Part Time Writing With Animals

We've all heard that publishing is a dog-eat-dog world, that Amazon is the 800 lb gorilla of Internet booksellers, and how if you swim with sharks you can expect to get bitten. I've heard that actors despise working with animals, but for many writers, working with animals is part of the dream. Sure, there will always be the metropolitan authors who dream of a brownstone in Manhattan and maybe a few apartment getaways in London, Paris and L.A. But I think more authors, including the famous ones, prefer the gentleman's farm or old New England town, often choosing Vermont for its beauty or New Hampshire for it's taxes.

I thought the "good life" would make an interesting backdrop for a video about fiction writing. The extras refused to cooperate and I swear they maneuvered me into the shade so they could look good at my expense. After the twelfth take, they laid down on the job (literally) so I had to go with what I had:

The publishing industry is full of animals, but you don't have to become one to live the dream. If you write fiction, however, you may want to start out living the dream part time. Writing books for a living isn't a cake walk, even for nonfiction writers. As with all self employment, there are no benefits, no unemployment insurance, and no job security. If you've never been self employed, you might not realize that "no benefits" means; no paid vacation (not even national holidays), no paid jury duty, no paid sick days, no free health insurance, no pension, no 401K matching money, and nobody to blame for your career frustration but yourself! If you have a family and your only income will be from self employment, it means you better have a couple years expenses in the bank if you don't want to find yourself back back begging for a job. Generating an income from writing books has a long lead time. Whether you are self publishing or working as a trade author, if you write several commercial flops in a row, you may find it impossible keep going.

I'm one of those writers who started out by writing short stories and moved on to a bad novel, in part to prove to myself I could write at length. I did it when I was in my early thirties and had saved up enough money to go a year without working. When I realized that I wasn't going to be able to make any money writing fiction any time soon, I couldn't face going back to work at a real job. So I limped by doing contract work in my old field for a few years while getting a nonfiction writing career off the ground. Once I was making a living as a trade author, I shifted to self publishing. But I never went back to fiction, except for the occasional blog post, and unless I stop writing nonfiction and start doing other work for a living, I really doubt I will.

It's a mistake for authors without a long track record to assume they'll be able to earn a living writing books. Writing part time while holding down a real job is the safest bet for keeping the coyotes from the door while pursuing your dream. It may even prove to be a better way to develop your fiction skills in the long run. Writing nonfiction for a living, if you can manage it, may drain you of the creativity and focus that writing fiction requires. I think fiction writing is best suited to part time authors with salary jobs they can leave at the office, or full time fiction authors who have solved the income puzzle. I'm aware that quite a few famous authors mixed and matched fiction and nonfiction (especially travelogues and science writing), but you need more discipline than I have to live that sort of dual life.


Sonshi said...

Hi Morris,

I believe you once said in your blog that if an author wants to make a living off of writing that he or she probably would need several books on the market. That leads me to wonder how many authors out there actually ONLY write for a living. I bet there are very few.

The video with the horses was great! Don't know about whether a farm would be best for an author. To me, I would propose an apartment (no need to mow the lawn or take care of livestock) near a major university. You can't help but soak in all of the learning (and the writing) that goes on there.


Morris Rosenthal said...


I looked up the census stats once on the number of people reporting authoring as their primary income. It wasn't very impressive, but in many cases, people who could make a living authoring choose to do something else in addition, such as consulting or speaking, in order to make several times as much money as they could from books. I know enough self publishers making a living to suspect there are more of us doing it than trade authors, but I'm sure either group would be dwarfed by, say, television writers.

Oddly enough, I currently live in garret a few hundred yards from Smith College. Ten years or so ago when I spent a few years working on translating my great-grandmother's works, I lived in their library. These days when I walk through campus I feel like a dirty old man:-)


Bryan Rosner said...

I make my living strictly from writing and publishing. But I should clarify this. I have found several add-ons to selling books that make me additional cash. These still fall under the "publishing" category but they aren't strictly writing.

Just today I was sitting down feeling overwhelmed by the number of projects I have underway so I broke down last year's profit to see where my money is actually coming from. This breakdown will help you see that, while most of my income does come from my own book sales, quite a bit of it comes from other publishing activities.

Here's the list, revenue broken down by percentage:

50% - sales from the three books I've written.

35% - selling other authors' books! I run an online bookstore and sell books in a similar genre as those my books belong to. I have the online bookstore web url on the back of my books, so often someone buys my books and then sees the site, visits, and buys 8 other books I sell.

15% - revenue from advertising...I use google ads but most of my revenue comes from larger single accounts that advertise specific products and services on my website and in my publications.

So as you can see, while my own books do help, what really pushes me over the edge to making this a real career is that I have other stuff going on. I should also note that I sell a few DVDs which are recordings from conferences I spoke at. I bought the rights to the copyright for these presentations and now they are a money tree. It costs me about .50 cents to reproduce one CD, and I sell them for $24.50


Morris Rosenthal said...


What's most interesting is that sales of other books is already over a third of your income. If you go on to publish another author's books, as I think I remember you mentioning, it may not be long before you're out of the "making a living self publishing" camp and into the "earning significant income" from self publishing camp.

Of course, I'll have to stop talking to you when that happens:-)