As promised, what follows is the speech I gave to Borderlands Boot Camp at Towson University last weekend. I was asked to talk about how to make a living as a full-time writer — the perils, pitfalls, and silver linings. So I did. This is not a transcript, so not included here are the mid-speech digressions and the Q&A afterward (which delved more into self-publishing and, oddly, stalkers).
My name is Brian Keene and I am a full-time writer.
I’m honored to be here tonight. As you all know, it almost didn’t happen. I was supposed to be one of your instructors this year, but due to the economy, that didn’t work out. In truth, it wouldn’t have worked out anyway because I would have spent all weekend sitting out there with you and sponging up knowledge from instructors F. Paul Wilson, Douglas Winter, and Tom Monteleone instead of telling you anything useful.
Seriously. I hope you know how lucky you are to have an opportunity like the one you’ve had this weekend. My generation didn’t have a Borderlands Boot Camp. If we wanted writing advice from these guys, we had to get it the old-fashioned way – by buying them drinks at a bar. I figure that method of learning has cost me over $20,000 over the last fifteen years.
You’ve spent the weekend learning how to become writers, or perhaps, to be more accurate, how to become better writers. I’m here tonight, at the invitation of your instructors, to talk to you about what happens after you become a writer—how to make a living at it, what you can expect when you write for a living, and more importantly, what not to expect.
To be clear, I define writing for a living as “Writing is your main source of income.” And I should also clarify that, just as there are many different ways to get published these days, there are also many different ways to make your living as a writer. This is my way, and it has worked for me. It’s sort of like a VH1 Behind-the-Music special, except it has more caffeine than cocaine, and instead of Keith Richards snorting a fifth of Chivas down a guitar neck onstage, or Axl Rose getting photographed with two-dozen buxom, semi-clad groupies, there’s only Tim Lebbon and I performing drunken Karaoke at some long-forgotten World Horror Convention or Joe Hill and I photographed drinking soda in a dark corner at NECON.
I have been a full-time writer—meaning writing is my only source of income, and how I provide for myself and my loved ones—for a little over a decade. My commute is great—from the bed to the coffee pot to the computer. I get paid to make up stories about zombies and giant carnivorous worms and people give me money for them. Not a bad gig. Usually. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Writing is a hard way to earn a living, and the costs are high. Too high, at times. And yet, I continue to do it because the rewards are unlike those of any other profession I know. And I continue to do it because I can’t do anything else. I can’t not write. I’ve always liked my friend Tom Piccirilli’s description of this condition: If you’re stranded alone on a desert island, and you spend your time writing stories in the sand with a stick, then you’re meant to be a writer.
I’d be one of those people. Instead of scrawling SOS in giant fucking letters on the beach, I’d be using that castaway time to finish my next novel. I’d be doing that because I write for a living, and when you write for a living, there’s no time to fuck around. The only way you get paid, is to produce. The only way to produce is to sit your ass down in the chair, put your fingers on your keyboard, and type. You can’t think about your books as books, because they aren’t. When you write for publication, you are producing a product for public consumption. If there is no product, then the public can’t consume and you can’t eat. So you have to produce.
Writing for a living is a fun job, but it’s still a job. If you want to do it for a living, then you have to treat it like a job. You are your own boss. Yes, you are beholden to input from editors and agents and marketing departments and readers, but at the end of the day, you answer only to yourself. So be a boss to yourself, and don’t let yourself slack off.
I used to work in a foundry. I ran a mold machine. Each day, I was responsible for making X amount of molds. If I did this, I received a paycheck at the end of the week. If I didn’t do this, then I was soon looking for another job. Writing for a living is the same way. You are responsible for writing X amount of words per day. Do this, and eventually you’ll get a paycheck. Don’t do it, and you’ll soon be looking for another job.
I think it’s important to write every day. Most successful writers—be they best-sellers or just genre journeymen like myself—seem to have one thing in common: they are prolific. Or, if not prolific, then they are at least dependable. A full-time writer should write full-time. This might be 2,000 words a day or 6 pages a day or 8 hours a day. It may be five days a week or seven days a week. The time clock and the production schedule are up to you. What’s important is that you keep to the time clock and meet the production schedule.
