I Write for the Money

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I was one of those kids who could wander off into the woods and spend the better part of a day on a project.

When my teacher gave me a notebook that I could use for anything, anything at all, I filled it up with stories and drawings.

When my friend and I started thinking about a fun thing to do after school, we started writing a book together.

By the time I got to college, I’d heard all about finding a job that is respectable, like a lawyer or a doctor, and I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. Writing wasn’t even close to being on the radar. I honestly didn’t even know there were people called “copy writers” or “business writers” who got paid a living wage to work with words. I believed that words were just part of my childhood and that part of me needed to die in the service of finding a career.

My wife once said to me, “I can’t even imagine what kind of major you should have been in college.”

Truer words have never been spoken. I didn’t fit into any tidy career boxes. I have creative inclinations that drew me toward writing and reading, but I also had more interpersonal, pastoral inclinations that drew me toward ministry. The English and Bible majors weren’t good fits, and in the presence of both camps I felt like an imposter.

I replied to my wife, “Maybe if they had a major called ‘Professional F – – k ups’?”

Those were darker days.

I couldn’t even trace a clear path between that little kid who filled up piles of notebooks with stories and the young adult who set off for seminary for a career in ministry that never felt right. It was the least-worst least-right thing.

In the back of my mind, I kept hearing a little voice whispering: You could write on the side. I continued to hear it as I earned a degree for a career I wouldn’t pursue. When I turned to a job in the nonprofit sector, I still felt like an imposter, and that voice in the back of my mind grew louder: you could write on the side…

When I finally started listening to that voice to write, I had no idea how to make a living as a writer. I just knew that it was my last shot at some kind of a career.

I thought that I was finally becoming the kind of adult who made some sense out of that kid who would wander in the woods all day or who would fill up notebooks with stories. This was going to be the time when I finally linked a career with my actual identity. Right?

Not quite.

I started out with writing with the simple hope of earning a sustainable living. Yes, I wrote for the money. Writers should never be ashamed of creating high quality creative work or professional business pieces for a fair wage. That isn’t the same thing as being annoying about promotion or selling out for a paycheck. That also isn’t the same thing as writing in order to get famous. In fact, the latter distinction has been essential for me.

Unfortunately, many writers today are stuck in a kind of limbo between a perception that writing for a sustainable income means writing in order to get famous. This perception is grounded in an unnecessary reality that has unfortunately become all too normal.

When I started out as an author, I had the modest goal of writing for a respectable, sustainable audience. I never wanted to be the headliner at conferences, the go-to guy for hot takes on cable news, or a social media rock star. I just wanted to write and get paid for it.

I imagined my dad working long days as a plumber, often taking me on estimates in the evenings or going in for half or full days on Saturdays. That’s what I had in mind: hard work, a career that used my talents and abilities, and a paycheck at the end of the week.

Instead I found a carnival of conferences, social media personalities, Middle-school-style blog fights, and popularity contests.

I had no idea that the traditional publishing world has less and less room (and use?) for a working author. Rather, what I’ve discovered is a huge gap between the haves and have nots. There are the new authors who get picked up as a kind of Hail Mary pass and the big names who consistently earn their keep. The majority of the resources go the big names, and I honestly don’t blame publishers for choosing what works. However, the number of authors who can earn a living without engaging in the publicity circus are growing fewer and fewer.

I write for the money. I don’t write for fame or publicity. Today many authors are finding that you can’t write books for a living wage unless you also gun for the fame and publicity. A select few have carved their own way between the two, but I assure you they don’t have much by way of long term security. For the most part, I’ve chosen to release my latest books independently in order to earn a modest monthly wage on my own terms.

I don’t have easy answers here. I have found a middle ground that includes lots of freelancing, writing for blogs and websites combined with author coaching and editing things like books and proposals. I write my own books and release them independently while keeping communication channels with publishers open.

Perhaps I’m foolish, but I can’t let go of a few images in my mind.

I see that kid who filled up notebooks and then took long walks in the woods.

I see my dad removing his muddy boots in the garage and then scrubbing his hands in the kitchen sink.

I see my own notebook filled with ideas, dreams, and hopes. Sometimes the ideas in that notebook translate into a check, direct deposit from Amazon, or a PayPal payment. Sometimes those ideas turn into an appreciative note from a reader or a five-star review.

