Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Making a Living as a Writer

I haven't kept up this blog, because I've been so busy writing, but I've been learning so much about self-publishing that I want to start sharing what I know.

But first, I want to comment on a cliche I hear bandied about the writing community time and again:

"Everyone knows writers can't make a living writing."

Ahhhh!!!! Stick my fingers in my ears, bite my tongue!

I've been hearing this statement for years. I heard it before I was published, I heard after I was published, I heard it before I was successful, I heard it after I was successful, I heard it when I was broke, and I heard it when I was making a good living from my writing, I heard in in 2011 (when it was so "easy" to self-publish (apparently), I heard it in 2014 (when it was so "easy" to self-publish ... no, that's not an echo), and I'm hearing it now in 2018.

It is the great myth of being a writer that most writers are starving. An equally believed myth is that you write one book, are offered a 7-figure deal, and you go on TV interviews and sign movie deals, and you are set for life and never have to work another day, ever.

Both of these can and do happen. But, and I promise I'm not making this up ...


And just because others say it can't be done, that doesn't mean it applies to you.


Read on . . .

I know plenty of people who make a living as writers. Many of them started publishing at the same time I did. Now people look at them with envy, and say they "got lucky," or they "got a break" and whatever.

The truth is that these writers are able to make a living because they WORKED HARD, AND MORE IMPORTANTLY, THEY WORKED SMART.

But how do you do that?

The first year I was traditionally published, I made a grand total of . . . wait for it


That's a 2 with three zeroes. Two thousand dollars. I had to give 15% to my agent. The rest I blew on promotion.

My first month of self-publishing (nine years later) I made:


Notice the lack of zeroes in that number.

Did I weep? Did I say--"Oh, it's too hard. I'll never make a living. I'll never quit my day job. Oh. Oh. Oh."

No. What I actually said (both times) was . . . "COOL! I MADE MONEY OFF MY WRITING!!!"

For the first time in my life, someone had paid me to write. How awesome was that?

The next thing I did was say, "OK, I made that much. How do I make more?"

I made more by looking around to see how other authors were making a living. When I went to conferences, I didn't sit with authors who were mourning about their low royalty checks or saying they had to go back to work, and this career is an empty promise. I sought out the authors who weren't in the doldrums; writers who were excited and happy, and ready to move forward. I said to myself, I want to be like them.

So my first tip in making a living writing is:

1. Surround yourself with positive people.

If enough people tell you you'll never make a living writing, you'll believe it. If you believe it long enough, it will happen.

My second tip has to do with understanding the publishing world, beyond just "what sells?"

2. If you want to make a living writing, don't agree to write for a press where you will likely make very little, if any, money.

This should be a no-brainer. And yet, I see authors excited that an unproven start-up e-press offered them a contract--these writers will be lucky if they make $25 in a year. But now they can say the magic words contract and published. But--you've just signed all your rights away to your beloved book for the grand total of $25.

If having a contract and being published is very, very important to you, regardless of how much you will make, then you go for it. There's nothing that says you have to write for money and no other reason. But realize that and make it a conscious choice.

3. Make sure you know exactly what you can expect from a publisher--money-wise, professionalism-wise, prestige-wise.

For example, if that publisher offers you something that you feel is more important to you than large advances and lots of sales--say they're known for their authors who win big awards--then by all means, write for them.

4. Make the choice about what is important to you, and gear all your actions to that choice.

After I sold my first book, I realized that the key to success was discovering not "what sells" but WHERE books sell. And I did my best to go there.

I realized quickly that most books aren't sold in bookstores. Counterintuitive, right? But the truth is, books are sold at the big box stores, and now online. Ebooks were already growing. Booksellers were cutting back and closing (sadly; I love bookstores).

I saw that a way to make a living was to build up my backlist with publishers who were hitting the most readers. That meant the publisher who first bought me (Dorchester), who were terrific at getting books into places like Wal-Mart; and also Ellora's Cave, whose books were in great demand in the ebook market. Both of those publishers are gone now, but more on that later. (At the time they were the best places for me to be published.)

I sat my butt down and wrote!

This doesn't mean I cranked books out like a meat grinder--I put a lot of thought about what I wanted to write before I started, and I dedicated myself to writing the best books I could.

5. Hone your ideas, and have MANY of them.

When you pitch to an editor or an agent, you are not pitching a book, you're pitching an idea, plus the assurance that you have the skills to write that book.