If you choose to publish via traditional means (publishing companies) then understand that your pay will be sporadic. When your novel is accepted, you will receive an advance. The average advance these days, for a genre fiction novel, ranges between $2,500 and $10,000. That’s right. The novel you spent a year working on only earns you between $2,500 to $10,000 at first. When the book is published a year later, that advance will have long been spent. And you probably won’t see a royalty check until another year AFTER your book has been published (provided enough copies have sold to earn out your advance). So it will actually be two years from that advance check before you get paid again.
That’s why being productive matters. You can’t feed your family on that one advance. But if you write two books per year, and supplement that with novellas, comic books, limited collectible editions, or short stories, etc. then the money starts to add up. The more you have in print, the more money you have coming in. It’s also important to try to hold on to whatever rights you can, and effectively spin them into more money. Audio-books, foreign translations, movie options, comic book adaptations, merchandising – all of this can be turned into more money for you and your family. If you have an agent, they can do this for you, but getting an agent is hard these days, and getting a good agent is next to impossible. For 14 of my 15 years as a full-time writer, I have worked without an agent. I have one now for my foreign translations, and she’s excellent at what she does. But that’s the only aspect in which I use one.
I should also point out that these payment factors I just mentioned are very different if you are self-publishing, particularly if you are doing it through Kindle, Nook, or Kobo. You will get paid monthly if you choose that route—but it is also harder to make a living wage with that method unless you approach it with the same business mind-set. But that’s a separate discussion that we can get into during the Q&A portion of this talk.
Now, I’m going to dump some cold water on those of you who think success or best-seller status automatically equal big dollar signs. I have been prolific over the last fifteen years, and have been lucky enough to keep my work in print to the extent that I receive royalty checks for various works each and every month. I’ve also had books turned into film, adapted for comics, and more. I’ve been on CNN, Howard Stern, a documentary on the History Channel, and a trivia question answer on an ABC game show. My readers include rock stars, movie stars, stand-up comedians, professional athletes, a few politicians, a few more porno actresses, and even a daytime soap opera diva. I am one of the most popular horror writers of my generation. I say that not brag or sound arrogant, but to set the stage for what I am about to tell you. I am one of the most popular horror writers of my generation—
—and on average, I make between $30,000 and $40,000 per year. Sometimes it’s a little bit more. Sometimes, it’s less. That’s an average.
Not exactly big money. Many of you in this room are probably making more than that via your day jobs. But this is the vocation I’ve chosen, and I chose it knowing that the days of big money in publishing are gone. Several of my literary heroes, the authors whom I grew up reading, have lamented to me that I was born in the wrong era, that I came too late to the game, that had I been doing this a decade or two before I started, I’d have made a lot more.
When I was younger, I was all about the Splatterpunks. Those guys were who I wanted to be. One of them, I won’t say who because I want to protect his privacy, once lamented to me that in the horror heyday of the Nineties, he’d get advances of $25,000 for a novel. Now, today, those same types of novels were earning him a $2,500 advance. Think about that – from $25,000 to $2,500.
So… stay productive. Keep creating product, and thus, creating new revenue streams for yourself.
Get a good accountant and pay ahead on your taxes. Learn to save and budget your money, as well. If you’re not good with finances, become good. Attend a community college class or buy one of those For Dummies books. As a full-time writer, you never know when your financial situation will change. And it will. Often. And even when the windfalls come, they go just as quickly. For example, last year I received a five-figure check for a movie based on one of my books. But I was also left with a former publisher owing me five figures in back royalties—money that I’ll never see because they went out of business. So yeah, that movie money was great, but in terms of my budget and bills, I never really saw a dime of it, because all it did was make up for the amount owed to me by others. As a full-time writer, your finances will always be in this state of flux. It can be scary and harrowing and tough, but it’s part of the price you pay. As Hunter Thompson once said, buy the ticket, take the ride.
