Find a Niche...and Scratch it
By Mary Taylor Young
Find a Niche...and Scratch it
Mary Taylor Young
It's a balance, this writing life, a balance between: 1) following the Muse (that chick in the Greek robes who wafts through our lives, trailing clouds of inspiration and creativity), 2) making enough to pay the rent, and 3) having fun at it.
The Greek chick is what keeps us doing this-writing, delighting in crafting the words, striving to reach an audience and make it feel what we feel or see what we see.
Earning the rent is what allows us to keep doing this. Without it, our writing time would be limited to spaces between doing other things to earn the rent, plus tending to kids, family and life. We all know those spaces are perpetually squeezed.
Having fun is what makes writing as a profession a better gig than dental health professional, insurance claims adjuster, sheet metal worker or investment banker. If you do any of these things, and have fun at it, more power to you.
I've been fortunate to find a path that balanced the Muse, the rent and fun. I was able to find a niche...and scratch it. And keep scratching it for going on 22 years. My itchy niche has allowed me to earn a nice living as a writer while having a heckuva lotta fun.
I love animals, nature, wildlife, wilderness, Colorado, the outdoors, the West, ecology, elk calves, coyotes, prairie dogs, prairie, American white pelicans, scorpions, social insects, bumblebees, bullsnakes, animal locomotion, Aldo Leopold, alpine tundra, goldeneye courtship, canyon country, Canis lupus, columbines, longnose leopard lizards, biodiversity, bluebirds, bluegills, cutthroat, turkey vultures...and that's just the tip of the iceberg. I'm a fount of (useless?) information, a travelogue of natural history, a walking web page on wildlife. I get to backpack, hike and watch birds for work. I've chased lizards through Utah canyons, tracked moose in the Never Summers, discovered peregrine falcon aeries in Colorado National Monument-and written it off as a business expense. And I love it. I had to stop myself from making the preceding list of critters and topics take up this entire article. And I've been writing about all of this for more than two decades. And finding markets for all of it. And cultivating an audience who is also passionate about the subject. And finding new and young audiences eager to become passionate about the subject.
I've made a living at this by being creative on ways to make money at it. I've published nine books on nature and wildlife, have two manuscripts pending publication, and another five books in the works. I've published hundreds of magazine and newspaper articles and I wrote a birdwatching column for the Rocky Mountain News for 16 years, up until February 2009 when the Rocky, and my column, ended a great run.
But... pay attention, this is the important part...all those things have not earned me enough to pay the rent, at least not consistently, for 22 years. I've earned a large portion of my living by finding alternative markets for my writing that pay well for my expertise. I've written dozens, if not hundreds, of projects under contract for resource management agencies like the US Fish and Wildlife Service, the US Forest Service and the Colorado Division of Wildlife. I write brochures, magazine articles, nature exhibits. Web content, DVD scripts, interpretive signs. I design nature trails, nature centers, environmental education materials. If you've visited a nature center in Colorado, picked up a publication about wildlife in our state, it's a good bet you've read some of my work. I've received all this work because I found my niche and became very good at it. I don't write about pop culture, self-help, relationships, politics. I don't write about hunting or fishing. I don't cover pandas or mountain gorillas or Amazon River freshwater porpoises. My niche is the natural history of Colorado and the West, wildlife and wildlife watching, environmental education, environmental conservation and creative nature writing.
In my quest to build a career, I didn't stop at the usual outlets for writing, like books and magazine articles, because those outlets are limited and low-paying for most writers. While my books have sold well regionally, and for many years, they aren't selling millions of copies with endless tendrils of merchandising options, like Twilight or Harry Potter. But that's okay. I'm not passionate about vampire-teen love or wizards. I am passionate about the natural world and preserving it. And so I've written about it for 22 years and will happily write about it for another 22, God willing.
What do you love? What are you passionate about? What subject area or genre can sustain your interest for a career, and earn you a living? Maybe you're dotty about finance. Maybe you're dying to write children's picture books. Maybe you love celebrity gossip and can't get enough. Maybe you've been fascinated by Poe and horror stories since childhood. Maybe the intricacies of mental illness, the infinity of human stories it generates, the challenges of treating it are what keep you reading and learning and wanting more.
Whatever your niche might be, to make a career out of it, you have to think honestly and critically about how you can earn a living at it. It may be that a large and lucrative market exists for books and magazines in your subject area or genre, and you are able to write to that market. Most successful writers, though, earn a living by doing lots of adjunct things in addition to writing books or articles. We teach, lecture, work with school kids, write web content. We look for ways to expand upon our skills and expertise. We find different kinds of audiences. We write for markets outside the traditional. We create audiences and markets. We do everything we can to satisfy the Muse, earn a living and have fun.
We find a niche...and scratch it.
Mary Taylor Young is a best-selling and award-winning nature writer. Her books include the Guide to Colorado Birds, Land of Grass and Sky: A Naturalist's Prairie Journey and On the Trail of Colorado Critters: Wildlife Watching for Kids. She is a long-time CAL member and serves on the board of directors.