Why You’re Not Going to Make It as a Writer,
in 8 Parts

Short answer: you don’t know what you mean by “make it.”

  1. Do you mean get an agent?

    You can get an agent. This country is CHOCK FULL TO BURSTING right this moment with brand new, chomping-at-the-bit, frothing-at-the-mouth, starving agents. People who should not have been allowed to learn to type in the first place are going to get agents.

    Good news for everyone out there who’s decided becoming an author is easier than learning a useful trade and earning an honest living! Not, you know, that that attitude’s going to earn you any kind of living at all, but, yes, it can sometimes get you represented.
  2. Do you mean get a publisher?

    You can get a publisher. Of course, what you actually get is a publisher’s acquisitions editor, which is slightly different, considering most editors when they’re hired these days receive not so much a desk chair as a revolving door disguised as a chair, designed to whirl them around and fling them out a nearby open window at their boss’ whim.

    I just read Susan Orlean’s great post on how she went through some eight editors and four publishers with only her first book.

    This is going to be news to the unpublished among you: not all books that get acquired get published, and the de-publication of a book often has absolutely nothing to do with the book itself. I’ve got horror stories. If you’re published, you’ve probably got horror stories. Everyone’s got horror stories.

    (But maybe you LIKE horror stories!)
  3. Do you mean get a publisher who will actually publish your book?

    Like agents, micro-publishers are popping up everywhere, mushrooms straight out of the rich, fruity loam of certain rotting underpinnings of the publishing industry. And even before the recent burst in micro-publishing, there were all sorts of small indie publishers desperate for some general words on a page and a writer willing to sign away all rights to them.

    You can get someone to publish your book. You might not even have to pay them. Much.
  4. Do you mean get a publisher who will pay you for your book?

    Surprisingly enough, some very nice advances sometimes go out to the authors of some really crappy shlock. Even newbie authors of really crappy shlock. Even inexperienced newbie authors of really crappy shlock.

    You know what happens after that? The shlock doesn’t earn the very nice advance back. Then there’s a big cat-fight down at the publisher’s office, with everyone pointing fingers and calling names, voices get shrill, feet stomp, and eventually someone slaps someone else in the face with a kid glove, and the next thing you know they’re yanking off their jackets and choosing their seconds. And the author?

    Yeah, no matter who wins the duel, nobody ever speaks to THAT loser again.

  5. (More tragically, since the decline of the literary novel this actually happens with some very beautiful, very classy literature indeed. And that’s something I don’t even want to talk about.)

  6. Do you mean get a publisher smart enough to only pay what the book earns back?

    Geez, you’re taking all the fun out of advances!
  7. Do you mean get a publisher who can purvey your fledgling efforts into an on-going profitable venture?

    That’d be nice, wouldn’t it? Book after book after book, pretty little checks coming in the mail from your agent every quarter, a cozy little savings account all for them, signing your name with an authorial flourish while the other banktellers lean toward your lucky teller’s cage and watch with tiny gasps of awe.

    And it will be a savings account, just so you know. You’ll still have to work a real job to pay your bills.
  8. Do you mean earn a living by writing?

    That’d be even nicer, all those authorial flourishes AND you get to spend all day every day in your office under the eaves, polishing your keyboard and mapping out your next baby and pausing, when inspiration fails you, to trim your toenails and think about asking your agent to renegotiate your contract.

    You understand, of course, you won’t be living in New York City, where real estate is a tad pricey. Or, in all likelihood, New York State. Or even the Eastern seaboard. Or the Western seaboard. Or the United States. Or probably the industrialized world. And that includes Thailand.

    But hey, it would still be a great way to live, wouldn’t it? And I hear the tsi-tsi flies don’t carry nearly as many life-threatening diseases in the African bush as they used to.
  9. Do you mean make a fortune writing?

    . . .so you can live wherever you like, write about whatever you like, walk through the world flanked on all sides by groupies and flunkies rolling a red carpet under your feet just before you step, fanning you with ostrich feathers and peeling your grapes and hanging on the pearls of wisdom that drop regular as clockwork from your ruby-red lips?


    My job’s already taken.

24 thoughts on “Why You’re Not Going to Make It as a Writer,
in 8 Parts

  1. Becca says:


    My husband pays me to write. Or I should say, he pays everything while I write, and then gives me money to spend on writing. Maybe one of these days I’ll get a few dimes off some sap on the street who feels bad I put forth the effort.

