A pair of friends are putting together an anthology of short horror stories written by Connecticut writers. To that end, one of them posted a submissions call for the anthology in the r/Connecticut subreddit. She provided the guidelines as well as the compensation: $20, a contributor’s copy, and a free PDF of any future books the editors produced under their imprint. Sounds harmless, right?
But this is Reddit we’re talking about. Immediately my friend was swarmed by keyboard Bolsheviks indignant at such exploitation. Only $20 for a short story? Outrageous! Nevermind the fact that token-paying markets (defined as paying 1¢ or less per word) are common in the genre world and nothing about my friend’s offer was unusual. One little Lenin claimed she had friends — close friends — who were HWA members and they would laugh at such an amount. “Your ancestors were probably slave owners as well,” snarled another self-styled Che Guevara. And thus a blow was struck against my friend, the capitalist pig-dog. Writers of the world unite!
You can certainly make money as a writer but writing fiction is probably the worst way to do it. A 2022 survey of nearly 5,700 members of the Author’s Guild revealed that the median pre-tax income for authors — both full-time and part-time — from their books was $2,000 a year. Yet their earnings jumped to $5,000 when all writing-related income was considered; according to the survey, “56% of respondents reported that such activities as journalism, conducting events, editing, ghostwriting, and teaching more than doubled their income.”
Not all of these authors are fiction writers, of course, but the survey does jibe with my own experience: the most lucrative writing is the unglamorous stuff. Copywriting. Technical writing. Journalism. Over the years, the best-paying gigs I’ve had involved ghostwriting, editorial work, or writing short nonfiction articles.
So if there are better ways to make a buck by writing, why write fiction? There are a few reasons. One, I enjoy it and take great satisfaction when a story or book comes together. Two, some readers seem to like what I write. And three, I own it.
It’s almost unheard of for a writer to sell their copyright to a piece of fiction, whereas journalism, ghostwriting, and the rest is often work-for-hire. That means you sell the copyright in exchange for a one-time payment. Meanwhile I can theoretically publish and republish a short story an infinite amount of times because I always retain the copyright. Same with novels and novellas. Should A Season of Whispers go out of print, I can republish it with another publisher or self-publish it myself — hardly worst-case scenarios. It will be mine until long after I’m dead and it joins Jay Gatsby and Mickey Mouse in the public domain. I should add that this goes for book-length nonfiction too, like Smedley.
A writer may not make a lot of money from an individual sale of a piece of fiction but those sales can accumulate over a lifetime; and obviously the more works one has to offer, the more sales he or she can potentially make.
While I would never write in exchange for that dubious social credit known as “exposure,” I’ve mentioned before that I believe there are circumstances in which it’s OK for a writer to sell their work for less than what they might otherwise expect. For example, I have no problem contributing a free blog post or article that advertises a bigger project of mine, like a newly released book. Or, for reasons of ownership mentioned above, selling first-time rights at a bargain rate may be in your interest if your goal is to create a body of work that you can hustle forever.
Likewise, should you feel called to write lesbian steampunk poems, then you probably shouldn’t expect whopping sums in return. But if your goal is to become the preeminent name in lesbian steampunk poetry with all the fame that it brings, then token markets may be solid stepping stones toward achieving your vision.
The key is to examine a given situation and ask, Who’s making money here, if anyone? If the publishers are earning substantial profits from the project, then you should absolutely receive a piece of that, either upfront or as a royalty. But many projects operate on much leaner budgets, like, say, anthologies of horror fiction meant to showcase the talents of Connecticut writers. I assure you my friends did not embark upon their collection as a money-making scheme.
In that case, it’s up to you to determine if receiving $20 in exchange for a short story is worth your time and energy. Ask yourself if it aligns with your goals and the ultimate vision you have for yourself. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t. There are nine and sixty ways of constructing a writing career — and all of them are right.