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Growing Rich as a Writer: A Guide

You want to grow rich as a writer? That's an oxymoron, right? A ‘rich writer’ reads like a contradiction in terms in today’s marketplace.

That’s because you are so used to seeing things as they are at the moment as the norm: writers chasing submission opportunities in a saturated market in the hope of gaining exposure and perhaps a little cash, grinding out story after story desperately seeking recognition and their ‘big break’. It’s hard to step back from that and see it as a particular and even peculiar condition which exists in the marketplace for you right now, but which in no way is an absolute.

Things don’t have to be that way.

You can grow a paid career as a writer. But you might need to understand a little more about economics first.

Economics is basically the study of the management of scarcity. In an ideal world, nothing would be scarce and all needs would be immediately satisfied, but in the world which we live resources are perceived to be limited and to require the expenditure of energies to obtain. Scarcity is the basic economic problem, the gap between limited – that is, relatively scarce – resources and potentially infinite wants. In the reality with which we are familiar, people make decisions about how to allocate resources to try to satisfy basic needs and perhaps additional wants as much as possible. That’s what economics is about.

Anything which requires some kind of expenditure, whether in terms of energy or money or time, is to some degree scarce. But it’s all relative: to buy food requires money; to learn to be a surgeon requires years of study and practice; to breathe requires the small amount of energy needed to expand our lungs.

To earn money requires that we do work of some kind which is then perceived as exchangeable in our society for cash. That ‘cash’ is actually accumulated energy/time — due to the way our society agrees that those pieces of paper and coins we carry around possess universal value, we can exchange them for other resources whenever we need something. We walk into a shop to buy a book, for example, and we don’t have to ‘do some work’ right then and there in front of the shopkeeper in order to be able to walk out with a book: we simply hand over the universally recognised symbols of ‘work already done’, and the shopkeeper happily hands us a book, knowing that he or she will be able to use those symbols later for whatever he or she needs.

As we have covered in earlier articles in this series, things that are considered to be abundant — i.e. not needing much energy to obtain — cost less. That lower amount of money symbolically represents the lower amount of effort that it is considered is needed to get the abundant thing. You would not normally be able to charge a lot of money for a bucket of sand in a desert, because sand is perceived as being abundant in that environment; however, a bucket of water would be worth a lot of cash precisely because, in the desert, water is much rarer.

Fiction — that ephemeral thing that writers are producing all over the world every day — is, in general terms, abundant. The general reader, therefore, does not consider that fiction should be costly, especially when that general reader often also thinks that fiction is ‘easy’ to produce. The internet, providing easy access to this already abundant resource, reduces the cost of said resource even further. Hence the flood of ‘free books’ on the web, as writers desperately attempt to grab reader attention in this ocean of available fiction. The reader is surrounded by a superfluous amount of stories; the writer can therefore expect to be paid little.

From a fiction writer’s point of view, the situation is reversed. The writer is faced with a tremendous scarcity — a scarcity of cash, certainly, due to the reader’s unwillingness to pay highly for an abundant resource, but primarily a scarcity of attention. Writers seek attention — not necessarily for themselves for narcissistic reasons, but for their work, and thus indirectly for themselves. Seeking attention, they work urgently towards getting their names ‘out there’, getting as much ‘exposure’ as they can, pumping and pumping and pumping fiction out into an already flooded marketplace in the hope that their names, rather than the names of other writers, will be ‘noticed’.

After recognition from exposure, writers hope there will be a flow of cash, as readers decide to open up their stubborn wallets and pay money for what is being produced. But as we can see from the basic economic model above, the more fiction there is in the marketplace, the more abundant it will be perceived to be, and therefore the price will stay low.

What’s the answer?

Well, one thing is for sure: the existing model for a writing career — sitting down and writing story after story and pumping them out into the environment in the hope of being ‘spotted’ — is a hamster wheel which is doomed to fail. No — to get prices to go up and to finally get paid as a writer, the resource that you produce must be perceived to be increasingly rare.

The more unique your writing is — the more it communicates things that only you communicate and in ways that only you communicate them — the rarer it will seem, and thus the more valuable it will be considered to be.

There’s a little more to this than meets the eye: you can’t go off into the desert and write incomprehensible poetry in some lost Armenian dialect and hope that you will become a millionaire simply because no one else has ever done that and so it is extremely rare. There are some bottom lines you have to cover:

• your work has to be about certain fundamentals which resonate with your readership

• your work has to be in a language comprehensible to your target public

• your work has to use the standard meta-symbology of fiction (as outlined in my book How Stories Really Work) used by master authors in order to attract, glue and move your ideal readers.

But if your writing is doing these things, and doing them in such a way that readers recognise is uniquely ‘your’ way, your reputation and value as a writer will go up.

And so will your income.

Don’t take my word for it: look at the great writers throughout history. Every single one of them wrote material that a) resonated with particular readers, b) used the language recognised by their audience and c) applied the powerful hidden tools of fiction in a unique way which made a name for them and ensured that they garnered their legacies.

Whereas look at the ordinary writers of history, if you can find their books anywhere — their writing was bland, or formulaic, or the same as everyone else’s; though they used the language (usually) of their readers, they didn’t do anything interesting with it; and they failed to apply the subliminal infrastructure of stories necessary to make their work stand out from the crowd. And so you can’t really ever study them at length, because they vanished.

When you walk into a bookshop and find, in the fantasy section, books with a tagline ‘Comparable to Tolkien at his best’ you can immediately map the landscape that gave rise to such a remark: here’s an author who has followed someone else rather than struck out in a different direction; here’s a writer who to some degree — to a degree large enough to prompt that remark — has written something the same as someone else, probably consciously, and probably in an attempt to jump on a recognition or cash bandwagon. Such names fade over time. Their work may not even be that bad; they may develop small readerships of their own — but they will not become great, nor command a great bank balance.

To be great, and to make lots of money, you have to write effective material which a select readership determines is yours alone.

‘There can be only one’, claims the film Highlander — and so it is with you as a writer. There is only one Dickens, one Tolkien, one Stephen King, one J. K. Rowling. It doesn’t matter what you might think of any of these authors' works: enough people think them worthwhile, and enough people think than unique to their authors, that each is instantly recognised and was or is wealthy.

Would you like a programme of actions to get you into a similar position?

And stay tuned.


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