Making Money As A Professional Writer Is Hard, Here’s How To Succeed

The reason why the terms “starving artist” or “starving writer” exist is because they are true. It is very difficult to make money in the arts. However, if you want to be a professional writer and not starve, let me provide you with some insights.

For background, I’ve written over 2,500 articles on Financial Samurai since 2009, authored a 200+-page e-book in 2012, and published a 300+-page hardcover personal finance book in 2022. These writing activities have enabled me to earn enough money as a professional writer to provide for my family of four in San Francisco.

However, sadly, I could NOT make it as a professional writer if I only was the author of books. Let me explain more about making money as a writer. I’ll share with you some dollar figures that will make you scratch your head with dismay.

While writing is one of the best ways to make extra money from home, it is also a difficult way to make money full time. For those of you looking to build more side income through writing, this post is for you.

The Easiest Ways To Make Money As A Writer

To summarize this long post, the easiest ways to make money as writer are as a:

1) Freelancer. Since we all took English in high school, almost all of us can write. You just need to start applying for freelance writing gigs online, which there are plenty.

2) Journalist / Columnist. Get a job at a media organization and you are a professional writer. But not everybody can get such a job without a degree in writing, English, or Journalism.

3) Blogger. Anybody can start their own site for less than $100 nowadays. From your blog you can make advertising revenue and money from your own products. But it takes years of making little-to-no money, which is why it’s harder to sustain.

4) Book author. The hardest way to make money as a writer is by writing a book. Don’t publish a book if you want to get rich. Publish a book only if you have something you must say.

Now let’s get to the meat of why being a professional writer is so hard to make a living!

Why It’s So Difficult Making It As A Professional Writer

Making it as a writer is so difficult because most people expect everything they read to be free nowadays. This is despite people unwilling to do their own jobs for free.

It doesn’t matter how much value you add to your blog readers or newsletter subscribers either. Only 2% – 4% of your readers will buy something from you. 2% – 4% is the industry standard. For example, if you have 10,000 subscribers of your 10-year-old free newsletter, only between 200 – 400 of your subscribers will buy anything from you.

You could have hosted your cousin at your home, paid for all their meals, and took them sightseeing over several days. Chances are still less than 50% they will support your work!

Thanks to the internet and technology, the race to the bottom happened extremely quickly with writing. Print-only newspapers went out of business, journalists got laid off, and free blogs and social media platforms grew to the billions.

Newspaper advertising revenue and google online ad revenue - How To Make It As A Professional Writer In A Brutally Competitive Field

After going through an initial 20-year retrenchment phase, media organizations needed to adapt in order to survive. As a result, traditional media organizations like The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Bloomberg, and The Washington Post focused on online subscription revenue.

Hence, if you want to increase your chances of making it as a professional writer, the best way is to join a media organization as a columnist or journalist. Depending on experience, the job will pay between $35,000 – $150,000 a year. You should receive healthcare benefits and hopefully some retirement benefits as well.

Take a look at this crowdsourced media salary Google doc for hundreds of writing and editing positions and their respective salaries. The vast majority make under $750,000 a year.

You May Need To Already Be Rich To Be A Professional Writer

There’s an interesting stereotype in the writing industry. Given the pay is relatively low, only the already wealthy are willing to join media organizations and write for a living. Further, to get a job at a top publication often requires getting a masters degree in journalism.

Below are the 2022 -2023 tuition rates for the Columbia Journalism School, one of the top journalism graduate schools in the country. Tuition and fees of $81,000 – $118,000 a year for the full-time programs is a ton of money for only one year! And then there are living expenses.

If you are already rich, often the next great temptation is power. The allure of sharing your thoughts on a large platform can be very attractive to some people. So is being able to affect public opinion. Even if you have little experience, joining a large publication will give you instant credibility and a huge megaphone.

Of course, most professional writers are neither rich or come from wealthy families. Most professional writers write because it’s what they love to do.

