"How is Everyone Else Able to Write for a Living?"

Yes, there really are people doing better than you. But usually it’s because they’re hiding something.
Note: This response was written before I was offered a book deal.

Dear Milo,

I’m trying really hard to make it as a writer, but everybody else comes off like they’re ahead of me. How is everybody else able to write for a living? I thought nobody made money as a writer. What am I missing?


Broke and Confused

Dear Broke and Confused,

I used to struggle with this plenty. I didn’t understand how everyone else around me seemed to be writing full-time while I was stuck working 3+ jobs (on top of my writing) and still not able to make ends meet.

To be fair, some of that (at least for me) isn’t related to writing itself, but rather the United States economy, the wealth gap, classism, oppression, etc. I feel that’s the case for most of us who find ourselves in this fix, especially when we’re marginalized writers. But it remains that the writing was extra work I was doing with virtually no payout. My writing has since given me a little boost in income, but after site maintenance and other operating costs to achieve said boosts, as well as the deplorable tax rate for freelance work, my financial success mostly equates to a fun night of dinner and a movie every couple of months. I greatly appreciate that opportunity for joy, but it nonetheless means I’m still not making money off my writing in any capacity that could alter my (work) life. I still work 3+ jobs on a regular basis. And whenever I get a book deal, I know it’s likely not going to alter my life much. Maybe I could drop a part-time job or two for a couple of years, but that’s a best-case scenario. 

You’re right that there’s no money in the publishing game. There’s a whole host of reasons as to why, but we’ll just focus on your question: If there’s no money in it, then why do so many other writers seem to be proving otherwise?

It’s because those folks usually aren’t telling you the whole truth. And sometimes they’re flat-out lying.

I can’t speak for other countries, but I can speak for the United States. We’re so wrapped up in romanticizing grind culture, bootstrap mindsets, self-made successes, and rags-to-riches stories to prove that the American Dream is anything other than the worst lie ever sold. Its glamor has gotten so bad that, over the past 20 years, I noticed people of all sorts of identities hiding major parts of themselves related to money, privilege, handouts, family, and a host of other related matters. And now in the age of social media, this problem seems to have exploded.

Jehan from Atoms vs Bits calls this The Carrot Problem:

Essentially, any time someone achieves success in a way they don't want to admit publicly, they have to come up with an excuse for their abilities. And that means misleading a bunch of people into (potentially) wasting their time, or worse.

Jehan gets the term from a time during WWII when the British invented a type of radar that allowed them to shoot down German planes at night. Not wanting Germany to catch wise, they created a propaganda campaign saying the pilots were able to achieve this because they were eating a ton of carrots, thereby sharpening their eyesight. The end result?

[P]eople who believed the propaganda and tried to get super-sight would be spending time and effort on something that wasn't going to work.

It reminds me of all those so-called finance posts about twenty-somethings who “paid off $600,000 of student debt in just two years” or whatever. The implied (or sometimes direct) message was that if they could do it, so could you. And if you couldn’t, you were flawed. But if you looked closely, those stories all had the same pattern. They would spend most of their word count lecturing on how they bought less lattes every week or how they put X% of each paycheck into a savings account. But they always snuck in an oh-so-casual mention of parental/family help. They’d moved back in with them, they were gifted a house from them, they were given a lucrative position at the family company, and/or a family member “invested” in their startup.

A six-figure salary and no rent or mortgage payments equals a lot more than avocado toast, no matter how much that toast “adds up.” With that parental help removed from the equation, these supposedly money-wise people would be in the same boat as the rest of us.

So what about writers specifically? If they appear to be a full-time (or otherwise financially successful) writer, it’s likely due to at least one of the following:

  • They’re legally married to a partner who makes an income large enough to support at least two people. Likewise, they’re on their partner’s health insurance. (It’s a running joke in my circles that succeeding as a writer means marrying an engineer. The proof is in the charmingly quiet and out-of-place gaggle of such often present in the corner of large writer gatherings.)
  • They’re a trust fund baby or otherwise have a loving, supportive family that has a notable amount of money. These folks usually don’t have to worry about the bulk of their own bills, including rent. I even know of a few who were gifted multi-unit homes by their families, living on the top floors rent-free while additionally making the passive income of landlords.
  • They took up writing later in life, after many years in a lucrative job such as law or tech. They’re now living off their comfortable savings. (Note: This is nearly always older Gen X-ers or Boomers since many spent a significant portion of their lives toiling away—fair—but also were working during a time where work, like, provided livable wages and then some. They’ve also usually since bought homes and paid off the mortgages. The above doesn’t apply to everyone in those generations, however.)
  • They’re doing something to generate income through their writing, but not because of their writing. Some of this is legit, like being paid to talk at universities or teaching classes. But some are just-this-side of shady practices, including spam-related ad revenue or writers who claim financial success in order to sell courses supposedly spilling the secrets about said success…but the courses are actually how they make their income at all.
  • They’re just plain lying. It’s interesting because there are two opposite approaches: some twist the truth about the nepotism behind their book deals, the ivy league schools they attended that paved the way for their publishing success (usually via networking), and other related matters, trying to make themselves appear more bootstrap in their success. But others take the opposite approach, inflating their success, usually via social media, to make themselves look like the bestseller none of us have heard of. Both approaches have the same hope: that they’ll drive up sales.

To be clear, I don’t want to instantly villainize carroters, as if the behavior automatically equates to unethical behavior or Jeff Bezos. I do believe that while some folks deliberately do it for some extra clout (i.e. they believe they’ll look cooler and sell more books if they insinuate a sob story of their success), I believe others do it for good reasons or sometimes don’t realize they’re doing it at all. I’m friends and acquaintances with several full-time writers who are entirely aware of and grateful for their luck in life. They also know there’s a time and place for full transparency about the journeys to their successes, as sometimes there can be a thin line between honesty and bragging, based on the context of the conversation. Some of them are also simply private or humble by nature, regardless of the topic. 

(There also are times where carroting is simply the best choice of behavior. For example, carroting to stop Nazis is a good use of carroting.)

In the writing world, I feel the big indicator between good and bad intentions is how people approach their carroting. As far as I’m concerned, good carroting is folks who practice the art of respectful discretion; and regardless of how much they divulge, still use their means to support others when they can (anonymously or otherwise), treat less-successful folks as their writerly equals, and/or announce or celebrate their own successes without wielding them like Hunger Games weapons. 

But if people are showboating their success without specifying how they got there; celebrating their successes in the form of thinly-veiled competition; if they’re pulling up the metaphorical ladder to success or otherwise pretending they don’t have the means to support others; if they’re condemning others for “not working hard enough”; if they’re acting superior in their success or otherwise rubbing it in the faces of others; those are all instances of bad carroting. 

But no matter how people carrot, the fact still remains: The US has a problem with condemning hardship while simultaneously glorifying it.

The major problem with carroting is it paints a false picture of success and failure, and consequently makes the rest of us feel inferior when we’re unable to hit the mark.

To be clear: Context is important, but on the whole, there’s nothing wrong with success derived from outside help. That is, in fact, where most success comes from. The problem is that 1) help-based success is unfairly withheld from a significant amount of Americans, and 2) carroting can exacerbate the problem. It’s a form of misdirection that brings countless folks to burnout who then blame themselves for the burnout. I feel one of the first steps in chipping away at this problem is to start being more transparent with each other.

I don’t know how comforting this all was to you, my friend, but I can at least leave you with this: There is nothing wrong with you. You’re not doing things wrong or somehow not working hard enough. You’re continuing to not find the secret because the secret isn’t there to begin with. Hard work and dedication are indeed keys to achieving any sort of success in this field, for better or for worse, but falling short of your seemingly more successful peers is not a reflection of your work ethic or your talent. Luck plays a notable part in this industry, too, whether it be a family inheritance or a chance encounter with the right agent at the right time. Writers get through at different paces and their successes show in different ways. Some writers end up writing full-time, others sell millions of copies, others win awards, others are well-reviewed, others churn out books like they’re candy, others persevere through endless setbacks before publication, and others write works that deeply resonate with readers, even if it’s all of three of them. Absolutely none of these successes automatically leads to or overlaps with another. There’s an endless combination of ways to be successful as a writer.

So regardless of where any of our successes are right now or in the future, let’s support one another best we can. Because, in the end, all our successes are equal.



Milo Todd's logo of a simple, geometric fox head. It has a black nose, white cheeks, and a reddish-orange face and ears.
Until next time, foxies! Be queer, write books!