What if You Couldn’t Make Money in Writing?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Over the last few years, there’s been a lot of discussion about the state of publishing; about how publishing is continuing to change; and more pointedly, how it’s becoming harder and harder to make money from writing.

We’ve already seen people’s reading habits change in terms of what form and format they’ll read. We’ve seen changes in the ways and places people obtain their reading material.  With free and cheap self-published books, some readers are no longer willing to pay $10 for a book. The economics of publishing are definitely getting more challenging.

money rain, asian beauty model

Publishers and agents are working on ways to continually add value to the reader’s experience, so that consumers will keep seeing reading material as valuable enough to pay for it. But if there really is a trend of readers expecting content for cheap or free, that means it will get increasingly difficult for writers to make significant money (as in, anything approaching a living wage) directly from the written word.

Should we think this through? Let’s pose a hypothetical: If the financial potential for most writers was negligible at best—if there didn’t exist a “publishing industry” that represented the Great Hope for you—what would you do? Would you still write? Would you self-publish? Just enjoy writing as a hobby? Would you hang it up altogether?

I understand you’re a writer because you want to be read… but how much of that is about getting paid?

If there were no money in writing, what would you do?

Image copyright: ryanking999 / 123RF Stock Photo

43 Responses

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  1. Interesting post, Rachelle, and an interesting question, though I’m not personally concerned that free content will take over the market. I suspect you may not be old enough to remember it, but the Free Love of the sixties carried a price commensurate with its worth.
    * Sure I’d keep writing, especially since I live in New Mexico and can’t surf. There are a couple of salient reasons:
    1) Some dead Greek dude (probably a pretentious Phi Kap) said that the unexamined life is not worth living, and I’d have to agree. It’s not a matter of navel-gazing; I want to be able to interact with others in kindness and compassion, and the only way I can do that is to understand my motivations and the darkness in my soul that might derail them. Therapy’s expensive; writing’s free, so there you go.
    2) Writing’s the only way I can pass on my hard-earned experience (“Don’t try this at home!”) and wisdom (stop laughing!..oh, sorry, that was me). Can’t speak well any more, even in casual conversation, so it’s either writing or a Vulcan mind-meld.
    3) If I can’t find the books I want to read, I can write them. “The Last Indian War” is dear to my heart; set on New Mexico’s Big Rez during WW2, it brings together a German POW who has a gift for healing and suddenly discovers he can’t heal any more, Irish immigrants who are suspicious of anyone who isn’t Catholic and doesn’t have a brogue, Navajos who tolerantly watch the white man’s folly, a plot against Hitler, bilocation, and a WW1 veteran who saves the sum of all things for the protagonists. No publisher is going to touch this, but if I write it I can read it. So I did.

  2. Carol Ashby says:

    I realize that many of the folks here could really use an income from their writing, but I’m in a better spot. I’ve come out of a tech career that paid well enough that I don’t have to worry about making money and can even afford to drop a bit over $1K on cover, interior layout, and partial line edit every time I publish a novel. Even if I had to pay for that out of royalties, I’d be publishing in the black now the series has gained some traction.
    *When I figure how many hours I have to spend writing and editing the novels, maintaining and expanding my platform (which requires researching and writing history articles), and doing other author and business chores, I’m earning way less than minimum wage, and I expect I always will be. But, after deducting income and self-employment taxes, I can give to missions whatever my novels net, and I’m pretty sure over the long term it will be more than I’d get from a traditional publisher, if one even wanted me. I’m not selling at the 4K+ the first year level that I expect would be their minimum requirement to consider publishing my work, anyway.
    *Even if I wasn’t clearing a small profit, I’d keep writing as long as I’m sure what I’m writing is serving the Kingdom. But I’m retired, so that’s a luxury I can afford. I have no dreams of getting rich or achieving NYT bestseller status. My measures of success are the reviews and emails that tell me one of my stories let a reader appreciate the love, joy, and and forgiveness that comes from following Jesus.

  3. God called me to write, just as he called my husband to pastor this church. Sometimes I wish for more income, but truly, we have what we need. “And my God will meet all your needs” (Philippians 4:19). If God provides via writing, fine. If there’s no money to be made writing, fine. Either way, I will write.