Making It As An Independent Professional Writer

Many writers, however, aren’t willing to work for any organization. Given writing is a creative endeavor, most writers want to be free to write as they please. Having deadlines and editors who want them to tell a story a certain way can often bum writers out.

As a result, many writers start their own blogs and newsletters to gain the freedom to express themselves without limits. First and foremost, writers write because they want to be read. The making money part is usually secondary. If writers had wanted to make more money, they would have studied computer science, engineering, or finance!

But writing a free blog will unlikely immediately make you enough money to pay for a full tank of gas nowadays, let alone a mortgage. It usually takes two or three years of making no money writing online before you build enough traffic to earn income.

How much money can you make blogging
Potential blogging income by online traffic

Freelancing Is The Easiest Way To Make Money As A Writer

Given it’s so hard to make good money blogging, the easiest way to make it as an independent professional writer is to be a freelance writer. As a freelance writer, you write articles based on assignment for other media sites.

Depending on your reputation and expertise, you could charge anywhere from 5 cents to 2 dollars a word. In other words, if you wrote a 1,000-word article, you could make anywhere between $50 to $2,000. It’s quite a huge spread, I know!

There is a good correlation between the quality of your writing and how much you can charge as a freelance writer. The better your writing, the more you will attract larger publications with bigger budgets.

Dang, what am I doing spending so much time writing on Financial Samurai for free? Pay wall coming up! Just kidding. Every time I think of throwing up a pay wall I think about the kid at the library using the internet because they are too poor to have access at home.

Building A Brand Is Vital As A Writer

Fortunately or unfortunately, building a recognizable brand may be even more important than writing well. As a writer, you must have a certain style. In addition, it’s important to stand for things. If you’re just writing what everybody else is writing, it’s hard to stand out. It’s the same for most industries.

For Financial Samurai, I chose to have the samurai mask emblem as the visual brand. The style of the mask has evolved over the years. However, the concept has always been the same. A fierce-looking samurai that is here to help you slice through money’s mysteries. The color scheme has always been red, black, and silver.

I’ve also established some principles of the Financial Samurai. Some of which include, “Never fail due to a lack of effort because effort requires no skill.” These core Financial Samurai principles are embedded in many articles I write. If I were to ever employ freelance writers, they would adopt the Financial Samurai principles as well in their writing.

Once you build a recognizable brand, you will start receiving more opportunities to write and earn. In business, we know that luxury brands can charge higher premiums as well. Think about how much more Louis Vuitton charges for a bag with the same materials as Coach.

When building a brand as a writer, think about the following:

  • Writing style and cadence
  • The stances you want to take
  • The colors of your website
  • Your tagline
  • Your picture or emblem
  • Topic expertise

Build Your Own Platform As A Professional Writer

Every aspiring professional writer must have their own platform to showcase their work. You could showcase your writing on somebody else’s platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, and Quora. But it is much better to showcase the majority of your writing on your own website.

Once you’ve launched your own website, then you can leverage social media to help build traffic back to your own website. One of the biggest mistakes I see creators doing is spending too much time generating content and traffic for other platforms rather than their own.

The ratio of time spent should be closer to 90% on your own website and 10% on social media. Stick with this ratio and your website has a much better chance of growing. Reverse the ratio and you’re more focused on helping already large platforms grow larger.

Your platform serves as an extension of you. It doesn’t have to be large. It just has to be authentic. By having a website, you will inevitability attract people who appreciate your work. It is the law of attraction, which is more powerful than ever thanks to the internet.

It is important NOT to be all things to all people. Whoever you are and whatever you believe, you will inevitably have critics and haters. Don’t try to appease them. Focus on writing about what interests you.

Once you launch your website, you must stay consistent over a long enough period of time. Too many writers quit writing after a year. But I promise you, the secret to your success is longevity and consistency.

Shoot to publish at least two articles every week for three years. If you do, you will more than likely be able to make at least $1,000 a month as a professional writer. The combination will come from freelance writing opportunities, consulting, and advertising.

Remember this: If you can talk forever, you can write forever. Therefore, if you quit writing on your platform after only a year or two, then you know that writing was never your passion in the first place.

