What happens when having a “Professional Writing Career” isn’t your end-all goal?

So here’s a bit of a controversial—and, for me, highly charged—topic.

Also, hi! *waves* It’s been a while, but I bet you don’t give a rat’s ass as to why I’ve been off this blog, so I’ll just dive right in.

 

What are you writing for?

The general consensus in the indie world is that making a living off your writing is the ultimate goal. Everyone is feverishly building their author careers, branding their pen-names, strategizing their production, writing business plans, scheduling their every book (and every day) years in advance, and more. Which is absolutely awesome and inspiring, and quite a little bit intimidating. It’s also one of the many reasons I adore the online writing community—their unwavering determination to work their asses off, to refine their entrepreneurial skills as well as their craft, and try everything to achieve success. The general momentum is like an unstoppable tidal wave, and being even a tiny part of it is highly motivating and encouraging.

But what happens when your goals don’t quite align with this general consensus?

What happens when you don’t want to become a full-time-professional-career-author?

What if you don’t want to make writing your job?

Maybe you already have a full-time job that you love, and don’t want to quit it. Maybe you have other passions as well that you don’t want to give up, and simply don’t have enough time on your hands? Or maybe you’re so filthy rich and don’t have to ever earn a single dime (Hah, right…). What if making a writing career isn’t your goal, for whatever reason? Does that mean writing is just a *gasp* hobby?

In pondering this issue for the last year or so, I found that the word “hobby” has a ghastly negative vibe in the write-till-you-die indie community. Hobbyist writers are generally considered less than professional ones. Success is mainly—if not only—measured in sales and dollars earned. And every single article or book on writing & publishing is geared toward creating a long-term career and increasing your productivity and marketability. Which is all good and fine, except the common denominator in all this advice is the understanding that if you don’t bust your ass day in and day out producing book after book after book, you’re not a real writer, or you don’t really want it.

Don’t get me wrong: a strong entrepreneurial and creative drive is absolutely necessary if you want to write for a living. And I couldn’t agree more with the need for discipline, efficiency, and economy when setting up a business. What I don’t agree with is the underlying assumption that if you don’t relentlessly pursue writing for commercial success, you’re not a “real writer” but a hobbyist, a wanna-be.

So let’s deconstruct this damaging assumption.

A writer writes stories. That’s the most basic definition there is. If you write stories that can entertain others, you’re a writer. Money is not an intrinsic part of that definition. Sure, a professional writer is one who earns his living writing, but for all those who don’t earn enough with their writing to cover their grocery expenses, does it mean they’re not writers? I call bull.

Drive and discipline are also fairly common among creatives who don’t pursue their art as a profession. Being ambitious, organized, and strategic isn’t reserved solely for career artists. It has nothing to do with the final purpose of your endeavors, and everything to do with your level of dedication.

But then… why does the word “hobby” feel like an insult to writers and artists at large? Why do we feel offended when someone calls it our “writing hobby,” even when we’ve not earned a dinner’s worth of money with it yet? Why do so many writing advice articles out there instill this strange sense of pride, and harp on about how we should defend our writing from the dirty label of “hobby” at any cost?

hob·by (hŏb′ē)
n. pl. hob·bies

An activity or interest pursued outside one’s regular occupation and engaged in primarily for pleasure or relaxation.

Perhaps it’s because writing doesn’t feel very “relaxing” for most of us, but rather exhausting, challenging, emotionally draining and gratifying at the same time.

Perhaps it’s because writing takes a considerable amount of time and effort until it gets even remotely rewarding.

Everyone who ever tried writing a novel will certainly agree that learning the craft and applying it coherently feels much more like hard work than a leisure activity.

Let’s take an even closer look at the general understanding of what a hobby is.

A hobby is an activity you do for love and passion, even if there are no external rewards.

A hobby is an activity you do of your own free will, not because you have to.

A hobby is an activity that brings you fulfillment and gratification on the long term.

So writing is, at its core, a hobby for us all, regardless of the money that may follow or not.

It’s also undeniably hard work.

