To Kill a Writing Career

People often tell me they would write a book, if only they had more time. In most cases, I believe they are wrong. Because time is not the biggest obstacle to writing a book.

Image of a woman buying groceries.
Photo by Anna Shvets on

You’re perhaps thinking this post is going to be about talent or perseverance. Or maybe the mindset required to achieve success. And they are all important factors. But what someone really needs, if they want to get started as an author, is money.

Writing books is not a paying job

Authors don’t get paid to write. They might get paid after their book is published, if it sells. But in the early years, many authors spend more on promoting their work than they make back in sales. At that point, they are just building a foundation for the rest of their career. But they still need to eat, and have somewhere to live. Which, for most people, means they can only write part-time. Because they need a paying job. 

Nothing stifles creativity like not being able to afford groceries.

According to a recent survey, to reach a salary equivalent level of income, an author must have published around 16 books. For authors fitting writing around another job, plus family and other commitments, that can take decades.

To compound this problem, retailers promote what they see as reliable authors – those who publish frequently. They know those authors will keep customers coming back. If it takes an author five years to finish each book, no retailer is going to promote them. And if readers can’t see those books, they are not going to buy those books.

So how do authors survive?

True story

I recently learned about an aspiring author who worked as an airline reservations agent. She had a great idea for a book, and often complained about not having enough time to write it. So her friends decided to club together and pay her salary for a year. That gave her one year to write a book.

If you paid attention to the title of this post, you may have worked out what’s coming next… The author’s name was Harper Lee, and the book she wrote in that year was To Kill A Mockingbird. There are now over 40 million copies of her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel in print.

Imagine if Harper’s friend’s were strapped for cash. Or they didn’t believe her book idea was that great. Imagine if she decided it was too risky to leave a secure job to pursue her dream. That book might never have been written.

Most aspiring authors don’t have friends like that. They don’t have the option to write full-time when they first have a book idea. So they either fit writing around their paying job. Or they choose a job that leaves them with no energy for writing, but allows them to save up to take time out later.

I sometimes wonder why any readers have given my books a 5 star rating. I’m not saying my books aren’t good. But I’m sure they’re not as brilliant as the latest books by best-selling authors who’ve developed over a long time. Or indeed, Pulitzer Prize winners. I guess those readers are blown away by the fact that new authors manage to finish writing a book at all. That the pressures of work and paying bills don’t extinguish the desire to follow their dream. That the likelihood of ending up in debt doesn’t deter new authors from even starting. 

Maybe those readers are right. Maybe that does deserve 5 stars. What do you think?

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5 thoughts on “To Kill a Writing Career

  1. Five stars ? Not read yet, but why shouldn’t your book be as good ?
    Written reviews are so complicated, and so many of those reviews will be read by the writer. and, if they have one, their agent. Earlier this year, a neighbour published their first e-book, ‘ Reviews needed’, said their post on a local platform. Awarding that book less than five could be hurtful, kill their career instantly. My neighbour hoped, of course, for five star reviews.
    Just before the pandemic, i gave a non-fiction book only four stars, a mistake, because this wasn’t a student’s assignment and I knew the writer well. Socially, five stars was probably the only option..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I know some authors expect a 5 star review from people they know but I think that is unrealistic. Writing books is like any other career – you get better with experience. Personally, I’m always happy to get a 4 star rating, and if it comes with a suggestion of how I can improve, even better!


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