I Wanna Be Rich: On the Financial Realities of Writing
Sheree Winslow | June 2019
When I was seven years old, people from the church we attended delivered bags of groceries to our apartment because my parents couldn’t afford food. A little more than a year later, when I was eight, I decided I wanted to attend Vassar College after reading about it in a book. By the time I enrolled there ten years later, my parents had worked their way from lower-income to middle-income status but there was no way they could afford my college tuition. In high school, I had been an editor on my school paper and won a national award for features writing. However, after looking at the salaries of writing jobs, I decided to pursue a more lucrative career in marketing to repay college debt. After graduation, I planned to get a job at a Madison Avenue ad agency, but with the small wages paid to entry-level employees, I couldn’t swing the cost of New York City rent and $500-a-month school loan payments. I returned to my hometown in Montana to live with my parents. Over the course of the next two years I sold clothes at the mall, took phone messages for legislators at the state capital, welcomed patients and visitors as the receptionist at a psychiatric hospital, and coordinated special events like pig races and the goat milking contest at the county fair. My financial situation didn’t improve much.
Then, two years after college, I moved to Southern California and quickly got a job in package communications for a large corporation. I read the book Get a Financial Life to learn about budgets, credit, and 401(k)s. I was making $32,000 annually in a high-cost-of-living location, but I had a roommate, kept expenses low, and drove a used car until the odometer read more than 186,000 miles. The month that I turned thirty, I took a new job at a startup marketing agency. After that, my financial picture improved significantly. I bought my first house when I was thirty-one, became an agency vice-president at thirty-three, and by the time I was thirty-seven, I was promoted to be the president of an acquired company.
So, what does this have to do with writing?
Well, that’s the problem. The writer in me kept nagging, asking when I was going to stop working fourteen to twenty hours a day to do what she wanted to do. I journaled every morning, filling up thousands of pages, and wrote as a contract journalist as a second job for a short period of time. But there were a series of financial challenges, most of which I created—college loans, a mortgage, and a fiancé who expected me to be the breadwinner—and I couldn’t figure out how to finance a writer’s life.
The desire didn’t diminish, however. Instead, it kept getting stronger until one day I decided to start anew. On a Friday, I broke off my engagement with my bad fiancé, and three days later, I quit my job. I started taking writing classes to discipline myself and soon thereafter, applied to graduate school. I sold my house to live on savings so I could concentrate on writing. When I started a low-residency MFA program, I had the now-laughable belief that I would be writing a book a semester.
I didn’t understand the job of being a writer. However, I hoped that through school, I’d figure out how to generate enough income to support myself. I attended panels on publishing, but by my third semester, I was tired of hearing how difficult it was. In the survey all students completed at the end of each residency, I voiced concern. “While I understand that I haven't chosen an easy path,” I wrote, “there is a certain flippancy/arrogance/elitism in an attitude that we are merely creating art for art's sake.”
Where are the success models? I asked.
My marketing career taught me to look at what other companies or competitors were doing. Thousands of books are written each year with advice on how to achieve business success. Surely, there had to be some insight out there to help writers. I headed to the library to get my facts straight. At the reference desk, a man pointed me toward the Occupational Outlook Handbook, produced by the US Department of Labor’s Bureau of Statistics. The large volume describes jobs in the US along with projected opportunity over the next ten years.
According to the most recent volume, in 2016 there were 131,200 writing jobs, with a median income of $61,240, or $29.44 an hour. Under the heading “How to Become a Writer or Author,” the general requirements were straightforward—a relevant college degree with experience in “any form of writing that improves skills, such as blogging.” As I continued to read, I came across the same message I heard at school. In the list of important qualities, I saw the following: “Determination. Writers and authors sometimes work on projects that take years to complete. They must demonstrate perseverance and personal drive to meet deadlines.” In another area, the handbook stressed that “strong competition is expected for most job openings, given that many people are attracted to this occupation.”1
Even the government agency studying all jobs believed writing was a tough career choice.
This wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I logged onto Google to find those success models. In a search for “wealthiest authors,” I followed a link to an article in The Guardian which recapped a Forbes list ranking authors by income.2 I read the writer profiles, but there was still a problem. I don’t write thrillers, romance, paranormal, or young adult novels. I didn’t see any memoirists on the list. There weren’t any poets either. Then, a link within the article took me to a new low.
The article, titled, “Authors’ incomes collapse to ‘abject’ levels,” described how most writers in the U.K. were not achieving the minimum acceptable living standard.3 Though I understood the connotation, I wanted a precise definition. Google returned the following.
