There’s this rumor going around that artists have to starve.
I’m not sure who started it, but I bet it was some man in a suit. I bet that guy also read the newspaper at the supermarket just to save the buck it would cost to take it home.
You know the type I’m talking about, guys who don’t see the value in something unless they can package it up and sell it at a profit.
Unfortunately, those guys run the country I live in, continually perpetuating this falsity that something’s worth is based on its price tag – and they don’t put a premium price on art.
When the Internet holds millions of free articles and social media provides you with all the news you could want, why would you ever pay for writing?
I’m not here today to convince you to pay for art, that’s a rant I’ll save for another time.
Today, I want to convince you to make art even if you don’t get paid.
Then after that, I’ll show you how to get paid as a wrier.
Grab your “Ways to Make Money as a Writer” Worksheet.
Please don’t get me wrong here, I am fully against starving for your art, I think artists have suffered enough and I’m ready for us to make art out of joy, not pain. But the truth is, most people don’t value artists and that’s not going to change anytime soon.
You have two options (technically you have three, but I’m not going to let you choose the option of not making art):
1. You can keep making art even though it doesn’t pay.
2. You can find a way to make a career around your art, instead of directly from it.
I don’t mean to brag here, but I’m kind of an expert in making art that doesn’t pay. I’ve been painting since I was a kid and I’ve never made a single penny off of any of it. I’ve got articles all over the Internet that I wrote simply for exposure.
In fact, the only way I can write is if I have no intention of making money off of it. The pressure of a price kills my creative flow.
Which is a problem for a professional writer.
For years, I tried to make a living freelancing, writing articles here and there for magazines and websites, making $75-300 a post. It never paid my bills, even with a side job.
I was killing the creative inside of me trying to make her write to sell, not to tell.
I quit writing for pay, and I think you should too.
Because here’s the truth:
You probably can’t afford to pay your bills solely off of writing.
But you absolutely can afford to be a writer.
Pen and paper are cheap. You are reading this on a device that probably has a writing app on it.
It costs nothing to write, so anyone can afford to be a writer.
If you want to make a living as a writer, though, you’re going to have to get creative and understand that you’re probably not going to make it on writing alone.
Every professional writer I know makes their money by something other than their writing.
Speaking gigs, workshops, retreats, courses, side jobs, desk jobs, trust funds, spousal support, whatever it is, something else has to pay the bills.
When I realized this, I was relieved. That meant I didn’t have to write for pay! I can now write for fun and get paid elsewhere.
I teach workshops and speak at events. I offer online courses group coaching, and intimate retreats. To pay my bills, I take my vast wealth of knowledge and create educational and motivational products for you.
But I write solely for me.
And I want you to do that too.
I want you to get out a piece of paper and a pen and write just for you. Forget publishers, forget critics, forget bill collectors, forget everyone else for ten minutes and simply write what you need to say.
You can’t afford not to tell your story.
Ok, now that you’ve written simply because it’s vital to create in life, let’s talk about how to build a career around your art instead of from it.
To be successful making money around your writing, you need to see yourself as a creative entrepreneur, not an artists.
Whether you’re aware of it or not, you have a bias against making money as an artist.
I’ve lost count at how many times I’ve heard a band, artists, or writer be called a “sell out.”
As a society, we expect artists to starve. Contrarily, we expect entrepreneurs to make money.
This simple mental shift made a huge difference for me.
Instead of trying to be a writer struggling to make it without selling out, I now am two people: a creative entrepreneur developing a profitable writing brand, and the writer who takes time away from making money to write what her heart needs to say.
To be honest, I still worry about selling out, which to me means creating what I think will sell, not what I want to tell. But the truth is, I have to write for others if I want to make money.
This post isn’t written for me. It’s written for you.
As a creative entrepreneur, it’s my job to make something that provides so much value to you and your life that you want to give me money for it.
Is that selling out?
I don’t think so. I think it’s a great way to help both of us thrive together.
Until we overthrow capitalism, we’re stuck with it, and we need those dolla dolla bills (or pesos, euros, pounds, etc.) to keep us alive.
You deserve to make money and thrive financially.
Yes, do it in an ethical way that doesn’t screw over others, but still do it. Make that money.
Especially if you are part of a marginalized group, because goddess knows we need more people of color, queers, disabled bodies, trans, indigenous, immigrant, and non-normative people making it in this world.
Ways that writers I know make money:
I’m not going to talk theory here, instead I’m going to focus on what my fellow full-time creative entrepreneurs and I do to pay our bills.
(This list does not include the dozens of things I do to get traffic to my site – podcast, videos, webinars, list building, social media, interviews, guest posts, conferences – so people know of me and my products. That’s a whole other post I promise to do at some point.)
Download this list in an easy-to-use cheatsheet.
This is my favorite right now. I love the way teaching connects me to my students and my online courses allow me to educate people from all over the globe.
My first online course was called Writing the Difficult with my friend, the acclaimed poet Jennifer Givhan (we should teach this again!) and I had to build the whole website and structure all by myself.
Now, there are many amazing online platforms to choose from that does the work for you. My favorites include Teachable (which I use), Teachery, and Thinkific. I’m working on a Best Online Course Platforms for Writers and Other Creative Entrepreneurs post right now and will link to it here when it’s done.