As a full-time writer, you’ll have no health insurance. To get health insurance, you’ll have to join a writer’s organization that offers it, or get an exclusive contract with someone like DC Comics, or get it via your spouse or partner’s employer. Or, if you’re like me and have none of those things and can’t afford monthly health insurance premiums on your own because, as a public figure, your lifestyle is well-known and health insurance companies simply laugh at you when you inquire about coverage, then you’ll find yourself doing things like emailing Dr. Paul Wilson there in the back and saying, “Hey, I saw Amoxicillin in the pet store today. It’s for fish tanks. Could a human take that, and if so, in what dose. This is for a book I’m writing of course. I would never do this in real life.” And Paul’s response will be, “You still don’t have health insurance, do you Keene.”
Seriously. When I think about how some of my favorite writers—men like Charles Grant, Poe, JN Williamson, or HP Lovecraft—have gone out, it breaks my heart. It’s a cautionary tale, but it’s also one that never seems to change. Writers have been dying sick and poor since the days of cave painting. The difference is that WE know this can happen. By looking at our literary heroes of the past, we can plan ahead for our own futures. Once again, you have to control your own destiny. Know your roots, and grow accordingly.
There’s also no 401K. No retirement. Warren Ellis once said, “Writers don’t retire. They just die…” There’s a lot of truth to that. I know a writer—again, I won’t mention names—who had multiple copies of everything he’d ever published. I’m talking a dozen or two dozen copies of every book, chapbook, hardcover, paperback, etc. That was his retirement plan. His life insurance policy. His work was in demand enough via the secondary and collectible market that, should something have happened to him, those editions could have been sold to cover costs. And they were. I have done something similar in my own career. Publishers will tell you that I’m notorious for demanding more author copies in my contract than most writers in my genre. There have been times when that has paid off for me. If royalty checks are light that month, and the mortgage is due, it’s pretty easy to flip a first edition hardcover of The Rising for $1,000 on eBay. If I die tomorrow, my loved ones can flip the rest of them and pay for my funeral.
So, you need to plan for your health care, and your retirement. You also need to plan for your public identity. Even if you are just starting out as a writer, you should reserve a website domain in your name, and reserve every social media outlet in your name, as well. Even if you don’t ever intend to use them, you should stake a claim on your name at Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Google+ and every other site that comes along. I don’t use Reddit or Goodreads, but I’ve registered for them as BrianKeene simply because I don’t want somebody else controlling my public identity. That’s because these days, whether you are publishing traditionally or going the self-publishing route, you are primarily responsible for the marketing and promotion of your work. Yes, your publisher may get involved, but you must never, NEVER count on that. You should take responsibility for it. Indeed, you HAVE to take responsibility for it, if you want to do this full-time. Some of you may find marketing and promotion distasteful, but if you want to do this full-time—meaning you want to make money at it—then you will have to engage in them.
More importantly, you are responsible for growing and communicating with your audience. How and to what extent you do that is up to you, but understand something—the days of Bentley Little are gone. Bentley Little, who has a large readership but maintains no web presence himself and has done only three signings throughout his career, is an exception to the rule. Thanks to the Internet and social marketing, readers these days have an expectation to interact with their favorite author in some way. Again, how you do that and to what extent is up to you, but if you choose to write full-time, then you WILL have to do it. This is as vitally important as staying productive and writing every day. It is the second part of the writing for a living equation.
Hand-in-hand with that is how much of yourself you put out there. Some professional writers keep it simple, and confine their public musings to their work. Others might talk politics or pop culture. This can be a double-edged sword. Yes, Paul, Tom, and Chet Williamson might occasionally post something from their respective Libertarian, Conservative, or Liberal perspectives, which is fine, but I bet each and every one of you can think of other authors on Facebook or elsewhere whom you’ve considered un-following simply because it’s ALL they talk about. You probably haven’t un-followed them, because you’re a writer and you want to keep that professional association. But readers have no such qualms, and they WILL turn away if you offend them.
You’ve got to decide who you want them to see you as. Maybe you’ll just be yourself. Perhaps you’ll choose a caricature of yourself. Maybe you’ll be the joker, like Jeff Strand, or the Peacemaker, like Christopher Golden, or the Strong Independant, like Sarah Pinborough. For years, Nick Mamatas and I got away with being the genre’s Angry Young Men, willing to speak bluntly—perhaps too bluntly at times—about what we thought and saw. These days, you’ll no doubt notice that we speak softer. That’s because you can’t be Angry Young Men when you’re in your early Forties. But our audience still know we’ll speak bluntly, because our audience has come to expect that from us. Decide what your audience will expect from you, and then give it to them.