My kids don’t see muddy work boots or blackened hands in our home. They see torn-open envelopes, a computer, and a pile of fine point black pens next to my notebook.

I remember my dad sharing a plumber joke with me one day when he came home covered in mud.

“That’s not dirt,” he said. “That’s money.”

And so as I scribble again and again in my notebook…

“That’s not ink… that’s money.”

This is my career. This is my calling—who I’ve always been deep down to my core from the earliest days that I could write in a notebook or tap away on a keyboard. I write for the money that leads to a sustainable creative career, and I hope that more writers can do the same.

Hope for Weary and Discouraged Writers

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My book Write without Crushing Your Soul started with a very open-ended question while chatting with a group of Christian writers:

What surprised you about book publishing?

I kept my unfiltered response to myself, but I knew what I should have said:

It hurt like hell and crushed my soul over and over and over again.

To my surprise, a colleague who has published several well-received books with large publishers commented:

“I wasn’t prepared for how much publishing would hurt.”

His honest, vulnerable answer gave the rest of us permission to let out a kind of collective sigh of relief and weigh in with our own failures, disappointments, and struggles. We all had stories of pain and disappointment. Several expressed a fear that aspects of the publishing process were toxic for their souls.

No one was planning to give up on their publishing careers or putting an end to the writing they do for an audience. We were all committed to our work for the long term. However, we didn’t realize how unsustainable publishing has become for so many.

The pain and the challenges that face many writers today can wear you down if you don’t have sustainable practices and a pace that enables you to stick with it for the long term.

This is why I started working on How to Write without Crushing Your Soul.

  • Disappointments will come in book publishing
  • Sales will usually be disappointing.
  • Some reviews will be “meh.”
  • The influential people you care about won’t care about your book.
  • The promotions you plan may flop.
  • The stuff that you considered brilliant will be largely ignored.

And it gets more challenging if you work with a commercial publisher:

  • If you’ve never been a fan of social media, you’ll be expected to jump into it with both feet.
  • If you’ve never thought about how to sell books, you need to become an expert of sorts.
  • If you’ve never launched a book before, prepare yourself for a time-consuming, emotional roller coaster ride.
  • If you’ve never hosted a book event before, prepare yourself for either tough questions or an empty room.

I’ve been on just about every side of publishing. I’ve released books that succeeded and books that flopped. I’ve released books that were well-received by colleagues and books that hardly turned heads. I’ve heard from publishers that my email list and social media followers are ideal, and I’ve heard that I have no business publishing books.

Despite all of these ups and downs, I still persist in book publishing and know so many other writers who take on all of these same risks because there is something holy and freeing about the work.

Writers are creating something intensely personal and sharing it with the world in the hope that it will help their readers. It can be crushing to see that work go unread.

For those who persist to discover what their audiences need and how to reach them, it can be immensely fulfilling to see that work connect with readers.

How do we preserve our souls while still actively engaging in this important work?

We’ll find our own answers in two places: our mindsets and our practices.

For your mindset, begin here:

Writing cannot, in any way, shape, or form, become the source of your identity. Only God can give that to you.

A bad day, week, month, or year as a writer does not, in any way, diminish God’s love for you.

Writing is a calling to serve your audience.

The moment writing becomes a means of personal validation, you’ve handed over immense power to other people—power they don’t even want.

When “God so loved the world…” stops being enough for you, you’ll set off on a never-ending, diversion that will leave you restless and completely devoid of peace.

Writing from this place will be miserable, and it will be especially hard to bless others because the goal of writing is personal validation, not serving others.

Secondly, focusing your practices can also go a long way in saving your soul.

You can find plenty of posts sharing 50 ways to promote your book or 20 ways to grow your online platform, but most of us just need the two or three most effective ways to promote your book or writing.

Most of the writers I know who have enjoyed significant success have invested in just a few tools for connecting with readers, and everything else grows as a result. For instance, some popular bloggers I know focus on writing great posts and then hosting related conversations on their Facebook pages. I’ve personally chosen to publish short eBooks that I give away for free and then write personal email newsletters bi-weekly to those readers.