Running triathlons is also hard work, even for those who don’t do them for a living. Sculpting and painting is hard work even for those who don’t pay their bills with money from their art. Volunteering at animal shelters is hard work. Knitting lace sweaters is hard work. But we do these things anyway, because we get enjoyment and fulfillment out of them. They’re a labor of love. They enable us to outgrow ourselves. They enrich our lives. If writing does all this for you, it qualifies as a hobby.

Okay, fine, if you still can’t stomach that word, just call it passion then. Vocation. Escape.

Writing is definitely a passion and an escape for me, but it’s certainly not a job. I don’t want to make a career out of it. I don’t work toward quitting my day job and living off my novels as a “professional author.” I do write because it challenges and fulfills me. I write because it enriches my life and serves as a long-term reminder that I can make something out of nothing, something that other people might enjoy as well. Does that make me less of a writer? Puh-leaze.

But, to return to the initial question… If you don’t work towards having a successful writing career like everyone else… What are you working toward?

What’s your goal then?

What are you struggling for? How will you measure success, or even improvement? Do you even need to define tight metrics for something done solely for self-actualization?

All good advice on writing and publishing out there is geared toward achieving financial success with your writing, and building a long-term career. It all revolves around launching a series properly, marketing to your target audience, writing to that market to begin with, planning, executing, and promoting your books like a full-time professional to achieve the maximum possible results, make thousands of sales, hit a bestseller list, get a shitton of newsletter subscribers, and so on.

What are you going to do if you don’t aim toward commercial success with your books? Does that mean you won’t do any marketing at all? Will you just half-ass your way through the whole production part of writing, and just slap a Paint-drawn cover on your book and upload it quietly?

Of course not.

Pursuing writing as a passion or hobby doesn’t save you from some investments. Just like with other hobbies, where you might have to buy gear, pay for materials or rent spaces, organize yourself and manage your resources and projects, writing requires organization and investment. Even though you may not try to hit the New York Times bestselling list, or make 10K in your release month, or get 100 positive reviews in your first release week, you may still want to publish the fruit of your labor of love properly. You will want to give it a chance to find readers and delight other people. You will want to at least get a feeling of accomplishment after all your effort.

Marketing definitely requires investment if it’s to work properly. It may not be solely financial, but it will definitely require a lot of time, preparation, and knowhow.

I can already hear it: “Ugh, marketing. I hate marketing. If writing’s my hobby and all it’s supposed to do is make me happy, do I really have to do marketing?”

No. That’s the good part!

If writing’s your hobby (your passion, vocation, escapist romp through the thesaurus) then you don’t have to do anything. There’s no pressure to achieve financial results, and that means marketing becomes just… sharing something you love with other people with similar interests. You can keep all the fun parts of marketing—cheering for your passion, talking about your favorite genre, making cool graphics and chatting with people using self-made hashtags—while ditching all the tedious parts, like the meticulous metrics and constant ROI calculations. Just go ahead and share the love. If your book sells, great! And if it doesn’t, you at least know you gave it a chance—that it will continue to have for as long as it’s available online—and you can move on to your next writing project with a full heart and a clear conscience.

At least, that’s how I approach things.  I do have a slight addiction to self-publishing podcasts and forums, so I constantly learn about this industry and its intricacies. Not because it’s my livelihood, but because it’s my passion, and that means I truly love it and want to know all about it, and navigate its waters gracefully. I want to find fulfillment in it, with all its facets.

That’s what it all boils down to: Self-fulfillment.

If you don’t write to make a living… If you don’t write to go down in history… If you create imaginative worlds filled with people you’d love to know (or be) in an elaborate play… then your main metric is enjoyment. Yours, and that of your readers, be they just your family and friends, or hundreds and thousands who found your work online. And doesn’t that feel incredibly liberating?

Oh, and just one more thing.

Being a “hobby” writer doesn’t automatically mean you’ll write only when the inspiration hits you and your schedule happens to be empty. It doesn’t mean all you’ll put out is an obscure literary novel every decade. It can just as well mean you publish erotica shorts every month. It can mean you write a new SF series every year, publish a novel every couple of months, organize an anthology every autumn, join contests every summer, etc.

