You will never get rich writing short stories and submitting them to magazines.
Out of the online communities and couple dozen or so writers, editors, etc. that I have shared words with over the last ten years, they will all tell you the same thing. This isn’t the 1930s anymore, where the great pulp writers like Howard or Lovecraft could earn a living off the checks from Weird Tales, and it’s not even the 1970s where you probably read about Stephen King’s first big sale to Playboy in his book On Writing that inspired you to say, “Hey! If I sell this story, I won’t starve at least!”
No, you are going to starve.
For one thing, writing takes a long time. Not only the start to finish of it all, from concept to the polished manuscript (which is hilarious, because you will always be able to polish a manuscript even more), but considering the submission/editing process, and if they buy it (which odds are, they won’t) you are going to be missing a lot of meals between you acceptance letter and the arrival of your check if you go that route.
The vast majority of magazines pay a pittance. Compared to the hours of work you soaked into that story, you are better off working at a Taco Bell. Most publications pay in exposure or just a token amount nowadays. The big magazines are limited to space and they are also used to selling the writers they already know are popular, which means that the same people who inspired you to write and submit to that magazine are likely your biggest competition and the promise of them submitting a trunk story for a check that will cover their car payment or their kid’s braces that month will edge your 3,000 word short story of epic brilliance to the deleted items file in your slush-reader’s laptop.
You are currently starving.
I really, really hope you didn’t quit your day job. Even if magazines like Playboy still bought fiction, they aren’t paying out four figure amounts to writers for their brilliance anymore. Unless the writer holds a prominent place on the NYT Bestseller list or just sold their soul to a movie production company for a cool million bucks so you can watch whatever the scriptwriters have butchered into so much dogmeat for a summer movie in a couple years.
The truth is I love to write. I love how language is a maleable medium, like clay is to a sculptor, metal is to a welder, or mashed potatoes is to a guy who has been abducted by aliens. I could go on with the metaphors for days. I’m a writer. Metaphors are to me what Thalo-blue and a fan brush was to Bob Ross. I fucking love them!
What do I like almost as much? Getting paid to write. The satisfaction of a job well-done is unparalleled, unless you are putting an actual dollar amount to it. This means that not only did someone like what you wrote, but now you can pay the bills, maybe buy a sandwich, or a new pair of shoes so you can write some more stuff!
In fiction, my total royalties and paychecks is probably under $1000 after ten years of effort. My biggest paycheck was $100 for a 10,000 word short story at a penny a word. The publication is no longer around. The shoes I bought with the check I cashed wore out less than a year later. Keens. They were pretty nice. My first paycheck was for a 3,000 word fiction story. It was $10. A year went by until the next $10 sale came. I probably sent that ms out to a dozen places. Around $3 a pop for postage. It’s actually costing me money to write at this point. That is why I have a full-time job with insurance and everything. Even when it sucks, I know it’s going to make sure I don’t die.
So, what do you do when your best talent is putting words together but in this culture, you’ll starve to death if you try to do what you love? You sell out. That’s what.
I write SEO content for business blogs. I made more money selling one blog about heavy equipment truck tires than I did the first three short story sales I made combined. I have written all sorts of things, from product descriptions about dry-aged beef that can be shipped to your door, to gas-permeable membranes and cladding used in construction. All sorts of shit. And the sad thing is writing this stuff actually supplements my income. It makes sure my checks don’t bounce, even with the day job, even with a divorce and child support payments, and insurance and car payments. Oh the glamorous life of a writer! It’s probably no different than yours, is it?
If you have read this far, that means you are a writer yourself. You are interested in that calling. You might be a little depressed right now or are telling yourself that my failures don’t mean you won’t sell your space opera to Harper Collins and Ridley Scott will send you the seven figure check tomorrow! If that happens, then I lost the bet. Congratulations. Or you might consider the lucrative world of selling out. Because hey, you are still writing, and you are getting paid. It’s actually a good way to sharpen your skills. And feel like less of an impostor when you tell people you are a writer. Because that’s all anyone really gives a shit about when they ask what you do. They aren’t asking what you LOVE, they are asking what keeps you from starvation. In my case, writing is a big part of that. It keeps me from giving up on the writing I love doing too: The fiction.
Right now, I’m not getting paid to blog this stuff. I’m writing it to get your attention in the hopes that you like what you see here enough to buy a copy of my book. I’m not getting rich doing it, but I hope that you read my book and get something out of it. I might get a couple bucks. I can make more money writing about plantar fasciitus or alpaca sweaters than I will make off the royalties of my book.
I wrote a book! Buy it. Give it a review on Amazon once you read it! That is the kind of stuff that keeps me wanting to write more fiction and less blogs about root canals. Which are nearly as painful to write as getting a root canal. But, the money flows to the author. Even if it’s only like $10.