There are lots of different ways to reach readers. You can focus on developing Instagram, a podcast, Periscope videos, a weekly email newsletter, Thunderclap campaigns, or a blog that serves a niche of readers. When you’re releasing a book, don’t overlook advertising options such as Facebook ads or eBook discount sites—most of these are affordable or have lower cost options. Like I mentioned before, there are at least 50 ways to reach more readers with your writing.

Only you can tell what lines up the best with your personal talents, calling, and soul care.

Finding readers can be exhausting, so it’s best to develop the most sustainable ways that won’t eat away at your creative time, family time, and spiritual renewal.

You can’t win at everything. You can’t do it all. You’ll never be done.

I’m not a publicist by trade. I’m an author, but as more of the publicity work rests on authors, I’ve been forced to look long and hard for sustainable publicity practices for my writing work.

Perhaps the most important rule is that we need boundaries. We have to test out a few practices and then invest in those that land in the sweet spot between what works and what’s sustainable for us.

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A certain level of struggle and pain will be inevitable for writers. There’s no getting past that. When I talk to new writers and aspiring authors, I’m always quick to mention that writing for an audience will always bring some level of pain and struggle. It will be especially difficult for book publishing.

That isn’t to say it can’t be done or shouldn’t be done or that some authors have had an easier time at it than others.

My hope and my prayer for the readers of Write without Crushing Your Soul is that they’ll be prepared at the outset for the challenges and hardships coming their way as they set out on their writing careers.

I want my readers to be empowered to make the best possible decisions for their souls, their relationships, and their work.

I want my readers to be as prepared as possible for what awaits them so that they can fulfill their calling to write while keeping their souls healthy for the long term.

 

Today’s post was adapted from my new book, Write without Crushing Your Soul: Sustainable Publishing and Freelancing.

The eBook version is on sale for just $3.99:

Kindle | iBooks | Nook | Kobo | Print

 

5 Changes in My Approach to Book Publishing

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Authors all around me are giving up on book publishing, shifting to new careers, or radically rethinking how they approach publishing. Some authors, such as Phillip Yancey, are lamenting the changes to publishing and counting themselves lucky that they got in while the getting is good.

Many active authors make the bulk of their money through speaking, online courses, coaching, and more need-based, how-to projects.

The reality is that very few writers can actually survive as authors alone—especially Christian authors. I’ve seen many bestselling Christian authors who have greater success than I could ever hope for switch to corporate clients, business writing, self-help books, event planning, and the list goes on. There’s a trend where many of the people I’ve looked up to have peered ahead to the future and decided that they at least needed a better side source of financial support, if not an altogether different career.

I’ve been thinking long and hard about the path of my career. At one point I tried to supplement book publishing with magazine writing. I’ve also tried to play the traditional author game by landing speaking gigs. Both have their advantages for other people, but I can see that neither are a particularly good fit for me, especially at this season in my life.

Having commercially published five books and self-published several short projects and one full-length book, I’m also rethinking my path as an author, but not quite like them. I’d like to share five shifts I’m making in order to help other authors consider their own futures and, let’s be honest here, to hold myself accountable.

 

1. I’m Writing Books. Period.

I’ve spent too much time dividing myself over too many different kinds of projects. I’d been trying to write for magazines and very particular websites that called for a specific kind of short-form writing and I’m simply terrible at it.

I’m sticking with this blog, my newsletter, my book projects, and some select freelancing projects. I used to really fret about getting magazine credits and invested so much time in pitching article ideas that were either shot down on the spot or written on spec before being shot down. The few articles that did make it into publication brought very little by way of return for my publishing career.

I’m not saying that other people can’t or shouldn’t do that. I just know I’ve tried really hard to make it work, and I’m not seeing any kind of meaningful return. I’d much rather write eBooks, something I know how to do, and give them away in exchange for email addresses or sell them for a discounted price—which adds up if you can sell enough eBooks.

 

2. It’s All about Email

Writers write for an audience, right?

Right.

I used to divide my attention between writing for an audience and writing to get noticed by publishers—hence my wasted time trying to write for magazines when I really had no business doing that.

There’s a simple, tried and true way to build relationships with readers on your own terms that every book marketing expert praises: email. And here’s the thing, I love jotting down little notes to my e-newsletter readers, keeping them in the loop on projects, and sending them free books whenever I can.

It’s like having a secret club.