    But, I write because I love it and hope a few other people will love it one day too. When I think it’s ready to share. You know, if THAT ever happens.

    1. Victoria says:

      Yes, Becca! Love of the craft is what it’s all about. Flannery O’Connor once said the best way to make a living as a writer was to marry someone rich who could operate a typewriter.

      Absolutely—write because you love it. That’s what makes fiction the best use of my time I’ve ever known. And it’s also, incidentally, how beautiful literature comes into the world.

  2. ali says:

    Hahaha awesome! Excellent way to start my day! 🙂 thanks for the post

    1. Victoria says:

      Thanks, Ali! It’s all about the laughing.

  3. Jane Steen says:

    And yet there’ll still be a tiny, tiny handful of people who earn really serious money from writing novels. And that vision will keep pushing people who care more about money than writing into the market. I think the explosion in new “aspiring authors” is directly related to JK Rowling becoming richer than the Queen of England.

    And they’re all writing YA or fantasy or some combination thereof.

  4. Victoria says:

    Of course it’s directly related to Rowling. And I’m here to tell you guys: “I’m really, really sorry. But you’re not Rowling.”

    And you should be glad! She’s not that great of a writer. However, her stuff IS professional-level writing, and it took her a lotta lotta years and her publisher’s devoted editor to achieve that. Quit hustling your platform and start racking up your years of practice now. Even J.K. Rowling had to pay her dues.

    The idea that there’s that tiny, tiny handful out there and I’m going to become one of them just by dreaming about it is an illusion. Really, people. It’s hype. I’ve talked about this a lot. There is a much larger number of people who become billionaires on the stock market. You know why you’re not following in their footsteps? Because you know THEY PAID THEIR DUES.

    There is an even larger number of people who get struck by lightning every year. Go ahead. Go stand out in a field in a big nasty thunderstorm.


  5. Becca says:

    That’s all well and good, but I still want to be a writer and still aimed to be published. I don’t care if I don’t make a dime for it, as long as people like my writing. I’d love to be a best seller (though, yes, i know i’m dreaming. I’m a dreamer!) but not because of the money. My husband makes plenty. I live well. When we married we both had nothing–not even a place to SLEEP. and it’s been six years since then and for the last 3 of those years we’ve been doing better than most, even in this economy.

    And I still want to write. They can keep the money. I’d be happy to make some fans. But pay my dues, I will, because I don’t want the fans “just because”. (I write under a pen name. I don’t want to be famous, that is not why I want fans. That sounds like a nightmare to me because I have social anxiety and HATE attention) but I want to know that I shared something that I put a lot of work into, and that other people ENJOYED it.

    THAT is the salary of a writer, IMO.

  6. Christine says:

    Wow. Usually I have a good sense of humor about these things. But that…was deflating and depressing. Even for me, the girl who went into nursing just to support her writing habit.

    I look at the bookstore racks, especially those goodness forsaken romance racks. They can do it, so gosh darnit, I can do it–even if I have to rack up a few horror stories along the way. (And believe me, if you are looking for horror stories…let me sit down and tell you about *nursing* some time. Every profession has ’em! Horror stories, that is.)

  7. Kathryn says:

    Hi Christine,

    I’m Kathryn. I’ve been a client of Victoria’s for almost a year. She has edited two of my novels – one which is being reviewed by an agent, the other is a wip.

    Victoria is the least negative person I know when it comes to writers.

    I really didn’t want her to know this, but she has given me far, far more than what I have paid her for in terms, not only of editing, but of new ideas, approaches, praise, discussion and outright encouragement.

    She does have a chink in her shining armor – she doesn’t like short cuts. She has a thing about writing that insults literature. Yes, she would rather the world go without a new book than have that book be poorly written. She is an editor afterall.

    When I read this blog, I saw it only as a continuation of the many rants she has written over the past year where she tells her readers to work on their craft, to pursue good writing, not for the sake of being published, but to create something with beauty and meaning.

    I don’t interpret that negatively.

    I know that in whatever our chosen field, if we are lucky, we will find that one teacher who demands more of us than we thought we could give.

    I’m no nurse, but I am an adult with extreme adult experiences who still came into writing with a degree of naivety that I needed to lose. Frankness is a gift that I receive with both hands.