“Abject. Adjective. 1. (of something bad) experienced or present to the maximum degree.” The synonyms listed were, “wretched, miserable, hopeless, pathetic, pitiful, pitiable, piteous, sorry, woeful, lamentable, degrading, appalling, atrocious, awful.”4
Even though the article described the situation in another country, I knew there was enough likeness in incomes to be worried. This was the description for writing income? What had I done with my life? At this point in my research, I let out expletives that rhymed with “spit” and “yuck.”
I returned to the wealthiest authors’ list. I decided to email these millionaires to see if they could provide insight into achieving financial success. After providing a brief description of who I was and my desire to understand how to make money as a writer, I provided a list of questions about their journeys as authors. I asked about their financial hurdles, how their income had grown, and whether or not they had income streams outside of writing. I asked about their career challenges and how they promoted their work. I asked about their success habits and what advice they could offer writing students.
Janet Evanovich was the first to respond. Evanovich began her career writing romance but is probably best known for the multiple mystery series she writes.5 Her success today is a long way from its beginnings. In the first ten years of writing, Evanovich didn’t make any money. As a stay-at-home mom, she wrote during the day while her kids were in school, but after ten years, she began to get discouraged. She took a job doing temp office work because her family needed the money. A week after she went to work, she got the news that one of her books was being purchased. For that first novel, she received a $2,000 advance.6
When asked about her greatest career challenge, she wrote, “As with most jobs, you have good days and bad days; days when everything's going great and days when you'd rather be somewhere else. The challenge is to work on good days, bad days and those in-between.” When asked what her success habits were, she said, “The most important is to sit down in that chair and write every day no matter what.”
Evanovich’s answers to my questions certainly didn’t paint an easy path to riches. She wrote for ten years without making a penny. She had to juggle family and work and writing. I hoped I’d hear about an easier road to success when I received the next response. After I emailed Jeff Kinney, author of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, his assistant wrote with details about the author’s career and answers to questions based on past interviews.
Kinney’s origin story had a twist. He didn’t set out to become a writer. Instead, he wanted to be a newspaper cartoonist. When his work was rejected, he tried using a childlike aesthetic. The new approach to drawing from the perspective of a middle schooler gave birth to the Wimpy Kid character.7 For six years Kinney worked on the idea, eventually posting daily diary entries on the website, Funbrain.com. Two years later, he signed a publishing deal.8 Eight years—he worked on the idea for eight years before he got a book deal. The first book was published in 2007, and in late 2018, he released his thirteenth in the series. Today, the Wimpy Kid series is published in fifty-six languages and has sold more than two hundred million copies.9 In an interview on CNBC, Kinney explained that it takes about seven months to complete each book. He releases a new one every year, working thirteen- to seventeen-hour days in the summer as he approaches deadline.10
For Kinney, the job of author is as varied as the multimedia mix through which his work is consumed. He writes and illustrates his books and designs and approves merchandise. For each of the countries in which he publishes, he has press demands, tours, and social media maintenance. While developing most of his books, he has also worked as a gaming designer, creating Poptropica.com.11 In May of 2015, he opened a bookstore and café in his home of Plainville, Massachusetts. Several of the books have been turned into feature films. For one, he wrote the screenplay.12
Kinney’s advice to writers follows his own process. “I'd encourage an aspiring author or illustrator to try to think of an original idea, and then nurture it. It can take years to develop a winning idea, but it's worth it!” he wrote on his website.13
After learning more about Kinney, I thought back to the job description in the Occupational Outlook Handbook. Both Evanovich and Kinney showed the importance of perseverance, personal drive, and determination. They also showed that, as with success in other professions, a strong work ethic was part of the equation. This reminded me of Jacquelyn Mitchard, my first MFA advisor. Mitchard is the best-selling author of twelve novels for adults, seven young adult novels, five children’s books, a memoir, and a collection of essays. Her first novel, The Deep End of the Ocean, was the inaugural selection for Oprah Winfrey’s book club and was later made into a movie.14
During the semester that we worked together, I was trying to find my process and rhythm, struggling to read a couple books and write forty pages of new material each month. Meanwhile, Mitchard not only was serving on MFA faculty and mentoring four students in addition to me but was also the editor of a young adult imprint, a working writer producing a new fiction manuscript, and a mother to nine children. When I asked her how she managed to accomplish all her tasks, she told me she started her day focusing on the single most important thing to finish and worked until it was done. No email, no social media, no distraction until that task was finished, she said. I followed her advice and, by the end of the semester, my own process improved. Remembering how she helped me previously, I interviewed her by phone posing the same questions I gave Evanovich and Kinney.