Don’t think you have something to teach? I guarantee you you’re wrong. Everyone – yes even you – has something they’re good at, something that comes easy for you that’s hard for others. That’s what you teach on.
Not sure you can make money off of it? I once read in Inc. Magazine that online learning is a $107 billion industry. The most financially successful creatives I know are making a majority of their money through teaching online. It takes work to create and maintain a high-quality online course, but it’s worth it for both you and your students.
The upside of coaching is that you get to personally interact with your readers, which I love. The downside is you’re trading your time for money, time that could be used creating, either another product to sell or that novel you’ve been waiting to find time to write.
To compromise between the two of these, I created a group coaching program. It allows me to connect with my readers and clients intimately and directly, while also clearing up more time for me to create online courses, which is where my entrepreneur passion currently lies.
The added bonus for you is that it makes my coaching more affordable! I still offer one-on-one services and in-person retreats but at a much higher rate than I used to, making sure that I get paid what my time is worth to me.
(I’ve got a whole post on time management and getting paid properly for your time coming your way!)
Coaching is great for a year or two into your brand. It’s hard to get clients when you’ve just started and it’s something highly financially successful entrepreneurs tend to age out of, mostly because they don’t have time for individual clients anymore (or if they do they charge buku bucks).
As an author, I get one sale off of someone if all I have is a book. But if I offer journals, t-shirts, mugs, hoodies, yoga mats, leggins, dresses, beach towels, etc. I can keep that customer coming back.
Is this sleazy? Am I using my readers?
Not at all! My products are quality and inspirational, and my customers love having a journal that reminds them to rock the boat or a towel that declares them worthy of love.
The great news is, by using Shopify and Printify together, you don’t even have to keep inventory!
Selling Professional Services/Freelancing
If you don’t feel like creating a shop of your own, you can sell your creativity on sites like Fiverr, Upwork, 99Designs, and Creative Market. I know a lot of people who use these sites to hire creatives, but I don’t know any creatives who actually make money off of these sites, mostly because they’re undercut in price by people living in less expensive countries who can charge less. Good for them, bad for us here in the USA.
A more profitable way to sell your professional services is consulting for companies or other creatives. Maybe you know a thing or two about SEO and can help authors boost their website traffic. Maybe you are great at grammar and spelling and can copy edit for novelists. Maybe you’re willing to ghostwrite for people who have a story to tell but lack the capacity to write it themselves.
Think of a skill you have and then think of who you could sell that skill to. I prefer to sell to other creatives because I love working with creative people, but there are all kinds of people out there needing your creative expertise.
I am not an expert on how to get speaking gigs, but if you google the topic hundreds of coaches appear. Why? Because speaking gigs are a great way to boost your brand and your income.
While I’m not an expert, I do know this: To be financially successful as a speaker, you need to think beyond simply “who has money to pay me to speak?” and ask yourself “who has access to money and is longing for my message?”.
For example, college students themselves don’t usually have money but most colleges have funds set aside for groups to bring in speakers. I wrote a series on sex and the law for a major publication, and a student at Yale became a fan. They were broke, but Yale isn’t, so she figured out a way to get the school to bring me to speak. Someone in the audience was from Brown, and they did the same.
And that’s how I got on the college speaking circuit.
I’ve also spoken at many conferences in exchange for free registration. I wouldn’t go to just any conference just for registration – conferences are expensive – but if it’s one I’m already planning on attending, that’s a great way to save money and meet potential clients or collaborators. Most of my coaching clients have come from audience members in my workshops at conferences.
This is last on my list because every author I know makes very little off of book sales. Sure, maybe you’ll luck out, get a six-figure book deal (paid over about three years, btw), and then sell millions of copies throughout the world. But the reality is, even NY Times best-sellers still have to make their money elsewhere. Book sales and book deals just don’t cut it these days.
Other ways writer’s make a living:
Creative entrepreneurship isn’t for everyone. Yes, there’s a freedom and excitement to it, but it’s also a lot of hard work and you don’t have the financial security of a regular salary.
That instability can be hard for creatives, so a lot of writers I know opt instead to not be entrepreneurs and fund their art other ways. Here are some of them:
Some people have loved one that supplement their income, others use the site Patreon to ask their fans to be their patrons. I live practically rent free at my sister’s house and that makes a huge difference in me being able to be a full-time creative entrepreneur in this expansive city.
Even if you don’t have a rich family member to help you out, you might still have friends that let you crash at their place for awhile. I know someone who wrote her first novel house sitting for friends and family while they went on vacations. She planned her whole summer around their schedule and the free rent allowed her to quit work and write her book.
Are you less of a writer if you have a day job? NOPE! I know award-winning, best-selling authors who still work an 8 to 5.
Yoga teacher, sex worker, filing clerk, lawyer, literary agent, professor, cartoonist, these are just a handful of the jobs writers I know do to pay their bills.
The key to all of this is finding a way to make money that won’t kill your soul or work you so hard that you don’t have time to create.
It may seem hard, but it doesn’t have to be. All you have to do is choose one of the options above and explore it, see if it would work for you. Or get creative – that’s what writers are good at, after all – and come up with an idea on your own and run with it.
You can always quit and try another way of making money.