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A Patchwork of Income: Making a Living as an Artist

Writing
I had this revelation recently about making a living as a writer. It came to me kind of absurdly late in my career, given how obvious it’s now seeming. And it’s occurred to me that, if it took me almost twenty years to figure this revelation out, there might be some other struggling writers and artists who haven’t figured it out yet, either.

So I’m going to share the wealth. If you’re a writer — or any kind of artist — trying to make a living at it, here’s the advice I wish I’d gotten ten or fifteen years ago.

OceansEleven
For years, I’ve been thinking about making a living as a writer in terms of the One Big Score. The major- publisher book deal. The regular gig for the big-name magazine. That sort of thing.

And as a consequence, I’ve had a tendency to think of littler scores — moderate bits of income from smaller publishers — as a low priority. I’ve always been happy to get them, of course; but I’ve tended to look at the littler scores as stepping stones, ways to get my name more widely recognized, so I could make bigger and bigger scores… which would also be stepping stones, on my way to the One Big Score.

(I should know better. I’ve seen enough crime/ adventure movies to know how dumb it is to stake your life and career on One Big Score…)

But I realized recently — somewhat to my surprise — that I’m actually making a fair living as a writer. I’m not yet working full- time at it, or making my full living off of it. But I am making something that vaguely resembles real money — a substantial portion of my income, money that I use to pay actual bills and stuff — from my writing.

And it’s coming from lots of small and moderate -sized payments, from lots of small and moderate -sized publishers and sources.

In no particular order, it’s coming from:

Advertising income from my blog
Donations and subscriptions to my blog (thanks, everybody!)
Regular columns for online periodicals
One-time projects for anthologies or other publications
Royalties from book sales

(And I’m not counting the fact that about 75% of what I do in my day job is copywriting and book editing.)

Calculator
No one piece of this is hugely substantial. But it all adds up: not quite to an income, not yet anyway, but to a genuine part-time job. (And a nice side benefit of a patchwork income is that, if one piece of it falls through, it’s not a disaster. It’s a temporary annoyance.)

Oh. One more essential thing. (She said sneakily, saving the zinger for last.)

Many of these little pieces?

I wouldn’t have them if it weren’t for the blog.

Money
And not just the obvious pieces, either: the ads, the donations. Both of my current regular gigs for online publications — the Blowfish Blog gig and the FriendFinder/ Alt.com gig — I got, at least in part, because publishers or friends of publishers knew about my blog. Some of my anthology pieces and other one-time paid gigs are reprints of blog posts… and that’s becoming increasingly true as I build a larger body of work here. And the blog — and the fact that I can do ad trades with other blogs — is becoming one of the primary ways that I promote my books.

I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: If you’re writing, you have to blog. You just do. I — don’t look at me that way. Point that gun somewhere else. Get off the window ledge. I know that blogging is a time suck. I know that it feels like you’re giving away for free what you’re trying to make a living at. I know that a blog takes a lot of work to do right… and an insane amount of patience to stick with for long enough to get any kind of traffic and traction out of it.

But here’s what I’ve said before, and will say again: If you’re a writer in the early 21st century, and you don’t blog? It’s like being a pop musician in the mid 20th century, and refusing to let your songs be played on the radio. You’re denying yourself what is probably the single most powerful outlet currently available for publicizing your work.

That’s all something of a side point, though. It’s an important side point, and one I’ll continue to evangelize about; but it is a side point. So let me get back to the main point.

Which is this:

Patchwork quilt
Building a writing career, or any sort of artistic career, is very rarely about getting the One Big Break, scoring the One Big Score. It’s more like sewing a patchwork quilt. No one piece of a patchwork quilt is going to keep you warm… but all of them sewn together can do a pretty decent job of it.

By all means, keep trying for the Big Score. But don’t neglect the little scores while you’re at it. If you can get enough of them, the little scores can add up to a genuine career.

Comments

  1. Valhar2000 says

    All of this is strongly reminiscent of Isaac Asimov’s comments on being a prolific writer in his autobiography, “I. Asimov”. Have you read them?

  2. says

    When I was in art school I asked the instructor of the exhibition class what it took to “make it” as an artist, and she told me that successful artists are those that just kept at it. There’s a lot to be said for just showing up every day in a creative life. Glad to hear this one is working for you Greta!

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