Multiple Revenue Streams, Revisited

Yesterday I rather cryptically announced on Twitter that at that moment someone was using me as an example of something; that person was Cory Doctorow, in a Twitter discussion with author David Hewson about writer career models. Hewson wrote about how he wouldn’t take career advice from Cory, which precipitated a rather long Twitter conversation between the two in which I was brought up by Cory as an example of a writer who has several revenue streams. Other writers, including Nick Harkaway and Suw Charman-Anderson, also pinged in; Charman-Anderson saved the Twitter conversation and also posted her additional thoughts here.

Leaving aside the specifics of Cory’s own personal brand of income generation, the general discussion seems to be about revenue streams, and whether book authors can/should have a second (and third, fourth, etc) income stream burbling along, complementing the book income writing stream. Hewson appears to be of the opinion that not every author can muster that second revenue stream; Cory argues for the value of a multistream career, and the others chime in with thoughts and points to make in support of Hewson or Cory’s general position.

Most writers, mind you, have multistream careers whether they want them or not; they have day jobs. For the successful few who manage along without one of those, I think it’s better to have multistream careers than not, for the simple reason that you never know when a line of income is going to evaporate, and when it does, it’s best it’s not your only way of making money. Also, again, I don’t think most full-time writers have a choice about whether to have a multistream career, since generally speaking, when it comes to writing, most income streams don’t offer enough to live comfortably on.

If you are someone who makes enough from writing one sort of thing — usually books, but not always — that you can argue that writers shouldn’t have to have multiple streams of revenue, well, then. Excellent for you. But you’re in a small minority of all working writers, and you should probably recognize that. Even among those folks, mind you, I would recommend multistream careers if you can manage them. Because that extra cash is nice to have (and to save, hint, hint).

Pursuant to the above, I think it’s worthwhile to make a distinction between two different types of writer revenue streams: The ones that support the writing, and the ones that come as a consequence of the writing. In the former camp you have things like day jobs, and writing gigs you get without reference to the main thrust of your writing career (or perhaps more accurately, what you would like the main thrust of your writing career to be). In the latter camp you have things like movie options and speaking engagements. They are important distinctions to make because the latter are both quantitatively and qualitatively harder to get and to keep. Any writer can get a day job of some sort to pay the bills. Not every writer will get paid by Hollywood, or get paid to show up and talk about their writing. For those, again, nice if you can manage them. I don’t know that it does anybody any good to lump those two categories together when making examples, however.

My overall thought on all of this is that if you can only write one thing and get paid enough for it that you don’t have to (or want to) do anything else, then do that — it’s nice to be you. Otherwise I’m a big fan of authors keeping their eyes open for opportunities and to be aware of the (distinctly relative) fiscal security that having more than one source of income can bring. I don’t think writers should be too proud about how they make their money, within the bounds of their personal ethics; it all spends (and saves) the same.

19 Comments on “Multiple Revenue Streams, Revisited”

  1. Well, holy cow, it seems to me that everyone, not just writers, should try to get multiple revenue streams nowadays.

    Recent economic conditions indicate that depending upon one revenue stream (including a “day job”) is insecure at best.

    Life ain’t fair, and there is no such thing as a free lunch.

  2. Even as a member of corporate America (wife as well; her desk is next to mine), we’re in the process of getting a small business going. So far, we’re not dependent on the income from this stream and are putting the funds back into the business but we figure this could work out as a retirement business down the road. Even though we may officially retire from our day jobs, is doubtful we’ll just settle down to no further income earning. That just seems weird.

  3. Hi John,

    A few years ago you posted about your income for fiction writing alone. You noted advances, royalties, etc. I don’t remember how many books you had published at the time, but it seems to me that it was before you were as established as you are now. Any chance you would consider a similar post now? I think it would be illuminating for your readers to see the income books alone generate for a “successful” writer.


  4. I appear to be echoing the mass mind here, but any creative professional _not_ having or seeking side gigs strikes me as kind of odd. Contracting gigs are too common, side businesses too easy to start, and the interwebs make it way too easy to do and submit work remotely. Why would you not branch out?

  5. I was at Ad Astra (a sort of genre writing convention) this past weekend and, of all the panels I attended and authors I spoke to, there was not one writer who had the luxury of relying on their creative works as their sole source of income. They all had ‘normal’ day jobs to support themselves and their families. It’s a sobering reality I would hope luckier authors wouldn’t so quickly forget.

  6. After reading all of this, I was deeply confused. This is not really an argument about whether writers should have multiple streams of income, is it? This is really an argument about “pirates are eating my lunch and it’s not fair.” Am I right? I mean, I’m getting very lost trying to parse the debate otherwise.

