Making a Living as a Writer


We all know that most writers don’t make much money, right?

The few writers that you see giving commencement speeches and swanning around their houses in evening gowns are the rarity. Most writers can't make a living writing. This surprises some people. In fact, since I starteddoing the research for this piece and have been able to throw aroundspecific figures regarding likely incomes, I have flummoxed more than a few people, who seem to think that writers get paid millions to lounge about in their pajamas and slippers, or at least can afford groceries like most normal folks.

It's estimated that fewer than 1000 fiction writers in North America make a living from their writing.

At least that was the case a few years ago when I first wrote this post. Things are changing a bit due to the rise of self-publishing, which I will discuss further below, but think about this. If we exclude Canada, this is 1 in 314,000 people. Slightly better chances than winning the lottery (1 in 18,000,000) or being struck by lightning (1 in 3,140,000), but decidedly less better than earning an income through other means, like say being a brain surgeon, accountant, restaurant worker, or military test pilot. Dan at Tropical MBA is even less optimistic and observes:

trying to be a writer is about the most risky thing you can tryto be. There are like 400 people who make a living writing books in the US. The rest are poor, desolate, and estranged from their families.”

In the traditionally-published world, the vast majority of the income goes to a handful of best selling authors (who are rich), while the vast majority of writers earn almost nothing. Once I started looking, I realized that there are many published, award-winning writers who make less than $10,000 a year offtheir writing alone and manage to cobble together a living by teaching at universities, doing speaking engagements, and running workshops. Even relatively successful mid-list writers whomanage to graze the bottom of the New York Times Best Seller List can still make only $30,000 to $60,000 a year. Livable perhaps, but not likely to allow for the purchase of many evening gowns (I don't really need a gown, but a new pair of skis would be great).

Hugh Howey backs up this observation:

“I have met quite a few New York Times bestselling authors who rely on their day jobs. While working at a bookstore in Boone, I worked dozens of author events and never met a full-time author. We hostedaward winning authors who dreamed of the day they could quit their day jobs. The only full-time writer I met worked as a journalist to afford the ability to write his fiction; most taught creative writing at various universities.”

The math isn't hard to do. Most traditionally paid authors get paid 10% of the cover price. In Canada, first print runs by small publishers are often 1500books. At a sale price of $20, you have made yourself a whopping $3000, if they all sell, and you don’t have an agent who takes 15%. In the US, mass paperbacks by new authors can sometimes sell up to 10,000 copies. But mass paperbacks sell for less than $10, so you're looking atpotential earnings of $5000 minus your agent’s cut. For most writers, writing and editing a single book in a year is a feat, (and in the traditionally-published world where publishing is as slow as molasses, getting more than one book published a year is also a feat -- a friend of mine just signed a contract to have her book released in the fall of 2017, two years from now). If you wrote a book every two years, you'd be prolific by most traditionally-published standards (although some authors, such as Nora Roberts are notable exceptions here), and if you depended on your writing for an income, you'd be very poor.

Just to be clear, advances are just deducted from your royalties so they aren't a means of making more money – they are just royalties paid up front based on how your publisher thinks your book is going to sell. The majority of books do not earn out – that is they don't make more money from sales than was already paid to the author in the form of an advance. Advances don’t have to be paid back if your book doesn't sell as well as the publisher originally thought, but they aren't extra money. Most advances reflect the standard earnings of most books and are in the range of $2,500 to $10,000. If your book sells more than expected, great, you can earn more through royalties, provided your publisher is actually able to print more copies.

Books can also bring in income through foreign rights and film options. These are generally low and only occur on books that sell well.   Still, they can help and for some lucky souls are the key to making a living off of writing, even if the book is never actually made into afilm.

Another factor to point out is income from writing is backloaded. That is, you write the book, edit the book, wait for the book to bepublished (which can take up to two years after it has been accepted) do publicity for the book and often start a second book without seeing much more payment than the first half of your advance. So, unless you have another source of income or a supportive spouse, that’s two to three years of living off of Kraft Dinner and cat food in a tent with no evening gowns in sight. According to Erik Deckers, the income is even worse for non-fiction.

Ways to Improve your Chances of Making a Living

There are some things to be done to improve your odds though of at least being able to make ends meet by writing.

  1. Don’t give up your day job. This is the most obvious adviceand it is the advice that the majority of writers follow. It would behelpful of course if you found a day job that was not so demanding that it occupied all of your time. For example, a day job of being a part-time anesthesiologist would be a good choice – lots of income,  limited hours. Unfortunately for me, becoming an anesthesiologist at this point in my life would be a challenge :-).
  2. Earn money through a combination of writing related activities. Many writers earn a living teaching writing courses, offering editingservices, making appearances, doing copyrwriting, ghostwriting, writing non-fiction journal articles (at about $100 to $500 per article), writing in a different genre. Rachelle Gardner refers to this as variety, and writer Chris Eboch outlines all the writing related activities she does to make a livingas a writer and the percentage of her income she earns from each. Through these activities, she makes 100% of the average personal income for New Mexico (which I have to say is not excessively high).
  3. Be patient. Some writers can make a living off of writing after they have many books published. Sometimes they are still earningroyalties off of their early books when their later books come outadding to their income stream, and other times they have just built anaudience who wants more of their books, which translates into higher sales for their later books and therefore more income. Rachelle Gardner observes that making a living off of writing is about taking the long view. A recent interview on the Science Fiction and Fantasy Marketing Podcast, that indie writers making a living from writing alone have an average of 20 books published.
  4. Consider self-publishing. While statistics are mostly self-reported by indie authors (and therefore not completely reliable), Christina Miller has compiled a list of over 230 self-published indie writers who havereported that they are making a living off of their writing. Hugh Howey points out that this is likely less than the total number because many of them would not even know to report in -- of course most of us indie authors know he has tried to rectify that with his Author Earnings reports which are totally worth a read. That said, in the case of Christina Miller's data, we also don’t know whether they consider a ‘living’ or if they are just getting their name on the list so you check out their books. Since Author Earnings is based on actual Amazon rankings data, it is a more reliable source. But it is encouraging. If you self-publish, you get to keep more of the proceeds from the sale of your book and you have more control over your publishing schedule. This means you have to sell far fewer copies to make a reasonable living. That said, you also have to front most of the upfront costs such as cover design and editing and most indie books do not sell well at all. Still, the fact that there are a sizable number of writersdoing well – at least relative to the number of traditionally published writers who do well – is encouraging. I did note though in flipping through the books of those who are making a living that thepreponderance of them are paranormal, horror, adult erotic fiction (inthe vein of 50 Shades), and romance and that the majority of these writers are quite prolific and have many books for sale. So if you writeone dense literary fiction book every seven years, this might not be the route to making money for you.
  5. Be prolific. The more you write, the more products youpotentially have for sale, the fewer units of each you have to sell to make a living. This is related to number three about being patient (and getting 20 books out there). For some people, building up a portfolio of books will take many years (and hence you need to be patient), but for others, they are prolific enough that writing five to six books a year seems to be no problem. Rachelle Gardner has an excellent blog post about the importance of volume.
  6. Marry rich. There is no shame in having a supportive spouse who allows you to enrich the arts and get your message out to the world. We need more patrons of the arts and there’s no reason that you shouldn't start with your spouse.

That’s all I got. Other ideas on how to make a living as a writer are always welcome!

See the following for some other perspectives in addition to the pages linked above:

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