    I want to win. I want my books to be published. I’m willling to learn from people who have gone before me. So what if Victoria tells me, “It will be hard, Kathryn. It’s an uphill climb.” What do I really want? Someone throwing flowers in front of me as I carry my manuscript to the slush pile?

    I love seeing all the different comments on Victoria’s blog. I learn something from every one of them. If you have recently come to this blog, I can understand your reaction to this post, but if you would please re-read it with a sense of Victoria’s true purpose, I think you will find it less offensive and maybe even a little bit funny.

    Thank you,
    Kathryn Estrada

  8. Christine says:


    Thank you for your beautiful and thoughtful response.

    Like I said, I *usually* have a good sense of humor about these things, but I personally felt this was a little harsh. I wasn’t sure what message to take from this: Buck up and admit I will never be able to quit my night job? I felt burnt. My knee-jerk reaction was to snatch my hand back.

    True, I am new to Victoria’s column, but I am not new to rants, and I *always* appreciate dark humor (even in the rare cases it doesn’t amuse me). I did “get” the intent of this post, but thought it came on a little strong. Okay, okay, I get it. It’s going to be tough. I am going to have to pay my dues. I already knew that! ^_^

    A day later, I’m still a tad sore, but not at this post. “What do I mean by ‘make it as a writer’?” has been a question on my mind lately. This post jarred me into thinking about it a little harder. For that, I am very appreciative.

    I fully expect an uphill battle, to be burned by publishers, and to work long hours for little income. The way I figure it is this: I’d rather hate doing something I love than hate doing something I dislike.

    Thank you Victoria and Kathryn. I am grateful for the opportunity to reflect and grow. 🙂

  9. Kathryn says:

    Dear Christine,

    Our poor little writers’ hearts are so beat up and bruised. When we are stuck in front of our keyboards, all alone, all alone, with our blood pressure rising because we can’t make a sentence do what we want it to, is it too much to ask for a little TLC from our fellow afflicted? When we see those groaning shelves at all those mass merchandisers and pick up a random book and it reads like garbage and our books are so much better, can we not be consoled?


    Writers are wonderful, even unpublished writers, even the man who struggles to write his deepest feelings on a birthday card for his wife, even a child who searches for the way to tell his mom he loves her on Mother’s Day, because it is when we write that we are most human. And you are a writer.

    I don’t know if you will make it “make it” as a writer :), but you’ve made something already, something you love and that’s an incredible thing that many people don’t have the guts to do. No time to quit now.


  10. jefro says:

    I actually laughed out loud at: “mushrooms straight out of the rich, fruity loam of certain rotting underpinnings of the publishing industry”

    I love it that you tell us the truth about this. Setting expectations correctly is an incredibly kind thing to do, in a world full of late-night lawyers. To do it with humor and grace takes it a step further. May I fan you with an ostrich feather?

  11. Victoria says:

    Christine, I’m letting Kathryn talk to you because she’s a reader rather than the author of this post. And besides she’s one HECK of a dedicated aspiring writer.

    I can’t promise you a rose garden. I’m sorry. I wish I could. I’m not the one who designed the publishing industry, and I can’t lie it away for you, although lots of people are willing to try.

    This post is for all of us, not just you. We all have unrealistic dreams about publication, particularly in this Era of Potter. If we can get together and laugh (even ruefully) about them, maybe we can get past our fears and secret demons to our desks, where the real work is done.

    For instance, perhaps Jefro could stand behind my chair with his handy ostrich-feather fan! I’ll peel you a grape.

  12. Thank you so much for this post! It’s brilliant and really puts perspective on our jobs as writers and how we should probably be looking at our goals. I’ve been in the rose-colored writerly world before, and it hurts coming out of that to see where things stand in reality. I think in the back of every writer’s mind exists a glimmer of hope that they’ll be the one exception to the rules. I’ve tried to erase that from my mind because I know it’s not going to happen. I’m okay with that. I’m creating written works because I want to, not because they’ll “get me somewhere.” In that respect, it doesn’t matter how I publish, which is exactly why I’m self-publishing my novella right now. It has been a fun experience. 🙂

  13. Phoebe King says:

    Damn! And Mrs. Winter (grade school librarian) thought I showed such promise, too! Oh well, guess I’ll go back to blogging–where we make the BIG BUCKS! 😉

  14. Tahlia says:

    I think it’s a matter of balance. We need to know the harsh reality of the business, but we also need to keep our passion and keep writing regardless. If you write because you love it, not because you have unrealistic expectations of fame and fortune, then what the hell if you don’t get published.