    • Angie Arndt says:

      Agreed, Shirlee. These stories are gifts from God, meant to be “put on paper.” Whether they’d remain therapy for me or would be self-pubbed would be up to Him. If He provided the funds, I’d be glad to self-publish after I knew it was the best story I could write.
      Actually, this has been the story of my writing career. Barring the technical journals and curriculum I wrote when I worked full-time, I’ve been writing and studying the craft of writing for ten years now, selling only one magazine article for $25. (Thanks, Cynthia!) So my answer is certain: yes, I’d continue to write, learn, repeat.

    • I agree, Shirlee. This has truly been a calling from God. It is a gift, but that doesn’t mean we will be financially rich. He does give us what we need, even when it is less than we think we need.

    • Ruth says:

      I’m with Shirlee. At the end of the day, it’s about doing what God want us to do with our lives, and being good stewards of the giftings He’s given us. 🙂

  4. I’d love to be published; but “yea” or “nay”, I will continue to write. There’s a certain kind of joy that surrounds me when I am writing. If that’s my paycheck … it’s more than enough.

  5. Yeah, I’d still be up at 4:00am to write I think. It is the one personal indeavor that brings me joy. I don’t garden or scrap book or paint or sew. I take care of my family, volunteer at my sons’ school, help out at the camp where we work, and I write. It would be harder to be disciplined without the dream of being read, but I hope I would still do it. It is the only thing that is not tied to one of my other personas. Mother, wife, camp founder’s grandaughter. I write, as Kristen. Just me, and I love it!

  6. Lynn Horton says:

    It’s a question of juggling gifts for me, Rachelle. At some point, if I do not make money on my writing, I will be compelled to invest my time in another ministry. Writing is time-intensive, and at some point, becomes a selfish endeavor.
    ** And Andrew, as the mother and mother-in-law of Phi Kaps who are the hardest-working people I know—and always have been—may I suggest that you interact with them with kindness and compassion? They worked very hard to achieve the honor. In my son’s case, he almost threw away his invitation to join because he was unaware of what Phi Beta Kappa is. Working for the sake of using one’s gifts, instead of for recognition, is one definition of unpretentious.

    • Lynn, I sincerely apologise. I meant to say ‘Phi Gamma’ (the Fijis, who were notorious for various things when I went to school, and who formed the bulk of my rowdily pretentious social circle) and for some reason Phi Kappa came out. I should have checked before hitting ‘Submit’.
      * I do know how hard Phi Kaps work, and how straight and humble they are…and in not proofreading well and offering a slap to some good folks, I showed a side of myself that is quite the opposite of those qualities, and I regret that.

      • Lynn Horton says:

        No worries, Andrew, and apology accepted. We all are familiar with rowdy Greek organizations, but some do a great deal of good. And the honor societies, such as Phi Beta Kappa, are honors to which all of us should aspire.

      • Carol Ashby says:

        Phi Kaps are super common among Ph.D. scientists, and the arrogance level spans from those who are unable to get a turtleneck on to those who are as proud of their humility as I am. When the gifts are great, it’s too easy to forget they come from a great Giver. That’s true whether you have the Greek letters on a key or not.

  7. Bryan Fagan says:

    I was going to reply but Andrew Budek-Schmeisser nailed it. There is no way I can top that. Well done.

  8. Charles White says:

    Given how hard it is to write, how much money I’ve already invested in editing services and two self-published books, as well as the fact that I’ve completed the memoir I needed to write about JFK, MLK, & RFK, in order to honor President Kennedy’s famous “Ask not” motto, I will no longer write anything except poems–for friends and for fun.

  9. Katie Powner says:

    I grew up on a small dairy farm. My father and grandfather and uncle gave their lives to it knowing they would probably never make any money. They did it because they loved it and it was theirs, humble as it was. They just knew the farm was where they belonged. Writing is my farm.

  10. I believe I would still write. Words and story have a power to convey messages, truth, and emotion that the spoken word never can. I may never make money, but I will still write. It’s something God put on my heart to do when I was fourteen (MANY moons ago), and unless He distinctly tells me to stop, I will continue learning how to craft stories and blogposts that speak to others’ hearts.

