Why Do I Earn So Much as a Writer?

Last week, “Shiv” asked me on the BVC blog:?”… for non software products there is a guarantee of 1 year which claims if you encounter any problem within 1 year, product will be replaced…but if I am using a software product and incur a loss there is no guarantee.

“Do you think we can see this in future, if software products have critical problems then user is eligible for getting compensation for that loss…or may be I am not aware its already implemented in some part of the world.”

Shiv’s question was so pertinent, I started to write a blog post about it. But, as I so often do, I distracted myself. Thinking about guarantees, I realized that I was about to post an article on “Why Do You Charge So Much?” on my Secrets of Consulting Blog. So, what does that have to do with my earnings as a writer?

You see, one of the reasons my consulting fees are “so high” is that I guarantee my work. What I said there was this: “The work I do for my clients can sometimes literally mean the life or death of a project or campaign. This is a grave responsibility, and I accept it fully and do whatever is necessary to give full value. And, unlike an employee, I offer my clients a money-back guarantee of satisfaction with my work.”

I make this same guarantee for my writing.

I wrote the article for consultants so they could explain to their clients why their fees seem so high. And that’s because clients simply don’t know what a consultant’s life is like–what goes on behind the scenes performing that trade.

It’s not quite the same for writers. What is the same is the customer’s lack of understanding about just what goes into the writing of a book. So, I’ve borrowed some facts from my consulting essay, and added some items that are specific to the writing trade. I want my writer friends to be better prepared to answer the question, “Why do you get paid so much to write? All you have to do is sit down and type whatever comes into your head.” (Ignore, for the moment, the assumption that I get paid “so much.”)

I suspect my readers would be astonished to discover how much time I spend thinking about my writing when I’m not “at work.” I might be hiking in the woods, or reading a magazine, or taking a shower, and a thought comes to me about something that might contribute to my book. For example, I was driving back from up north one week and suddenly realized that I’d spent the whole distance from Santa Fe to Corrales working out an escape for a character in Bolivia.  I could have been enjoying the unique, enchanting scenery–and perhaps I was. But most of my conscious mind was in Bolivia, developing the plan. Supper had to wait until I had the details in my Mac.

And that’s just conscious attention. I don’t know about you, but I often dream about my writing problems, often awakening in the middle of the night with solution ideas. This happens so frequently, I keep paper and pencil handy on my headboard, where I’ve mounted a high-intensity lamp that won’t awaken Dani when I’m scribbling away at three in the morning.

When my readers buy one of my books, they don’t pay directly for all the education I bring to the job–not just my formal education (which was long and expensive), but, for example, the thousands of hours I spend reading in related fields. I figure that in a typical year, I read the equivalent of two books a week, perhaps more. Very few non-writers devote this kind of time to their own professional development. And, when they take a seminar or attend a conference, their employer often pays for them. I pay for myself.

Also, when you buy one of my books, I don’t charge you for the office supplies, phone calls, printing, faxes, mailing, office space, utility bills, computers, software, network services, professional services, art work, and the like.

Many readers ask me how long it takes to write a book. Most of them mean, “How long does it take you to type all of those words?” They seem to emphasize a single tangible component of writing—my hands on a keyboard, tapping away. If they look at me as simply another grunt, grinding away in an office, no wonder it’s hard for them to understand why my apparent rate of pay is larger than that of a typical employee. They’re missing all the other costs and activities.

What a writer’s pay amounts to is likely to be a bunch of 84-hour weeks for which (if that writer’s books are highly successful) they earn about $10/hour–but without the slightest guarantee of making even one cent.

Now, returning to the original question that inspired this rant, no, Shiv, I don’t think software is ever going to come with the kind of guarantee you and I would both like. Read the legalese that comes with your shrink-wrapped software. If you don’t like the software, you might get your money back from some vendors, but they’ll never pay you for what harm their software might do to you. It’s too great a risk.

And, in the end, it’s the same for writing. Who knows what one of my books might do to you? For you? Do you realize that at least once a week I receive a note from some reader saying “your book has changed my life”? I couldn’t afford to pay for ruining someone’s life.

So, just learn to be happy that your software doesn’t kill you and my book doesn’t change your life. Think of it this way: you’re buying perhaps $100,000 worth of labor for perhaps $4.99, with a guarantee of your money back if you’re not satisfied. It’s a bargain.


Gerald M. Weinberg is a member of Book View Café and hopes to blog here regularly. His science fiction “First Stringers: Eyes That Do Not See” by Gerald M. Weinberg is serialized on the front page rotation.?For more about him and his fiction please visit his bookshelf here on BVC:?http://www.bookviewcafe.com/index.php/Gerald-M.-Weinberg/?Or his personal web page, http://geraldmweinberg.com



Why Do I Earn So Much as a Writer? — 2 Comments

  1. Surely consulting is quite different from writing software and books (I do all three). For consulting, you are being paid an hourly rate, which depends on your level of experience and the value you can deliver in an hour: so both the cost to the user and the revenue to you are directly proportional to the effort you put in. For software and books, neither the consumer’s cost nor your rewards are related in any direct way to the effort expended.

  2. Good post, Michael. I, too, do all three, but I don’t consult on an hourly basis. Whenever possible, I charge based on solving a problem (sometimes, though, I need to come in for problem definition, in which case I might charge on a daily rate until we agree on what it is I’m going to do for what amount of money).

    But for most consultants, you’re right. For work-for-hire writers, they’re sometimes paid on an hourly rate, and some really big best-seller writers, they start with a large fixed advance (which may never earn out). But for the most part, we writers write on spec, with nothing guaranteed (or possibly a small advance).

    It’s the difference between pricing for a product and pricing for a service. And between pricing based on cost or pricing based on value.

    For those readers interested in learning more about setting prices on their work, see the recent post by Adrian Segar on “Jerry Weinberg’s Ten Laws of Pricing.”