Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Making A Living As A Writer is A Waiting Game

Anyone who has followed this blog for any length of time has likely noticed I talk a lot about how authors need to get paid. I've mentioned sites like InfoBarrel that pay authors based on their traffic, I've talked about what a lifesaver Patreon is, and I've even put out a list of 5 questions you should ask every freelance client before you agree to take on a project.

Today, though, I'd like to talk about time. Because time is the reason almost every freelance writer I know is broke as shit.

The check's in the mail. What do you mean PayPal only takes a few minutes?
Let me put something into perspective for you, just to clear the air a bit. If every client who owes me money paid up right now, I would have nearly $2,000 in my hand. Some of those projects have been done for a few days. Some of them have been done for months. But the point is, I have a lot of clients who owe me money.

And you know what? Most of them are going to keep owing me money for the foreseeable future. That's not a flaw of the system as it stands... that's how it's supposed to work.

Just Because You're Done, Doesn't Mean You Get Paid

Under normal circumstances, being a freelancer is pretty simple. You show up, do the job, and the client pays you. Whether you're cutting their grass, repairing a roof, building a website, or drawing up a piece of art, once you turn in the project the client hands you a check.

Sometimes that's how it works when you're a writer. If you're really lucky, you can even get a portion of your fee up-front as a kind of deposit. But most of the time you don't get paid until your work is actually published by the client. Sometimes you don't get paid until a month or more after your work is finally printed.

Does that mean what it sounds like it means?
Yep. It means that sometimes when I complete a piece of work for a client, and it goes onto the pile, I get paid right away. More often than not it takes a 1-3 months for a client to cut me the check they owe me. Sometimes it can take 6-8 months before the work I did transforms into money in my pocket.

Problem is, I need to eat, and I've got a landlord that expects a check by the 5th.

Why Don't You Just Negotiate A Better Contract?

This is probably the most common question I get asked, and the query always comes from people who don't work as freelancers, and who have never worked as writers. So, let me turn the question around on you. Why don't you walk into your boss's office and say, "Hey Greg, got a spot of bad news. This job you want me to do? Yeah, I'm going to need you to up my wages if you want it done faster. Also, I expect to be paid at the end of this week, not two weeks from now."

Now, if you're really good at your job, and your boss values you, he might be willing to play ball. If you've worked for him a long time, and he knows you would be hard to replace, he might be willing to meet you in the middle on some things. But if there are thousands of people waiting outside who'd be happy to do the job you've got problems with, then Greg will tell you to clean out your desk so someone who doesn't complain as much can take over.

The button on the boss's desk is black, with flaming red letters.
If you're a freelancer, you have pretty much no power. So yes, if you want to be paid on acceptance, rather than publication, you can ask that your clients do that. If the client says, "no, we're not doing that," then you either have to take the job anyway, or wait for a unicorn to come walking by.

I don't know a single writer out there who wouldn't love to have a unicorn of their very own. But most of us have never found one, so we take the work we get, and hope that the due date on our bills happens to match up with when our checks finally clear.

You Can Take It Into Your Own Hands... If You Have Time

A lot of people also ask why I spend all this time and effort working for clients when I could just write for myself. Cut out the middle man, and release my work directly to the masses. After all, self-publishing is a huge thing now, and it can make mad returns.

It can. However, you know what self-publishing also takes? Time.

Me Again!
I have a novel manuscript sitting on my computer right now. I could format it, put together a cover, and release it by the beginning of next week. I could launch a promotional campaign for it over the next few months, complete with free samples and giveaways. But you know what that would likely gain me, if I went by both previous experience and numbers for the genre? Maybe $50 or so by the end of the year. $100 if I manage to intrigue more folks than usual. That's not much for a season worth of work, and that's not even including the year and a half it took to write and edit the novel in the first place.

The same is true for blogs, or for stand-alone articles; you need time to build a following, and an archive. You can't just sit down one day to self-publish a new blog, or a YouTube channel, or an article, and expect to make bank by the end of the month. Building those endeavors up can take a year, or longer, depending on your audience, niche, release schedule, etc.

And if you're some nobody who doesn't even show up in a Google search? Then you're running a race against time while wearing lead boots.

Are You Damned If You Do, And Damned If You Don't?

Yes and no. One of the supreme ironies of this trade is that the longer you work at it, and the more contacts you make, the less often you have to deal with long waiting periods, and uncertain pay dates. If you develop a close relationship with your stable of clients, then they will make sure you have the funds you need, and that you have them promptly, because they value your work. They've come to know you, and your reputation, and they don't want to take the energy or the risk of getting someone else to do your job.

Again, though, that takes time. Years of time, barring some extremely good fortune.

I say all this not to try and make you feel sorry for me, dear readers, or to feel sorry for my fellow freelancers that we are poor, mistreated souls. I'm just trying to relay the reality of the industry we work in, and how frustrating it is when you have to pay for Ramen with the change from your piggy bank, even though you have thousands of dollars worth of work that will be hitting your account any day now.

Any day now...

If you'd like to help contribute to my financial stability, and ensure I keep this blog going, why not head over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page? If you become a patron, and contribute at least $1 a month, I've got a whole pile of swag to send you as a thank you. That's all for my Business of Writing post this week, though, and if you want to keep up to date on my future posts you should follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter.


  1. More a mark of curiosity than asking you to open the proverbial Kimono - when you're talking about self publishing and something gaining you only $50 to $100, are you talking pre or post expenses?

    1. That's my estimated earnings from sales, give or take. So, pre-expenses.