Let’s Get It: Author Motivation 101

Three Reconciliations of Time and Money

Image: Boekverkoper en een schrijver, Thomas Rowlandson, after Henry Wigstead, 1802/Rijksstudio

When I look at the money I make from writing, I can hardly believe my eyes. So I don’t. I turn on Thug Motivation 101, and listen to Jeezy say the same thing he said when I was in high school, “You gotta believe…”

There’s a reason the stereotypical image of the starving writer exists. If you want to make money, go into finance or tech. Like music, writing is a blockhead’s business. But if you’re a blockhead and you want to go into business, then all you can do is count it. 

The day I seriously started figuring out how to make money as an author, the first place I started was how I spent my time and energy—and what money that made. This is the equivalent of looking at my credit card bill, wondering how it got so high, and looking at it line by line. It’s like an expensive credit card bill. If you’re frustrated and wondering why you’re not making much money, start here… 

A Mathematician: An Author’s Hourly Rate

First off, there’s a simple way to calculate direct earnings. For me, pitching and writing a piece for a publication can easily take 10 hours by my count. So if I’m writing for $200 per piece, then the rate would be $20/hour. That’s the simple count of how a freelance writer makes money. I was always reluctant to track my time input, but I found it really useful. My time tracking app is a piece of paper and a pen. My lifehack is leaving extra lines on the page so I can add more lines—unexpected revisions, etc.

But ultimately, it didn’t provide an accurate picture of how much money I was earning, or how much value I was creating.

A Statistician: An Author’s Indirect Earnings

Like Ryan Leslie says, you also need to count it while it multiplies. (#DOTHEMATH!) To gauge my hourly rate from direct income is simple, but it leaves out a lot of the other bread. Here are two examples:

1. Residual earnings. Medium payments are a good example. Publishing a piece with a publication might earn me a $200 bonus, but it also earns me money in perpetuity as long as the Medium Partner Program is around. So let’s say, for example, after two months, I’ve earned an extra $100 from the piece (a total of $300). My adjusted rate then would have actually been closer to $30/hour. This is tough to track—sample size is too small for a good average—and the number is thankfully constantly moving up, so I’m figuring out how to perfect this.

2. Promotional earnings. If writing a piece for Fast Company takes an hour, and on average I can sell one copy of There Is No Right Way to Do This from each piece, then it’s worth $30 plus. So that rate would also be around $30/hour. I’ve neglected to calculate the value of credibility, links, etc.

Anyway, all of this has been miraculous so far, because I suck at math and literally a decade of tutors only got me here. (Let’s spin it, I’m breaking stereotypes!) The more indirect income you can make from your direct efforts, the higher your “real” adjusted rate will go. There are a lot of other quantitative possibilities, which I’ll save for another blog post. 

A Damn Magician: The Writing Production Process

I finally got a taste of what it felt like to be a Kanye hater: hate the tone, love the music. I didn’t love the tone of William Deresiewicz’s book, but I loved the subject matter. Systems and incentives have turned artists into producers now—and I think that’s super true. It’s how I approach my writing.

Out of the tons of ways to make money writing (coaching, teaching, bundling with tech), I chose to make my writing as the product. The business model is simple. I write and sell stuff (e.g., books, reports, etc.). I promote them. I build a reputation as a writer by freelance writing and blogging. That’s pretty much the model… I gave you the quantitative before, but here’s the qualitative:

  • Freelance writing: I write articles for Forge and Marker to make some money. I don’t count my consulting work as part of this—because I’m not really building my reputation as an author—so it has to be writing for publications I’m proud of, under my own name.
  • Brand building writing: I am pitching articles to publications that all the other “serious” writers pitch to (NYT, New Yorker, etc.), in order to build my reputation. This is part of the fashion show I need to price my work accordingly. Pattern-matching is a real thing, in and outside of Silicon Valley.
  • Promotion writing: I write articles to promote the book. I’m writing to promote something—my book, my studio, etc.
  • Fun writing: I’m writing this piece, and the rest of my blog, firstly for fun. Secondly to improve my writing through experimentation, practice, and maintaining my writing muscles. and thirdly to build an audience for me. The people that stick around here want to read my writing, and that’s really valuable. (Thank you!) 
  • Craft writing: I’m writing notes on the psychology and history of belief, with the goal of exploring that through my writing. This type of effort is meant to push my current boundaries and limits of being a writer. It’s meant to be almost athletic—the Olympics events are writing a proposal, writing a sample chapter, and the writing a book. This can sometimes intersect with freelance writing (e.g., pitching a related topic to a publication) or promotion writing (e.g., excerpting), but the goal here is to really push myself as a writer.

In that sense, all five types of writing have different goals, and should be approached with different styles and time commitments. After all, I have 40 hours worth of work per week. If I put all the time into fun writing, I probably would make very little money, but if I put all my time into freelance writing then I’d be chasing a market and wouldn’t have a clear direction (as was my problem with Lifehacker, where I wrote about poop, apps, saving money, career advice, and posture). 

These days, if I pitched every article the way I pitched a freelance piece or brand building piece, I would never be able to write this blog—I’d get fixated—and I can’t think of a better way to stomp the fun out of writing. All five types of writing also have different processes and criteria

I used to apply the same set of criteria I have for craft writing to everything else, only to realize that was a brutal way to spend my time, and absolutely unnecessary. With the amount of content my strategy needs—a quantity-driven approach to quality (allowing quality to happen through a vast amount of quantity)—the criteria was too intense.

Eventually, I plan to add more types of activities there. I didn’t count my consulting. There are also courses and speeches. So yes, writing is the same, but not all writing is the same. Some things I noticed:

  • A promotional piece does have its purpose, but it does not require the same time investment of originality or unexplored territory as a craft writing piece. 
  • A freelance writing piece is for that bread…so the less time I spend on it, the better. 
  • A brand building piece is probably just as rigorous as craft writing, so I won’t be mad if I spend 20 hours on it for a lower payment. 
  • But I can’t expect to write a Kanye religion piece each week (as it turns out, it doesn’t sell books) and actually make a living on it, unless I start a Patreon or Memberful for it and people sign. 

As I wrapped this up, I realized that I totally missed out on another vital aspect of this, which is the value that my writing provides. It’s called the lifetime value of a post. And that’s what the next blog post will cover, which I’ll link to from this. If you don’t want to miss it, I can send it right to your inbox. Let me know!

No More Reconciliations… 

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