What are the odds of earning your living as a creative writer?
This is one of those questions—the kind that perhaps you don’t want the answer to. Oh, we all readily acknowledge the odds are long, but perhaps we’d rather not know just how long. Besides, we love writing too much to let lousy odds discourage us.
Personally, I wish I had examined this question a bit more critically when I was in graduate school, not because it would have made any difference to my decision to pursue a writer’s life. It might have, however, dramatically altered early on my expectations around what success would look like and thereby saved me some anguish.
Okay, you might want to stop reading right now….
Statistics about writers are not easy to come by. Apparently, we’re not a group economists are particularly interested in when they study the health of the economy. Here are a few facts I found in a recent Google search:
“Authors, writers and editors held about 281,300 jobs in 2008. Writers and authors held about 151,700 jobs and editors held about 129,600 jobs. About 70 percent of writers and authors were self-employed, while 12 percent of editors were self-employed.” Bureau of Labor Statistics – US Dept. of Labor
Full disclosure: I’m among this numerically select group of 151,700 working writers. I’ve been a working freelance writer (corporate communications/training) for the last 25+ years, which is just another way of saying I’m a wannabe full-time creative writer with a day job. How many people actually make their living being poets, novelists or songwriters?
This guesstimate comes by way of Ray Chesna, a musician friend of mine, who has a rather dramatic and helpful way of demonstrating that at any moment the supply of really good musicians (and music) far exceeds anyone’s capacity to listen to it all by a huge factor.
Let’s assume there are 300 million people in the US—perhaps 1% of whom are actively writing novels, plays, short stories, poems, memoirs, songs etc. in the hopes of making a living. That would be three million of us. Of those three million hopeful or benighted souls (depending upon your point of view), what percentage of us do you think actually make a living without a day job?
My most optimistic guess would be a lot less than .01%, or less than three-thousand out of three million. Do you believe there are even 3000 poets, playwrights, novelists, story and songwriters in the US making a living without another gig? Is that odds of a-thousand-to-one against? Personally, I doubt they’re even that good.
My point is that the writer’s life probably means having a day job, and having a day job is not a good indicator of your success or lack of it. So, what does success look like as a creative writer? I’d suggest, that’s a question worthy of some reflection—even more so in fast, changing times.
Success And Failure
The world offers all sorts
Of stories and images
Of the successes
And failures of others
Or we can choose to craft
Are ever real