I’ve been fairly fortunate in being able to write and put out work consistently through many channels. I’ve sold rights to short stories, I’ve had e-mails from people who have read my work and liked it, and I’ve overall had a very fun time writing and answering correspondence and being involved in the “community.”

Which is a strange word, mostly coopted by people who want you to do something against your own personal interests.

E.G. “Do this for free, the community wants it.” “Do it for the community.” “If you help me out, the community would love you for it.”

It’s a strange and nebulous beast that could mean anything to anyone. The term “writing community” could be transposed to “fishing community,” “stamp community,” “metal welder community,” or “Croatian competitive butt-slapping community.”

And that leads me to something I’ve been unboxed about, uh, only twice. And emailed about on rare occasion. Which translates to about four times in three years or something banal like that.

But in the interests of having a point to throw someone towards because I’m too lazy to answer people properly and with the courtesy and respect, something customary of most creatives, I thought I’d write, ever so briefly, about the financials of writing. As is with most creative industries, the advice revolves around the dark patches to avoid being stupid and losing money and instead making fractional beer money at worst and enough to buy bullshit collectibles you probably don’t need or stronger booze.

So I have four recommendations on what to do if you want to make money from writing. I don’t really understand the popular verbiage of “grifting” and “shilling” or (personal favourite) “selling out” because the whole idea of making a thing and a thing having value and being able to attain value for the thing is really only disagreed with by two lanes of people: hose that don’t value their things and those that don’t make things of value. No disrespect, just spelling it plainly. Ignorance or jealousy or “I’m happy they’re doing well.” There’s really no other modalities when it comes to writing. We have the same keyboard and word processor. (Well, my keyboard lights up multicoloured and I use Pages and then export them to Word because I’ve been using the same Mac for over a decade. But you get the idea.)

So without further ado, four recommendations of what you can do to make money from writing and also improving your craft.

1) What You Make Makes You

Imagine your artistic work as a tangible real world asset. Like a cake. Or a pendant. How good is it? Is it perfect? Obviously not. Does it suck? Obviously not. One person’s overeagerness with fondant is another person’s sweet tooth. One person’s annoyingly simple clasp is another person’s easy-to-open clasp. One person’s gold-plated is another person’s aesthetic value. But what would it look like if you could hold it in your hand? I recommend Kindle Direct Publishing not for any commercial reason (sales are never great) but because you can make a copy of your book for free and physically hold it. Read the contents. Or if you don’t want to risk it, I assume you own a printer or have access to a corner shop where you can print off A4s for a few pennies (much more these days, but it’s still in the realm of affordable. Some libraries may even allow you to make copies at their expense if you’re extra kind or nice to them.) But ideally look at your work and find out what weaknesses it has and what the strengths of your work are. Then list your own. Once you’re able to establish the link between you and your work, you can talk about it more and it therefore has more inherent value. Your writing will always be unique to you, no matter what. Once you understand that, you will find yourself working better with editors and thereby ending up with a better finished product.

2) F*ck You, Pay Me

For a work to have appreciated value, it does not need to be worth something.

For your work to be worth something, you need to appreciate its value.

Read that back three times.

Tattoo it to your head.

Tell your grandkids.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with publishing pieces for free. In fact, I recommend it if you have very little in the way of online publications. Will you find places to reprint it as most submission requests include “no reprints” usually in bold italics? No clue. But if people read them and you accrue a readership, you can negotiate with the press or the journal. Maybe they’ll want to feature you more often, thereby accruing you more of a readership or followers or Likes or twinkles or whatever they use on social media sites these days because you can find out the peak times they operate or maybe they’ll put you in the masthead or allow you to read new pieces or get involved earlier with Kickstarter projects or beta reading of new novels. Which you can crow about, and accrue more readership. What is wrong, however, are the number of journals who will charge upwards of £15 for submissions to their magazine, book, or site. Obviously this is wrong. Demonstrably this is wrong. I don’t care if the prize is £100, £1000, £10,000. No.

In this day and age of vanity publishing, I’ve seen a lot of elderly people, some with disposable income and some not, excited for the chance to be “published on the Internet” and will pay £15 in an instance even if there’s no prize. I’ve seen them tricked into paying £1,000 for a very luxurious cloth bound hardcover with no editorial effort and also, tellingly, no ISBN. And they’ll be happy about that and being happy is all very well and good. Plenty of marks have been happy to have purchased the Brooklyn Bridge or been whitelisted in a Discord for the latest NFT. This isn’t about that.