So my publishing plan is something like this:

  • Write for my blog regularly, testing out book ideas and collecting new email subscribers.
  • Send updates, recommendations, and new books to email subscribers.
  • Publish and self-publish books, asking my newsletter readers to help spread the word.
  • Then I’ll start posting new ideas on my blog and begin the process again.

 

3. I’m Crossing Genres, Not Topics.

It made sense to write my Path to Publishing book in 2010. It helped me land publishing workshop gigs. It also saved me a ton of time writing emails to people asking first-time publishing questions. I wouldn’t say it’s made a ton of money, but it at least paid for itself.

However, I’m not interested in becoming a publishing guru as so many authors have done. I’m more interested in publishing books related to religion and then sharing what I’ve learned about publishing along the way. I see A Path to Publishing as a departure from my central writing topic: religion.

Having said that, I am finally taking fiction seriously. I’ve dabbled in fiction on and off over the years, always scrapping novels at the halfway point because I just wanted to run the main character over with a bus. I finally have an idea for a series that is exciting and strikes me as sustainable for the long term.

The novel I’m working on has a main character who is a Christian and he’ll be interacting with Christian stuff, but there’s no single moralistic lesson or point to the book beyond telling a good story. So I’m sticking to religion as my topic, but I’ll keep writing nonfiction while adding some fiction to the mix.

 

4. I’m Committing to a Hybrid Approach… for Now

There was a time when I saw the amount of work required to go indie as an author, and I rightly decided that it was simply too time-consuming.

Now there are better tools and better methods available. It’s far more viable for authors to self-publish today. I also have way more experience with publishing, so I should, in theory, be able to write books that require less editing than if I’d started self-publishing full time in 2010. I’ve already dabbled in self-publishing for a few book projects as a kind of experiment. I was hesitant to jump in with both feet until I had a better grasp of what it took to be successful—not I have a “great” grasp, just a better grasp.

I’m not giving up on commercial publishing. I’m simply becoming more intentional about both.

I have a list of publishers in mind for my projects, and if I can’t work with the right publisher(s) for the right project, I’ll either drop it or self-publish it.

I’m also intentionally developing a series of eBooks that I can self-publish.

 

5. I’m Selectively Publishing

I admit that I saw a publisher as a way to legitimize myself. Perhaps I still do. I’m not sure I would strike out into self-publishing without a few commercial books that at least turned a few heads.

I used to think that publishers validate you. I was wrong. Readers validate you. If readers want your books, then you’re valid.

I heard an agent talking about that bestselling book Heaven Is for Real. Someone insightfully asked him if he would have represented the author. He laughed and said, “Well, I’d represent him now!” Exactly, as long as Burpo is selling books to people, he’s a valid author.

Validating yourself as an author is really just a matter of connecting with readers. That’s it.

Today I see publishers as partners who should help you do two things:

  • Improve your book.
  • Reach more readers.

While authors understand that the best editors should improve the content of a book, most fail to fully grasp just how much rests with the author for book promotion. A publisher can do a lot. They can buy some ads, print marketing materials, organize price promotions, create graphics, send copies to reviewers, advocate for authors with book buyers, and promote books to their mailing lists, but none of those tactics are necessarily guarantee sales.

Few authors are prepared to successfully convince people to buy their books. I’ve also learned that publicists at a variety of publishers are divided in their opinions on how to release a new book, which is a whole other post.

In some cases a savvy publicist makes all of the difference in the sale of a book, in some cases the publicist holds back an author who has innovative ideas, and in other cases the book is DOA regardless of what a publicist or author does. I’ve talked to authors who have been all across the spectrum on this.

 

So that’s it. I’m going to keep publishing books. I’m not here to get cover stories on magazines, to be the headliner at a conference, or to change the course of evangelical Christianity for the next 50 years or whatever. I have some stories to tell, some ideas to share, and an itch in my fingers to write.

I have books to write, blog posts to draft, and emails to send. If you want to keep in touch throughout this journey, pick up my new books, learn from my mistakes, and get some off the record thoughts on it all, sign up for my e-newsletter. You’ll also receive two free eBooks!

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Welcome! If You’re New, Start Here

I’m the author of multiple books, including the Kindle bestsellers A Christian Survival Guide; Pray, Write, Grow; Coffeehouse Theology; and Write without Crushing Your Soul. I freelance (mostly book editing, author coaching, and website content) and write books in Columbus, OH.

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