Can You Make a Living as a Writer?

I’m starting to get more mail, and more questions, than the Playboy Advisor. I  received this email yesterday:

Dear Mr. Goldberg,
I’m a young, unpublished writer who’s been fortunate enough to get the
attention of a couple of agents.  Since I might one day find myself published
(it does seem so far off, though), I have a few questions for a tried and true
veteran of the industry.
First, how likely is it to make a living as a writer?  I understand how
broad and poorly concieved this question is, so let my add a little more to the
question.  I write literary fiction.  I feel I am somewhat talented and I work
hard.  I’m curious as to the possibility of living as a writer or teaching
writing as a direct result of my writing and not spending $60k and two
irreplacable years of my life to get some MFA that will teach me nothing.  How
much can a literary novelist really make?  It seems stupid to assume I’ll never
make any money just because I write books that read a little too artsy for mass
consumption (but then who is to predict such things).
Second, and possibly more immediate, I’m going into the Army for the next
three and a half years or so.  Is this something that will impede my getting
published?  As I have already stated, I have agents looking at my work now and
they have no idea of my plans.
Thanks for reading my questions.  I hope I haven’t asked anything too


Since I didn’t have the answers to any of his questions, I turned to my brother Tod, a literary novelist who, presumably, is earning a living at it. Here’s what Tod told the guy who wrote me:


My brother Lee Goldberg forwarded your question on to me, since I was in a
similar situation as you (save for the military) a few years ago.

It is certainly possible to make a living writing literary fiction, though
realistically most people don’t. I’ve published two novels and have a short
story collection coming out in September and what I can tell you is that the
combined income from those books isn’t enough to live on, though the acclaim
feeds my ego, just not my stomach. I got lucky and was able to sell one of my
novels to Hollywood and have thus far received far more money from my movie
options than I ever have in publishing, enough to live on, certainly. But I also
teach at the Writers’ Program at UCLA and write a weekly column for a newspaper
and regularly contribute journalism to magazines. If I wanted to teach full time
at the University level I imagine I probably could now because of certain award
nominations, publications and experience, but without an MFA (which I don’t have
either) a full time teaching job straight out the box for a young person with a
book would be very difficult to come by without a fairly vast and accomplished
publishing history. Universities and state colleges generally want their
graduate and undergraduate professors to have advanced degrees no matter what.
How much does a literary novelist make? Anywhere from $2000 per book to
1million — there’s no real telling. Alice Sebold didn’t get a huge advance for
the Lovely Bones, but she sure earned a lot of money and her next book will
certainly garner a fat advance. I wouldn’t be too concerned about the money at
this point, just about the writing. Good writing gets rewarded, but so does bad
sometimes. I’d just focus on writing well and if you sell your novel, it’s a
dream come true no matter the numbers on the check.
As for the military, I think it probably does hamper your chances simply
because of the opportunity, or lack there of, you’ll have to write and should
you sell your book, to promote it. Of course, you could come back from your time
in the Army as the next Tim O’Brien, though I sure hope that isn’t the case on a
psychological level; talent-wise, it wouldn’t be a bad deal at all.
Just out of curiosity, who are these agents and why are they interested in
you, especially if you never been published previously?
I hope this helps. Let me know if you have more questions. And be safe out
there in the army.
Tod Goldberg


12 thoughts on “Can You Make a Living as a Writer?”

  1. Sure, you can make a living as a writer…assuming you’re either very good or not too picky. But anyone who asks the question is probably better off keeping the day job. The only reason to write is because you must.
    And ’cause you wanna meet chicks, of course.

  2. I want to be a writer, but have had writer’s block for years. I cannot remember a time when writing felt great, comfortable,and natural. I have so many ideas in my head, taunting me and begging for my attention. I cannot get these “demons” out of my head and onto paper! I’ve been in the dark for so long that it has damaged my confidence as a writer. Is this normal? How do I break out of the silence?

  3. Writers write. You aren’t writing. You don’t enjoy writing. So why the hell do you want to be a writer? And what makes you think you can be one? Ideas aren’t writing. Writing is writing.

  4. Maybe, Mark, you have a great desire to put your ideas out there, and it’s possible that writing isn’t the medium for you. Try something more visual, such as photogrpahy, film…or something you can lay your hands on like sculpting, or art. Some people are meant to spread their ideas, but not everyone is meant to write them out.

  5. There are many well known writers who have gone on record as saying they have had writers block for weeks,months,even years on end.Bukowski didn’t write a thing for about 11
    years when he was younger.I bet Max is one of those wannabe writers that goes to those pathetic writers groups with a bunch of old people that write really shitty stories.Max,how the hell do you know if sukey doesn’t enjoy writing,just because he/she is experiencing writer’s block?You pretentious prick!(And by calling you a pretentious prick,I’m basing that on the content of your reply,not some half-baked snotty notion that popped into my head which I mistook for reality because my head is too far up my ass.)

  6. Max,
    Maybe you just need some time to relax and let your mind chew on it a bit. I have wanted to write a screenplay and play/musical for years, but lacked inspiration. Life seemed to get in the way, but what I never realized was those times are what have finally given me the inspiration I needed. And, sometimes I’m on a walk, not thinking at all of anything, and my ideas suddenly come together in my mind. Don’t pressure yourself too hard. It’ll come to you.
    Another thing to try is to just write and write and write. This is what my screenwriting teacher once told me, and he’s right. Even working in communications, I find that just writing Something really helps get out of a rut.
    Another thing to try is to write down your ideas and arrange them in story sequence. Try thinking like the reader and connecting the dots in terms of what you think they’d like, be enthused about or want to know in between those scenes. If you have too many story ideas on the whole, pick the one that resonates with you the most. It will be easier to write because the story/characters/themes resonate with you more. I mean, really, who can write something they aren’t as passionate about?
    You could also try working in little bits instead of big chunks. Right now I’m seeking a day job and sometimes procrastinate. However, I find that if I aim to do just a little bit each day, I end up working a lot longer than I had anticipated.
    Hope this helps,
    Laura Fedoriw


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