What Makes You a Writer?

Recently, I saw a Twitter post from an aspiring writer who asked if she was wrong to consider herself a real writer if she didn’t make her living writing. It’s not an uncommon thought. I think most people who identify themselves as writers have been asked, “But what do you do for a living?” Such a remark can shatter our fragile writer’s ego and send us scurrying for our little writer cubbyholes. But the truth is, very few—let me emphasize that, very few—book writers make a living off their book sales. That includes best-selling, traditionally published authors.

Notice I said “book writers.” For close on to thirty years I did make my living writing. I was a journalist—a newspaper reporter, magazine writer, and newspaper editor. For sixteen years after that, I was a U.S. Navy analyst. I authored technical papers and the occasional article for peer-reviewed journals. During most of those years, I was actively writing novels and short stories. Even though I’ve now published ten books and dozens of short stories, I have never lived off any income from those sales.

I retired in 2018, and now with the help of Social Security and additional income from teaching a few writing-related courses and from freelance editing other writers’ works, I can say I’m a full-time—or at least near full-time—author.

A friend of mine, the late G. M. Ford, wrote best-selling mysteries published by some of the nation’s largest traditional publishing houses for thirty years. But he couldn’t write full-time until he retired from his teaching career. Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, only worked on his spy novels parttime. For most of the year, he worked as a newspaper editor in London. Each summer he would take a leave of absence to write his Bond thrillers.

If you saw Ken Burns’ video-biography of Ernest Hemingway, one thing stood out: even the Nobel Prize for Literature laureate need financial help to support his writing. During his Moveable Feast salad-days in Paris, Hemingway worked as a newspaper reporter to support his writing (not to mention his first wife and baby). After marrying his second wife, he lived off her substantial trust fund.

Of course, in the Twenties and Thirties, even a few dollars went a long way. Unfortunately, book advances and royalties haven’t much changed since then.

Some writers can make a living from their novels, but they work extremely hard at it. My late father-in-law, Robert Wade, and his late writing partner, H. Billy Miller, made a comfortable living writing mysteries and thrillers in the post-WWII years. They were most famous for their mysteries published under the penname Wade Miller, but they also wrote under at least a half dozen other pseudonyms and published several books each year. And they were good enough—or lucky enough—to have several of their books turned into movies for the big and little screens.

Prolific contemporary authors like James Rollins and Jonathan Mayberry make their living publishing several books year. Mayberry, in particular, is a writing machine. Sci-fi and military action writer Bob Mayer makes a living producing several books a year and sponsoring writer retreats. James Patterson has sold enough books to live off his living, but he also has his own publishing endeavor and a popular thriller writing course. The late Tom Clancy stopped writing books himself and set up a production line for novels written by other writers from his ideas. Novels with Clancy’s name on the covers are still published nine years after his death.

These are the exceptions, however.

In 2018, the Author Guild published a study revealing that the median income of all authors surveyed for all writing-related activities (writing, teaching, etc.) was $6,080 in 2017. That was down from more than $10,000 in 2009. Median income for book-related activities (royalties) dropped 21 percent in the same period, going from $3,900 to $3,100. About a quarter of responding writers reported making no money at all from writing activities in 2017.

Writing is an art forum, perhaps the loneliest and least available art form at that. Musicians and singers perform in public spaces—concert halls, saloons, even public parks—and can received instant gratification in the form of applause if not money. Painters can have their work displayed in public spaces such as art galleries, museums, restaurants, and parks, and receive feedback such as approving looks and nods, if not money. But writers work in solitude then must sit back to see if the result of that work—their books—can wind their way into the hands of readers. They never get to see the expressions of approval from readers. If lucky, a reader will leave a review on Amazon or GoodReads. And, most likely, they will never make a lot of money.

So, if you are writing daily and diligently, if you are doing the demanding work of rewriting and editing, and rewriting again, and being a true artist but not an artiste, you are a writer. You may not be making a living off your writing, you may not make any money at all, but you are a writer.