A Midlist Career or Immortality... by Mark Chisnell

My wife, Tina has just started a portrait photography business and while she was working to get it all set up I posed her a question – would you rather: take pictures that live on forever, but never make a living as a photographer; or, leave nothing artistic behind you, but live a good life, working daily as a photographer? At the time I couched it in these terms – who would you rather be; Vivian Maier or Jasmine Star?

If you’re not a photography fan-boy or –girl, then Vivian Maier is the American nanny whose street photography was only discovered by accident years after her death, and then published to great critical acclaim. Jasmine Star is the marketing wunderkind who single-handedly made wedding photography fashionable (along with a great deal of money) by a spectacularly effective talent for social media. I don’t think anyone expects her wedding pictures to be in the NY Met in fifty years time. 

Tina – who is very practical – answered Jasmine Star without missing a beat. And then told me that the question would make a good topic for a blog... so here I am. In fact, I was reminded of the conversation and the prospects for a blog earlier this month when I read a post from one of my favourite writers on the business of writing – Kathryn Rusch. She was concerned with the distinction between the one-book-writer and the career-writer. The one-book-writer doesn’t care if they never make any money, or never get to leave the day job. They simply want the satisfaction of seeing their words in print, their name on the bookshelves, and preferably lauded in the review columns of the national press. The career-writer cares little for good reviews except where they help bring in the readers (1,500 5* reviews on Amazon for instance) and pay the bills. The career-writer is just that – in it for the career, making it work as a day job.

In her article, Rusch wanted to make the distinction between the career-writer and the one-book writer because the choice leads to fundamentally different decisions about the many opportunities and challenges that now confront the writer. She points out many of the ways in some detail, but essentially the career-writer will likely embrace the entrepreneurial possibilities of the eBook revolution and self-publishing. The one-book-writer will turn up their nose and keep submitting to agents and publishers. It’s all about validation for the one-book-writer, it’s all about being able to keeping the cheques coming in for the career-writer.

If you’ve read many of my posts here on Author’s Electric you won’t be long in realising that my wife and I are temperamentally suited as life-partners – I’m very much a career-writer. I’m all about novel-writing as a business, about paying the bills, about giving up the day job (which happens to be journalism and non-fiction writing). I’d pick Jasmine Star every time and I’ve fully embraced the entrepreneurial spirit of the eBook revolution. I’d always pick the freedom to do what I love every day for the rest of my life over success beyond the grave... but that’s me, what about you? Think carefully, because it’s an important choice to make before you go any further with your writing....

Connect with Mark Chisnell online at:


Lynne Garner said…
Career writer - although I'll admit I'm a long, long way off of being that. When I started to write it was said the average career writer (not employed but freelance) could earn £10,000 per year. This has been revised down (not sure where I read this) to £5,000. I don't think anyone today can survive on £10,000 now let alone £5,000.

Finally I keep my fingers crossed that the photography goes well.
Dennis Hamley said…
I've never been in a position where I've depended on writing to make a living and for that I'm thankful (though, when in some company, slightly embarrassed!) But I've never tried to write for posterity either, because I'm not Vivian Maier- or Van Gogh if it comes to that - though in the unlikely event that I turn out to be, I hope my children will profit from it. I'd like to believe there's a middle ground and, without wishing to sound a mushy compromiser, hope that I occupy it. And if I do, I can say that, most of the time, it's not a bad place to be in.
Dennis Hamley said…
By the way, good luck to Tina!
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lee said…
False dichotomy: you can be a one-book writer (or more-book writer) whose validation does not come from bookshelves and review columns yet who still self-publishes.I consider myself a career writer whose payment isn't in hard currency (to use my own definition of the term).
I'm with Lee on this one. I think it is a false dichotomy - or at least more complicated than this. Maier's work is stunning. But she was in no sense the equivalent of a one book writer, because she produced a vast body of amazing work. She just didn't give a damn about publicising it, seeing her work in galleries or publications. She was doing it simply to do it. And presumably, that was what she found fulfilling. The practice itself, doing what she loved. Isn't that an enviable life's work? 'One book writer' - to me - has faintly pejorative implications. Well, I've known a few, some of them traditionally published and some of them self published or not published at all. They produce a single book which may or may not be successful, and find that it's enough for them. Archie Hind, with Dear Green Place, is a good example. Their reasons may be various - perhaps that's all they had 'in' them. Or perhaps they didn't enjoy the writing as much as they thought they would. Perhaps life events intervened. Some writers genuinely don't care about being lauded or admitted to the literary 'canon' but they also recognise that being a 'career' writer may mean making compromises they don't always want to make. Who's to say that they are wrong? With Dennis, I think many of us walk a kind of tightrope between the two. The trick is in managing to write for love and publish for money. Not always possible, I know!
Mark Chisnell said…
Great to see some strong reactions to this one! I'm not sure I was suggesting that there's no grey area in between - there's always a grey area. It's still interesting to couch the question in black and white terms. Personally, I've always hated trying to fit in writing around the rest of life. And I've never seen any point in taking pictures or writing words that aren't intended to be shared. These are stories, they belong in the long tradition that starts with spinning tales around a camp fire - not talking to yourself in the woods... :-)
glitter noir said…
I too think the dichotomy's a false one. Margaret Mitchell wrote one book for a couple of reasons: she did not believe she could surpass GWTW--and she did not enjoy the act of writing in itself. That said, she discovered an equal talent--and greater pleasure--in publicizing her work. Some one-book wonders had less luck K Toole. And some writers, for my money, should have remained one-book wonders: Joseph Hellers. On the other hand, there've been professional/career writers who were also gifted artists: G B Shaw is my favorite example. Gore Vidal was no slouch either. The serious writer vs the hack might be a more interesting distinction: the hack being willing to write on any subject in any style that will sell for one purpose only: big buckaroos.
glitter noir said…
Third line above should read: Some one-book wonders had less luck: e.g., John K Toole.

Popular posts

What's the Big Idea? - Nick Green

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

Meet Author Virginia Watts, a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Find Out How She Does What She Does

Last Chapter?

Misogyny and Bengali Children’s Poetry by Dipika Mukherjee