Writing mainly for passion doesn’t automatically mean you’ll drag your ass and not take writing seriously. It doesn’t mean you won’t set goals for yourself, make plans and schedules, and organize your projects properly. It just means you don’t have the added pressure of achieving steady financial results. That’s what’s so freaking cool about it, don’t you agree? There’s no pressure. Just self-fulfillment. 😉

16 Replies to “What happens when having a “Professional Writing Career” isn’t your end-all goal?”

  1. You nailed an important aspect of this endeavor. Many of the great pros started out with no expectations of financial gain and some we see as great now died poor such as literary giants like Poe and Hawthorne. Some books still take off and make money like a rocket without all the push mentality. Write a good book and people will find it. Even though bad books, books that didn’t have marketing pros behind them at the start like 50 Shades of Gray sell well. ( If it sells the pros will move in to capitalize on your hard work) It’s a crap shoot so roll the best dice you can make, I say.

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    1. Exactly. This constant push mentality and the unending struggle toward greater productivity and marketability can completely smother creativity, and lead to massive production of… stuff, and the withering of your soul. In the mean time the years are passing, you still have other paid jobs to make rent, and you’re constantly stressed out and feeling unaccomplished because you never get a BB.

      *groan*

      For me, the best and sanest approach is to give it your all for your own fulfillment and mastery. If it works out, you can ponder making a career out of it later. But whipping yourself raw from the very beginning to align to everyone else’s goals kind of defeats the purpose of making art…

      Thanks for commenting, Rachel. 🙂

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  2. Dreams of sitting on stage beside Oprah. Humbly, but brilliantly, explaining to her (she’s smiling. Enrapt) and a sighing audience how I came to write this phenomenal first work. Everyone “out there” in bookland loves me overnight.

    Actually finishing the first draft, checking for a few typos (oops, I see a couple. Correct), and then querying my first of many, many top-notch agents:

    Dear Ms. Know-every-important-House-in-the-world,
    I’ve written a 1,000,000 word novel that will…

    Should I use which instead of that? Hope it doesn’t matter. This letter will knock her out.

    Sign it boldly, and then send it off. Hail Mary (it helps to pray a little).

    Two weeks later receive a reply:
    Dear Mr. Lee,
    My goodness, that’s quite a lengthy novel! Having said that, I regret to inform you…

    Forgot to proof read my stupid query! THAT’S what did it. Groan. Revise the blasted letter a little, send it off to agents # 2-6, and eventually 7 through…God, I’ve lost count! Something’s wrong. None of them sees genius. Rewrite entire book three more times. Decide after that last rewrite to self-pub. It’s the hot, acceptable way to go! Screw the agents and houses. Sooner or later Ms. Know-every-important will come knocking on my door, only by then it won’t be by snail mail, it will be over the Net! I’m truly in there “out there”, now!

    Dear Mr. Lee,
    Some years ago you submitted…

    Too late, lady.

    Mom read the final edition, and she loved it.

    We DO this writing thing, hoping to be discovered, hopefully not in the way J.K. Toole found success, rather FINALLY, still alive after long years of sweat. It gets way into our blood if we don’t throw in the towel in despair and search for the hangman’s noose.

    Now, on to this marketing thing. Deeper groan.

    Mom, can you ask Dad to read my latest book? Ask him to review it at Amazon, maybe? Aunt Chloe? What about Mrs. Stump next door? Isn’t she in some book group?

    Keep on keeping on. It’s what I still do fifteen years later, and I love it, Oprah nothwithstanding.

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    1. Thanks for sharing that, Patrick. 😀

      As a note, I never even considered traditional publishing (for myself). Not all of us harbor dreams of fame and glory, or even of public recognition (public meaning the press, in any of its shapes). I certainly don’t. Perhaps those who do would never be truly satisfied without public acclaim or recognition for their literary work. I, at least, find that aiming toward something you can’t control is a recipe for disappointment. 🙂

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  3. Self-fulfillment: Exactly.

    Unless you already write stories at a very young age, and people encourage you to write more, its self-fulfillment. Countless poems and small stories hides in countless homes (maybe cloud now), never to be revealed – for whatever reason (like disappointment).
    People enjoy the self-fulfillment. Some so much that they take it to next level, a serious hobby – and some end up having a fun time being a (recognized) writer.

    I like to write – it is challenging my mind. No fear of white paper/screen, but then again, no deadline, no audience.

    My rent is paid with boring it-work – I do not want writing to be boring.
    I have turned my passive reading into writing.