  11. Writing has been my survival skill. I wrote my first full length novel in 7th grade and old manuscripts are crammed in my memory boxes. I am blessed that writing does not have to be a substantial income. Although I am working toward publishing and am polishing my first manuscript with the intention of publication, if I never make money from it, I will always write. It is my passion, it is my coping mechanism, and it is what I feel God has called me to do. Each novel is a journey with Him. Writing with Him draws us closer, and life without writing is like trying to do life without Him.

    Long answer short, writing isn’t about getting paid for me. It is a way of communing with God and living life the way He has called me. I don’t mean to be “religious” or overly spiritual, but I can’t separate writing from my relationship with God. Money is not the reward for me.

  12. There is really not much of a choice here. We write because we’re writers. It would be awesome to do it full-time, and for a living, but that is serendipitous. We write because that it what we do. It is as natural as drawing breath into our lungs.

    • I think you hit the nail in the head for everyone here. 😁 “We write because we are writers.” And “It is as natural as drawing hreath into our lungs.” Yes!!!

    • E McD says:

      This pretty much sums it up for me. I write because I must, whether it’s working on a story or adding to the blog or paper journals. So far I’ve not made a single penny on any of it, but in 20+ years that hasn’t stopped me once. Never even occured to me to stop.

  13. I’m sort of in a different spot. I’m learning to trust God for the journey (and money). I left teaching by retiring early to pursue my calling. I have a message, and, consequently, I have a ministry. My voice has a purpose, whether it’s writing, speaking, or coming along side someone who needs it. I spend hours each week at a coffee shop one-on-one with a few ladies God has put in my path to walk the journey with them. I asked God to make me into a good neighbor. He took me at my word.
    I’ve only spent money on my writing, not made any money. I’m in the indie world and see that money seems to be made in a lot of secondary ways to writing: course creation, coloring books (there’s a new way to create these in minutes using technology), topic talks, writing articles for magazines, and so forth. These then drive book the author’s sales, at least in theory.

  14. It seems we are in agreement here. Most of us would keep writing. But, I’m not sure I’d invest the time and energy it takes to write novels. If people no longer pay for our work, I think we will find new ways to present it. I’d like to think I would just give it away, but a workman is worthy of his hire. And, if nobody pays me to write novels, I’ll have to work at something else.

  15. Daphne Woodall says:

    When I submitted my first article the local newspaper asked me to write more articles. I soon learned hours of research, interviews, and writing 750 word articles was more about me paying them for the experience.

    I know for me the journey is not about the money but the joy and the challenge of learning and improving. I’ll keep writing until I discern God has other plans for me.

  16. Amanda Dykes says:

    A few years back, I came across this excerpt in an old book about the Scottish clans: “…there was a banquet given in the Highlands on some joyful occasion, and during the evening there was a call for the bards to be brought to the upper end of the room, on which Mac Nicail of Scoirebreac exclaimed, ‘The bards are extinct.’ ‘No,’ quickly replied Alasdair bui’ Mac I’vor, ‘they are not extinct; but those tho delighted to patronise them are gone!” This struck me, looking at the publishing landscape and wondering at the changes afoot or not afoot. It seems that storytelling is as old as time, and a way to the heart that God created so beautifully. And that whether it be bards or books, or anything in between or beyond, storytellers will seek ways to yield that gift to God and his leading. In a way, it’s comforting to see that there really is nothing new under the sun, that changes have always been afoot in one way or another when it comes to story and writing, and that somehow, story still inspires and moves, even after all this time. I suppose I don’t have a quick or easy answer, just these observations and pieces of hope from the past that though mechanisms change, the gift still has place and purpose, and we get to see God open the doors for those places and purposes, wherever they may be. And, we get to stand with such respect for agents and publishers who are actively seeking those creative ways to move forward in this landscape. The bards are not extinct, and even the patrons were not as vanished as perhaps these fellows thought, for story is still with us.

    • Mary Kay Moody says:

      So agree with “storytelling is as old as time, and a way to the heart…” Beautifully said, Amanda. Thanks for sharing this perspective~encouraging and true as it is. Your view helps reframe the frustration with the pub industry roadblocks and/or shrinking opportunity to eagerly watching for the new mechanisms and surprises God has for us.

