Writer in Residence

My Top Ten Tips for Making a Living as a Writer

By Wendy Orr


Writing is a lousy way to make a living, but a great way to make a life, I said when I started this residency. I’ve been doing both for thirty years.


So here are 10 points that I’ve learned about the making-a-living part, most of them the hard way. They are not financial advice, more financial-attitude advice. I’ll be very happy if you don’t need them, but I certainly did when I started, and still need reminding.


1)    Don’t be too precious. You don’t have to sell your soul in your writing, but you do have to sell what write. If the thought of publicity horrifies you, think of it as honoring the work you’ve spent all this time creating. But you will still have to share something of yourself, and get over your fear of bragging. A few years ago I had a conversation with a publicist, who asked, ‘Do you want to promote Wendy Orr or Dragonfly Song?’ I was horrified. ‘The book, of course!’ ‘No,’ she said, ‘You’re the constant. If you just promote this book, you’ll have to start all over again with the next one.’   
By the time I’d to come to terms with that it was too late to invest in hiring her (because even if you’re promoting yourself as an author, you need to do it when a book’s coming out.) So I still can’t advise you on whether or not it’s worth hiring a publicist, but I’m very sure it’s worth paying a lot more attention to publicity generally than I ever have.

2)    Be prepared for the best - your aim is to earn enough to pay tax. Even if you’re just starting out, start keeping records of expenses – you won’t jinx your success by scanning receipts. You mightn’t earn enough at first to classified as a business, or to register for GST/sales tax,  but you never know – an advance, prize or grant could come in right at the end of the financial year and tip you over the threshold.
Even if you don’t get there this year, filing those receipts and keeping track of what you earn starts you off with the habit, so that when you do make it, you’re ready to go.

3)    Join your relevant national writing association if you can possibly afford it. They are the best source of information, and they support you by clarifying industry standards and fighting for payments such as public lending rights and copyright.
Canada: https://www.writersunion.ca/about
Australia: https://www.asauthors.org/

4)    Don’t sign a contract till you fully understand it.  The thrill of being offered your first book contract can be so exciting that we think the details don’t matter. They do. Make sure that you understand the difference between a traditional publisher, a self-publishing company or hybrid publisher. If you have an agent, get them to go through the contract with you and explain how it all works. If you don’t, get contract advice from your writing association.

5)    Value your time.  While many appearancesright now are virtual instead of live, you should still be paid for festival or school appearances. I admit that the exceptions seem to be more numerous than usual – and if your publisher sets up a virtual festival or conference appearance as part of your book publicity, you may not be paid but it can still be worthwhile in terms of goodwill. Don’t be afraid to ask, and to consider all the factors – how long will it take you to prepare; how wide is the conference reach; how closely does it relate to your book or image, and how badly do you want to do it?
Check with your national writers’ association for guidelines. For more details on school visits in Canada: https://www.canscaip.org/VisitsFAQ
NOTE - If I want to donate a visit or give a hefty discount to a particular school, I invoice them and put ‘Author Donation’ under the standard amount, hoping to point out that authors should be paid for their time even if I’ve made an exception.

If you’re not at the stage of being invited, think of how you can present your work or yourself on Instagram live etc, so you’re building up skills and can be confident to ask for payment when you’ve got a book out and the world opens up again.  

6)    Register for Copyright payments and Public Lending Rights wherever you are eligible. Every payment helps, and they can end up being a significant part of your income.

7)    To agent or not to agent? I’ve heard people say that they don’t want to make an agent rich – but if your 10—15% makes your agent rich, you’ll be doing very well. A good agent will more than make that percentage back, and make your life run more smoothly, as well as being able to submit to publishers who don’t take unagented submissions. But again, make sure that you understand the agreement that you’re signing with the agent.

8)    Book sales and remainders. I know authors who do very well by buying copies of their own books from the publisher and selling them at talks. Usually you can get a better discount by buying 50 copies at a time. You may also be offered the chance to buy heavily discounted copies of your books in the sad event of it being remaindered or surplus stock being disposed of. The temptation is to buy hundreds of them rather than have your precious work pulped or sold for a few dollars at discount stores. Work out how many you are likely to be able to sell at talks, sell to friends or give away as gifts. They take a lot of room under the bed.

Speaking of friends – In a very matter of fact way, you need to let people know that you have to buy your own books and cannot give them away to everyone who asks.if you decide to sell copies directly to friends and neighbours, decide in advance if you’re going to discount them, or by how much.

9)    Investigate grant opportunities and competitions. Don’t spend all your writing time filling in grant applications, but it’s worth learning submission guidelines and putting in the best one you can. Make sure literary prize competitions are valid and that you keep the copyright to your story. A few are perilously close to scams – but unpublished manuscript competition run by a reputable publishing house can change your life. That’s how I got my first book contract.

10) Write the best book you can. That’s the most important of all.


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.

Award-winning author Wendy Orr was born in Edmonton, Alberta. The daughter of an Air Force pilot, she has since lived around the world, including several years in Colorado, in France, and England where she studied Occupational Therapy. After graduation, Wendy settled in Australia, but returns home yearly to visit her family. Wendy’s many books for children have been published in 27 countries and won awards around the world. Prominent among them is Nim’s Island, which was made into the 2008 film of the same name; a 2013 sequel, Return to Nim’s Island, was loosely based on Orr’s book Nim at Sea.