tl;dr version: Everyone can write a book, not everyone can make money out of it.
“So many feet walked by this place, all with stories to tell”.
I forgot to take a picture of this phrase, which I saw stickered on a wall near my house. I said I would do it on my way back, but I was too engrossed on the bunch of books I got from the library to actually remember what I said to myself on the way in. So, there, you’ll have to take my word for it, that this is there and says this very phrase (or something to this effect).
I write a lot, so people approach me every now and then and ask me how to become a writer, what do they need to get started, and so on.
Is it true that everyone has a story to tell? I think yes, everyone has a story to tell. And it’s easy too. If you put the words down you’re a writer. A good or a bad one isn’t really important.
There are at least 24,285 articles on the internet trying to help people with the classic question “how do I become a writer?”. This is my all-time favorite: How to Write a Book – The Short Honest Truth.
But despite of this being the question spoken out loud, what most people really want to know is “how can I make a living out of this thing that’s free for me?” It’s the old ‘something for nothing’. They think being a writer is an easy life, since you don’t have to source materials, pay suppliers and so on. It’s free money.
It’s true anyone can write a book. As true as “anyone can become a violinist” or “anyone can learn Arabic”. You can do whatever you set yourself to put in the hours and the work on. You just need to commit.
But still, writing doesn’t pay off right away, or ever. You don’t spend half an hour daily working on it then head for the gym or go have lunch with your other writer friends who have so much free time. If you don’t put in the hours and the effort, you don’t get anything in return. And, I have to add, even if you do, you might get no money for it.
Writing books and stories for a living is probably worse than any other job you could get. There’s no salary, there are no vacations, there’s no one to blame if it doesn’t get done in time. There’s no team. It’s a lonely effort that can only be pleasant or, to say the least, productive, if you’re in love with it. Otherwise you’re screwed.
The money making part of a book is not just the writing. It’s making sure people know it exists and are able to buy it. For that, you either get a deal with a publishing company, or you self-publish.
Getting a deal with a traditional company does not guarantee a lifetime of royalties being sent to your bank account. I know one writer who’s had eight books released by a mid-sized publishing company, and still, he cannot make a living out of it. He gives lectures, courses on creative writing, writes for magazines, whatever you can think of, to support himself.
Publishers have to fight for shelf and promotional space inside the book shops, on Amazon, everywhere. They will do it for you for a while, but they will keep moving on to the next new thing and you might get sidelined and never sell a book again, because there’s no promotional effort being done.
Self-publishing is just as difficult. The difference here is that you get a bigger slice of your cake, given you don’t have to share it with the publishing. The downside is that you will have to do the promotional part yourself if you want to see any money. It’s good and bad. It’s good because you can control it and you can keep it alive for longer than a traditional company would. It’s bad because you have to perhaps do a type of work you’re not familiar with. Unless you’re a marketing writer, in which case, you’re in your comfort zone.
You need to get in touch with your fanbase, grow it, make sure you get your name out there. You need to be in constant control of your image and you book’s image, find out where is your audience and so many other things that a publishing house would do on your behalf.
So, yes, everyone can be a writer. But not everyone can make money out of it, and certainly most people won’t be a JK Rowling, sitting on piles of cash while writing another best seller.
I don’t want to be rich. I don’t really care for money that much. I need to pay bills so I can keep a roof over my cats’ heads, I need to buy food so I don’t starve. All the rest is optional. And if I get people to read what I write and that makes them feel better about life, about themselves or even just laugh a bit, well, then my life is pretty much awesome.
Like any art, if you don’t make any effort to earn money with it, it’s a hobby, a form of expression, but not a profession. Might be a bit of an utilitarian approach to art, but I’d rather be happy now writing books and making some money out of it than suffering my entire life on a job that makes me unhappy and being recognized only when I’m dead. All other approaches are valid, this is mine.