Perhaps more important than deciding how much of yourself to put out there is deciding what parts of you NOT to put out there. Writing is a solitary act, but publishing is public. We’re part of the entertainment industry, albeit the entertainment industry’s red-headed mutant stepchild. And just like any other entertainer, we attract our share of crazies. My own encounters with stalkers are well-documented. I’m sure you all know about the guy who mailed me a dead bird or the gentleman from Illinois who was convinced that Ray Garton, Poppy Z. Brite, and I were psychically stealing his story ideas. These people exist, and the Internet and social media make it easier for them than ever before to fulfill their unhealthy obsessions with you. As a result, you have to be mindful of what information is out there.
If you plan on becoming a full-time writer, get yourself a PO Box now. I recommend that you get it in a nearby town—one that’s easy for you to get to but not the one in which you live. That address, and ONLY that address, should be given to the public. You should also stop posting pictures of your children or loved ones online. If you want to continue to do that, then create a private Facebook account for yourself, and don’t let readers or fans on it. The public knows that I have two sons—one of whom is 22 and the other of whom is 4. But I have never mentioned my 4-year old’s name in public. To my readers and fans, he is known as “Turtle”—the nickname I use to refer to him in public (and not even his real nickname, truth be told). I did this because I live in a small town, and I don’t want someone finding my son or my other loved ones or myself through public grade school listings or any of the other ways people can find this info online. If I sound like a paranoid alarmist, well… I have reason to be. And so should you. The world is a dangerous and strange place, and if you become a full-time writer, if you are creating a product for mass consumption by the public, then you will have no choice but to interact with that dangerous and strange place.
But it’s also important to remember that 99% of your audience are kind, gracious, genuine people just like yourself. You’ll find that—on days when the royalty checks haven’t shown and you have to go to the free clinic because you don’t have health insurance—that they keep you going. Fans and readers can be a source of strength and solace. It’s a nice, symbiotic relationship. They get you through the long hours spent writing. You get them through study hall or their lunch hour or their commute or their bad marriage or incarceration or tour of duty or abusive relationship or their loneliness. And that is a noble thing.
That is a very noble thing.
Focus on them. Focus on that audience. Don’t make the mistake of only marketing your work to other authors. That’s the dumbest thing a writer can do, yet I see them do it every day. Don’t post a link to your book on Shocklines. The only people who will see it are people posting links to their own books, and all of you are writers, and none of you can afford to buy the fucking things. You have to go to where the readers are, or better yet, create a place where the readers can come to you, via Facebook, Twitter, your website, etc. Letting them come to you is less spammy and more sincere, and it also creates long-lasting loyalty.
Don’t get wrapped up in Stokers and ITW awards and all these other honors. Don’t get wrapped up in HWA politics or who fondled who at a convention or any of the other bullshit we distract ourselves with. Yes, like any other job, interacting with your co-workers is important. And a little bit of gossip can be useful. So go to cons. Be part of organizations if you wish. But never let talking about writing become more important than the writing itself.
Also be mindful of the toll full-time writing can have on your relationships. I spend my time alone and spend my alone time writing. Writing is a solitary act, and it makes for a solitary existence. Hell, I should know. Writing is the reason I’m alone. I’m good at it—writing, I mean. I’m not so good at being alone, despite the fact that it’s how I spend my life. But I’m good at writing, or at least, that’s what my editors and publishers tell me. I sometimes suspect they only tell me that because I make them lots of money. People will tell you whatever they think you want to hear when you’re making them a lot of money. I’ve often wanted to purposely write a bad book, just so I can see their false praise for what it is, but I wouldn’t do that to my fans and readers. And I wouldn’t do it to myself. Because other than cooking, sex, surviving outdoors, and being a father—writing is the only thing I’m good at. It’s the only constant in my life. The only thing I can always count on.
And all it cost me was everything else. Let me tell you some of the costs, so that you can avoid them in your own career.
