Write to Get Paid


“I really believe that most writers in America have taken on this idea that we’re never going to get paid–and so we accept so little for what we do, when what we do is so valuable. And it’s wanted.” —Ali Liebegott

I tell myself I will be a “real writer” when I receive $1.00 for my writing. In exchange for time and effort and vulnerability, I want more than self-satisfaction; I want money. I want to stop comparing Walgreens’ brand prices with name brand prices.

In my Interview with Elaine Showalter, I asked her how to be a “real writer”:

Rumpus: In her review of Jury of Her Peers, Sarah Churchwell (who studied with you at Princeton) said you gave her “the single most influential piece of professional advice [she’s] ever received: ‘Write to get paid.’” Writing for money seems inconceivable to me; your advice encourages me, but most magazines and the Internet deflate me. If more writers are writing a) disposable content and b) for free, how can writers find valuable work that pays?

Showalter: “I told Sarah Churchwell (and all my graduate students), ‘Learn to write so well that you can be paid for it, rather than so badly that someone has to be paid to read your work.’ Many graduate students in English deliberately make their writing so obscure and pedantic that it is unreadable. But actually getting paid as a freelance journalist demands hard work and luck, as you know, and these days the market is tighter than ever.”

Money’s not everything; it often forces the creator to compromise with detached, if not stupid, people and make concessions about a piece of work that feels equal to, if not greater than, a child. David Lynch earned a lot of money making Dune, but it wasn’t worth it to him because he didn’t have control of his product. He said of the experience: “I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don’t have final cut.”

I am not the first to suggest that the intersection of writing, money, and having final cut is self-publishing. But my hope is to be among the first who ceaselessly and shamelessly promote the trend.

I self-published If Not for Everything Else as an experiment in making money for what I like to do everyday. Also, no one would publish it. Maybe no one thinks it is good. Or maybe some people will connect with it. Either way, I don’t want to live in a world where my writing can’t get out there because no one puts it out there. I will put it out there.

Here’s what I did:

– I bought a domain name on GoDaddy.com. (The thinking here is to give the story its own space; like a book that is a single entity, so is my URL.)

– I paid extra for hosting.

– I purchased a website builder, even though most Macs come with iWeb and sites like WordPress and Tumblr are free.

– I received free editorial services from people who take love over money. I’ll never be able to repay Julie Greicius for what she gave me in hours and skill. Unless I become super famous.

– I took my friend Ilyse Magy, a talented designer, out to sushi and paid her pittance for original illustrations. (I believe text should always have an aesthetic.)

– I put a commanding PayPal button on the front page that says “Donate.”

– I asked people to donate.

– No really, donate.

– I plan to do everything I can to promote the site (like what I’m doing now). While I hope a few people never read it, I hope everyone else does.

This wasn’t my idea. It was Susannah Breslin’s idea, as told to me by Tracy Clark-Flory of Salon.com. After I asked Tracy if this piece could work in any piecemeal form on Salon, she asked, “Why don’t you self-publish?” This was the best rejection/advice ever. The most common response I received from editors was, “I just don’t see where it fits.” For every time an editor says this, my response will be, “Why don’t you self-publish?” Math is not my forte, but I imagine that many unpublished pieces remain unpublished because they don’t fit neatly into the excess of fiction-geared literary journals or reportage-based magazines. If Not for Everything Else is mainly nonfiction, but I changed some names and reordered events and exaggerated a great deal and also lied and at times told the truth in a way I’m sure to regret and plagiarized in a way I hope comes off as “paying homage.” What genre is this? I just don’t see where it fits. And that’s why I self-published.

Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column. She teaches humor writing at The New School and Catapult. Follow her on Twitter, and visit elissabassist.com for more literary, feminist, and personal criticism. More from this author →