Writer in Residence

Why Writers Need to Talk About Work

By Liz Worth

Like a lot of people out there, I used to think that anyone who had a book published must be “making it” as a full-time writer. I didn’t wonder how much they might actually be making, just assumed that they were getting by just fine.

And then I became a writer and learned how very, very misguided my thinking had been. In fact, I was quickly schooled in the double-life that so many authors lead. We know writers through their bylines and spines of their books, but rarely do we know the details of their lives outside of that.

When people used to ask me if I was a full-time author, I would tell them that getting published is not equivalent to winning Cash for Life and that yes, I do work and yes, I need the money.

Getting a book published can look great from the outside, especially if a book is getting a bit of press, but the reality is that a lot of authors are working countless, unpaid hours to get those books out there, and many will never be adequately compensated for their work, if at all.

There have been many times for me throughout the years when I considered giving up and living a life where there is no more work after work. It would be so easy to melt into the couch instead and binge on YouTube videos all night and never feel like there is something else I “should” be doing.

But the thing about writing is that it just keeps bugging you. You can’t shake that “should” that’s in the back of your mind and that makes it really, really hard to give up on, even when it feels like it’s killing you. (Is that too dramatic? Because it’s true.)

And that’s why I’ve started to feel – perhaps a bit arrogantly – that people should say “thank you” when they find out someone is an author. Because most of us aren’t making a living at this.

Sure, there are other amazing payoffs that come with the territory, but there is also a persistent sense of burnout, this feeling that you are always over-extended and any little thing could push you right over the edge because you just have so much work to do and so little time to do it in.

But what would happen if people didn’t take the time out of their already busy lives to write books? What if they didn’t take the risk to invest in themselves enough to spend so many hours on something that gives so little back financially?

Because so many of us start writing without knowing what’s at the end of it all. There is no guaranteed outcome. A lot of the time you don’t even know if anyone will want to publish it.

What if everyone who wanted to write a book but had nothing and no one to entice or encourage them to do it simply decided not to?

What would bookstores and libraries look like? Would we lose small press fairs and Word on the Street and Meet the Presses?

What kind of selection would be out there for book lovers?

Walk into any bookstore (especially a big box bookstore) and look at the thousands of books they've got on those shelves. Authors aren't put on a salary when they get a publishing deal; some don't even get advances.

They get paid through royalties, just like musicians, and they have to sell a lot of books just to get by for a year.

If an author was getting $5 in royalties for every book they sold, and they wanted to make 35 thousand dollars a year off their book sales, they would have to sell 7,000 books a year. In Canada, a bestseller is considered to be a title that hits 5,000 sales.

That would mean that for every author to live on book sales alone, each title would have to have a book that surpassed bestseller status here, and it would have to sell that well forever for that author to maintain that income. Or they would have to write many more books that would perform the same way, or hope for better.

That’s a lot of book sales, and sadly, there a lot of books don’t even sell out of a first print run of 500. And that’s because the books aren’t good. It’s just because it’s a tough business.

I remember reading a blog post by author Caitlin R. Kiernan, a prolific, award-winning young novelist. Her confession? That if she didn’t have to work for her money by writing new novels, she probably wouldn’t. If she could, she said, she’d prefer to spend her time outdoors, or with her partner.

There can be a lot of pressure when your livelihood or reputation is suddenly riding on every word you write, which can change a writer’s relationship with their craft.

Writers also have other interests, other jobs, and never intended to make writing a full-time gig. Others might have only wanted to pursue one story idea, and having done that, don’t feel the need to continue.

And so for some authors, having a day job isn’t only a financial necessity, but an emotional one, too. Not everyone wants to be lost in their creative work day in and day out. For some, writing is an outlet, not a means to an end.

Of course, it’s easy to see why people would believe otherwise. It’s romantic to think of writers hanging out in dusty coffee shops all afternoon, scribbling in spiral bound notebooks until sunset and spending the rest of the night getting drunk on red wine. In reality, though, being a full-time writer usually means spending time at home, alone all day, typing.

Reality is that a lot of people who are working creatively in any way likely come home at the end of the day and gets to work.

But in a world where many people tend to only equate productivity with a wage, you will always be explaining why you work as much as you do when there may not always be a paycheque at the end of it all.

That’s why it’s important for writers to talk about work – their other work, whatever it is. Because every time we do, it can help to shift assumptions and perceptions about what it really takes to get books into the world.

And it also might help aspiring authors understand the kind of commitment that’s really involved and why we all need to be clear about our intentions for doing what we’re doing.

Because for some people, it’s hard not feel like a failure if you’re not succeeding financially. It’s also hard not to feel judged by others who expect that you are making a lot of money by writing.

Even if you are comfortable with the financial realities of being an author, it can be easy to feel insecure about them when you feel like you constantly need to explain why you’re not making more money.

It can also be hard when you hear other people’s success stories, which are often riddled with clichés: “Put the work in and the money will come.” “The universe speaks through abundance.”

And don’t get me wrong: I love a good success story as much as anyone else and I absolutely believe in hard work. But also believe in reality, and sometimes the reality is that doing what you love might not pay off the way you want it to.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, though. Because writing is about so much more than the money. It has to be. And that’s why we need to allow ourselves – and each other – to celebrate the ways that success does show up when we get it.

By talking about the money, or the lack of it, we can help each other redefine what it means to be successful as a writer. It doesn’t always mean quitting your day job.

It might mean inspiring just one person to write their own book, or learning that you can accomplish something you never thought possible, or feeling fired up enough to start a second or third or fourth novel. It could be the chance to be part of a community that you didn't even know existed.

However that success shows up for you, take it and run with it. You never know what it could grow into, or how it will feed you.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.


Liz Worth is a Toronto-based author. Her first book, Treat Me Like Dirt: An Oral History of Punk in Toronto and Beyond, was the first to give an in-depth account of Toronto’s early punk scene. She has also released a poetry collection called Amphetamine Heart and a novel called PostApoc. You can reach her at http://www.lizworth.com, on Facebook or Twitter.

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