Come up with as many ideas as you can. I have a ton of them: Some are great; some just ok; some need much more thought before I tell anyone about them. Mull them over, research the market, pick the best ones. If editors/agents don't like one, try another.

Believe me, I've pitched plenty of ideas to my agent and editor--over the phone, at dinner, talking in a hotel lobby--that they've negated. Some of those ideas I rethought and re-introduced at a later date, and sold them.

(I used to have to wait weeks for rejections. Now that I'm published, I get rejected at the speed of light!)

6. If you write something you're not emotionally invested it, chances are it will be a weak book, and not help your career.

I never have waited for my agent or editor to tell me what I should write next. It's a mutual conversation. There are things I don't want to write, and when they're suggested to me, I say No. It goes both ways.

7. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. 

Now, at one point in my career, I saw the pathways I was following leading to disaster. My publisher started to crumble and fall.

Yikes! There goes my living!

It wasn't the total disaster for me that it was for others, because I was still writing for Berkley and Ellora's Cave. (See? No eggs in one basket! I still had eggs.)

But then EC was gone. And the $ I made from Berkley wasn't much. Advances were low, and my income dwindled to nothing. ("Sorry dear, we have enough money to pay bills this month, but after that, no more.") Did I mention my DH was out of a job at the same time?

So, I started exploring the possibilities of self-publishing.

None of this was easy. It was hard to juggle, hard to produce, hard to keep from sliding into depression and despair.

8. Always keep looking for new ways to reach readers.

Once my backlist at Dorchester was gone from the shelves, I looked around the publishing universe to see where the readers had gone. I notices that many readers had migrated to Nook and Kindle (etc) and authors were now talking about quitting their day jobs because of self-publishing.

"Hmm," I said. "Let me check that out."

I revised a backlist book, learned how to format it, and released it. I did this on a shoestring budget--my biggest expense was the cover, because I had to hire someone to do it for me (no way did I have time or skills to learn graphic design on the fly). I paid about $100 for the cover.

As I said, I made $35 in month one.

Again, did I moan--"Woe, woe! No one can really make money at this!!!"

No, I said, "Cool! People actually bought it! And not just my mom!"

So I put up book 2 of the backlist the next month. And then more books. I found a short story I'd written for the series that was never published. I made it a novella. Then I wrote a new book in the series.

See what I did there? I took the resources I had (backlist),  took new resources (self-publishing), and shoved them together.

By the end of the first year self-pubbing, I had seven or eight books out. I wrote a shorter book to go with a series that was struggling at Berkley, to remind readers it was out there. I did not make a fortune! But we could again pay the bills.

BTW, that backlist series and that little book, all published in 2011, turned into two of my most lucrative series to date. I never would have believed that when I started.

Which just goes to show ....

9. Don't give up.

"But," you say, "that's great for you. You already had a name when you self published. And we can't control whether a publisher offers us one contract, or two, or any at all."

But . . .

When I self-pubbed, I did it under one of my least-known pseudonyms. No one knew me. The backlist of my most popular name had been wiped out, and I heard readers saying they didn't think I was writing anymore (ack!), and some thought I'd died (double ack!) My discoverability had gone way, way down.

I made money self-pubbing because I worked very hard and worked as smart as I could. Remember my first month? $35.

I know authors out there who would have been discouraged by that number and given up. I was the opposite.

If one book can make $35, I said, then two books can make $70. Four books, $140. And so on.

Now I have 70 self-pubbed books.

Now I make a living. Why? Becuase of math.

If each of those 70 books sells one copy a day (on average! that means some will sell ten copies, some will sell zero), then at the end of the month, I have sold about 2100 books. If I charge an average of $2.99 per book (average! as in some will be 99 cents, some 4.99 and up), with 60-70% royalty, I have made about $4200. And that's a month with no new books and everything selling one book a day (on average).

By the way: This is without spending money on marketing. This is just having books sit there.

I'll say it again: The key to making a living writing is building backlist. Backlist snowballs.

To answer the question of selling to publishers. It's hard! I know it is. It was hard for me to sell the first time, and it's still hard! 

I don't sell everything I come up with. I get plenty of rejections. I've just learned not to take them personally. I keep trying until my publisher says, "Yes, that sounds like something that interests me. Work up a proposal." (Which, by the way, they might still reject.)

That brings me to

10. Always keep trying. Keep trying to find new ideas, new stories, and new places and new ways to sell those stories.

That one's self explanatory.

Good luck!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing the realities of writing for profit. Very interesting and informative. Very generous.