Why You’re Failing to Make a Living as a Writer

October 22, 2012 · 14 comments

Last week in one of the Facebook groups I manage, I posted a link to a free webinar I’m giving about how to create and sell your first digital product. That prompted comments from several members who said it’s unethical to sell an ebook for more than $10.

While I like hearing other people’s opinions (partly because it helps me better build my business, which relies on people buying guides that cost from $24-$59), I couldn’t help but think that this is exactly why so many writers and artists and creators can’t figure out how to make a living doing what they enjoy.

Make money from your writing

The smart, wealthy, HAPPY devil.

Do you think a lawyer who specializes in a certain type of law would NOT charge $250/hour if his clients value his expertise that much, just because most lawyers he knows charge only $100/hour?

Do you think a lobbyist who has developed a niche would NOT charge for the knowledge he’s gained over the last decade?

Do you think anyone else who has something the world considers valuable would be happy and satisfied with getting paid less than they’re worth?

The answer is a BIG, FAT NO.

So why shouldn’t a writer who can offer a special type of value and organize that information in an interesting and inspiring way charge whatever people will pay to access that niche information, even if it’s more than the $9.99 price point of most ebooks?

Informational guides — and what you can charge for them — are a different beast than most ebooks (particularly novels); here’s a post that explains why. Yet the beauty of our information economy is that one of the best ways to convince people to buy your products is by offering lots of quality, FREE information (like the post you’re reading right now). Which means everyone wins: people who don’t want to buy get to learn for free, people who might consider buying get to taste what the creator offers before shelling out, and the creator gets plenty of opportunity to create and sell. Wins all around, right?

But this post isn’t really about ebooks, nor is it about the price of ebooks. It’s about learning how to make a living off your craft. It’s about knowing what you’re worth and charging what you’re worth. In fact, sometimes others won’t value your expertise until you charge for it. (And no, I’m not talking about 99 cents.)

Because here’s the thing: we all need to make a living. Most of us respect each others’ need to make a living, which is why we’re willing to pay fair prices for services and products. No one is going to judge you for doing your best to make a living.

Actually, I take that back. Some people WILL judge you, and that might be hard to swallow. But you have to ignore those people if you want to make a living doing what you love.

Otherwise, you will be one of the many writers and creatives who constantly fail to make a decent living off your work. I’ve completed a handful of fellowships at writer’s colonies, and each time I am shocked at how many fellows — and these are talented artists and writers — struggle to earn enough money from their art to support themselves and their families.

Why? I think writers and artists and creators fail to make money from their art for two big reasons:

1. They don’t know how to use their skills to create something people will actually pay for

2. They’re creating something people will pay for, but they don’t know how to market the product or themselves

You could easily replace the “don’t know how” in both of those reasons with “don’t want to.” Often, artists don’t want to shift their mindset or routine to include what it takes to make money (and yes, that includes spending time on marketing and promotion).

But guess what, folks? Money doesn’t make itself. Sometimes you have to suck it up a little if you want to continue doing what you’re doing, if you want to support your artsy habit. Even those of us who love our jobs have to do some things we don’t enjoy. Loving your job, as awesome as it is, does NOT mean loving each and every one of your responsibilities; it means loving most of it. You’re probably always going to have to do a little something you don’t enjoy. That’s just how earning a paycheck works.

It’s worth it though, because when you do spend a little time figuring out how to monetize, you can continue making your art. And you might even enjoy making that art even more because you aren’t worried about money.

(If this is making you wonder how I make money off writing, here’s a post that explains.)

What this means for you and your life

Here’s what I’m getting at: it is NOT wrong to try to make a living from your art, to charge enough money that you can afford to create — so long as some people will actually pay what you’re asking. So stop feeling guilty about it! (Click to tweet this idea.)

What’s truly WRONG, what’s truly a disservice to yourself and your community, is when you undervalue your work: when you sell it for less than you deserve to earn, less than you could earn.

What’s wrong is not giving yourself the opportunity to make a living doing what you love. And if you don’t charge for your work, you are depriving yourself of that opportunity, even if you don’t mean to.

So get out there and do these three things:

1. Charge for your art, whether that art is writing or painting or building an awesome product.

2. If you can’t charge for it — that is, if no one will buy it — figure out how to turn what you usually create into something people will pay for. (In other words, be more than a writer.)

If you’re not open-minded about this, by the way, IT WILL NEVER WORK. If you’re not willing to be a little flexible and a little adaptable and a little entrepreneurial, you will continue to fail at making a living from your art. Worse, you’ll maybe even criticize other people who have figured out how to make a living doing what they love, because you will be bitter.

3. Be willing to put in the hours to promote yourself and your work, so you can sell enough to support your lifestyle of creation.