  7. To add to Dave’s point, I think depending wholly on writing as a source of income is like ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’. Just like the economy is changing, trends and interests are changing. Because an author has had great success in making money from writing and hasn’t had to depend on other income sources doesn’t mean it will be that way for eternity. People’s interests change and authors change too. Their style of writing may change over time and they may find that they do not appeal to the people who once liked their works. Also, I think writers have great potential because when you think about it, their writings appeal to the sensibilities of the readers, otherwise why would these people bother to read their works. This appealing to the sensibilities of a wide audience suggests a level of charisma and sometimes charisma goes a long way to ensuring success in endeavors. The power to be a leader. So why limit yourself to writing alone?

  8. Lemme tell ya, NEVER put all your eggs in one basket. Take it from one who knows. I had a freelance video scripting/directing business back in the early 90s. Failed after three years when my sole client decided to go with someone cheaper.

    Lesson learned! It’s best to have multiple sources of income, and develop the *hell* out of that friggin’ client list. (I’ve been a “day job” guy ever since.)

  9. Man this is entirely too creepy. The only two writer’s blogs (heck blogs of any sort) that I read regularly are yours and David’s. I know, its a small world. Its a small world. Whatever, the internet just made my worlds into quantum origami where every point is now touching every other point.

  10. From reading the stream, I think Mr. Hewson is not in touch with his other skills – he should embrace them! Charge for them! Be entrepreneurial!

    I’ve always thought that you should be strategic – speaking, for Doctorow, is worthwhile because people recognize his ability to communicate and share ideas, and that may lead him to sell books. So, in fact, whether you get paid or not, it is often worth doing. If you get paid, it is doubly worth doing – and, personally, that is how I prioritize many of my activities. If I do it, will it count twice – once in the pocketbook and once when someone remembers what I produce (research, in this case). Sometimes it counts twice because it is a hugely important societal matter, of course.

    Too many people are scared to go outside their ‘primary skill’ but the rewards are many.

  11. I attended a conference last month about intellectual property law in fashion design. (It’s actually a fascinating topic — all sorts of trademark issues, enforcement, contract issues, and others. It was at Thomas Jefferson Law School, where Scalzi presented writing tips for students a few years ago.)

    One of the speakers was an attorney who did a lot of work for new creative professionals in fashion design. An audience member asked what advice she had for people wanting to become designers / marketers / models / etc. She said that her agency has a general policy of trying to develop at least eight revenue streams for all of their clients. If their client is a fashion model, they try to find parts for her in acting, they put her in commercials, they see if she wants to do any design, they look for foreign markets, and so forth. The attorney/agent was adamant — anyone wanting to go into a career in fashion should make it a top priority to develop at least eight revenue streams.

    It was strikingly similar advice to Scalzi’s write-up — coming from a very hard-nosed and experienced agent who works in the cutthroat L.A. environment, and knows how inconsistent income can be.

  12. Catherine #7,
    If Cory is involved then somewhere in the conversation copyright will come up eventually. That’s what happens when you’re the Che Guervara of the free culture movement.
    My take is- must be nice to have the luxury of income security so that you can brush off copyright violations.

  13. I know a lot of writers. I know very few who do not ALSO have an unrelated dayjob (butcher, baker candlestick-maker) that have any other revenue stream except for writing. That’s advances, royalties, and subrights. A few children’s authors i know make a nice chunk of change from school visits. But that’s all.

    Most full time writers make all of their money from writing. Most writers who are not full time writers make their money from writing and from their unrelated dayjobs.

    I know very few who are making their money off of merchandising/advertising, or “corporate consulting”. I do wonder if this is a genre-related thing. The con attendees are buying the t-shirts, etc.

  14. I think everyone should be considering multiple revenue streams, not just writers and artists. Nobody‘s job is as safe as they’d like it to be, and most folks don’t have enough savings to tide them over for very long if the day job disappears one day.

    I understand the resistance to the idea, though. It’s part denial–“I’m doing fine, it’s not that bad,” part overwhelm–“I’m already working my butt off with this thing I do, I don’t have time to take on a whole ‘nother job.” I get it because I lived it, and still do to an extent.

    I was out of work two and a half years, from May ’03 to November ’05. The job I got in ’05 ends in four weeks, and I was lucky it lasted that long–it was supposed to run out in ’07. I’ve got my backup plans ready to go; I can make a few bucks with my photography right now, and if I need to I can work harder at it and pretend that it’s a wage, and my wife’s got a nice nest egg set aside from her days in the dot-com boom. And hey, the economy’s getting better, I might only be out of work a couple months this time around, it’s not that bad.

