In a recently published article called “Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from a wonderfully thoughtful writer named Ann Bauer pulled the curtain back to show the sometimes-hard financial reality of being a writer.
In the piece (which is brilliant), Ann talks about going to hear a famous author speak and listening aghast when a young writer asked him how he was able to spend 10 years writing his latest novel. The author—who comes from family money and has never had to work a real job—”told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by.”
And so the wide-eyed young writer (and anyone else not in the know about the man’s fortune) walked away thinking that a few well-placed articles supported 10 years of full-time novel writing.
After this experience (and other similar ones), Ann felt it was high time to stop this nonsense. To stop telling half-truths. To start talking about how we really make our money. And so she published that article, telling the truth about the multi-millionaire author, as well as her own truth about being able to write because she is supported by her loving husband and his stable career.
Since then, I’ve seen a lot of chatter around this idea. Many writers confirm that they are “sponsored” (as Ann puts it) by their husbands, who make a steady living doing something else while the writers work on their careers, write their novels, etc. etc. etc. Others talk about full-time or part-time jobs. And many of those making a living as writers say they don’t just write creative stuff. They also dabble in the more lucrative writing worlds of copywriting or social media.
With all this conversation, I thought it was time to throw some more of my own story into the mix.
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember. I was writing and illustrating stories with my then-best friend back when I was seven or eight. In my early teens, I published poetry and short stories at Stories.com, reveling in the feedback and creativity. In my mid-teens, I taught myself HTML so that I could build a website full of travel advice for teenagers. In other words, I always wanted to write.
Then I got my English degree (with a writing concentration) from a state university and spent the first few years as an employable adult in non-writing jobs where I worked feverishly to get a little writing experience here or there. I waitressed at a Perkins. Full-time. I applied to (and was rejected by) low-level magazine jobs in New York. I landed a sales job and started volunteering to do writing-related things like re-writing the sales letters for an American audience (our company was UK-based). I also started to sneak my way into marketing activities, managing the online store, helping with our big NYC event. I scraped up any writing experience I could and I started to hone in on marketing, which seemed like the most lucrative way to make a living as a writer.
After about a year in my exhausting sales job (which was not only not-a-writing-job, but also just seemed so pointless since I was selling completely unnecessary luxury items to crazy-wealthy and sometimes famous people, which is such a weird job for an anti-materialist), I decided to start over.
I have always been an excellent scrimper and saver and had managed to pay off my college debt and save a little money (something like $6,000, if I am remembering correctly) over the year and a half I’d been out of school. I did this by living with roommates, walking everywhere, and not buying extras or going out to eat or drink often. I also managed it because I worked as a waitress in PA for a few months after school (and living somewhere cheap like central PA while making good tips goes a long way toward saving) and my job in New York was partly commission-based. The base pay was livable, but not much more than that, but pretty much everything I earned above that base salary went into paying off my debts and then savings.
So there I was. I quit the job my soul detested. I gave up my lease. I shipped my few things across the country (where my aunt in Colorado would store them until I arrived) and then I went to Europe for the first time ever, spending 6 weeks mostly in Italy before returning to the states and moving to Denver.
I was determined to get a job in marketing. Even if I had to take some crappy internship and then prove my way into the writing department. I didn’t care.
It took me three months and was only possible because I lived for free during that time in my generous aunt’s guesthouse in the Colorado wilderness and couchsurfed in Denver whenever I had to stay overnight because of an interview in town.
When I finally got the job, there was no job title and the pay was (again) just enough to get by. The HR guy told me they weren’t sure they wanted me there and I had three months to prove myself (by the way: not an okay thing to say to someone). I was terrified almost every day of those three months (hooray for not-yet-diagnosed anxiety and shitty HR reps), but I wedged myself into the company and three months in they gave me a job title and a small raise.
Fast forward three and a half years. I worked my way up. I became a content strategist as well as the lead copywriter. I built two departments. And when the long hours and late nights finally brought me to my breaking point, I quit and took an easier corporate marketing job for a few months while I built a small freelance business (still doing copywriting and content strategy) on the side. Then I quit that job and went full-time freelance. When I quit, I had enough money in the bank to live for 10 months with no income and I already had several side clients who were almost covering my expenses (and that financial buffer and small client base is what gave me the courage to quit and start my business).
