Motives in life—and the publishing industry–can be squishy.
I started writing for money. That was my motive. It was 1988 and I was toward the end of a decade-long youth ministry gig. Loved about 8 years of it, but the last year was the worst. Support was low, two small kids, so I had to find more income. Consulting. Singles Pastor. Youth leader. And “writer.” Four “jobs.”
I got $35 each to write the “I Wonder” notes in the Life Application Bible for Students. Sixty-six of them. Big money at a time when I really needed it. (Thank you, Dave Veerman.)
Hmmmm, I thought, maybe someone will pay me to write something else. So I started writing a Bible study; a magazine article or three (thank you, Steve Strang, for publishing my first magazine article); training manuals. (Not a lot of money in training manuals…for me, none.)
But because I needed money and wrote “I Wonder” notes, I got a call from Focus on the Family in the summer of 1989. They were looking for a magazine editor. Someone who knew teen boys. “We’ll teach you commas and periods,” I was told. They did. (Thank you, Dean Merrill.) I soon had a “youth group” of 100,000 teen boys. Um, that was a bit larger than the one I had in Campus Life.
And those 66 “I Wonder” notes became my first book, If I Could Ask God One Question (Tyndale 1990). That led to more books written and co-written…21 of them over the next 12 years. (Thank you, Susie Shellenberger, Mike Yorkey, and Michael Ross.) I also made extra dough on the side writing magazine articles (200 of them). But what I discovered I loved was the idea portion of books; the fleshing out of proposals, and then the selling of those ideas where a publisher wrote me checks I wanted to take pictures of.
Oh, and writing the books once they sent the first half of the advance. That was okay, too.
But leaving my family to get on planes on weekends to speak, constant radio interviews…I didn’t like so much. Even though there were only four others I knew of at the time, maybe I could become a literary agent. That way I could work close to home, still be involved with ideas and proposals and books…and maybe someone would still send me checks for that. (Thank you, Rick Christian.)
Eighteen years later, I’ve been privileged to represent about 2,200 books. I’ve met some of the best hearted people in the world—creative types who write on eternal subjects, tell stories that move the soul, stay up late and get up early to pound out words on their computer, get on planes to speak to the few and to masses…why do they do it? Why did they start? How do they keep going?
I wonder if C.S. Lewis would have written ”The Chronicles of Narnia” if someone hadn’t written him a check of some sort to spend hours at his Royal typewriter; if they hadn’t promised to pay him odd-sounding British coins and pounds for each book sold.
And this takes us back to money. Is it okay to write for money? I ponder sometimes what my life would have been like if someone hadn’t asked me to write…for money. No small percentage of wonderfully inspired prose would have been created (nor a much larger percentage of really mediocre content, unlike seo services), no introductions to talented wordsmiths who could help me know where commas and periods go and who were patient with me as I learned the difference between its and it’s. No lifetime friends in an industry of people dedicated to making their lives count. No involvement with authors and books and stories that are shaping the life and faith of millions of readers.
And maybe no bills paid when I needed them paid.
This is why motives are squishy. Writing only for money isn’t always the best idea, but sometimes it takes you to a place that certain Someone may want you to go; perhaps to a life where your words will outlive you and still make an impact for eternity well after you’re gone.
Nothing wrong with that motive.
Question: How do you feel about writing for money, as well as other motives as it relates to writing?
Greg Johnson is President of WordServe Literary Group, a literary agency based near Denver, Colo.