Your Platform Is Not A Guarantee For Getting A Book Deal

Back in 2011, I tried to find a literary agent to represent me for a new book on how to negotiate a severance and retire early. At the time, Financial Samurai was two years old. Despite sending out dozens of inquires, I never got one offer or response.

Undaunted, I worked with my wife and father to self-publish How To Engineer Your Layoff: Make A Small Fortune By Saying Goodbye. The e-book has gone onto to sell thousands of copies as the best book about severance negotiation strategies.

Although I had a growing platform, no literary agent believed in me at the time. Therefore, all I could do was continue publishing three times a week on things I cared about.

In retrospect, it was a blessing I didn’t get a traditional book deal from a large publisher. By getting rejected, I learned the ins and outs of self-publishing. Not only did I gain perspective and experience, I earned more money from self-publishing an e-book.

How Much Money You Can Make Self-Publishing?

Given you want to be a writer, you also want to be as free as possible to write what you want. How To Engineer Your Layoff was my irreverent take on how to walk away from a job with money in your pocket.

Now that I’ve gone through a 2-year process writing with a major book publisher (Portfolio Penguin), there is no way How To Engineer Your Layoff would exist in its current form. While my severance negotiate book would still would be an excellent resource. It would look very different.

Since 2012, when How To Engineer Your Layoff was launched, it has earned over $500,000 from the book. I did so because I developed the Financial Samurai platform. Whenever there is a career or retirement-related article, I would often mention my book. Then a small percentage of readers would click the link and buy the book.

As a self-published author, I also controlled the price. Ebooks usually range from $0.99 to $20. Given I decided to only sell the book on my platform, I could charge a higher price. And if people wanted to learn about severance negotiation strategies for free, there are dozens of free-to-read articles about the subject on Financial Samurai.

$500,000 from an e-book is a lot, but it was earned over a 10-year period. $50,000 a year is also a good amount. However, $50,000 a year isn’t enough for my family of four to survive on in San Francisco.

In general, the majority of self-published authors can make $1,000 – $12,000 a year selling a self-published e-book. The larger the platform and the more e-books you can produce, the more you will make. There are some bloggers who make six-figures a year selling short ebooks for $5 – 15 each.

Landing A Book Deal From Your Platform

You don’t need a platform to land a traditional book deal. It just helps a lot. For example, if you are a freelance writer and have a website, you can showcase all your bylines on your platform for prospective acquisition editors to see.

For me, I did things differently. I don’t spend time freelance writing for other platforms because I’d rather focus on building Financial Samurai. I want to own my work. Further, I enjoy writing for the joy it brings me, not for the money. That’s what my passive income investments are for.

Nine years after I was rejected by every literary agent I contacted, an editor from Portfolio Penguin reached out and asked if I was interested in writing a book. I hadn’t wanted to go through the book-writing process again because it took so much work. If I did, I would have written multiple e-books since How To Engineer Your Layoff came out in 2012 and made lots more money!

But after considering for two months, I figured what the heck. I knew I would regret passing up the book deal opportunity when I’m older. I negotiated up from the initial offer and away we went.

How Much Can You Make Publishing A Traditional Book?

The average book deal is supposedly around $10,000. Let’s call it $10,000 – $20,000 to be safe. Can you live off $10,000 – $20,000 a year? Probably not for 90%+ of you who want to live alone in a developed country.

After all, the Federal Poverty Limit for one person is $13,590 in 2022. For a family of four, which I have, the Federal Poverty Limit is $27,750. Therefore, I would be a hungry professional author if I tried living off a book deal that paid me even double the Federal Poverty Limit for a family of four here in San Francisco.

2022 federal poverty guidelines and being a starving writer

But it gets worse.

Your book advance of $10,000 – $20,000 doesn’t get paid out immediately. Instead, it gets paid out usually over a three-year period. You generally get paid a third upon signing the book deal, a third when the book is launched, and a third a year after the book is launched.

