I’ll start off this post by saying that this opinion is going to be unpopular with some writers and some freelancers.
I did not get to where I am today by second guessing certain truths about the writing business as it is today, and what it takes to make a living writing. While there are some things that are open to interpretation and even debate, there are some things that are simple facts. Here are some hard truths about saying yes, saying no, and making a living writing.
The Writing Game is Fickle
There are few other professions that are like any of the arts. From writing to music, from art to film, the one common question is, “What have you done for me lately?” In other words, if you wrote a great article on Huffington Post three years ago, it makes no difference on your resume.
The same is true even if you had a New York Times Bestseller even a year ago. To a publisher and to an extent your readers, the question is “What is your current project?” or “What is next?” Your past success only holds water (and makes you money) for a very limited time.
In order to make a living writing, you have to be doing something now. You have to have something coming next. If you are relying on your backlist, or the project you did last year to keep earning for you or even keep impressing readers and clients, you are in for a rude awakening.
Think about it. Even your local, indie bookstore who really likes your work will only keep your print book on the shelf for about six months, unless you have a series that is selling, which means the next book in the series comes out in that time period or shortly thereafter. Why? Because that’s how long your book will sell in their store before it becomes stale, and they are running a business too.
The time to write the next book is now. You’ve already said yes when you said you wanted to do this for a living.
On a pretty regular basis I hear from freelancers and from authors that they get big paydays and then can go a long time without another one. And it is true. If you are traditionally published, you might get an advance on your novel, but not get a royalty check for a whole year. (an advance is just a loan on anticipated earnings if we are being honest here).
So what do you do between those times? You have to manage your money, and it also might mean saying yes to smaller projects where you don’t earn as much, but you earn it now. As an author, that might mean short stories for paying markets, online or physical. For a freelancer, it might mean supplementing with smaller projects between the large ones.
It also means being aware of the fact that you might not have another payday for a while, and planning accordingly. That advance check is not the time to go pay cash for a new car, unless that really will save you money over time. It is time to look at short term investments, interest bearing checking, savings plans, and even at paying yourself a salary (read, allowance) that you must live within every month.
What that means is that you must say yes to those smaller, shorter term assignments or projects. Turning down work is turning down money. Saying yes does a couple of things for you. It enhances your “What have you done for me lately?” resume. And it gives you cash, money you can add to your current cashflow.
A Quick Note on “No”
Does that mean you always say “yes” in order to make a living? No, not at all. There are absolutely times when you should say ‘no.”
- Doing things for “exposure.” So far, no stores I have encountered take an exposure card. There are few exceptions to doing things for free to get exposure. Most of the time, this is a time to say “no thanks.” Be polite. You never know when there might be a paying opportunity with the same group or organization. Simply say, “I can’t work for free. But when you have a budget, I would be happy to work with you at that time.”
- Doing things for a deep discount. Your time and your writing are worth money. Just like you should not work for free, you should have standard rates that you work for, freelance or fiction. If you invest your time, you should expect the return of some love. Love, in this case, is defined as hopefully several numbers, preceded by a dollar sign, and with the only zeroes being the two that follow a decimal point.
- Doing things you hate. Are you a mystery writer who hates reading and writing romance? Then don’t accept a gig editing romance, reading romance, or worse, ghostwriting romance. First of all, your work will not be as good if you hate it. Second, you will be miserable. We all do this writing thing because we love it, right? Don’t compromise that by doing work you despise.
However, there are exceptions. As a freelancer, you might write articles that are not your favorite. As an author, you may be asked to judge a competition and read stories that are not your favorite. If you are getting paid enough though, it may be worth slogging through it, especially if you are struggling with cashflow.
Second, you might work for exposure from time to time. Writer’s conferences, judging competitions, and even some speaking engagements to writer’s groups can make a huge difference to you selling books, or may offer you an in with a new audience.
You have to evaluate things on the basis of what actually makes you enough money and what works for you. Go with your gut. It is okay to say “no” if something just doesn’t fit your objectives and where you are headed with your career.
Examples of “Yes”
Want some examples? Here are three from my own career:
Q: “Can you help us with our blog content?”
A: “Yes, I can. I charge $xxx.xx per blog post. But I notice your topics are rather random. Would you like additional help on content strategy?”
Result: The client answered “tell me more” to my question. The result? A one year contract, over 18 months of work at $3,000 per month, and continuing ongoing work even now. All because I said “yes” to the first question.
By the way, it was a couple of months between my “yes” and my “your topics are kind of random” declaration. First, I established trust in my writing ability and showed I had the client’s best interests at heart.
Q: “I need someone with a religious background and some Bible knowledge who shares my opinions on both to write a book with me. Are you interested?”
A: “Yes. Tell me more.”
Result: The book Satanarium, written with a woman named Poppet, who is from South Africa and someone I have never met in person. It was picked up and published by Wild Wolf press in the UK. Why does that matter?
Not only did we sell some books, but Wild Wolf is on the accepted publisher list for the International Thriller Writers, which is why I am a lifetime associate member and pay no dues, ever. I also learned a ton about collaboration, and I had a great time.
Q: “I have a story to tell about my life as a xxxxxx, and I have written a lot of it down. But I don’t know how to put it in a book. Can you help me?”
A: “Yes. I usually start with a block of hours until we figure out the scope of your project, and then we will set a price to finish it. Sound good?”
Result: My first large ghostwriting assignment. This helped put me on the map with ghostwriting and earned me some serious money. It opened my eyes to a new kind of writing, one I could supplement my fiction with and improve my cashflow.
Are there times when I said “yes” and it did not work out well? Yep. Are there times when I said “no” and I wish I had said “yes”? Also, yep. You can’t win them all.
But you can make a difference in your writing career and income by being open to saying “yes” even when it makes you a little uncomfortable. In fact, that is probably the best time of all to agree. You’ll grow as a person too, and you may be surprised what doors will open as a result.