What do you create that you should charge for? If you struggle with this, what’s keeping you from experiencing success?

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Anna Biunno October 24, 2012 at 8:31 am

I see the light, Alexis!

What you’re saying makes sense: “What’s truly WRONG, what’s truly a disservice to yourself and your community, is when you undervalue your work: when you sell it for less than you deserve to earn, less than you could earn.”

I knew someone who was trying to sell his art at fairs and craft shows, but he was charging $US50 (not the true amount, used for illustrative purposes) for his work. He wasn’t selling anything. Nada. People would stop and consider the work, claiming they loved it, yet continued to stroll by. Then, he changed his mindset and began to place a higher price on his paintings (e.g., $US250 – $500). Rather unexpectedly, from his perspective, he began to sell quite a few of the paintings. “The painting must be valuable,” might have thought the buyers, “if it’s set at this price.”

When he was trying to sell his paintings at a lower price point, that’s exactly what potential buyers thought of his work: it had very little value, and they weren’t about to hang a $50 painting on their wall. Once he bumped the price, people began to consider the work just as valuable as he did.

I’m stating the obvious here, but it’s a perfect example of the subliminal messages we communicate about our work and what WE think about its value. I never forgot this lesson. And I remind myself of it every time I’m considering charging a lower fee for my work just because I’m just starting out.

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Abigail Rogers October 24, 2012 at 4:45 pm

I absolutely agree. REAL art should never lie moldering on a shelf simply because the artist isn’t gutsy enough to charge what it’s worth.

Thank you :)
Abigail Rogers recently posted…The Battle of CullodenMy Profile

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Pretraveller October 25, 2012 at 5:50 am

Thanks for an informative article. I am currently creating my first digital product which is an ebook. Pricing is obviously an issue that I am considering so you have given me some food for thought.
Pretraveller recently posted…The Truth About Travel Guide BooksMy Profile

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Michael October 25, 2012 at 11:10 am

“Real Artists Ship” — Steve Jobs

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Joe Cassandra October 25, 2012 at 4:15 pm

Exactly Alexis!

If your product is that good and you’ve built your brand as an expert, people will pay for it.

The one’s who nickel and dime you aren’t your customers…if you provide results, they will pay

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Mridu Khullar Relph October 29, 2012 at 7:47 am

Writers often worry that their product (e-book, ecourse, etc) won’t sell because EVERYONE ELSE is selling for 99 cents. I think it’s the opposite. When there are so many 99 cent books out there, yours seems special, even exclusive because you’re charging a higher price. It’s priced higher, so it must be better, right? Usually, yes.

As a writer, you need to make sure that you ARE delivering a fantastic book though. If you’re charging really high rates and then delivering a sub-standard product, you’ll get really bad word of mouth.
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Heather Thorkelson February 12, 2013 at 9:14 am

Alexis I love this article. (I can’t believe there are only 6 comments so far!) You touch on so many important points and especially the distinction between artists (I’m using that as a blanket term for anyone who creates) who “don’t know how” and “don’t want to” learn how to market and sell themselves or their work. No one can convince someone who isn’t willing to be convinced, so there will always be starving artists because they’ve told themselves the story that selling/marketing isn’t something they do…it’s not the artists way…it’s not in line with their values, etc. Good for them. Who I’m interested in is those that are hungry. Those that are making art and truly want to understand how to get their stuff out to the world in a non-douchey way AND are willing to work for it. Those people are exciting to work with. Those people will change the world. And now I’m off to share this article with them. :)
Heather Thorkelson recently posted…Facing fears, calculating risk, and the magic of going out of your depthMy Profile

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Earnestine E. Dawson April 25, 2013 at 12:10 pm

Alexis, please allow me to say your presentation at the Social Media DC Job Fair event at George Washington Univ. on April 24, 2013 was very informative. I decided to check out your website today and this article was right on time and point for me.

I am trying to figure out if I have the business sense to be an entrepreneur and develop a business around writing that can and will be profitable. This article has really helped me to realize it is about how I value the information. I will definitely refer back to this article in the future.

Thank you very much and I will use your site as a reference being a new writer / blogger.
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Alexis Grant April 25, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Glad you enjoyed it! Thanks for the feedback.

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noaefame June 2, 2013 at 12:27 am

Hi Alexis, you always speak to me. I love the things you do. I will never feel guilty anymore. I have close to 70 word press followers. I own them my love. I care enough to go back and do research on how I can communicate with them better. I have plans to make money from what I create too . I learn everyday from people like you. I want the best for; me and that is why I am moving away from my comfort zone. I need money, and I want it now.
Thank you for I cannot stop singing your praises. I want money so that I can also buy some of your important books. You are very helpful to my career.

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