Writing cost me two marriages. At least, that’s what I tell myself. In truth, it was really me.
My first marriage dissolved when I was trying to become a professional writer. We lived in a trailer and had about three dollars to our name. I worked all day in a foundry (and later as a truck driver) and then came home at night, and focused on my word processor, rather than my wife. I was young and dumb and it never occurred to me that my equally young wife might like me to spend some time with her rather than writing. Even when we did spend time together, we didn’t really communicate. She was usually watching TV while I had my nose buried in an issue of Deathrealm, The Horror Show, Cemetery Dance, New Blood, or one of the other big horror lit magazines of the time. When she left, I had that word processor and those horror magazines for comfort, and not much else.
My second marriage lasted eight years (after an additional eight years of courtship), and dissolved long after I’d become a professional writer. By then, I was old enough and mature enough to have figured out that I should spend time with her and talking to her after putting in 7 or 8 hours at the computer. Despite that, communication was still the culprit in the end. There were things I was unable to properly communicate—the pressure of deadlines; the stress of fame (because even a little bit of fame can be a very fucked thing); how it felt to live under a public microscope that examined and often took issue with everything I wrote, said, thought, or did; the paranoia and self-loathing that creeps in when everyone—even your once closest friends—seem to want something from you; how utterly demoralizing it was to me that I didn’t have a weekly paycheck, health insurance, or a 401K to provide for my family the way every other husband I knew did. I should have tried harder to talk about these things, but I didn’t have it in me. I didn’t have it in me because after 8 hours of writing, I was emotionally and mentally exhausted at the end of the day.
I don’t believe we choose to be writers (or musicians, painters or any other form of the arts). I believe we don’t have a choice. I probably could have saved my second marriage by quitting writing and walking away from it, but doing so would have been a lie. Writing isn’t like a sales job where you quit one firm and go to another. I’m a writer. I could no more quit than cut off my arms or voluntarily drag my balls across six miles of broken glass. Believe me, I thought about it. I thought about it long and hard. But in the end, quitting would have destroyed my marriage even more assuredly, because I would have been miserable, unhappy, unsettled, and eventually dead. That’s not hyperbole. That’s a certainty.
They key is communication. I look back now and shake my head in disbelief that a guy who made his living communicating to the general public was unable to do the same for the people he was closest to in his private life. So—before you set out to become a full-time writer, sit down with your partner or spouse and COMMUNICATE with them. Make sure they intimately understand your needs for everything from solitude to the pressures of deadlines, and make a concerted effort to communicate with them and meet THEIR needs when you are done. And if you don’t know what their needs are, you better ask. Because your spouse or partner are making just as many sacrifices as you are to see you become a successful full-time writer, and you’d better damn well appreciate it.
Writing has also cost me friends—both from before I became a writer and after. Childhood chums, pissed off that I mined so much of our lives for fiction. Friends from High School and old Navy buddies who I no longer had anything in common with, who assumed that just because they saw my books in stores or my movies on television that I must somehow be wealthy and hey, could I lend them a few dollars or help them get published or be the dancing monkey and star attraction to impress all their friends and family members with at their next Christmas party. Fellow writers and peers, people I’d come up with, promised to do it together with, only to have them lose touch with me when I got successful.
Or maybe it was me who lost touch with them. Maybe it was my own insecurities—my own guilt at achieving everything we’d all hoped for, while they still hadn’t. And maybe that applied to those old High School friends, as well. Maybe they were just proud of me, and I mistook that pride for something else. And maybe those childhood chums were right to be angry. Perhaps not all of our personal demons needed to end up as grist for my fiction mill. And maybe—just maybe—my two ex-wives had been right to expect me to choose a healthy relationship with them instead of fifteen hours at a keyboard living inside my own head seven days a week instead of talking to them or living with them.
These are the thoughts that keep me awake some nights, and on those nights, I write. It’s a self-perpetuating vicious cycle. Lose everything because of writing until the only thing you have left is the writing itself. Rinse and repeat.
But this is what I do. This is the life I’ve chosen.
My name is Brian Keene and I am a full-time writer.
UPDATE: For an excellent part two rebuttal to this speech, CLICK HERE