In Part I of this article on money mindset, we went through what money scripts are, where they come from, and the first most common money script that writers hold.
Here in Part II, we’ll go through the final two most common money scripts of writers, as well as how to overcome them and start earning what you deserve.
Let’s jump right in.
Money Script #2 — “Art and commerce don’t mix.”
Another script we have running in our heads is, “Art and commerce don’t mix.”
In grad school I remember colleagues making snide remarks about Billy Collins. As far as I could tell, Collins was guilty of two main offenses: 1) not being supremely difficult to understand and 2) selling books. Apparently, he didn’t deserve his two stints as Poet Laureate, and thousands of people without advanced degrees in poetry buying and enjoying his work was a bad thing.
Methinks this bluster about the man’s pedestrian poetics was really a good old-fashioned case of envy and the mistaken belief that art and commerce don’t mix.
For such smart people, we writers can be awfully non-critical in our thinking. Is anyone under the illusion that the best books always win? That publishing is a meritocracy and only the most thoughtful and eloquent writers with the most discriminating taste and most artful personal expression rise like cream to the top? Of course not.
I don’t read Manga, comic books, or graphic novels, though I’m glad they exist for people who love them. My preference is high fantasy: the types of stories with dragons and semi-sentient swords with names. That may be the type of fiction you hate. Fine. You read you.
Art, writing included, has always catered to a wide variety of tastes, preferences, imaginations, and our buddy Johann Gutenberg made it possible for non-elite, non-academic, and non-ecclesiastical tastemakers to publish good and bad everything.
Publishing is nothing if not a democratic smorgasbord, and books are big business. In 2019, the U.S. book publishing industry generated $25.93 billion in net revenue, and the global publishing market had total revenues of $258.7 billion. And get this: In the first quarter of 2021, print book sales grew by 29%.
Thanks to platforms like Amazon Kindle, publishing has never been easier, and industry experts are quick to point out the challenges this access creates. Steven Piersanti, Senior Editor at Berrett-Koehler Publishers, says that the average U.S. book sells 1,000 copies or less over its lifetime.
Publishing is easy. Selling books is hard. This fact highlights my two earlier points that writers and authors who want to make a full-time income from writing need other skills.
In his book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, personal finance expert and author Robert Kiyosaki shares an anecdote about a speaking engagement in Singapore. Kiyosaki had agreed to an interview with a local journalist beforehand. He had his homework on her, and when they met, Kiyosaki complimented the journalist’s work. She confided that she wanted to be a novelist, but her fiction hadn’t gotten much attention. Kiyosaki gave her some advice: take a class on selling.
The journalist bristled at this recommendation. She told him that she had an MA in English Literature. She did not need to become a salesperson.
Kiyosaki pressed his point, saying that he was a best-selling author, not a best-written author. His books made best-seller lists not because of his exceptional writing but because he had learned how to sell them. Kiyosaki may have a point. His book Rich Dad, Poor Dad has sold more than 46 million copies.
Listen to Chandler Bolt’s interview with Kiyosaki on the Self-Publishing School podcast:
If you pushed back with, “Rich dad is hardly art, Austin,” I would agree with you and point to better examples. Pope Julius II commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel. (“Commissioned” means “paid.”) Since its 1939 release Gone with the Wind has brought in $390 million, or around $3.7 billion in today’s dollars. Gross revenue from Harry Potter book sales is around $7.7 billion. Hamilton has grossed over $612 million.
Art and commerce do mix. They always have. Like everyone else, artists and writers have always had bills to pay and marketable skills with which to pay them.
That reality does not diminish their accomplishments. Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor, not a painter. He agreed to the Sistine Chapel project because he needed the money. His cash flow problem gave the world a masterpiece.
In very few cases have writers ever gotten to focus exclusively on the “art” piece and leave the merchants to fret over the “how I’m going to pay my bills” piece.
We cannot always expect for other people to give us work that makes us happy. However, we can bend the trajectory of craft toward the trajectory of income. Who knows, eventually the twain may meet. Look at Hugh Howey.
Hugh Howey made far more money than he ever dreamed after self-publishing Wool, and now he has the means and freedom to sail around the world. His life sounds idyllic, and I think he’d be the first to tell you it required both art and commerce. When you hear him talk about negotiating to keep the digital rights and several other key victories, his writing practice starts to sound an awful lot like a business.
Whether you’re an auto mechanic, farmer, or writer, the commerce piece helps you live life in modern society. It is as essential as transportation and laundry detergent.
You can turn up your nose at learning how to position, price, market, and sell your work, but that doesn’t make you a better artist. The sooner you get good at the business side of things, the sooner you might be able to support yourself full-time as a writer.
Money Script #3 — “Money just isn’t that important.”
A motif shows up in my conversations with freelancers, writers, and artists. The words and syntax change, but the meaning stays the same.
Here are several word-for-word examples:
- A freelance writer wrote this in a LinkedIn message: “Money isn’t my primary motivator.”
- An illustrator left this comment on my Instagram post: “Money isn’t important. Love, art, freedom is.”
- A friend made this statement over coffee: “Money just isn’t that important to me.”
I remember feeding myself that same line in my early twenties. If you had given me 30 seconds, I would have named 30 things more important than money. I was studying English literature and creative writing at the time, and I would have given poetry a spot near the top of my list.
When I first read T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets back in undergrad, the eddies of sadness and beauty brought me to tears.