    • Amanda Dykes says:

      I should have mentioned it was a research book on the clans. Historical account, not fiction. 😉

  17. Teresa Haugh says:

    This conversation reminds me why I stopped making wedding dresses. I could never charge enough money to cover the hours that I put in. And I always think about the scripture Kathy mentioned: the workman is worthy of his hire. Doesn’t that apply to writers?

    That said, I’m like Carol in that I worked for decades in the real world to earn my living before I started writing full time. At this point, the money would be nice, but the validation of being published because someone thought my work was worthwhile would be the icing on my cake. Having readers say my stories impacted their lives would be gratifying. Although I believe writers deserve to be compensated for their work, I understand it may not be a reality for everyone. Honestly, I can’t foresee how many years I can keep this up if I don’t see some progress along the way, at least in the validation category.

  18. Mary Kay Moody says:

    I believe I’d write, because story has a way of reaching people where information cannot. (I think that’s by design.) And god has guided me to do so. While I’m still working on getting that first (then more! LOL) novel published, I have had numerous short stories, articles, and devotionals published. But, for my family’s sake, I do wish writing would be a break-even endeavor at least. As my friend Megan says, I remain “a prisoner of hope.”

  19. Ada Brownell says:

    Years ago I discovered I would never make significant money free lancing–so I got a real job. I became a newspaper reporter. Yet I am blessed to have written hundreds of articles that were published in Christian publications, and still write them, but my seven books are a great disappointment financially. I put everything I learned over the years in the non-fiction books, and I know they help people. My novels are loved by those who read them, but over the years writing novels has cost me money. Hiring an editor. Going once with a subsidy publisher.
    On the other hand I read other people’s books all the time and often I’m disappointed. Last night after reading 2/3 of a supposedly Christian novel the romance spiraled like a deflated balloon into obscenity, which the author probably called “sexual tension.” She’ll probably sell more books than I do, but any time a book arouses the prurient interest, it’s obscene.
    Out it goes. I pray Christian authors stick to writing truly Christian books, whether we make money or not. Eventually people will want them.

  20. I’ll never get rich, or even make a living income, from my writing. It would be nice to be a best selling author, but I’ve learned that some of my articles made a difference in people’s lives and that makes it worthwhile to keep writing. Besides, if I stopped what would I do with all those ideas in my mind?

  21. Coming in late because I had to take time, not to know that the answer would be that I would still write, but to explain why. Thank you for asking Rachelle.

    I will answer in the following way:

    A wealthy farmer had a large farm in the beautiful hills of Vermont. It was known for the beauty and splendor of the surroundings and the warmth of the inn that was part of the farm. People came from all parts just to experience the wonder and warmth of it all.Those who dine there often came for breakfast and it was one of the favorite meals of the guests: homemade bread, apple, orange and cranberry juice that filled glass carafes, bowls of fresh berries with cream, pancakes made from scratch topped with real butter and warm maple syrup. Topping it off were eggs fresh from the hens on the farm and bacon and ham from one of the farm pigs. While the guests dined inside, a weekly debate occurred between the pigs and the chickens as to who offered up the best fare. The chickens clucked about about how wonderful and fresh their eggs were and how they worked so hard to produce fresh eggs for the daily meals. The pigs would grunt and kick up mud in their pen, and snort, “That’s okay for you, because for you it’s a commitment that you only give part of yourself, but for me it’s everything.”

    And that is how it is for me. I have always been creative, but did not know I had a gift for the written word until I was thirty-two or thirty-three, and had gone back to school to get a bachelors degree in Christian Studies with cooperative studies in communications and nursing to add to my three degree in nursing. That is a story in itself, but not to be shared here in view of space and so I can answer your question more succinctly.

    My writing is me, not just a part of me. It has taken me this long to answer today, because my reason is not the typical reason. But I take courage from Andrew who is so honest and willing to share about his journey with cancer and watching how kind you all are towards him. It has touched me because it makes this site holy when we care for each other as we would for Jesus.
    Thank you Andrew for your honest courage and all of you for making this a safe place.