Mitchard has faced multiple challenges with money.15 When her first husband died, she was widowed without life insurance and had three young children to support. She wrote warning labels for paint sprayers and articles about drilling water.
“I did everything possible for a writer to do with pen and paper in order to support my family and my wish to write a novel,” she said.
After her first novel sold more than three million copies, Mitchard was able to write full time. But in 2010, after remarrying and adding more children to her family, she and her husband lost all of their money in a Ponzi scheme. Mitchard had to start from zero again.
“The one constant has had to be a stern and absolute commitment to writing and a stern and absolute commitment to hard work and doing whatever it took.” When she gets discouraged, Mitchard finds inspiration in the way writing touches her readers. She also spoke to a higher purpose. “The archaeology of human variety is not made up of documents, it’s made up of stories. As long as I can be part of that legacy, I continue to choose to do that.”
The author’s advice for writers starting out centered on finding the right job to fund a writing life and learning to make sacrifices. “Try to find a day job that doesn’t suck your life out through your nose. Try to work at something that doesn’t drain every ounce of your soul but don’t stop writing.” Mitchard returned to something that sounded similar to what we discussed during my first semester when I asked her about success habits. “You train yourself to have the habit of finishing what you start. Having a writing life whether you’re at the top rung of the ladder or starting out, it’s a consecration against leisure.”
When I started my research, I wanted a different result. I wanted an algorithm, a formula for making money to secure my financial future as a writer. Instead, I learned that the wealthiest authors not only worked multiple jobs on their way to publishing success but, in some cases, continue to pursue more than one career. Each exhibited tremendous work ethic and discipline. All proved their dedication to writing by sacrificing leisure time to work on the stories they wanted to tell. My interview with Mitchard reminded me that payment comes in many forms, helping me shift perspective. I may always have to work other jobs to pay the bills, but part of being a writer is acceptance of the financial reality. Whether I have a chance to sit at the computer for minutes or hours each day, I am fulfilling the desire that lived dormant inside me for so long. More than once, people who read or heard my work approached me later to tell me how it positively impacted them. Emotional compensation counts, too. I began with the premise, “I Wanna Be Rich.” But the more I investigated, the more I realized: I already am.
Sheree Winslow is the 2018 recipient of the Submittable Eliza So Fellowship, among other honors. Her work is published or forthcoming in Midway Journal, *82 Review, Memoir Magazine, Beecher’s, Storm Cellar, Linea, Past Ten, and Wanderlust: A Narrative Map. She is finishing a memoir about recovery from food addiction and a collection of travel reflections while advising startup and marketing clients. She received her MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, US Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2018-19 Edition, 886-889.
- Alison Flood, “World's richest authors list joined by Veronica Roth, Gillian Flynn and John Green,” The Guardian, September 9, 2014.
- Alison Flood, “Authors' Incomes Collapse to ‘Abject’ Levels,” The Guardian, July 8, 2014.
- Google, s.v. “abject,” accessed September 27, 2018, https://www.google.com/.
- “Janet Evanovich,” Wikipedia, accessed October 8, 2018, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janet_Evanovich.
- Ken Wilson, “Re: MFA Interview—Janet Evanovich,” personal email, May 3, 2015.
- Jenna Shulie, “Re: REQUEST FOR MR. KINNEY: Would you be willing to answer ‘success model’ questions for lecture content?” Personal email, May 8, 2015.
- “About the Author,” Wimpy Kid, accessed October 3, 2018. https://wimpykid.com/about-the-author/
- “The Big Business of ‘Wimpy Kid’,” CNBC video, 5:06, Feb 10, 2016, https://www.cnbc.com/video/2016/02/10/the-big-business-of-wimpy-kid.html
- Shulie, “REQUEST FOR MR. KINNEY.”
- “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” IMDB, accessed October 3, 2018. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt6003368/fullcredits?ref_=tt_ov_wr#writers/
- “FAQs,” Wimpy Kid, accessed October 10, 2018. https://wimpykid.com/faq/
- “Faculty and Mentors: Jacquelyn Mitchard,” Miami University, accessed October 3, 2018. https://www.miamioh.edu/cas/academics/departments/english/academics/graduate-studies/creative-writing/faculty-and-mentors/index.html
- Jacquelyn Mitchard, phone interview by Sheree Winslow, April 23, 2015.