    Of course we all want to get published but we do have to earn it. I got inspired for a series of – yes knock it if you want to – YA fantasy novels. I’m not writing that genre becasue it’s a good market at the moment, but becasue that’s where the story that crashed into my head one day belonged.

    I spent 3 years almost full time – hubby supported me – working hard, 12 hr days, fired by passion. I paid industry professionals to help me work on the ms and studied as much as I could about the craft and the business. Now I’ve finished the first novel, ‘Lethal Inheritance’ and I have the rest of the series in draft form.

    I scored a top agent, which here in Australia is incredibly rare for a first time author. There’s very few of them. It’s a tougher market than the US. Even if she doesn’t find a publisher for it – she’s just sent out the ms to a few here and in the US and UK – I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have actually done it and I’ve done it properly. If I do get published, I’m well aware that that doesn’t mean the book will sell and that I will have to do a lot of the publicity myself. Since I don’t have unrealistic expectations, I won’t be disappointed.

    If you want you can take a look at ch1 of at http://publishersearch.wordpress.com/lethal-inheritance/

    Every writer starts somewhere.

  15. Victoria says:

    It’s true, Michelle. Anyone who’s been in love with this craft for any amount of time has worn the rose-colored glasses. At first everything looks so weird. . .and. . .PINK. But after awhile you start thinking it’s supposed to look that way. And when you take them off it just about breaks your heart to see how green and grey the world really is.

    Those darn glasses were actually quite fashionable in the early twentieth century, to the extent that Vita Sackville-West wrote a novella called The Seducer from Ecuador about what happened to one poor hapless sap who got used to seeing the world through them and could no longer recognize plain, ordinary reality when it was staring him right in the face.

    The world’s just so much prettier rosey!

  16. Victoria says:

    No kidding, Phoebe. Because, as you & I know, secretly we make a dollar for every word someone else reads on our blogs. Ten bucks for every word of comment. Twenty if their avatar is a real photo!

    Hey, wait a minute, Phoebe. . .

  17. Victoria says:

    Tahlia, it’s absolutely true. You throw yourself into it because you love it. You live in it because you love it. You do everything in your power—including, as you say, hiring industry professionals—to make it the best it can possibly be because you love it.

    You spend the years and years (and years and years) it takes to get really good at it. Because writing fiction you’re proud of, it turns out in the final analysis, really is its own reward.

  18. Christine says:

    Kathryn, thanks again. And Victoria, thank you, but forget the grape–I want a glass of wine!

  19. zaelyna says:

    B-b-b-b-ut it’s my life’s *only* ambition is to surpass the glory of Ms. Rowling!


    That's what I tell "certain" people when they ask about my writing. And they believe me! 'Course, these are the folks who also think getting published consists of the easy task of mailing my stuff out and waiting for a response.

    If it were seriously that easy, I'd've been published years ago. Writing, researching agents/publishers and querying take TIME. And I'm still on step one!

    I'll just have to inform them that your job's already taken 😉 😉

  20. Alex says:

    I got lucky and was able to have my first novel published by a small, powerful publishing house out of my own hometown (Orca Book Publishers in Victoria). But I have to say, I’m convinced I’d still be on the slush pile if I hadn’t called up the publisher and asked to write a profile of him in a local magazine last year. Because I had that personal relationship with him, I believe I was able to skip to the top of the pile. He actually invited ME to submit to him.

    The takeaway? Writers, don’t just write. Get out there and make friends in the industry, too. Face time works even stronger miracles than your best words.

  21. Victoria says:

    “And they believe me.” That’s hilarious, Zaelyna!

    Yeah, my job’s taken. Because, as it happens, I’m not staking my life on making the New York Times Best Seller list. I’m staking it on furthering the fate of great fiction.

  22. Victoria says:

    Congratulations, Alex!

    Sure, personal contacts can be part of getting published. The mother of one of my local creative writing students—a teen with talent literally bursting out his brain—is friends with the owner of our local small publishing house, and she’s now working on her second book for them. Her first was The Courage to Trust: a guide to building deep and lasting relationships, by Cynthia Wall, 2005, New Harbinger Publications. I don’t know the title of the one she’s writing now, but I know they invited her to write both books.

    But never underestimate the power of your best words. As John Gardner said, “Don’t shoot for just being good enough to get published. Shoot for being GOOD.”

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