How to Write Full-Time in the 21st Century
It’s official. Writers are paid less than McDonald’s servers. Minimum wage in the UK is £7.83 an hour (as of April 2018). McDonald’s workers in the UK are paid £8 -10 an hour. At £8 an hour, if they work 8 hours a day, 20 days a month, their annual salary is £15,360. The Guardian says the median income of professional writers in the UK is under £10,500 a year, a fall of 42% since 2005.
“The word exploitation comes to mind. Many of us (writers) are being treated badly.” — Philip Pullman
And it’s not just in the UK. Another author looked at various surveys across the US, UK, Australia and Canada. The conclusion he drew could be summarized by the sub-header he used for his last paragraph: FALLING OFF A CLIFF.
“…figures out of Australia, Canada, the US and the UK showing that writers’ incomes have plummeted over the past two decades.”
— What’s happening to authors’ earnings? Surveying the surveys by The Author’s Interest, February 20, 2018
Commercial writing is a very unscalable way to make money. It’s not like selling products or services because you have to do it yourself and you only get paid once (most of the time). The only way to increase your income is to raise your prices. But what would justify it? Especially in an era where rates are falling for the written word. If you want to make a living out of writing, you have to rethink your value proposition today to survive tomorrow.
Issues every professional writer should think about
A little bit about me first. Just so you know I didn’t aggregate what follows from other articles off the Internet; that your time spent reading this will be worth it.
I made my first money in life as a writer. I submitted a composition to the local newspaper when I was 8 or 9 and got a check for $7 in the mail after it was published.
Although I was too young to realize it then, writing would define me as a person and become a lifelong interest. Although I continued to write diaries, school plays, essays and poetry throughout my school years, I grew up in a place and time where parents wanted you to be engineers or doctors or lawyers. At the very least be an accountant. But please, not an artist or writer! You’d starve.
And so I went on to major in Finance in university, and got a job in JPMorgan as an analyst. I won some competitions for writing before graduation, including a global contest, but professional writing was never on the cards.
What followed was five years of finance job hopping and entrepreneurship dabbling that met with modest success and personal satisfaction. Something was missing, although the money at times was good. No, ok… it was more than good. But something was missing…
11 years ago I left the high pay-check world of finance, sold my education business, examined my life, and decided to pursue writing and publishing as both a career and business. In the course of the next seven years I started my own publishing firm, eventually sold that and have since ventured into other startups and writing about advanced technology. This is what I’ve learnt so far about surviving as a writer in the AI and Internet era.
There are two key types of writers in the world…
The ones who write what they are paid to, and the ones who write what they want.
As a publisher and writer I used to give talks to small crowds of aspiring young writers. At Q&A, I was often asked how does one become a professional writer. The answer I gave often met with surprised and pensive faces.
I would first tell them to distinguish between commercial writing and literary writing. The former requires you to produce the style and messages the client wants, whereas the latter is about expressing yourself and your creativity (and then hoping that someone would pay for it…). In case you are wondering, I’ve done both, but more on that later.
Let’s deal with commercial writing first, which is how most full-time writers make their living. I also often tell young writers that to be a full-time book author is like becoming a Hollywood star. Many aspire but most remain as waiters in Beverly Hills restaurants. You can only make a full-time living off it after you have made it! (unless you are a trust fund baby…) Meanwhile the rest of us have bills to pay.
Do more than just write!
If you work in-house in a corporation, you probably fall under the marketing or corporate communications department. You should try and provide at least one more skill beyond writing in order to even get hired.
These days most big companies have a digital marketing executive or social media strategist. They usually come with qualifications and experience in market research, digital advertising knowledge and editorial planning, on top of being good at written communication.
Marketing departments do like to hire people with good writing skills, but only in addition to product or industry specific knowledge as well as experience in managing advertising campaigns, creative agencies and events. Data analytics and spreadsheet skills are also increasingly relevant.
If you work in Public Relations, whether in house or in an agency, what really matters is your media network, not really how well you can write. (Looking good and speaking well usually helps too!)
Even editors and journalists these days need more than just captivating headlines and flawless grammar to avoid getting retrenched. Design and layout capabilities. Web content management systems and basic coding knowledge. Video and photo shooting and editing skills. Fluency in a second or third language.
Most web journalists shoot, edit, write and upload their own stories, especially smaller media. There’s no more budget for a big crew.
I quote from this article titled, “Evolution the Key for a New Breed of Journalists”:
“The skills required by journalists to be able to adequately provide content for their audience has increased to an extent that a writing-only journalist is almost nonexistent today.”
Specialization is key to client loyalty
Freelance writers are a dime a dozen. Especially for generalist writing. Just take a look on Upwork or Fiverr. There’s no difference between hiring a writer to do a blog post like a movie review or cooking recipe from the US versus a writer living in the Philippines or India. Content holds very little value these days. And most of it is free on the Internet.
To command a decent fee and client loyalty, you have to specialize in a specific industry or domain like biotechnology, healthcare, IT or finance. I know several specialist writers who live quite well writing freelance, and many generalist writers who struggle from month to month. Good specialist writers in specific industries or subject matters are hard to find, and experienced editors or marketing managers know that and stick to the ones who can deliver. These writers often have more job offers than they have time to write once they’ve established themselves in the business.
Marketing jobs in B2B writing — white papers, research based articles, product brochures, case studies, event coverage — also often pay a lot more than B2C jobs for consumer products. That’s because selling to a business requires far more substance and depth in the content than selling to consumers. A peer in the same industry can pick up b***s*** much faster than a layman.
Create your own distribution channel or (massive) following
The real premium in your price as a writer comes when you have your own audience and reach. Even the best quality writing and most well-researched piece will get buried in the sea of content published on the Internet everyday if you don’t own a captive audience or following. Sans that, you are just a small part of a big marketing machinery who wants to buy relevant content at the cheapest price possible.
Just think about why startups like Facebook, Youtube and Instagram have become such valuable businesses. They create none of their own content. But they provide a very powerful platform for publishing content and reaching audiences.
The ability to distribute content has always been worth more than the ability to create content. Why do you think authors’ royalties are always much lower than the publishers’ cut? The good news in the Internet era is that the ability to create that distribution platform and reach has become much easier for writers. No more agents, editors or publishers in-between.
So if you can’t code and don’t aspire to start a media company, then the next best thing you can do is build a big audience and following on whatever subject matter you are best at writing about. No more excuses for being an ‘undiscovered talent’.
Ask yourself this if you were a marketing manager in a big corporation. Would I pay $100 dollars to a writer who can pump out 1000 words so that I can post it on my corporate blog with only 200 followers, or would I pay a writer $1000 for those same one thousand words so that he could also post it on his blog/website with 20,000 followers who are also my potential customers?
If you have ever looked at influencer marketing you would know that Instagrammers or Youtubers with followers in the six or seven digit ranges can command thousands or even tens of thousands to do a post for a brand. That’s the power of reach. It really doesn’t matter to the client if you can’t tell the difference between a Gerund and Relative Clause in English grammar. Check out these influencer prices.
I rest my case on this one.
Truth be told, commercial writing, especially for freelancers, usually earns you very little respect as a writer initially. Some fresh graduate sub-editor or your manager will edit your work and most of the time you’ll just have to ‘eat it’ even if their grammar is bad or you disagree with their style of writing.
But we all have to start somewhere. And until you have successfully released a bestseller or command a million followers on your blog, think hard about how you can create value for your company or client as a wordsmith!
I will share my thoughts on literary writing in another article. Peace out for now.