This link is going around Facebook and a couple of people who took my creative writing class sent it to me: http://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-32379991
From what I’ve seen myself, I have no reason to doubt the BBC’s stats. I believe these are all UK specific, but the general idea probably translates over to the US as well.
Only 1 in 9 professional authors could earn a living solely from their writing in 2013.
Almost half the money made by professional authors is earned by just 5% of authors.
The top 5% of authors earned 42% of the income.
Now if you are expecting some Occupy Wall Street type screed about how that’s unfair, somebody has too much privilege, or JK Rowling should stop writing to give other writers a chance, or how you shouldn’t read white authors for a year, or you shouldn’t read male authors for a year, or asinine nonsense like that (and sadly I’m not making up any of those), you are on the wrong author’s blog.
Screw that. You guys probably thought I was joking when I wrote my Alphabetical List of Author Success because my critics kept calling me D List https://monsterhunternation.com/2014/07/24/the-official-alphabetical-list-of-author-success/ but it turned out to be all sorts of scientific. Thanks, BBC. (And by the way thanks for Luther too, which is the 2nd best cop show ever, but not for firing Clarkson and ruining Top Gear, though. I can never forgive you for that)
Today I want to talk about how struggling writers can make more money. My creative writing class wasn’t so much creative writing, but how to get good enough at creative writing that you could make a living at it. So we’re not going to whine about how Stephen King makes more money than you. That’s for losers. We’re going to talk about how to make money at writing.
My personal philosophy is that all writers need to put GET PAID in their mission statement. All that artistic creative stuff is nice too, but make sure GET PAID is in there (in all caps).
When you get a chance I recommend reading this post I wrote last year in response to some dipstick who didn’t understand how book sales work claiming my career was in free fall. https://monsterhunternation.com/2014/09/17/file-770-is-mad-at-me-again-so-i-explain-how-authors-get-paid/ You can skip the first half with the internet bickering, but after that using my own books and royalty statements, I explain how best seller lists work, advances, royalties, back lists, and extra sources of income like subrights, dramatic, audio, foreign, etc. I wrote it to spite a dumbass, but the information is actually useful so we’ll consider that our part 1.
Before I quit my day job and became a full time author I was an accountant and a small business owner. I’m going to write this blog post wearing my accountant hat, so it is going to be cruel and it may hurt your tender artistic feelings, but tough. Do you want to make a living at this or not? If you want to be a dabbling hobbyist so you can brag to your friends you’re a writer, quit reading now, because I don’t want to listen to your whining in the comments. This is aimed at people who want writing to be their job.
First off newer and aspiring authors you need to realize a few things about the nuts and bolts of the writing business. It is a business. It doesn’t care about your feelings or your personal drama. You are just an entertainer. There are millions of other people who want to be entertainers. You aren’t a special snowflake, unique from the million other special snowflakes who also want to write books.
Novelist is one of those jobs that lots of people think sounds fun, but they have zero concept of how much work it takes for most of us to succeed. People have delusions that it is easy. You work for a few hours a day, and make millions of dollars. These are the same kind of delusions the masses have about being rock super stars, fashion models, actors, or NFL players. Just like the millions of failed rappers giving away their old demo tapes, you may be super talented, far more talented than the other snowflakes, but unless you get your product in front of an audience who will give you money for it, your talent will not be appreciated, and you don’t get paid.
Someone you think is far less talented than you may achieve a great deal of success. Irrelevant. Quit crying about it. Yes, we all know you think your book is better than Twilight, but she sleeps in a house made of gold bars and you don’t. She found her market and satisfied her fans. Quit crying about it and go find your fans. The market does not give a crap about what some snob somewhere thinks is good. The market will decide what it wants. Just because you wrote something does not entitle you to someone else’s money.
You need to understand basic econ. There is supply and demand. No amount of wishful thinking will ever change that. You are trying to compete in an industry where the supply side curve has shifted dramatically in recent years.
Indy publishing and eBooks have increased consumers’ options. The market is flooded. Where they used to choose between a handful of traditional publishers in any genre, they now choose from a handful of traditional publishers and hundreds of thousands of indy published works. So there is a whole lot of supply available. Aspiring authors who used to just get rejected and never publish, now self-publish on their own. (that’s how I got started). In a normal market this drives down costs, which is why we have millions of 99 cent eBooks, so if your book costs more, it needs to have something that makes that additional cost worth it prospective purchasers. Not sucking is the biggest.
