Can You Really Make a Living Writing Fiction?
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Recently, I’ve been doing a lot of research on how one can make a living with their writing.
It’s my aim in 2019 to publish my first non-fiction book, Build Your Best Writing Life, which is the first step in transforming my creative business model from a focus on digital information products to one that’s built on publishing. Needless to say, I’ve been learning a lot as I’ve researched, and though I’m currently focused on non-fiction publishing, most of what I’ve learned applies to fiction writers as well.
If, like me, you’ve often wondered if you can truly make a living with your writing, then buckle in, my friend. Today, I’m breaking down a few common myths about what a writing career looks like, sharing whether (and how!) it’s possible to make a living publishing fiction, and doling out the questions you should ask to determine if pursuing a career in writing is right for you. Shall we dive in?
So, you want to make a living with your writing…
Most of us live in cultures that encourage us to turn our passions into careers, so it’s no wonder that many hobby writers are interested in making a living with their work. But desire alone shouldn’t determine whether you pursue a career in writing. There are many factors at play here, and if you don’t take time to consider them all, you may be setting yourself up for heartbreak.
I’m going to let you in on a secret: most writers who ask whether they can truly make a living with their writing are asking the wrong question. Building a writing career is absolutely possible, but chances are that you harbor some common misconceptions about what life as a full-time author looks like. The far better question to ask is whether pursuing a career in writing is truly right for you.
When considering this question, you must set aside what you think you know about making a living as a published author. Though writing may be your passion, a career in writing is still a career. Publishing for profit comes with its fair share of trials and tribulations, and if you aren’t willing to take those on, then it’s far better that you preserve writing as a hobby. Here are a few hard truths to bear in mind about making a living as a writer:
#1: Building a writing career is a marathon endeavor.
There is no such thing as overnight success in publishing. Even on the rare occasion that a debut author rockets to stardom, that debut required years of hard work to write, revise, query, and produce. For the vast majority of full-time authors, careers are built book by book over the span of years, sometimes decades.
#2: full-time authors don’t spend all day writing.
Successful writing careers demand readerships, and readerships don’t blossom without cultivation. A large part of your work as an author will consist of connecting with readers and marketing your work.
This may include going on book tour, attending conferences, appearing on podcasts, running a blog or online community, maintaining your email list (note: this is an essential step), hosting giveaways, creating Amazon or Facebook ads, running your social media accounts, and more.
#3: Building a career on book sales alone is uncommon.
Many full-time authors supplement their publishing royalties with related income streams, especially in the early years of their careers. Additional income can come from teaching, book coaching, editing, speaking, freelance writing and other contracted work, community-driven patronage (often via Patreon), and beyond.
To look at extremes, novelists who produce high volume genre fiction are often able to support themselves from book sales alone once established, whereas even the most renowned literary writer typically relies upon grants and fellowships, teaching positions, or patronage to make their livings.
If these hard truths don’t sit well, pursuing a career as a fiction author may not be the right choice for you. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to take them on, great — but don’t dive in just yet. Before you slap your book up on Amazon or start pitching to every literary agent you can find, you’ll want to consider a few additional factors and make a game plan for personal publishing success.
Eight Questions to Ask Before Pursuing a Writing Career…
#1: Am I willing to act as an entrepreneur?
To be a full-time author is to run your own business. Your books are your products, your readership is your customer base, and everything from your pen name and cover designs to the fonts you use on your author website and the public posts you share on social media is a part of your branding and marketing.
This holds true for trade & indie authors alike, though authors who are traditionally published will have less creative control over some of these elements.
Building a business also demands risk. Are you willing to pursue traditional publishing knowing that there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get a book deal? Are you willing to assume production costs to publish a professional indie novel? Are you willing to put time, energy, and/or money into marketing efforts that may not see a return?
#2: Do I truly want to write at a professional level?
Though there will always be an exception to the rule, to make a living as an author demands that you write at a professional level. This entails not only seeking to improve the quality of your writing on a consistent basis but that you collaborate with a variety of editors to ensure that you’re always producing top-notch work.
Writing can still be something that brings you joy and fulfillment as a full-time author, but writing for profit frequently piles on a bit of pressure that you wouldn’t otherwise experience in your writing life. Are you willing to take that on?
#3: Am I willing to write for market?