  15. Even within the heading of fiction writing (for example), there are multiple ways to generate income. Are advances and royalties falling off, but you have a backlist? Put it out yourself as ebooks. (I’m having some success with that, currently.) Nobody offering you audiobook contracts for your eminently audioizable books? Produce your own! (I’m working at that now, and so far I’m only a grand or two in the red. Oops.) Can you teach writing? It won’t make you rich, but every little bit helps, and it can be really rewarding. Can you ghost-write or edit? Oh, I guess we’re getting out of the fiction writing now. But that’s how it goes.

    Nobody’s mentioned the most obvious: Marry a wonderful person who loves you and your work, and is talented and happy to earn a salary while you work at your multiple streams! For the health insurance alone, if not for love. (That’s a joke. It better be for love.)

  16. Hi Dave 11. I speak regularly at literary festivals around the world. I’ve been an executive director of a publishing company. I’ve had 18 books out there in various media from print to audio, one movie made from them and currently an 11-book TV movie deal. So I think I’m OK on the entrepreneurial side thanks.

    The point I was trying to make in all this was a simple one. There are a handful of writers who can function successfully as both writers and well-paid public speakers. Just a handful. Many writers don’t have the skills or don’t want to spend their time doing that – they’d rather be writing. Even if they did the market for highly-paid guru-style speakers is very small indeed. Cory Doctorow said in our Twitter exchange that had been paid up to $10K (with travel I guess) for speaking at places. The number of professional writers who can score that kind of money you could count on one hand.

    Yes – lots of writers have other jobs because they don’t make enough money from books to live. Nothing wrong with that but I bet they make up the slack doing their old pre-writing job, not positioning themselves as global experts for hire to the public speaking trade at $10K a pop.

    Actually lots of us do OK in full-time writing provided we have the logical multiple revenue streams it can offer, such as audio, foreign translation rights and the possibility of movie and TV deals through our agents. Revenue streams you won’t get from the self pub give it all away for free model.

  17. Frankly, this whole debate strikes me as kind of preposterous. I think Scalzi is being honest about how friggin’ hard it is to make a living as a writer; the instability of it all. And I applaud that, given how successful he has been and currently is. Sure, there are a bunch of “full time writers” who make enough to live on and do well. And those big name dudes and dudettes probably know one another, and maybe they’ve forgotten about the rest of the writers, perhaps equally as talented but not yet as fortunate, who are still fighting their way out of the trenches. Yes, Hollywood (and by this I mean films and tv, not necessarily located in California) can bring a lot of money in… But Hollywood is incestuous and xenophobic and scared of new shit — which means once you’ve sold them something, your chances of selling to them again are pretty damn good, and way better than they were before. They are not so willing to bet on a new, unknown horse. So yeah — to all of you who have made plenty of cash off of optioning your rights, congratulations. But it just ain’t that easy for most people, even talented people. Okay, so not everyone has that public speaker ability. But writing is writing — communication is communication — why wouldn’t anyone be encouraged to use that skill/talent/gift in as many ways as possible? Screw the economy — who wouldn’t want to grow as an artist? Who wouldn’t want to try different mediums, better themselves, broaden their creative horizons? And if it brings in money? Awesome. Now — back to the economy — it is a reality. Any “artiste” who doesn’t wanna deal with reality can go live in a freakin’ Parisian garrett and sip espresso with Ernest Hemingway and do their best work on an empty stomach like he claims to have done. But does this really need to be a lesson on Economics 101? Who doesn’t need to put away savings? We’re not talking about selling your soul or whoring yourself out (for lessons in that…. see “screenwriting,” and by the way, been there/done that, so I know what I’m talking about; maybe not true in all cases, but sadly, in many) And by the way — if we’re not writing for money, then keep a damn journal if you just need to get it off your chest and clarify your own thoughts. We become writers because it’s something we love to do… and we pray that it’ll be the thing that sustains us and puts a roof over our heads and maybe one day (if hollywood comes calling) gives us a villa in Tuscany. So really — I cannot even believe that there is a “debate” about the benefits of branching out and using one’s skills in various outlets. It keeps you fresh and open to new ideas, new experiences, and all that other bullshit that feeds us as writers and artists. There are several ways now to make money using this writing thing that we do – besides being a high-priced speaker. Anyone who wants to turn their back on that notion deserves what they get. Basically, the idea of creating multiple revenue streams — if possible — can be reduced to one word: Duh.

  18. There’s a line from an old NaNovel of mine that comes to mind:

    “Let me explain something to you, Chris,” Daniel says as he strides down the corridor. I have to walk double-time to keep up with him. “If you learn nothing else, remember this–getting your money from one direction is like getting your drugs from one dealer. If he goes down, you’re shit out of luck. But if you get your stuff from multiple places, then if one guy goes, you’ve got other people you can phone up when you need a hit. Same thing with money.”

    I have no plans to publish that novel, but I still keep that notion in my back pocket.