Writing Jobs I’ve Had (And What They Paid)

In the comment thread of yesterday’s What Book Publishers Want Most, But Can’t Have, a reader wrote, “John, this is probably really rude of me to ask, but how do you make a living writing? I know it’s what you spend your time doing– thank God—but who pays you? You blog for Huffington, right? I know, it’s not polite to ask people about their money. So if I’m being too obnoxious, just ignore me.”

So … I’m not sure how detailed anyone might want me to be with this stuff—but it can’t be very, because how boring would that be? But … well, let’s see, for eight or so years, starting in (I believe) 1997, I made here in San Diego first nothing, then scratch money, and finally a living writing for just about every publication in town. That work went like this:

Work: CD reviews, band profiles, and longer freelance pieces I originated
For: free, bi-weekly local music magazine called SLAMM (circulation: 40,000)
Payment: none.
Time: 7 months.

Work: Freelance pieces and column I originated
For: free SD monthly tabloid called REVOLT
Payment: none.
Time: 7 months.

Work: 100 or so 300-word descriptions of museums, neighborhoods, etc.
For: Microsoft’s now-defunct website Sidewalk San Diego.
Payment: $10 per description
Time: Four months.

Work: Editor
For: SLAMM Magazine in San Diego
Payment: $750 per issue, no benefits.
Time: 3 months.

Work: Writer, Editor of “Music” and “Nightlife” sections
For: SignOnSanDiego.com, then-new website of The San Diego Union-Tribune newspaper.
Payment: $31,000 a year and great benefits.
Time: 1 year.

Work: Freelance writer
For:San Diego Magazine,San Diego Union-Tribune, AOL’s Digital City San Diego, etc.
Payment: Varied. (Made $300 a week writing 30 bar reviews a week for AOL.)
Time: Two months.

Work: Managing editor
For: of On Air Magazine, monthly four-color subscriber magazine of KPBS, San Diego’s public broadcasting station. (Circulation: 45,000)
Payment: $35K a year.
Time: 10 months.

Work: Editor
For: Weekly tabloid newspaper covering downtown San Diego (circulation 10,000)
Pay: $42,000 a year
Time: Four months

Work: Editor
For:Decor & Style, monthly glossy shelter magazine (circulation 55,000)
Pay: $45,000 a year
Time: 1 year

Work: Editor
For:Downtown San Diego, a monthly magazine (circulation 10,000)
Pay: drawing blank. I think $3,000 per issue.
Time: 6 months

Through almost all of the above work I got to pretty much write whatever I wanted, however I wanted. So I loved that part. (And I love being the editor of a publication. Very exciting work.)

Anyway, five years ago, I transitioned into books.

Today, there are four main ways that I get paid to write:

1. Writing books of my own

2. Co-authoring books with others

3. Ghost writing books for private clients

4. Editing/doctoring books

In the past two or three years of doing 2 through 4 above, I’ve made enough to be able to afford to do only 1 for awhile. Hopefully, I’ll never again have to do 2, 3, or 4.

Oh: I don’t get paid to blog for The Huffington Post; I do it for the exposure.

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  • See! I knew I was not the only one wondering this. Of course, Elizabeth already confirmed such suspicions yesterday.

    Of course I have more questions:

    When you first started freelancing were you working somewhere else too? How do you make money writing books? I know you'll get to that.

    Have I also said somewhere in my comments I absolutely insanely enjoy the Anguished English series? Now how the heck did you link with co-authoring those?

    I'm sorry, I want to know more not less even though this may not be as scintillatingly (not a real word according to wordpress spell checker) controversial as Christians Stink it Up and the like (also love, also agree.)

    btw, thanks for the link 😉 very nice of you!

  • Holy hell social media is a pyramid scheme and John is three levels above me! The only things between him and Ra are Adriana Huffington and Rick Astley.

    I work a lot, but for good money, but in things that I don't really love. You've worked a lot, sometimes made good money, but in things you love.

    Would it be fair to equate book writing to entrepeneurship, in a business sense? Other sources of funding and expertise get you started, you focus on your core skill, and if you hit it really really big then there's enough leftovers for you to get a good piece of the pie?

    Been on vacation and am a little out of touch with your blog for the first time in a few years. Will be back to full-time heckling soon. Grace and peace, dude.

    p.s. — Bar reviews, awesome!

  • Re bars: I did a lot of gay bars. There's nothing like standing in a corner of a gay bar, not ordering anything, and taking a bunch of notes in a little notepad to really make all the customers comfortable. I looked like a cop gathering evidence.

    So … speaking of this sort of thing, just NOW I finished up an "Amendment to Publishing Agreement," which today I'll take up to a client in LA for whom I'm ghosting four books. This is a primary way I make money writing–ghosting private books, I mean, not amending contracts.

  • you're funny, Frank!

  • Elizabeth

    Absolutely pathetic. Is there no subject so mundane that y'all can't reduce me to a ball on the floor, helpless with laughter? Anything?

  • Gina Powers

    Agh! Almost forgot–does anybody here know anything about code-rat-ing? Let me explain–I'm thinking of reincarnating my blog and I want to insert links, but the ones that you can click on that simply say click HERE (and "here" is underlined)? Any assistance would be GREATLY appreciated, thanks much!!

  • Thanks for sharing that John. I’ve been writing for a few years and the pay I get is close to what you were paid for your first writing jobs, little or nothing. Yet I keep doing it, maintaining a blog and writing a weekly column for an online local web-mag here in my area. I am also returning to school to get a writing focused degree.

    My question is how do you find the outlets to get writing work that actually pays?

    Oh, and i got a copy of your book, thanks for sending it.

  • This post answers a question I was very curious about. I reviewed the Google news item which originally caught my attention. Now i see that there are 10 links I can use if I get bored on advice to the love lorn days. Thanks John. For myself, I earned my living (been there, done that) by giving instructions to electrical machines which caused them to behave. I have no doubt that this shows up in my way of writing. 🙂

  • frank sonnek

    “Work: Freelance writer

    For: San Diego Magazine, San Diego Union-Tribune, AOL’s Digital City San Diego, etc.

    Payment: Varied. (Made $300 a week writing 30 bar reviews a week for AOL.)

    Time: month or two.”

    30. per week. yikes. how many coctails would be needed to properly and …er… um… professionally review a bar?

    I know that it is not polite to be asking people about their drinking habits…. so if I am being obnoxious….:)….

  • You notice he only had the job a month or two. Either he ran out of bars, or ran out of liver.

  • Gina Powers

    LOL@ Sylvie! Thanks, needed that today! 😉

  • Gina Powers

    Oh, and thank you for the insight, John! You better watch it, next week is my payday, and if you’re not careful, I’m planning to get my hands on one of your gems…..wait, that sounds REALLY wrong…..

  • And I am returning to school to get a writing focused degree….That confirms it. I am insane!

  • jane semng'indo

    Thanks for inspiring me john. i'm on my way to writing. I have wanted to write since I was ten. I enjoy writing and I feel at home with it. of course I will be an instructress, conduct seminars ,all these in collaboration with writing. thanks very much for the article.