Making a Living as a Writer: Shifting the Seesaw

Welcome to Part 3 of my Making a Living series. (Part 1: How I Define Making a Living as a Writer; Part 2: Identifying My Ideal Writing Life)

Most writers, children’s writers and adult writers, don’t make all of their income from their books. When I was a beginning children’s writer, very little of my income came from my trade books (those books I wrote out of love and tried to sell to publishers–as opposed to books I’m hired by publishers to write ). And trade books are STILL only a small portion of my annual income–15% last year.

To me, the goal is to shift the seesaw. When you start out, almost no income (or none at all) will come from your trade books. So you will need to do a lot of other things to make a living. Hopefully, they’ll be related to writing and kids’ books.

And then, as the years go by, you will start selling and earning money from trade books and can let go of some of the other tasks. Ideally, the longer you work at it, the more books you’ll have published, and the more royalties you’ll have coming in yearly. Even so, most writers I know, including those who have had many award-winning books published,  still make a good third to half of their income from other sources.

The goal, over time, is to shift more of your income to trade books and away from other sources.

The goal, over time, is to shift more of your income to trade books and away from other sources.

Of course, there are those lucky few who will hit it huge with their first book and don’t have to sit on the seesaw at all. But those writers are far and few between–and they’re not looking for making a living as a writer. So this series is not for them:>) And if the idea of putting in 10 years to reach the point of earning 70% of your income through your books is too depressing, then you might not be cut out for the writer’s life. I hate to be harsh, but the reality is that a career as a writer is not a quick road.

Anyway, what are these other income streams? Here are some of the ways I and other writers I know have earned income:

  • writing children’s books for educational publishers
  • writing passages and items for educational publishers
  • writing short pieces for newspapers
  • selling pieces to trade magazines and/or anthologies
  • speaking at school visits and young authors conferences
  • presenting library storytimes
  • speaking at writing conferences
  • teaching classes, in person or online
  • indie publishing (usually, indie children’s books do NOT make any money, though)
  • critiquing and editing pieces for other writers
  • freelance editing/copyediting for publishers

The next step is to look at all your possible income streams and figure out two things:

  1. What are you good at? and
  2. Who do you know that will hire you to do those tasks?

The truth is that you can be good at all sorts of things, but if you’re not in touch with people who can hire you to do them, it can be tough to earn any money.

For many writers just starting out, then, it makes sense to choose related tasks that all get hired by the same people. For instance, maybe I’m a good teacher, a copyeditor extraordinaire, and a storytime entertainer. Great! But…those assignments get hired by different groups of people. Writing organizations or school districts will hire writing teachers. Individuals or publishers will hire copyeditors. And libraries will hire storytime presenters. So if you’re just starting out, trying to break into three different markets is going to be three times as hard and time-consuming as choosing related tasks–like writing books and short pieces for educational publishers and doing freelance copyediting or editing for publishers. With that second grouping, you can try to sell your skills to one group of clients, which simplifies your task considerably.

So, if you’re interested in making a living as a writer, I challenge you to do three things:

  1. make a list of the writing/book/teaching-related tasks you have (please Comment to add other skills I’ve left off my list!)
  2. from your list, choose two-three that you would do for the same client base (publishers, individual writers, schools, libraries, etc.)
  3. vow to focus on those specific tasks to start earning income and building your writing career

In your first few years as a writer, you’ll need to focus on those specific income streams while still writing your trade book manuscripts and submitting them.

In my next installment, I’ll choose one income stream and outline how you might start soliciting work in that area. I hope you’ll let me know if you have any specific questions or things you’d like me to address in this series, or in the book I’m putting together. Thanks!

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About Laura Purdie Salas

children's writer, poet, reader, visiting author, speaker/teacher, mentor, copyeditor, freelance writer
This entry was posted in Making a Living. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Making a Living as a Writer: Shifting the Seesaw

  1. This deeper dive into the realities of making a living as a writer is so helpful, Laura. Well done.

  2. Pingback: Making a Living as a Writer: Choosing an Income Stream to Focus On | Mentors for Rent

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