In other words, even if you got a above-average $30,000 book deal, you would only get paid $10,000 up front. Meanwhile, it often takes one to two years before your book gets published to the world. Therefore, you won’t get another $10,000 for at least one year, but most likely two years!

There is no way the “average writer” who signs with a traditional publisher can survive off $10,000 a year. In my case, my book advance is paid out over four tranches. Doh.

But it gets worse, still!

Most aspiring writers never get book deals. Some say less than 10 percent of writers get book deals with a major publishing house. Can you imagine being one of the lucky ten percent and only getting a $10,000 – $20,000 book advance?

The mismatch with the difficulty of getting a book deal and the average book advance is off.

Once again, we writers do not write mainly for the money. We write because we have something to say. We would much rather prefer being widely read than making a lot of money.

Although, making a lot of money doing what we’d do for little money is always nice! And of course, if we’re trying to make it as a professional writer to survive, then the money matters even more.

A Large Book Deal May Not Be Enough Either

Based on what I just shared about how book advances are paid, getting a six-figure book deal may not be enough to support a family either.

Let’s say you are a family of four with an annual budget of $84,000 a year or $7,000 a month. In order to survive off your book deal only, you would need to get AT LEAST a $252,000 book deal, since it gets paid out in three installments. The real number is closer to $300,000 because you likely have to pay income taxes.

The number of authors getting $300,000 book deals is less than 0.1%. We can dream big all we want, but your chances are very low for surviving off only your book advance.

Unfortunately, my family of four has a budget greater than $84,000 a year. Heck, I’ve written how it takes some families $300,000 in gross annual income to live a middle-class lifestyle in a big city today. Sadly, I doubt anybody would give me a $300,000 book deal, let alone a $900,000 book deal.

What About Book Royalties?

Roughly 70% of authors don’t sell enough books to make enough to ever earn royalties. Therefore, the book advance is the most the majority of authors will ever get.

Each book sale generates royalty income that gets deducted from your book advance. For example, let’s say you make 12% royalties off a $27 book. That’s $3.24. Let’s say you got a nice $75,000 book advance. You would need to sell 23,148 copies before you could start earning $3.24 for every book sold.

Selling 23,148 copies could take one year, three years, five years, or never! According to my editor at Portfolio Penguin, 90% of books don’t sell more than 5,000 copies.

Therefore, just like how startup employees shouldn’t count on their stock options to make them rich, authors shouldn’t count on their book royalties to make them rich either.

Book Competition Is Fierce

There are literally over 3 million books for sale on Amazon right now. Every day there are at least 200 new books published across different formats. With such fierce competition, only about the top 0.5% make enough to survive only from their book sales.

I went to a local Barnes & Nobles to see Buy This, Not That in the wild with my kids. It was so fun to go treasure hunting for my book with them. This experience alone made the whole book-writing journey worth it.

Below are two book shelves that alone have over 600 business titles. Holy Bumblebee tuna! Standing out is next to impossible without a large platform.

Then there are 99 cent eBooks and knockoffs you have to compete with on Amazon. Despite zero quality control, Amazon still shows and ranks these books, thereby crowding your book out.

Competition is fierce with book sales, Buy This, Not That at Barnes And Noble

So How Does One Succeed As A Professional Writer?

One definition of “succeed” is to earn enough as a writer to provide for you and your family.

The keys to making it as a professional writer are:

  • Consistency
  • Quality
  • Platform
  • Brand
  • Humility

We’ve talked about the first four items. Let’s talk about humility.

An aspiring professional writer needs to have the humility to do whatever it takes to make their dream work. This means understanding that being a professional writer doesn’t pay well and cobbling together various ways to make money.

The Best Work Combinations To Make Money Writing

To succeed as a professional writer may mean having to tolerate a day job you don’t love just to pay the bills. It also means waking up early or staying up late to write on your platform.

While you’re writing on your platform, you’re also sending out e-mails for freelance writing opportunities. This way, you can build your resume to develop more credibility and command higher rates.

If you need to, you will take a minimum-wage job flipping burgers. Or you might do what I did and drive for Uber for a couple years to earn supplemental income. Of course, if necessary, you will cut your budget to the bare bones to make your income last.

