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Making a Living as a Writer

by Chip MacGregor
MacGregor Literary Inc.
www.chipmacgregor.com

I’m often asked by writers how they can make a living with their work – and I usually explain to them that, when you look at writers who are making a living at the craft, you find they come in two basic types:

TYPE 1 is the writer who writes all sorts of things. There are plenty of examples of this in publishing – writers who do kids books, teen books, women’s fiction, romance, thrillers, study guides, and the occasional novella. They publish with multiple publishers, self-publish some titles, do some work-for-hire or collaborative writing, create both fiction as well as nonfiction, and cobble together a living. This author has good years and bad, makes decent money, and is certainly out there on store shelves. They take on a variety of projects in order to make a living.

TYPE 2 is the writer who figures out what she wants to write, then writes it. She focuses on a genre, figures out her voice, and writes to that audience. One example of this is Terri Blackstock (there are plenty of others). Terri is writing suspense novels, everybody recognizes her voice, and she’s focused on that one audience. An author I represent, Susan Meissner, writes literary fiction, knows who she is and what her style is, and focuses on it.

I’ll tell you right now that TYPE 1 writers rarely hit it big. She can make a good living, but it’s tough to really hit the big time when you move around in categories. You know that feeling of being overwhelmed because you’re doing six books in four different genres? Well, that’s the sort of life a TYPE 1 author is going to lead forever. Readers have trouble following her. Bookstore owners have a hard time getting behind her because they don’t know what her next book is going to be. That’s not to say you shouldn’t do this – frankly, it may be the only way to make a living with writing these days. Just understand that TYPE 1 authors rarely hit it big because their releases are diffuse.

TYPE 2 authors have a much greater chance of building an audience, partnering with retailers, establishing a brand, and not working so hard or writing so many books. BUT it’s more risky being a TYPE 2. Why? Because what if your voice doesn’t catch on? Take a look at publisher mid-lists – they are filled with good craftspeople who are writing and publishing but struggling. I can think of several fantastic writers – literate, fun, insightful, with solid craftwork… but they’ve never really had a hit. There’s no guarantee that becoming a TYPE 2 author will establish you as a bestselling author. On the other hand, a good TYPE 2 author continues to get published, because she’s good.

So…ask yourself what you want to be. I see many authors writing numerous historical novels but not taking the long view – they started out with the goal of “landing a contract,” and they continue with that goal. I’d suggest a better goal than “landing another contract” would be “establishing a successful long-term career.”

Again, there’s no right or wrong here – just differences.



Chip MacGregor is founder of MacGregor Literary and a longtime agent. Chip has a comprehensive knowledge of the industry-from book development to writing, acquisition to production, marketing to sales. He has secured more than 1,000 book deals for authors with all of the major publishers in both CBA and ABA. A popular writer’s conference speaker, Chip has presented workshops at more than 100 locations, spoken at colleges and universities, and is frequently invited to speak to writers groups around the country on the topics of writing and publishing.

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2 Responses to Making a Living as a Writer

  1. Anna Labno says:

    I’m TYPE 2 and happy to admit it. I have a full time job doing something else than writing, so I’m not frustrated because I hold a financial stability. I write what I love. :)

  2. Chip,

    Thanks for laying this out so succinctly. In today’s industry, it’s hard to know how best to invest myself, but I know what I WANT – and that’s to be a Type 2 writer. I want to have a clear, focused voice. I want my success to be based on WHO I am, rather than on what I’ve accomplished.

    It’s hard to stay the course at times because I’m working full-time as a writer now. There are days when I start to panic and begin looking for ways to diversify, but I know it’s not really what I want. What you said on Monday made me take a deep breath and dig in again: “I?d suggest a better goal than ?landing another contract? would be ?establishing a successful long-term career.?

    So thanks,
    Becky