On the demand side, this is what the BBC said: The creative industries are thriving, generating £76bn per annum, yet professional writers have seen a near 30% reduction in earnings in recent years
So overall consumers are spending a ton on entertainment, but less on books. The numbers I’ve seen from Publisher’s Weekly say the same thing, it varies from genre to genre, but overall most of them are getting smaller.
That is because we are entertainers. Writers produce one form of entertainment. Consumers can also be entertained by their Xbox or their TV. You aren’t just competing against John Grisham, you’re competing against Christ Pratt, Beyonce, and Call of Duty. The good news is that there is still a huge demand for entertainment. You just need to get a piece of that big enough to live off of.
Side note, this is one reason I really got torqued at that one whiner telling JK Rowling to hang it up so she could have her chance. Rowling got millions of young people reading, who grew up to be consumers who branched out into other authors and genres. You shouldn’t yell at her. You should thank her.
There is a paradox for an author in 2015. It is harder than ever to make money from writing. And yet there are more people writing and publishing books than ever before. The market is reasonably stable but it can’t begin to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of new books flooding it every year.
You don’t have to be a maths scholar to work out the financial ramifications. Nor the consumer response. Readers, with little spare time are overwhelmed by the choice and end up sticking to what the authors they already know and trust.
Hence the big brand authors trade even better in an overcrowded market.
Know and trust are huge. It is the same reason Coke and McDonalds and Dean Koontz sell more than some new competitor nobody has heard of. Of course the BBC looks at this information and then draws a totally wrong conclusion.
Which is why literary prizes are so important. They provide a platform for new writing and an endorsed product on which time- poor punters can take a risk.
Sorry. The mass market doesn’t give a crap about literary prizes. The chunk of that multi-billion dollar entertainment market that pays attention to literary prizes is tiny. Award winning doesn’t translate into much, if any, extra sales. To many of the people who just want to be entertained, award winning doesn’t mean good. It means boring and preachy. That’s a whole different fight that I’ve been having for the last three years and don’t feel like having again right now, but basically, winning awards doesn’t translate into getting paid more. If you look at the list of authors who have won prestigious awards and you compare it to the list of authors making lots of money, there is a little bit of overlap, but most of the authors getting paid aren’t on that award winning list.
While a typical full-time writer earned £11,000 a year in 2013, the top 5% each earned at least £100,100, the research showed.
To put that into American dollars, the average is $17k and the top 5% is $157k. I’ve seen different numbers kicked around before, with the average being $30k and the top being $100k. I’m guessing that is all about how they pick their numbers, where they are cutting off “authors” and what market they are looking at, but either way, you get the general idea. Most authors aren’t making much money. Very few of us are making a lot. (As much as I get trashed by the snooty crowd, I’m making double those top end numbers, and that’s got to annoy them to no end)
So what do monetarily successful authors have in common?
They treat it like their career. They are professionals. They work and they produce. They don’t dink around. They realize they are entertainers and this is their job, so they treat it like a job. They make books people want to read and get them out the door.
The report said: “Thus, it appears that writing is a profession where only a handful of successful authors make a very good living while most do not.”
This is absolutely true. I’m betting the ratios are different, but it is true in traditional publishing and it is true in indy publishing. Because there is zero barrier to entry, there are hundreds of thousands of self-published eBooks out there which only ever sell a handful of copies to the author’s friends and families, but then there are self-published authors like Chris Nuttal, Marko Kloos, and Andy Weir who blow up huge.
Why? Because they are good enough people want their stuff, and they got in front of the people who want it somehow. The hardest part of self-publishing is finding something to differentiate yourself from the vast herd of suck around you.
Say you got picked up by a big publishing house though. In traditional publishing most authors still don’t quit their day job until after their fourth or fifth book is out and they’ve got arrangements for more.
Some authors come along, write one book, and it is a super mega hit for some reason. That’s great for them. They are anomalies. You can’t count on being an anomaly.
Around one in six writers did not earn any money from their writing in 2013, it said – despite 98% saying their work had been published or used in other ways.
I am very suspicious of this one, and depending on how they calculated it will explain a lot of the skew. If you earned zero money from your job, you aren’t a professional, you are an amateur. You are a hobbyist. There is no shame in that, we all started there, but you aren’t a professional yet. That 98% who said their work was published or used in other ways… I’m sorry, blogging doesn’t make you a professional author. Working for free doesn’t make something your job.