Here are the two best work progressions to becoming a professional writer.

Path #1 For The “Generalist” Writer

  • Have a day job, start a blog on the side, and take on freelance writing gigs
  • Drop your job once your blog and freelance writing gigs make enough money to cover your basic living expenses
  • Drop your freelance writing gigs once you’ve gained enough momentum from your blog
  • Land a book deal and eventually earn money blogging, from a traditional book, and your ebooks

The generalist is someone who likes to write but has greater interests other than writing in the beginning. Their interests could range from a career in finance, medicine, engineering, marketing, etc. In other words, their day jobs aren’t focused on writing, although writing is a component.

Given writing generally pays poorly, the generalist’s advantage is they will make more money in their careers to help them pursue professional writing quicker. An obvious example is my own, where I worked in investment banking for 13 years before negotiating a severance. Writing was part of my day job. But I also wrote after hours for three years before leaving my day job.

The downside to being a generalist is they usually have to build their writing brand from the ground up. This process will likely take years. However, if the generalist succeeds at building a reputable platform, they will feel more satisfaction than the writer who piggybacks off an established platform.

I do believe blogging is one of the best businesses in the world. Margins are high and you can’t shut down a blog, which is especially helpful during global pandemics. It just takes a while to get going.

Path #2 For The Writing Enthusiast

  • Join a media organization as a journalist to build experience and instant credibility
  • Start a blog on the side to build your brand
  • Start a newsletter (mine) to build a following, which could eventually turn into paid subscribers
  • Job hop to an even more reputable media organization after three-to-five years
  • Leverage the new media organization’s brand to land a book deal
  • Repeat the process over and over again

For the writing enthusiast who has always wanted to write for a living, joining a company that produces written content is the initial goal. Although the pay is not the best, the writing enthusiast is hopefully doing what they love.

The biggest advantage for a writing enthusiast is the organization they work for. The writing enthusiast gets to piggy back off the brand and the reach of their company. Therefore, it’s much easier to land traditional book deals and sell more books if you work at a major media company.

Rightly or wrongly, it’s easier to become a New York Times bestseller if you work for The New York Times. They have an editorial board whose members decide on who gets to ascend versus using book sales as the main ranking variable. And of course they are going to give their employees the first look.

Becoming A Professional Writer Is Difficult, But Doable

Making a living as a writer won’t be easy. You either have to already come from money, have already made your money, or really love to write and be OK with not earning much.

If you don’t have a lot of money and really love to write, then you will find ways to earn other sources of income to pay for your living expenses.

For me, I was only able to leave my job in 2012 and write for free on Financial Samurai because I got a severance package and was already earning a livable passive income stream.

Without these two financial buffers, there wouldn’t be nearly as many articles on this site. The type of articles on Financial Samurai would also be more geared towards making me money.

But after writing regularly since 2009, I now see the compounding effects of longevity.

Create A Virtuous Cycle

Financial Samurai helped me land a book deal. Landing a book deal with a major publisher helps increase credibility and bring new traffic to Financial Samurai. Financial Samurai then helps sell more copies of my book. As a result, chances are high I will be able to land another book deal for a higher amount if I want one.

But I don’t want one, at least not for a while, because I’m too damn tired!

My original intention was to just enjoy my early fake retirement and write for fun on the side. Alas, the longer Financial Samurai exists, the more opportunities come. At least I’m proud to have gone through the process to share these insights with you.

Pursuing a writing career is worthwhile. You just have to really enjoy the process. Because if you don’t, the money is not enough to keep you going.

Don’t quit your day job to be a professional writer. Do your writing on the side until you gain some momentum. Once you earn enough from your writing to cover your basic living expenses, then you can take a leap of faith.

If you’d like to support my work, pick up a hardcopy of Buy This, Not That: How To Spend Your Way To Wealth And Freedom. Amazon finally discounted the hardcopy version to under $19! This Wall Street Journal bestseller will be the best personal finance book you will ever read.

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