I took the plunge and submitted my work to two different publications. My goal in this pursuit isn't to become famous or land Brandon Sanderson money. That kickstarter campaign is mind blowing by the way. For the moment, I just want to write and I'll take care of the making a living via other pursuits.
Still, it was really eye opening for me to see the reality of writing full time as a freelancer trying to get short fiction published. Given the rates most sites pay for original fiction, about 8 cents per word on average, I can see where the starving artist trope comes from.
I come from twenty years in IT. In general, it pays well. It has its own quirks and warts (don't even talk to me about 24/7/365 on call rotations), but it usually comes with a steady paycheck depending on your location and the skill set you bring.
Doing the math for freelance writers shows some real challenges that need to be surmounted. Let's make some assumptions here. Your average publication wants fiction in the rage of 3000 to 5000 words and takes 90 days to review your work. Let's assume you submit a story at 5000 words and are good enough to get published. Congratulations, you just raked in $400.
Average cost of living in the US is about $3100/month according to Expatistan.com. This seems in the ballpark given the quick survey I did of other sites, but I'm more interested in the basic math here. This means you need to pull in $37,200 from your writing a year just to cover the most essential costs. That's 93 stories a year, or 8 stories a month, that you need to get published so you don't starve to death or go homeless. Realistically, not every story will be a winner, so you probably want to double that to 16 a month that are getting sent out for review hoping half get picked up. I have no idea if the 50% hit rate is reasonable. I would guess current freelance journalists would tell me that is way too high.
That means writing 4 high quality stories a week, about 20,000 words, that you then have to polish and edit. I'm doing this in my spare time and find 1500 to 2000 words a day is about the best rate I can hope for and that is just writing. Editing is much more challenging and takes twice as long for me.
So in this numbers game, you have a writer that is spending 6 days a week, 8 hours a day in this pursuit. Creating around 3200 words of great fiction and then also editing them each day. Doing this every day, no vacations, no sick days, to make just under $40,000/year - and this isn't covering health insurance. Just food, rent, internet and the occasional coffee or dinner out.
I completely understand why so many artists end up being part of the AND crowd. I'm a writer AND I wait tables. I'm a dancer AND I do office work. I know this isn't a news flash for anyone reading this. Still instructive for me to think through.
Of course I left out the part where your stories are in the hopper for 90 days while you wait for an answer. This means to get started, you either find another way to make money while you "bank" three months of stories priming the pump while you wait for your first check or you go hungry.
All in all, this seems quite the puzzle. Next week, I'll talk about why I'm not sure the above math works is even realistic given the size of the market.