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Why It’s So Hard to Make a Living Writing

Rachel Hauck, a best-selling romance novelist, once said at a meeting of the Central Florida chapter of American Christian Fiction Writers that you can make money writing. You may not make a living, but you can make money.

It’s an important distinction, and one I’ve heard before. Few novelists make their sole income from novel writing. Most have some other job on the side, either a day job like journalism or teaching, or a related occupation, like (ahem) freelance editing.

As a business person, I continually seek ideas about how to expand my business and improve my operations. One person I follow is Ramit Sethi, whose online education company bears the clickbaity name I Will Teach You To Be Rich. Sethi is a business coach, and he recently posted a video that demonstrates exactly why making a living selling novels is so hard. His video is called “Finding Your Profitable Idea” and it’s intended for budding online entrepreneurs. But the heart of the matter is “profitable.”

Profitability is binary—you either have a profit or a loss. But on the profit side, there is scale—you can have a narrow profit margin or a large one. Books, generally speaking, have a narrow profit margin.

To determine the profitability of an idea, Sethi developed a “Demand Matrix.” Products have high or low demand, and high or low prices.

Demand Matrix

You see the problem.

The question then is, do we keep doing the thing that’s a labor of love, even if it’s not profitable?

I know for me, I couldn’t give up novel writing if I wanted to. Even when I went through seasons in my life when writing had to take a back burner, I always thought about my stories and eventually returned to them. I’m content to let my novel writing be a labor of love, and focus on other areas of my life and work to make a living.

Mind you, editing is starting to look like low demand work as well, and so far I’m not finding the people willing to pay “high” prices for it. Not that I think my prices are high—they’re very much in line with other Editorial Freelancers Association members—but when I send out bids, “I can’t afford that” is the number one objection I hear.

Maybe my problem is that I’m bidding to edit novels.

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About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

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