    To get to the point, although there is so much that goes into this, I write for the love and healing of my son, and all others who have been through trauma especially that of abuse, abuse of any kind, but in his life, sexual abuse of five years, that ended in three years of criminal court and civil proceedings, a suicide attempt by our son at the age of twelve when he put an electrical cord around his neck and up to the shower. My husband had to kick in the door. It was Super Bowl weekend of 2007. My apologies to you who may not like to hear this, but when is the right time to be there for the wounded, abused and broken. We were removed from our place on the worship team and asked to either follow rules that made our son feel like a criminal because they assumed since he was abused he too would abuse. He hasn’t and he’s twenty-three and has not only forgiven his abuser but has given me permission to share various portions of what he has been through in order to help others. He hopes to write his own book someday on his experience At one point, he told me directly, “Help the children mommy. Help the children.” That is what I am doing, but in order to do that, I must help adults who have been traumatized too, or poorly educated, or just too sick or evil to care for their families, including the children. I am a nurse and spent over thirty years helping bodies heal, while the entire time I could see broken hearts and troubled minds that need healing more that their bodies. I write to heal and that healing comes only through introducing people to a God who cares and doesn’t run away when you tell Him the ugly things that have happened to you or that you have done to others. The church may run, people may run, but God never does. I write to bring a voice to the voiceless as in Proverbs 31:8-9. I write because of 2 Cor 1: 3-4 to give the comfort God has comforted me with to others. I write to bring the Father to the children, and the children to the Father through Jesus Christ. And I teach them all I know to escape from minds that are trapped in traumatic pasts, and that the enemy has used as strongholds for years. I write because it is like a fire in me, even as speaking and teaching is, and I do it so people can have a relationship with God and each other that is filled with love, forgiveness, courage to change and the desire to be all He wants us to be as His workmanship.

    As I do it, I know that I am fulfilling what my mother spoke over me, when she was looking at my Bible with me and pointed to Psalm 40: 1-3, and looked at me and said, “That is what God did for you.”

    I already do it for no money, and so does my writing partner. When we joined with the Lord in a cord of three, we laid down everything because we are so close to the hurting and the needy. Financially, she and I are in the same spot. We trust God month to month, week to week due to a variety of reasons, and we write, and we have questioned each other as we admit that we cried out to God for money just for groceries or gas, are we doing what we should be, and we both know it is a resounding yes. We are Salty Sisters committed to bring Christ to a perishing world and we do it part through writing, part through speaking, and much through serving.

    If I didn’t make money at writing, I would still write, and I would probably, increase my speaking which I love. I am an evangelist and teacher at heart.
    I have not had much all my life and I am content with that, although I pray for increase so we can pay off our town home, help our son with school tuition, etc and give to others. I am not afraid of not making money, or not having enough because I have already been there.

    • Please, please forgive my typos and grammatical errors. It is SO embarrassing to me, and I cringe every time I see one. It has to do with the glare from certain light on my glasses, and my fingers going faster than my brain. I can only say, it does not mirror my actual work which I painstakingly proof over and over, and have my writing partner proof and edit as well. It just mortifies me, but hopefully you will be able to still understand what I am saying. I just hate looking like a writing “error queen” when that is not the case on my projects and proposals. Ugh.

  22. Sunaina says:

    This is one of the best articles.
    Keep sharing with us.

  23. I love writing, and have written for years without making any money off my books. I will continue to write, even if I and my family are the only ones who read it.
    However, I’ve just started on the path of self publishing, not to make money (because I realize I probably won’t) but because I feel that God has given me this talent to share with others.

  24. Joanne Reese says:

    Great post, Rachelle. I think it touches on the purpose for which we do this. Most of my writing gets scribbled into a private journal, where I work to untangle thoughts and commune with God as we consider my contribution to the day. Creative writing serves a different purpose altogether, providing a place for my heart to play. Writing is like breathing for me. Money is irrelevant.

  25. Marina Costa says:

    I would keep writing even if I didn’t make money. And I actually do it.

    I am writing because my story wants out of my head and I want to be read. If you aren’t JK Rowling, GRR Martin or one of the national bestselling authors of your not-English-speaking country, no chance to get rich on it, so if you write it for money, better give up! If you write it out of passion, then keep doing it, it is entirely worth your time! <3

    I have published 2 novels, 1 project management handbook (the first in my mother tongue, back in 1999) and some specialised papers in the Ministry's official bulletins. I didn't get any richer from any, and most of them were given for free. Some were sold, indeed, but not in the proportion to cover the expenses. Still, I keep writing and I will do it as long as I have ideas.