THE BLOG
11/01/2014 08:07 pm ET Updated Jan 01, 2015

Art vs. Commerce: Can Writers Make It Without Day Jobs?

My head is spinning after reading the latest letter by Editor-in-Chief Kevin Larimer in Poets & Writers magazine. Larimer makes some fair points in his piece, called "It's All about the Writing," saying that most of us don't write for the money, but because we love writing. Then he takes it one step too far, practically sniffing as he says, "without that book deal, without that money, we will still write. And most of us -- not all, but most of us -- do not 'write for the market' (whatever that might actually mean)."

I'm sorry. What did you just say?

Of course most of us don't write for money, but that's only because there's not a lot of money to be made by writing. The publishing industry is creaking along, and most of the outlets for essayists and journalists have dried up as print publications have gone online. If you do want to make a living as a writer, you'd better be diverse, flexible, and, yep, willing to write for the market, or you won't sell anything. Those in self-publishing know this better than anyone, because they're marketing their own books.

Those who don't write for the market? They'd better have "real" jobs to support themselves, which means that they're typically teaching or working nine-to-five jobs, then writing at night and on weekends.

I couldn't sell my fiction for a long time, but I had a background in biology, so it was easy to market myself as a science writer. I morphed into a magazine writer after selling an essay to a national women's magazine and then branched out to write articles and columns for magazines as well. That led me into ghost writing -- for doctors and other science professionals first, and later for celebrities who wanted to write their memoirs. All fun work, but I did it to support my fiction, which didn't pay anything. Even when I "sold" short stories to literary journals, I got paid in copies.

I did finally sell a novel to one of the big publishers 25 years after I started writing fiction. By now, I've written nine novels and am about to publish my fourth, so I know the real magic happens during the revision process. If I can get the words on the page, I can fix them. But, this time around, I have an insane deadline: six months to write this book and get it to my editor.

A book advance and a tight deadline are great problems to have. I'm not complaining. Before selling my first novel, I self-published a novel through CreateSpace for less than $2000 and sold enough copies to make my money back, plus a bit more.

Two weeks after I'd self-published that book, my agent sold the novel he'd been shopping around. Suddenly, I was catapulted into the category of "hybrid" author, straddling the worlds of Indie publishing and traditional publishing.

Which did I like better? Um, both.

I will not extol the virtues of Indie publishing here. Nor do I need to bother listing the virtues of traditional publishing, except to say that both methods are exciting, potentially put your books in the hands of readers and can possibly make you an income. (The key word here is "possibly.")

The thing I'm wondering as I scramble to meet this deadline is whether traditionally-published authors can keep up with Indie authors, and whether we should even try. In other words, can you have both an artistic career and a commercial one?

My self-published writer friends tend to work very differently from the friends I have who write for traditional publishers. Here is a typical phone call between myself and bestselling Indie author Toby Neal, a mystery writer who sets her crime series in Hawaii:

Me: "Hey, can you talk?"

Toby: "Sure, I've made my word count for the day."

"Word count" is a critical daily goal in the Indie publishing world. Indie authors who self-publish romances and mysteries in series are the ones making the most money. They churn multiple books out every year and can get them to market at top speed, assisted by a flotilla of freelance editors and designers. At the London Book Fair this past spring, for instance, eight self-published authors renting a single booth had sold 16 million books between them. They're making bank.

Meanwhile, at the most recent Newburyport Literary Festival, I attended a panel discussion with literary greats who had all been Oprah authors. In response to an audience question, they said each of them takes between four and ten years to write a single book. Their publishers presumably add on another year or two as the books go through the process of being edited, copy-edited and designed.

Obviously, writers lucky enough to have been discovered by Oprah (back when she did that sort of thing) don't have to worry as much about putting books out quickly as the rest of us do. They're household names and have made the leap to bestseller lists. Plus, writing literary fiction is widely accepted as a more intensive, time-consuming endeavor than writing plot-based romances, crime novels, fantasy, or the kind of emotional family mysteries I write. Literary fiction tends to be more often reviewed and awarded prizes than other genres, too, despite the fact that many literary novels sell only a few thousand copies.

Most novelists with traditional publishing houses must augment our living by working at something other than making up stories. Yet, the pressure is on traditional publishing companies -- and therefore on their writers -- to keep pace with self-publishing. Recently, my editor said that my publisher was interested in pushing up the deadline on my next book -- hence my tight deadline -- and wanted me to think about it. "No pressure," she said.

But of course there was pressure, as I wondered whether I really could write two novels in one year. If I did, would those novels be as good as the ones I'd taken longer to write?

From the publisher's perspective -- and, okay, from the writer's, too -- having books come out with shorter periods of time between them is a great thing, because the readers of your previous books will presumably remember your name long enough to buy your new one. Books don't take as long to produce, thanks to new technologies, so publishing two books a year by the same author instead of just one is doable -- provided the author doesn't suffer from writer's block or take a wrong turn with the plot or characters.

That's the tricky thing about any artistic endeavor, and maybe that's what Larimer really meant: once you start trying to produce for the marketplace, there can either be great exhilaration as you get into the zone and begin happily, breathlessly creating, or there can be a crash-and-burn as you realize there's no way to make the project fly in time for the deadline.

Novels are not cars to be assembled. You can't write them if the muse isn't with you, and the muse doesn't always come when you call her. Yet, if you want to make a living as a writer, you must find a way to go to the muse if she won't come to you.