I spent about three years as a full-time freelance copywriter and content strategist. The first year I broke even. The second year I made a little money. The third year I left the US and started traveling with my business and made about the same as the second year, but with less stress and less work.
Hitting the road.
And then, possibly because I am crazy, I left the stability I’d finally built to figure out if I could make a sustainable living as a full-time travel writer. I did it because while I was proud of myself for making a living as a writer in marketing, it wasn’t actually my dream. What I’d really wanted from childhood was creative writing. Travel writing. And freedom.
So, in October 2013 I “quit” my copywriting business and became a full-time travel writer.
I could do this (again) because I’m saver and scrimper. Over the years as a copywriter first in the ad agency, then corporate, then freelance, I’d managed to save enough money that I could live for over a year with no income, even though I planned on living in Switzerland. I had no debts, no car, no house payment. And so I gave myself that year to figure out whether travel writing and creative work was really something that could pay the bills.
Year one was tough. The first few months were wonderful–full of joyful planning and the excited-scared feeling you get when you’re doing something new and maybe a little crazy. But after that it was work, work, and more work. I wrote and published four travel guides in 2014, one right after the other. I pitched magazines. I wrote a book proposal (for a book that ended up on hold). And I took one or two copywriting jobs that fell into my lap just to keep the money flowing while I was building this new business.
I didn’t take a vacation and at the end of the year I had spent about $3,000 more than I made.
Which actually isn’t bad at all for a new business.
I’d given myself a year to make it work and when I sat down to evaluate that year, I decided I could afford to give myself another. After all, I was almost breaking even and it seemed really possible that that elusive break-even point was just around the corner, especially since I’d been offered an ongoing correspondent position with International Living, which meant reliable magazine work every month.
So I started to work on two more books. I watched as the sales on current books doubled and then doubled again. I kept writing for magazines. I stopped taking copywriting projects to fill in the financial gaps (it’s been about a year since my last one). And I started asking for donations here on the blog.
Now we’re into 2015 and I am thrilled to say that I’ve just passed the break-even point for several months in a row and it seems to be an upward trend. I still have some catching up to do. I still need to start saving again, to start thinking about future things like retirement again. But (she says cautiously) it seems that this thing really is a way to make a living.
And so I throw my real-life writer story in the hat. I am not sponsored by a partner (dear God, that must be nice). I am not wealthy and do not come from money. I didn’t have famous or well-connected parents. And I haven’t won the lottery (unless you count that $20 I won once, which I invested back into lottery tickets on accident). My advantages were smaller ones: childhood passion, 15+ years of writing almost every day, a background in marketing (which has made book marketing a little less daunting), simple needs, only myself and a dog to support, and good relationships with fellow writers, tourism boards, and people all over the world.
So my story is one of just starting to really support myself as a full-time creative writer. It’s a story of a long winding road. And it’s a story of a really stressful first year spent wondering if it was really possible to make this thing work.
But it’s also a story with a happy “ending” (beginning). With five books published in a one-year span. With another one on the way soon. With my first real vacation in the new business drawing ever closer (this September).
And so my life starts to settle into its new shape and the possibility of turning back grows more and more remote by the day. But the road was paved with sweat and mini panic attacks. And I wouldn’t want anyone to think otherwise.
So, fellow writers, bloggers, and creative types, what’s your story?
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Great article, Gigi. I am self-employed as well and have often been frustrated by people comparing their situations with mine when most of their bills are being footed by families or spouses. Some people can afford to dabble. For the rest o us, hard work and long hours are required. Still, I love being my own boss and wouldn’t change it for the world!
Agreed! I’m so happy to have chosen this path, but I worry about the pervasive idea that this is an easy way to make a living.
I felt compelled to write one of these posts, too.
I also feel like I should add that monetary sponsorship does not always equal moral support. Lack of the latter gets very frustrating after a while a definitely doesn’t foster a successful environment.
Thanks for sharing.
Gigi, what an important story! People think writing is a path to riches…ha! Not true for the vast majority, but a livable income is possible for those who have a little savings a lot of discipline and perseverance.