Since we can agree that art is far more important than cash, can we also agree to blow the whistle on the false dichotomy?
Love, art, freedom, friendship, joy, wonder, and healing are important. Money is important too. It’s important because we need it to live in modern society. This is not an Either/Or but a Both/And.
My wife and I have three young children. They can’t eat art, unless of course you count my magnificent eggs and chorizo. And in Knoxville where I live, the utilities company does not accept love, freedom, or free verse as payment, more’s the pity.
Those of us who don’t live in barter economies use money as a mechanism to store and exchange value. The recognition that money is a tool we need does not make us weak, inferior, or aesthetically bankrupt as artists, writers, and creators. Quite the opposite. Pragmatism is good medicine.
Money’s supposed non-importance is a red herring. How many freelancers short on cash do you know who are truly content to stay that way?
We may decry money’s importance, but given the choice, we prefer a surplus over a lack. “Door A. Thanks, Bob!”
A surplus of money removes little frictions from life:
- Not being late on rent or bills
- Not worrying about car repairs but making them right away
- Not losing sleep over surprise expenses
On the other hand, a lack of money causes anxiety. That friend I mentioned earlier who invited me to coffee? When he claimed that money wasn’t important to him, my response was rather salty:
“Yeah, that’s not true at all. The reason you asked to meet is because you’re worried about money. Am I right?”
I was, and we spent the rest of our time together talking about you know what.
Telling ourselves that money isn’t important doesn’t quiet the anxiety, help us spend less, or help us earn more. By pulling money out of the not-important shadows and giving it the prominence and attention it deserves—a place not of adulation but of respect—we put money in its proper place, literally and metaphorically.
In his book I Will Teach You To Be Rich Ramit Sethi shares stories from dozens of people who made the same discovery: Once you raise your financial literacy and put money in its place, you spend less time thinking about it, not more.
We have to believe something is important before we can truly commit to learning about and mastering it.
Okay, so how do writers upgrade their money mindset?
False beliefs can be resilient, especially the ones that are emotionally charged.
Did you ever hear the urban legend about dangerous Halloween candy? In Made to Stick Chip and Dan Heath explore the rumor of razor blades in Halloween candy. It first surfaced in the 1960s, and an ABC News poll in 1985 showed that 60% of parents worried that their kids might get hurt.
That same year, two researchers published a study of every Halloween candy incident reported since 1958. They found no evidence that strangers had ever made candy unsafe. Both of the two children who died had family members to blame.
Whether it’s a fear of hidden razor blades or of selling out as a writer, fear-driven beliefs tend to be sticky. They persist though they come with no proof. I’d like to conclude by stacking up truer beliefs:
You can find examples of extraordinary writers who never profited from their talent: Zora Neale Hurston, John Keats, Edgar Allen Poe, Emily Dickinson, Henry David Thoreau, Stieg Larsson, Sylvia Plath, Franz Kafka, John Kennedy Toole. You can also find examples of mediocre writers who didn’t make any money from their work. We just don’t know their names.
You can find examples of wealthy authors, such as Ernest Hemingway, who were celebrated by critics. You can find wealthy authors, such as Agatha Christie, who were panned by critics.
Artists and writers aren’t doomed to live below the poverty line. Many writers earn a comfortable income. Writers have more business models and ways to make a good living through writing available to them than at any point in history.
A freelance copywriter stands to make more money than an editor working at a small independent newspaper. They can have the same level of skill, but the copywriter can make $300 an hour and the editor $30 an hour. The deciding factor was not skill but niche. What you earn as a writer has less to do with what critics say or your commitment to craft and more to do with your niche and other skills.
Making money and managing it well require a skill set different from writing. Whether you’re a teacher or writer, lawyer or YouTube gamer, you can acquire these skills. No one is born with them, and people in fields, professions, or markets with lower salaries and income levels (public school teachers versus surgeons) have less room for error and thus a greater incentive to acquire these skills and enjoy the peace of mind that living inside your means brings.
Art and commerce have always mixed because people will pay for art: for the aesthetic experience of it, for the enjoyment and status of owning it, for commercial use of it (logo versus oil painting), and for its inspiration, entertainment, and decorative purposes.
Money is not the most important thing in life, nowhere close, but it is important because we need it to live. By acknowledging that it is important, like dental hygiene and good nutrition, we can take the first step toward financial health.
You may not be good with money right now, but you can learn how to be good with money if you want to. You’ve already figured out more complex things.
My sincere hope is that you design and conduct an experiment. Step 1 is admitting that your beliefs about money may possibly require further examination. Step 2 is committing to reading and exploring. Sethi’s book is a good place to start. Step 3 is observing whether a different set of beliefs and habits produces better results.
At worst, you’ll prove that I wasted my time writing this article. At best, you’ll discover what so many of my coaching clients have: As you begin to master your money mindset, you spend less time thinking and worrying about money, not more.
You begin looking for ways to make more money in less time. You create more time freedom for yourself, and then, you can have your cake and eat it too. Pay your bills quickly and easily and write about whatever you want.
I do my best, most joyful writing when I’m not anxious about money. Perhaps your experience will be the same.
Austin is a writer, brand consultant, and business coach for freelancers. He lives with his wife Megan and their three children in Knoxville, Tennessee. You can get his 6-video course about making money as a freelancer from anywhere at AustinLChurch.com.