn’t want to tell newcomers what they billed, for fear of being undercut on the next bid. Then we all complained about how newbies were setting their prices too low.

The newbies didn’t know any better. Someone had to tell them, and that was me. After a slightly shady club manager called for quotes for Kristin Bell’s birthday party, I called every aerialist I knew in a three-state radius to say, “This is what I bid. I think he’ll try to lowball you.”

We all made more money, and not just on that gig. Now we all knew the going rate. We could choose to bid higher or lower, to compete on quality or on price.

Every time I’ve shared concrete, actionable information, on how to write, on who to pitch, on how much money to ask for, on where to find clients, on how to close the deal, and shared it for free, it’s come back to me sixfold.

Perhaps you prefer to limit your human interaction, or know that giving away a big chunk of your professional time is not for you. You can still make six figures as a writer, if you are so dedicated to your literary craft that your work is about the reader’s need to understand humanity; or you write genre fiction with the reader in mind and learn how to work Amazon ads. (Jane just wrote about how self-publishing authors are outstripping traditional authors on income, by a lot.)

My life changed when I realized how much generosity could do that protectiveness, isolation and fear could not.

That’s the magic formula to make a six-figure living as a writer. Focus on your customer, your client, your reader. Give away a substantial chunk of what you do and make it the good stuff. Help your colleagues up the ladder. Share what you love, as freely as you can.

Build Your Developmental Editing Business with Allison K Williams. $279 class, in three sessions. Wednesdays, November 1, 8, and 15, 2023. 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. Eastern.

Note from Jane: If you enjoyed this post, join us beginning Wednesday, November 1, for the three-part class Build Your Developmental Editing Business.


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