While I do have a partner, I chose one as goofy as me and we both quit our jobs to travel in 2010. So no sponsorship there. But we did take our time with our decision and saved like mad for two years before leaving and selling everything we owned. That gave us a cushion to start this writing business which now sustains us (but not fully until this year!). It didn’t come easy, and without that nest egg and the frugal way of living for the past five years, we wouldn’t have made it happen.
I make a fraction of what I used to in corporate America, but I can write from anywhere, spend time with man I love, and see amazing parts of the world. It’s not a dream for everyone, but it is certainly a dream for me.
Thanks! And thank you for sharing yours!
Great post Gigi! You’re right – being a writer is hard work, and really not glamorous! I can totally identify with the struggle to move from boring copywriting jobs to more creative writing. From reading your post though, it sounds like the all the work is worth it. I love that your idea for the book series is so simple – that’s what makes it so good! And with the interview model, I guess it means the content generates itself (aside from all your painstaking research of course!). Such a brill concept. Keep at it!!
Thanks! And agreed – totally worth it, but definitely a long haul!
Thanks for such an honest post Gigi. I respect you even more! Keep going – you’re definitely on the right track.
Thanks for reminding me how remarkable you are :-)
Wow, I want to get one of those sponsoring spouses too. But then I know a few married writers who have to justify every expense to their partner so it cuts both ways. A lot of supporting spouses do see it as an expensive hobby.
I make my living writing fiction. It’s been my only source of income for the past year. Before that, I was subsidised by savings for six months.
Congrats! That’s pretty amazing. I’ve heard the fiction world is tougher than the non-fict world.
Thank you for this amazingly honest post about writing. I am still in the “9-5” world … although mine looks more like “8-7” but I have cautiously dipped my toe into the world of writing after 7 years of blogging (2 with a now defunct blog and 5 with the current). My start was not an easy one with the launch of a children’s illustrated travel guide series. It’s been both joy and headache. Although far from making any money off it yet, I know it is a game of patience and … marketing.
I am my own sponsor at this time. My partner and I saving every penny we have for small trips and our long term goal of spending a year or more sailing the med.
Where I would like to branch out is in paid writing gigs … baby steps… baby steps.
I have been following you and your adorable little dog LUNA for a while now. I started reading your articles on Linked In and gasped when I saw you packed up the backpack and were going to travel the world as a Travel Writer. Other than Rick Steves (we all know who he is) I really have not heard of anyone traveling the world with a little pooch and blogging all about their adventures. In fact, I think you are the first I know of who is doing what you are doing. I love you for that! I LOVE your pictures from places I will never be able to afford to go. I adore your style of writing .. just saying what you think with such clarity and poise. I am in LOVE with your Doggy Luna. Does he have his own website yet? One that let’s us contribute to his up keep? Like TravelwithLunathePup.com?? I hope to go to Paris before I get too old to enjoy it, but in the meantime, I am saving up enough to buy the book, if only to help support your dedication to supporting yourself in such an adventurous and exciting way. For a working class person like myself, I admit, I am seeing these beautiful places through your eyes. Thank you for posting the amazing pictures. Your blog is better than National Geographic!! Well, close anyway..because i feel like I have been getting to know you through your blog and your dog. (I think that rhymes!) You keep going as long as you can GiGi. Which by the way is one of my ALL Time Favorite Movies ever!!
Wow. Thank you so much! This absolutely makes my day and I needed it today!
Oh, and Luna doesn’t have her own site yet, but you can find everything here. :)
Great post! I have to laugh at the “sponsored” writers. I learned something similar in the publishing world.
My first job after university was at a book company called Lonely Planet. I loved their books during college and really wanted to work there. After graduation I convinced them to hire me into an entry level sales job paying $8/hr. I managed to make it work for four years by living in a tiny East Bay studio in the expensive Bay Area, having a wardrobe of only Hanes t-shirts and jeans and eating very simple (cheap) food. Meanwhile, my co-workers (making the same salary) lived in San Francisco, commuted to work every day by ferry or train, wore very fashionable clothes and enjoyed a busy San Francisco social life. I eventually found out how they made $8/hour go so far. Mom and Dad.