How to Balance Passion and Profit
Talk to a typical author and you’ll discover an abundance of contradictions. Lots of us, for instance, want adoring fans but hate to share our work. We value our words enough to charge for them but battle imposter syndrome. One of the biggest contradictions we face is our desire to write for fun but also hit sales targets. We want to be uncompromising artists but we get frustrated when our books don’t achieve monetary success. Some authors attain both goals without compromising at all. What you’ll find, though, is that they’re the lucky minority. Many more don’t start out writing commercial Bully Academy Romance, perfectly written to market.
Indeed, a huge portion of us start out writing an obscure passion project; a pressing idea we just couldn’t shake. One about bees building a castle or a woman who crosses an ocean with nothing but a dinghy and a prosthetic leg. What we don’t discover until later is that these original ideas generally have a hard time finding an audience. If this is the case for you then the choice that follows the revelation will be all too familiar: write exactly what you want and keep your writing a hobby forever, or jump into a more commercial sub-genre to write books full-time? Some authors see it as a binary decision: write the books you love or “sell out” for money.
The truth, though, is that the scenario isn’t binary. There’s a lot of ground between profit and passion and, as an author, you have the freedom to explore every inch. Sure, if you refuse to consider the market at all, you may struggle to earn a living. But you don’t have to abandon the stories you love altogether to build a viable brand. Admittedly, lots of authors must adapt, but most eventually find a sub-genre that pays the bills and that they enjoy almost as much as their passion projects. The key to happiness is understanding where to draw the line. If you’re facing this puzzle yourself then read on because today we’ll explore how to balance passion and profit.
Start with Why
It helps to start with the end in mind. Ask yourself, “What do I want to achieve?” Whatever your answer, is it true? Say, for example, your goals are to make a living and get a New York Times (NYT) bestseller. Why? It’s fair to want to make a living so you can spend more time writing. But the NYT bestseller? Do you actually want that or do you think you want it because you believe your friends and family won’t take you seriously until you have those letters on your author bio? Simon Sinek, a leading expert on inspiring workers, once said:
“Working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress. Working hard for something we love is called passion.”
Remember that when you scrutinise your goals. If all you really want is to make a living then you don’t need to compromise on your art beyond the point at which the proceeds cover your lifestyle. Stressing yourself out to hit a bestseller listwon’t add to your happiness. Generally, if you find yourself dreading the work in spite of your success, that’s a sure sign that you’ve gone too far in favour of profit. In that case, don’t push further, hoping more money and success will fix the problem. Instead, work on a passion project. While that book might not bring you as much money as thoroughbred genre fiction written to market, it will leave you feeling more fulfilled.
Plan Your Finances
Sometimes you don’t need to compromise on your art at all. We all think we do to afford a big house and a car, a renowned editor, expensive hobbies and stays in five-star hotels. The problem is that we all think we need just a little more to live an acceptable lifestyle, but the baseline keeps rising unless you intentionally resist. Going back to pedestrian level, however, is no easy feat once you’ve seen the street from a penthouse. The best way to avoid heartbreak is to work out how much is “enough” in advance. That way, you never taste the caviar or feel the rush of the yacht. You don’t know what you’re missing. All you’ll know is the stress-free life you love.
Do you even need to live the same lifestyle you’re living now? Could you cut expenses, pay off debt and be just as happy writing books you enjoy? Running a status arms race against the Joneses seems necessary when you’re in it, but it actually blocks you from achieving a life you prefer. Even when it comes to your writing, do you need to pay $3,000 for an in-demand editor? Could a $1,000 one do the job just as well? Could you even trade manuscripts with a skilled comp author and both get the job done for free without compromising quality? The less money you spend, the less you need to make and the less you need to compromise on your art.
Imagine you want to write literary sci-fi novels about hitchhikers on the trans-galactic railroad. Is there a market for that type of fiction? Perhaps, but if there isn’t, you might write train-spotting guides and military sci-fi to pay the bills. In that case, should you resent the side-gigs and put in minimal effort? No. It’s a compromise but, when you’re doing that work, do it to the best of your ability. As Dr Martin Luther King, Jr once said:
“If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, go out and sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures. […] Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say, here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.”
Why? Firstly, mastering a subject makes it easier over time, enabling you to get the same results in less time and do more of what you actually want to do. Secondly, producing work you’re proud of makes you feel better about it. And thirdly, you never know who’s watching. One of your train-spotting super-fans could be a giant sci-fi author. Impressed by your side work, they might want to co-write a totally new series of books with you that combines the two and helps get your space-train-hitchhiker fiction off the ground. In short, balance fun-work and money-work, in terms of hours, but put always put 100% into both because either can create an opportunity.
Diversify Status Games
If you aren’t familiar with the concept of golden handcuffs, they represent any work that offers you enough money or social perks to stop you from ever leaving, even if you hate it. Authors who write in lucrative genres sometimes develop golden handcuffs, particularly when they become “big names” with USA Today bestsellers, 500 positive launch-week reviews and more income per month than they once earned in a year. If you haven’t experienced this phenomenon, you might think “lucky for some”, but these people are often deeply unsatisfied, despite telling themselves that they love what they do because they’ve achieved success and a high status.
Much like lowering your lifestyle once you’ve tasted the highlife, this bind is difficult to escape once you’ve gone too far. Regularly remind yourself what matters to you, however, and you become less likely to get wrapped up in vanity metrics. Nor will you worry about what people will think if you decide to release a book you want to write but that’s destined to underperform by comparison. Keeping this focus will give you the wisdom to draw a line in the proverbial sand and pivot before you feel too caught up in the trappings of success. It’ll help you find the courage to feel less embarrassed in your pursuit of writing a project that truly makes you happy.
Optimise Profitable Activities
Many authors get stuck spending far more time than they’d like on the type of work that leaves them cash rich but soul poor. However, they do so needlessly because they don’t understand the potential power of freedom and the leverage they wield once they become an established writer. You see, being an author is not like a day job. Yes, you can choose to work eight hours a day on work that pays your rent or mortgage. However, unbeholden to a boss who tells you what to work on and how to go about it, you can also alter the way you work to change the shape of your day.
Imagine, for example, you write and release one non-fiction guide a month for reliable supplementary income. Each one takes 10 hours and earns you $200 in launch-month royalties — $20 an hour. In that scenario, could you commission a co-writer and drastically reduce your time investment, netting you $50 per hour for outlining and editing after paying their rates? Yes! Now, what if you hired an editor? You could earn $100 per hour just to outline and proofread. Hire proof-readers and you could earn $300 per hour, purely outlining books and uploading finished files to Amazon. Optimise paid work and you can free up a lot of time for passion projects.
When you’re a self-employed author-entrepreneur, there are no rules. Across the industry, authors get to choose how they balance passion and profit. Remember, you have total freedom. That said, you need to establish boundaries, and don’t be afraid to move the goalposts if you find you enjoy some work more than you thought you would or lose interest in the type of project you used to love. Remember, when balancing profit and passion, you’re not really optimising for money or creative integrity; ultimately, you’re optimising for happiness.
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