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    1. I’ve been writing since I was kid, but no one in my circle seemed to care much about it. I was completely unaware that you could become a writer and publish until I was 16-17. Back then, self-publishing was not a thing yet, and traditional publishing always made my skin crawl. But I kept writing, and began studying it as a craft. Just because I can publish and become a tiny cog in the industry machinery won’t change my inner-most attitude toward writing. Achieving success is definitely a great thing, but I find that I can’t strive toward commercial success above all. To me, writing’s first purpose is self-fulfillment, and if the stress and pressure of achieving commercial success by publishing 12 books a year kills all the pleasure of writing, I’ll gladly step back from the craze and call myself a hobbyist, and just keep on keeping on. 🙂

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  4. I have to agree that a lot of writing advice seems to be overly concerned with financial success. While I do hope to be financially successful with my writing someday, money is not the reason I started writing, and it’s not the thing that keeps me going.

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    1. Yes! Same here, James. Of course I want my books to be liked and bought, but that’s not what keeps me writing, and it’s not the main preoccupation for me. I don’t plan my whole writing around making money or hitting a list, like so many indies seem to be doing lately. And sure, it makes sense if writing is what pays their bills, or if they crave public success. No harm in that, no judgment. It’s just that not everyone has to be that crazy about sales (or even earn consistently with it) to call themselves a serious writer.

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  5. I fricking love your blogs. This is very spot on. I don’t plan to retire on what I make, but it is very fulfilling and some months I make money to do stuff with.
    Writing doesn’t have to be landing on the New York Times Bestseller list (who reads the Times anymore, anyway?) It can be a way to engage your passions, stimulate your mind and learn new skills… like marketing.

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    1. LOL Exactly, Sheron. #fistbump

      Just because everyone’s got their knickers in a twist about making lists, publishing to market & getting rich & famous, doesn’t mean everyone has to want the same. It’s perfectly OK to do this for the pleasure alone, and sell as much as it sells, and just keep writing. 🙂

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  6. This. All this. It’s exactly what I’ve been going back and forth with. I don’t want the pressure of making writing an 8 hour a day *job* but I’m afraid of the shame of not being “serious”. Great post.

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    1. Thanks, Joleene. I’ve fought with this attitude conundrum for quite a while before I just got exhausted by it and decided to not give a f*ck and just write on my own terms. So liberating! 🙂
      Have fun doing what you love – it’s your life, your rules.

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  7. Excellent post, and I agree. I think one reason the word hobby is looked down upon is because it is devoid of responsibility to others. It’s exclusively your thing, and you’re not responsible to anyone else with regard to that thing. If you’re a woodworking hobbyist and you embark on the creation of a magnificent dresser, you might set your completion timeline for six months. And if it takes seven years, who cares? But if you’re a professional and you promise a client six months, it best be done in six months.

    I think, even if people are unaware of it, there’s a subconscious understanding and respect for any endeavor where responsibility is woven in. And when we say something is a hobby, we’re implicitly stating that we’re not responsible in delivering to anyone but ourselves. This is not to say hobby is bad, but simply to illuminate why other people may perceive it with less of a noble luster.

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    1. Oh, I agree with you, Lucas. “Hobby” will always be perceived as less valuable or less serious than any professionally tackled activity, because of the perceived lack of accountability AND because of the lack of payment. Something you do that doesn’t earn money, or by extent doesn’t suffice to earn a living, usually isn’t regarded as anything else but a hobby.
      Of the two, the presence or lack of accountability is always subjective, and very hard to measure. It’s hard to prove to someone you’re serious about your hobby if you don’t have deadlines or tournaments, and if you don’t really earn much with it.
      And that’s where the other side of the coin is: if you call an occupation your profession, you better be able to prove you’re tackling it professionally to call it so, but calling something a hobby … that relieves you of having to prove or justify anything to anyone but yourself. 🙂 With creative endeavors, sometimes that’s more necessary & beneficiary to push through tough times than any outside demand. I also believe that with creative activities (writing, painting, sculpting, etc.), the responsibility of the artist shifts more toward quality & authenticity, than speed & quantity. But that’s just my perception. Thousands of book-a-month-writers would certainly disagree. 😉

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