Previously published in The New Writer Magazine
You’ve made it! A magazine or publisher has bought one story from you, and you feel you can now join the ranks of the professionals. JK Rowling will be inviting you around for tea, and people will be stopping you in the street for your autograph. Not quite.
Getting your first story published is a bit like all your numbers coming up on the lottery. You immediately give up your job; tell your boss what you really think of her; use your credit card to put down a huge deposit on a big car and an even bigger house; dump your partner for a newer model who suddenly turned up the day they'd heard you won and only then do you find out that you forgot to buy the ticket. All you can do, as you wave your new love goodbye, is creep to the boss and hope that you can get the deposits back on the car and house. As for the ex-partner forgiving you? Forget it!
You might have sold your first story, but it’s probably wise not to give up the day job or tell the boss where to go just yet. I was convinced that once I’d sold a story, editors would read it in the magazine and be queuing up to beg me for my work. I waited by the phone, checked my email, checked the phone wasn’t broken, checked my email again. Nothing. It took me years to get paid for that first professional story, and another three years after that to get paid for another one. Luckily the breaks in between payment have been much smaller since then – getting rejected really focuses the mind - but I’m still not ready to put down the deposit on the Georgian manor to which I aspire. I did get a new vacuum cleaner out of my earnings. It’ll come in handy for the central staircase in the manor.
It is said that the average writer earns £4000 a year. Most of us have to settle for being distinctly below average in the earnings department. Even writers who get publishing deals find that they have to supplement their earnings with appearances at literary festivals, presenting workshops, or in some cases, having a day job to keep a roof over their heads.
One reason writers are earning less is that there are more of us going after the same shrinking markets, especially for those who write short stories. One writer I know told me that a few years back she could send five stories to one of the women’s magazines and every one would be accepted. Now she gets perhaps two out of the three accepted. A new writer coming to the same market will most likely get all five returned. I know because I was that new writer. It takes a lot of perseverance to get to the point where a publication will recognise your name and accept a story because they know they can trust you to deliver the goods.
So how do you make a living from writing?
First of all, know your market. You’re more likely to sell a story to a magazine if you have studied the market and understand what they’re seeking. Make sure that any story you submit matches the publication in terms of tone, theme and word count. A good way to do this is to read other stories they publish and also to look at what sort of advertisements they carry. What is their target audience? The Peoples’ Friend will not like your comic gangster story, but The Weekly News might.
Diversify. Don’t limit your writing activities to short stories or novels. Write articles about writing or other things that interest you, like history, photography, and nature. Write articles for newspapers and magazines. If you feel you’ve something to teach others, offer to run a workshop at a local adult education centre or at a festival. Write in different genres so that you’re able to target a larger market. Science fiction, horror, crime, romance. There are dozens of markets for each of these genres, which you can find at www.duotrope.com.
Submit a lot. A new writer once asked me if it was okay to send out other submissions whilst she was waiting for one editor to get back to her. The answer may seem obvious to us old pros, but it isn’t to everyone. As long as you don’t send the same story to several different outlets – they don’t like it when you do – then the more work you have out there the more chance you have of getting an acceptance. I submit at least 15 pieces a month. When work is rejected I send it back out again.
Enter competitions. This is another good way of earning money from writing, providing your work is placed. It’s also a good way of raising your profile. The more your name is out there, the more chance you have of making it in other writing markets.
Don’t work for nothing. It’s very tempting when you first start writing to give work away for free as a way of getting your name out there. We’ve all done it. The problem with this is that no editor will pay for work from one writer they can get it for nothing from another. Value yourself, your work and other writers. Needless to say, there’s nothing wrong with donating stories to charity anthologies or similar good causes. You could also count contributor copies as ‘payment’ if you’re just starting out and submitting to the small presses.
Finally, and perhaps paradoxically, don’t write only to earn money. We’d all like to earn a bit of extra cash, but if that’s the only reason you’re writing it will show. If you love what you do, then editors will pick up on that when they read your work. Write because you love doing it. Treat anything else, publication, prize wins, earnings, new vacuums and Georgian manors as a bonus.