Monday, 4 February 2013

Does anyone get into writing to get rich?

This is a response to this post by John Scalzi, in which he claims that he did get into writing to get rich. Since I've made rather a fuss of my resistance to the idea of doing so (though, for what it's worth, I may have mellowed a little since the earliest of those posts), I thought I'd better explain why I think Scalzi is wrong, why I think it's important to point out where he's wrong, and why he still has at least one very good point.

Let's start, though, by getting a clarification out of the way. The question we're asking shouldn't really be 'Does anyone get into writing to get rich?' It's obvious that some people do; people who see the success of Stephen King, or J.K. Rowling, or Stephanie Mayer, or John Locke etc. etc. and think 'Brilliant! I'll have a piece of that, it looks like an easy life with no heavy lifting.'

These people, of course, are idiots. I know this, because I was one in my teens (and how many of us can honestly say we weren't idiots about our careers at some point in our teens?). We're not really interested in whether idiots get into writing to get rich. What we're interested in is whether there's ever a situation in which getting into writing to get rich is the best or even a good way to get rich.

Scalzi's argument, as best I can reconstruct it, goes like this:
1. Scalzi is better at writing than at anything else he could be making money at.
2. So he'll make more money by writing than anything else he could be doing.
3. His best chance of getting rich thus comes from writing.
4. Therefore, it makes sense to say that he writes to get rich.

I don't actually contest any of these points as they apply to the current moment. Though I've never read a Scalzi book, he is widely reputed to be very good, and has been recommended to me by people whose judgement I trust. As such, I'm happy to accept that, given his abilities and market position at the moment, his best chance of getting rich is to keep writing and selling his work.

I'm also not going to argue that this makes him a hack or a shill. That would be a cheap shot and a long way from a useful comment on the debate. I see no intrinsic conflict between financial motivations and high art.

The problem I want to bring up is this: according to Scalzi's Wikipedia page, he has been a professional freelance writer for 15 years, and a published author for 11. He's been writing a long time, and our question is not 'Should writers stay in writing to get rich?', it's 'Should anyone get into writing to get rich?'

I suggest that no-one who has not yet 'got into writing' is a good enough writer that premise 1 of Scalzi's argument applies to them. More precisely, there are two skills needed to get rich from writing; the skill of good writing (yes, OK, that's lots of skills bundled into one), and the skill of getting people, one way or another, to pay you for your writing (also lots of skills bundled together, but you get the idea). I move that both of these skill-sets must be learned before premise 1 is true, and that you have to commit to the idea of writing as a life direction/career before fully developing both.

I'm assuming that no-one is so naturally good a writer that they don't need to study it in depth for some time before they get to professional standard at it. Equally, it's fair to say that most of the writers I know wrote for a long time before deciding to get into writing as a career, so maybe they can say that by that point they were better writers than they were at anything else. Very few of these people, though, in my experience, have had very much marketing experience or training.

The key point is this; that time they spent learning to market and sell their work could have been spent learning a more lucrative skill. Similarly, the time spent learning to put the professional polish on your writing ability could be spent learning something else. Anyone with the intellectual ability to be a successful professional writer has the intellectual ability to be a lawyer, a doctor, an engineer or some other job in that high-quality professional category.

Now, I accept that once you've got a career and platform as a writer, the cost of retraining is lost earning time that, quite feasibly, you might never earn back (top-quality jobs, after all, tend to require 3-10 years to get access to). But if you don't have a career and a platform, if you're just starting out, it's going to take you a similar amount of non-earning time to develop the skills and presence to make money from your writing, and you could use that time to get a better-paying, more stable job with better benefits.

I consider myself to be coming up to the 2-year mark on my attempt to treat writing as a career. So far, I've made something like $25. Of course, I'm not a particularly relevant case, in that through this whole time I've technically been in training for a different career (i.e. academic, due to my now-almost-finished PhD), and I'm also emphatically not in this to get rich (because if I was, the time-scale involved would kill the actual writing for me - I simply would not be able to deal with this feeling in my career). I'm in writing because I believe that, long-term, it's my best chance of making a rough-and-ready living without having to do anything that feels like a day job. The quirks of my psychology that make this plausible are a subject for another time.

The reason I think it's important to contest Scalzi's point is simple; if you say it's a rational decision to get into writing to get rich, you're going to attract a lot of the kind of idiot mentioned earlier, and that benefits no-one; it clogs up the marketplace with crap, it suckers in a lot of idiots who will fall for scams like Author Solutions, and it gives us all a bad name as irresponsible dreamers.

Ultimately, there are probably no jobs (apart from 'heir to the family fortune') which give a good chance of getting rich. Even high-flying surgeons and barristers aren't rich in the way that (say) J.K. Rowling is, and even she isn't rich in the way that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are. It takes a healthy dose of luck to create that kind of wealth, and I don't think any of the people just named would deny that. Heck, Scalzi acknowledges himself that it took him a good helping of luck to get where he is today.

So, I'd discourage anyone from getting into writing 'to get rich'. Scalzi sees the question a bit differently. He argues that telling people that it's a bad idea to get into writing to get rich encourages a financial devaluing of writing, and he's almost certainly right. There's a fine line here - between 'writing to get rich' and 'writing to make a living' - but the kind of people who are out to exploit newbie authors' sense that you can't get rich from writing aren't interested in that.

Writing might be a bad way to get rich, but that doesn't mean that if you value someone's writing, you shouldn't do something at least to indicate that value. It doesn't have to be directly financial - a positive review or good recommendation is worth its character count in diamonds to a newbie writer, and even a simple expression of support or enthusiasm goes a long way - but it's worth remembering that as a reader, your best chance of getting more writing out of an author you value is to buy their time away from day-jobs and debts.

So ultimately, the question of good reasons to get into writing, and its answer, aren't really as important as the rhetorical stance you take. No-one should be using the fact that writing is a bad way to get rich to justify exploiting writers, but equally we writers should not mislead ourselves about the fact that writing is a bad way to get rich.

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