Updated: Mar 15, 2021
by Jason Brick
Years ago, I authored a bestselling book called 9 Habits of Highly Profitable Writing. I'm assaying a second edition now, and that process includes posting each of the habits here for you, for free.
Editor's note. This is the first book I read as I was starting out in the business of writing. If you are serious about writing I encourage you to view the other eight habits on his website Jason Comma Brick. In fact, he was my inspiration to write the Pocket Guide: For Writers and Editors.
This is absolutely the most important piece of advice you will ever hear about making money from your writing. It’s simple, direct and to the point. In case the name of the habit didn’t make it clear enough, I’ll say it again:
If you want to make money writing, write nonfiction.
Why do I say that? Most people who say they want to write for a living envision turning in a novel or two a year, going to a book signing or a reading in the Village every summer. Doesn’t writing nonfiction defeat the whole purpose of being a writer?
I say it for about 70,000 to 100,000 reasons every year that I earn in about three hours a day. If that’s not enough to convince you on its own, let’s break down some of the facts that make this so.
The market is much larger. Specifically, the 2013 Writer’s Market contains 412 pages of listings for magazines that buy words. Forty of those pages describe magazines that buy fiction. The other 372 are nonfiction markets. The ratio is even higher with online opportunities.
The competition for that tiny fiction market is ferocious. About everybody has a short story or half-finished novel sitting on a hard drive somewhere. People who can write compelling nonfiction are rarer, and people who want to rarer still. On average, even professionals can expect about 2% of their submissions to new markets to get accepted. Compare to 10% for nonfiction publishers.
Nonfiction rates per word range from 5 to 10 cents to a dollar or more. Most fiction magazines want you to give them work for “exposure” or a couple of copies of the magazine so you can show your parents. Of the fiction markets that do pay, even the high-end markets top out in the 10 to 25 cents range. An average of 2 cents per word is what you can expect starting out.
Add all of those together, multiplying each factor by the next. Using even the most generous numbers in the fiction range, and the most conservative in the nonfiction range, and here’s what you get:
See that tiny line on the left, the one that’s only visible because I doubled it from its original size? Yeah. Running the numbers above, nonfiction writing is over 200 times as profitable as fiction writing. It tells you this because my first paid nonfiction article was in the industry where I had been working before, I became a writer.
When you’re wondering where you’ll find nonfiction markets to by your words, ideas and expertise, look to these options for starters.
If you like those apples, here are a few more to add to the bushel:
You can take a single nonfiction idea and spin it into a dozen saleable articles without looking like a jerk.
Marketing copy is an excellent source of recurring work at 10 cents to a dollar per word.
In the past few years, nonfiction books have started hitting serious bestseller, lottery winner sales.
Nonfiction is much easier to write than fiction. That means you write more words per day, at a higher pay rate per word.
Nonfiction magazines and websites are far more open to repeat contributors.
Nonfiction books and articles have a much longer self-life than fiction. People buy them or bring them up years after their publication.
Best of all, you can work on your fiction in the time you’re not writing nonfiction to make a living…and while you write your nonfiction, you’re still exercising your writing skills. You improve your craft with every sentence you type into your keyboard. This beats the hell out of working a non-writing job to pay the bills, then trying to throw down a few hundred words in your off hours. (More on that in a minute).
Eight Ready Nonfiction Markets
My first paid nonfiction article was in Black Belt Magazine. I got $250 for 1,000 words. It was my first submission to that magazine and led to more than 20 assignments over the next five years.
The blogs you already read right now.
The magazines in the hobby shop you regularly visit.
The web pages of businesses you go to frequently.
Trade magazines from your previous careers.
The website and newsletters for any trade, professional, or alumni associations to which you belong.
Consumer magazines for your hobby or your industry.
YouTube channels about your areas of expertise. These people often buy scripts.
Publishers focusing on your hobbies and professional realm.
If you list everything you already know about in all eight categories, you’ll likely end up with a list of 50-100 ready-made markets for your words. That’s not a bad lead list for someone new to any game.
But Aren’t You Selling Out?
When I talk about this at conferences, I hear a few people every time talk about how writing commercially is somehow “selling out.” They consider it a pedestrian sullying of their talent, something to which they could never condescend to stoop.
If that’s how you want to live your writing life, go right ahead. It’s a free country. But consider these two scenarios:
Scenario One: Spend two or three hours a day writing commercial copy, business documents and nonfiction articles. Spend another three hours working on your novels, poetry, and short stories. Finish work two hours earlier than at a regular job, without a commute. Recharge with your friends and family, and then do it again tomorrow.
Scenario Two: Burn eight hours of every day working at Starbucks or Home Depot, then commute home and give your family the attention they need. Then find the time and energy to produce your writing in the corners of time left over.
Which of these truly “sells out” your talent as a writer? Which is more likely to mean you never finish, let alone sell, the masterpiece that’s waiting inside you? It should be obvious which of those two I think constitutes a crime against my writing talent.
What do you think? Let him know.