Patrick Forsyth explores how a writer can create and deal with money-making opportunities.
Make no mistake: I am pleased to be writing this, I shall enjoy writing it, I am proud of my involvement with this magazine and I shall take some pleasure in seeing it published. I also like to encourage other writers, and sometimes it is nice to do so in the form of a shove towards publication and payment. But, if I am honest, I do not normally regard the process as over until a cheque lands on the doormat; I like that too. There may well be a parallel here with the attitude you take.
You may share my liking for the cheques or wish that some of what you did could produce them. Here, I will look not at the task of getting published but at how you can view your writing as a money-making process and how you handle that side of things. Because, trust me on this, it does not just happen!
What kind of writer are you with regard to money? There can be many levels of earnings involved. Three are worth spelling out. First, there are those who just do a little writing; the occasional article appears, as does the occasional cheque. Secondly, there are those who do a little more, to the extent that it provides a regular and useful side-line. And thirdly, there are those who earn all, or part of, their living by writing. Wherever you are on the scale, you no doubt want to maximise what you do earn and handle the finances appropriately.
Sources of income can vary a good deal. The first step to maximising income is to assess the possibilities and see how they benefit, or might benefit, you. What you write affects this. Not everyone has published books, but let’s start with that. The income from a book will come primarily from royalties. These are normally paid with some sort of advance upfront (typically split so that some comes on signing a contract, some on the manuscript being delivered and approved and some on publication). Then, if the book sells in a way where the per-book royalty exceeds the advance, you begin to receive further payments. It is possible that this goes on for some time and both assistance with promotion and initiatives to keep a book in print – by producing an updated version of a non-fiction book, for instance – are well worthwhile. In addition, money may come from overseas translations and from such schemes as the Public Lending Rights (PLR) and Authors’ Licensing & Collecting Society (ALCS); the latter two you need to register for. If you have not done so and they could help you, then do so at once. Additionally, of course, there is the profit on copies you buy and resell personally; something you can aim to maximise.
Other sources of income are possible once something is in print (this does not only apply to books). A potentially important one is talks. For instance, I give talks at writing groups and the like and also, linked to two light-hearted travel books I have had published, for a variety of bodies ranging from Women’s Institutes to Rotary Clubs. Such assignments can both pay a fee and constitute an opportunity to sell books to attendees. Of course, a cheque for £100 – or £1000! – is better than one for £25, but for the part-time writer, small sums may be useful and don’t forget how they add up: £25 a month is £300 in a year, and that sum every week would be £1300. It all mounts up.
If articles are your thing, there should be fees from them and more fees if you republish them in a different form or overseas. There are links here also. A book being published may give you the opportunity to earn from articles about it, and several articles published on one topic may be able to be turned into further opportunities. You can, for example, put yourself in a position of being regarded as an expert on something, making it easier to sell more. Some people also do well enough to count competition wins as a component of their income. Indeed, there are some competitions from which a truly significant amount can be won.
You may, of course, write and get something published which pays you nothing. While many writers do not want to do this very often, it can be useful. It may be that you don’t care about payment and just want to see your name in print – and why not, if you so wish? For example, an article may plug a book, or a talk, or something else that will earn you money. Or maybe you can negotiate an alternative to payment: writing an article for nothing, on condition you are paid for a second one, (two at half price for the editor, one fee for you), or that you get a free subscription for a year if it is a monthly magazine. This last one may be useful for you and actually costs the magazine very little. A big advantage of free placement may be to extend your writing record, adding something to your writing CV, and because one thing can lead to another, this, too, can produce further income.
The precise situation always needs to be considered. You should bear in mind that although some things can be less than life-changing in financial terms, they are still very useful and go beyond just a one-off event. An example will make this clear. A few years back, while on holiday in Thailand, I took a scuba diving course (and after a scary moment or two at the outset, it was a wonderful experience). I sold an article about doing this to a magazine and the fee more than paid for the cost of taking the course. I subsequently sold two more articles and included something about it in a book about Thailand (Smile Because It Happened [Rethink}). The first article led to getting further articles into the same journal; this became a monthly input until the magazine sadly folded. I was delighted to be able to put the cost of the diving course down against tax and made a total sum, which, while not being substantial, was a small balance against the cost of the holiday. Every little helps, as they say. Indeed, you might well take the view that just to cover costs on such a thing is worthwhile. The whole thing was fun, too. If you do not write, at least in part, to get some fun from it all, then you really should! Incidentally, expenses and tax may be worth investigating separately.
I’m not meaning to underestimate the job of securing paid commissions; but let’s put that to one side for now. I hope, however, I am persuading you that earning money from writing is possible and also that, over and above the task of seeking commissions, the way you view the money-making potential matters. You need to wear a ‘business hat’ sometimes in tandem with your creative one. I hope I’m not mixing my metaphors too much here; the point is that the two must go together.
One of the first aspects of the financial side of writing involves the word investment. Forgive me, but I do smile to myself sometimes when I hear writers bemoaning the cost of postage. Sometimes, despite the existence of email, things still have to be sent through physically. Yes, a manuscript may weigh a good bit, but realistically, you have to prime the pumps. You cannot expect to receive cheques and create significant earnings (significant to you, at least) without putting something in to keep the process flowing. It’s like any other business. You may have to post things, buy stationery, incur expenses relating to research and keep your computer up to scratch. You may also have to travel to events or meetings, belong to bodies such as a writing group, take an editor for a cup of coffee or even a meal and a whole lot more besides. Such should be regarded not so much as a cost, but rather as an investment. You pitch something with the aim of earning something later on. You have to respect the way the business works for both writers and publishers, and you have to work the system rather than rail against it. Sometimes research adds more to the costs.
The possibilities of earning are considerable. But, as I have already shared, it doesn’t just happen. You need to work at it and then you need to plan, organise and manage the financial aspects of what you do well to make the most of it. Whether you just want to help with the cost of a trip, or create a regular useful income, the principles are similar. You have to view it the right way and you have to work at it the right way. When you do, and when you get the whole thing right, you can look at your name in print, and as well as taking pride in creative achievement, take pleasure in being rewarded for it.
Of course, there’s much more to it, but at least I’ve given you some food for thought. Let me end by focussing on one word: persistence. There’s an old saying that there is one word to describe writers with no persistence… and it’s unpublished. However, if you go about things the right way, you can make it work. And, at best, the end result is you laughing all the way to the bank!
Note: an earlier version of this article was published in, and paid for by, Writing Magazine and thanks are due to them for permission to reprint it here.
KEY STEPS TOWARDS A WRITING BUSINESS
Resolve to adopt a business attitude
Decide the mix of your work portfolio
Assess the monetary possibilities
Assess the other possible rewards
Consider and plan the necessary investment