The concept of writing for market often gets a bad rap, but here’s the thing: to make book sales, you have to write books that people want to read. Writing for market doesn’t mean selling out and writing stories you hate simply because comparable titles are currently dominating the charts.
It simply means doing your due diligence: completing market research within your niche, then making necessary adjustments to your work to ensure you’re writing books that captivate readers.
This step is equally important for trade and indie authors. Writing for market is a great way for trade authors to increase their odds of landing an agent and a book deal, whereas indie authors can use this strategy to grow and maintain an invested readership.
#4: Am I willing to put in the energy to pursue this career?
The vast majority of full-time authors are not J.K. Rowlings, Stephen Kings, or George R. R. Martins. While it’s fun to imagine your wildest writing dreams, don’t pursue them without recognizing that writing careers demand a vast amount of time and energy, take years to build, and consist of work that goes far beyond spinning stories.
Don’t set yourself up for disappointment. Read authors’ experiences, learn the dark sides of the industry, and break down your idealizations with a true understanding of what it will take to build the career you desire. It’s okay if you’d rather maintain writing as a hobby or a side hustle. You aren’t any less of a writer for doing so.
#5: What does “make a living" mean to me?
Though it’d be nice to get filthy rich from book sales, the authors who do are the exceptions to the rule. To build a successful career, be realistic. How much income do you need to pay the bills? To lead a comfortable lifestyle?
What qualifies as a living in your book may not for another writer. Get clear about how much money it would take for you to confidently call yourself a career novelist, then add an additional 10% -20% for good measure. Knowing this number will help you avoid rash decisions and set achievable goals for career success.
#6: How are writers in my niche making a living?
To better understand whether pursuing a writing career is right for you, take a look at how authors in your niche are making their livings. How often do they publish? How do they market their work? Do they have any income streams beyond book sales? At what point were they able to quit their day jobs?
#7: Which publishing path is best for my niche & interests?
Traditional and independent publishing are both great options for writers, with neither being in any way superior to the other. They are, however, vastly different options. Consider the pros and cons of each, and research how authors in your niche have chosen to publish their work.
Which path will you pursue? Don’t make this decision lightly. There’s far more to traditional publishing than validation from industry pros and far more to indie publishing than creative freedom. Take a good hard look at the trade-offs and make sure to choose the option that’s truly best for you and your work.
#8: Which fiction business model best fits my niche & interests?
Considering what you’ve learned about how writers in your niche make their livings, examine their business models and ask whether you feel energized by the prospect of pursuing a similar route. Take each of these four elements of an author business model into account:
Products — i.e. books & any related physical or digital products you will sell…
Income Streams — e.g. print sales, ebook sales, audiobook sales, foreign language rights, teaching and services, freelance writing, patronage, etc.
Customer Base — i.e. your readership, especially your ideal reader…
Financing — i.e. how you will pay for production and marketing expenses, travel, etc. (Note that signing with a publishing house doesn’t ensure your marketing and travel expenses will be paid.)
Begin building a business model of your own, one that aligns with your niche and interests. The more specific you can be in defining each element, the better. With a rough plan compiled, ask whether it’s a business model you feel confident pursuing.
Are you ready to pursue your writing career?
If, after asking yourself these questions, you feel confident that pursuing a writing career is right for you, allow me to congratulate you on making a wise and well-considered decision. In doing so, you’ve established a strong foundation for long-term writing success. But before you take the first steps in your career, here are a few additional tips and truths to bear in mind:
#1: Like any marathon, building a writing career is as much a mental game as it is a physical one.
— What doubts commonly keep you company? Don’t fight them. Acknowledge the uncertainty they represent, then take the necessary action to resolve that uncertainty.
#2: Your day job is an investment in your career.
— Don't quit until your creative income streams are well and truly established.
#3: Start building a consistent writing habit today.
— If you can't show up when writing is a side hustle, you're unlikely to show up when it's your job.
#4: Scout the terrain on the road ahead.
— Learn as much as you can about your chosen publishing path prior to pursuing it, and you’ll avoid many of the missteps that have felled other writers.
#5: Don't allow overwhelm to kill the dream.
— Making a living with your writing is no easy task. Build an action plan, take it step by step, and don’t forget to breathe along the way. You’re going to build an incredible career, writer. All it takes is a little time, patience, and persistence.