I’ve had work featured in one or two magazines where you had to pay to submit, of which I will not name. Why? The person running it contacted me directly and asked me for a submission for their consideration and I dutifully emailed it over. Meanwhile, you click a PayPal link and cross your fingers.

Like that Giancarlo Esposito meme: “we are not the same.”

I won’t tell you which places, and that’s not to defend these people. I don’t even think it’s a barefaced scam; some people probably do make money from it. (The whole point is me saying that my work is demonstrably worth more than the people paying to have it seen.)

However, let’s say you did win. How do you know it’s not a pile of contestant Squid Game blood money you’ve just got, rather than money as the result of copies sold? I’ll tell you this until I’m cremated and even then my ashes will spell it out across the very land itself:

My child, if the magazine is reputable, popular, and famous, then why would they want your money upfront?”

3) What Do You Want?

“You’ve got to make a statement. You’ve got to look inside yourself and say: ‘What am I willing to put up with today?’ NOT F*CKING THIS!”— Arin ‘Egoraptor’ Hanson in response to experiencing glitches in Sonic 06

So to capstone off point number two, you need to essentially make a set of rules about what your work should sell for. At this point, I want to you understand that “nothing” doesn’t exist. There is always something to be gained from putting your content out into the world. And people might not always have money, but they always have something. Ask and barter. It’s the best thing to do.

Industry standard for most stories is very little. In the heyday of those 1954 “Amazing Science Fiction!” magazines, it was a few cents per word. Adjusting for inflation, it’s still a few cents per word. Sometimes you can expect to be paid two to four or even a mythical five pence a word in the island of rain, sheep, and chip butties and clock towers with phallic names. But that’s not all bad. A 5,000 word story at two pence per word will still net you £100. (Though expect exclusive rights for over a year, perhaps always. Non-exclusive or yearly rights almost always pay you in fractions and percentages that end up being ten or twenty quid, if that.)

Here is my own standard, which I don’t mind sharing because I feel people should be more open about their expectations.

  1. You can have a free reprint of something Ive written if you’re an editor I know and have worked with, have enough followers on socials with bonus points for followers across multiple social media platforms, with a readership who clearly connect and/or with a publication wing. Bonus if you offer me free PDFs of writers listed on your roster or you ask for it very kindly in an email and are perhaps a new flagship or brand spanking new magazine venture.
  2. You can have a free original if you’re very popular on social media with reluctant bonuses for being verified, have enough followers who actively engage with each post, have some form of sweepstakes for every story you onboard.
  3. You can have a reprint if you pay me some money or give me things.
  4. You can have an original if you pay me slightly more money or give me things.

I do emphasise bartering. Oh, they have shiny neon vinyl stickers that look cool on their associated store and you want some and they’re on sale but you’re trying to save money? Being very tactful, ask if they can send you some in an envelope if you write them a poem or offer them a popular reprint of yours if your work is back into your hands. (By the way, do keep tabs on who has your work, how long for, and when you expect it back. Keep a notebook on hand and stash it somewhere, treating every story as something usable.) People often don’t have money, but they often have things. If you were going to spend money on things, why not just cut out the middleman?

4) Enjoy

Writing is the only craft I know of, except arguably singing and I believe you can definitely argue both sides, where everyone starts off with the same playing field. We all have the capacity to write words in some form or another. The medium has remained the same for a very, very long time. The fact that I can press keys and then get a T-shirt or a tenner or a little award or find other people who I have directly beamed thoughts and images andconcepts into their skull, into their brain tissue, is a miracle of God.

This is not investment banking. You are not going to be rich doing this. Even the outliers are probably paid far worse than the outliers in all other creative fields. Instead, you won’t particularly have to worry about being brutally and starkly impoverished as you will always have chips to bargain with. It’s like owning a casino. The value of the chips going up and down over time doesn’t matter, it’s the fact I can always produce more that does. I can always write more, I can always read more, I can always circulate more, I can always submit more, I can always move forward in a tangible way which isn’t really possible in other fields as progression becomes capped by certain factors. Not that nepotism isn’t a problem in the publishing world. It is, you just don’t have to care about it as much. There are stronger systems that benefit elite writers with a following such as Substack or Patreon or a myriad of other things, but we all have the same tools. Your tools will rust if you don’t look after them and your advanced systems will fail. There’s no way to inherit a 60,000-word novel or a 6,000. You just have to build it. Unless you’ve got a ghostwriter. But at that point, you’re not a writer so none of this advice matters.

So those are four pieces of advice.

They might work for you, they might not.

But they worked for me. And they’re all I know.