And if people are using your stuff, why aren’t you getting paid? What’s wrong with you? Stop it. I’ve known way too many authors who’ve given away work for free getting paid in “exposure”. I’ve seen the same thing with musicians, photographers, and artists. If you are going to give away something for free, make sure there is a damned good reason for it, like a marketing plan that makes sense. I did free online fiction before I put out my first self-published work, because I used it to convince a group of consumers I could write well enough that they should give me money for my other stuff. That makes business sense. Working for free and not getting anything out of it is stupid.
That is one problem with being an author. Anybody can claim they are an author. There is no barrier to entry. Self-publish some crappy short fiction that nobody buys and you can claim to be an author (but they’ll hire you to work as a columnist at the Guardian). So a lot of times when you see some terrifying statistics like these, keep in mind that there are a lot of hobbyists who are skewing the stats.
Not that the stats still don’t suck. This job is still really hard.
And 11.5% of authors now earn a living solely from their writing – down from 40% a decade ago.
That 11.5% makes perfect sense, and is about in line with what I would have guessed. When I go to any convention or writing conference, there is going to be a wide success range of authors. Let’s say you’ve got a room full of authors listening to a panel, and you ask “how many of you have quit your day jobs to just be writers?” about 10%-20% of the room will raise their hands. In most cases that includes the panelists. The 40% I have no idea because ten years ago I was selling machineguns, but it makes sense. There were far fewer total authors then competing in a bigger market.
Now for some numbers about the reality of making a living in this business. Let’s say you get a book deal with a major publisher. Because you are an unknown nobody they give you a $10,000 advance (which I believe is actually above average now) and the book will come out in mass market paperback. The cover price is $8. The author gets 8% of the cover price on that mass market paperback. That is a whopping 64 cents the author clears per unit. To recover that advance and start getting paid royalties you’ll need to sell 15,625 books. Sadly, the last I heard the average midlist book (meaning a normal average paperback from a normal average author, that will probably be reordered when it sells out) only sells about 15k. Not per year. Total.
So that sucks. You need to do better than that If you want to get paid.
eBooks are nice because you are keeping a higher percentage, like 25%. However eBooks also vary wildly in price, and the big publishers are going to be selling theirs for $5, $8, or some of them even price them something ridiculous like it is a hardback. This is where some of the self-published guys are rocking it They’re selling for a dollar or $2.99, but they’re keeping 75%, so they don’t need to move as many copies to get the same amount of money. Their problem is that most of them are selling tiny numbers of copies because they are competing in a saturated market and have nothing to differentiate them from their competitors.
Because most traditional publishers are having to tighten their belts, that hypothetical book deal above can’t count on a traditional publisher spending much marketing money or effort on it either. I’ve seen way too many new authors, and even older established authors who are no longer The Hotness get passed over and ignored by their publishing houses. Odds are most of your marketing efforts are going to come from you.
There are plenty of authors who produce a few books, maybe earn out their advance, maybe not. Then they give up and stick with their reliable day job. People who want to make a living at writing keep writing. They continue to produce books. Self-published or traditional, this applies to both. They keep writing.
Then, for whatever reason, whether it happens on book #1 or book #100 one of those books sticks. The market likes it. There is no silver bullet. There is no certain way to pull this off. But one of those books clicks. It sells well. People tell their friends. Maybe somebody really well known raves about it. Maybe it is Oprah’s Book Club, hell if I know, but something clicks. Congratulations. You now have a fan base.
All of a sudden all those other books you wrote that didn’t do well, or only did okay? That’s sellable backlist. People will now go and purchase that stuff too. You are now getting paid for work that you did years ago. This is when it starts to get good. The more fans you get, the better your career does. That is your audience. Your job is to make them happy. You work for them. They do not work for you. Never forget that.
When I say a book sticks, I’m not even talking bestseller lists. I’m talking just good enough that a few thousand people love it enough that they will reliably give you money for your stuff. So you keep giving them stuff. They keep telling their friends. You’re still selling books to everybody else, but if you’ve got those reliable fans, things are looking up. The more of those you get, the better off you are.
So that last release you sold 15k copies? Let’s say you now have 5,000 fans who really like your work because of it, so now the next book comes out, and in that first, super vital release week, those 5k loyal fans buy it. That’s good velocity. That means the book stores reorder it. That means it shows up higher in the Amazon search ratings. Maybe some B&N employees pick your book as their Club 100 book they’re going to hand sell to customers. All of those things give your book momentum. And this one sells 30k copies.
Still not huge. Still not enough to quit your day job. But interestingly enough, that first book that only sold 15K? Some of your new readers have gone back and purchased it too. The advance is earned out, and now every six months you start getting a little bit of money for that old book.
As time goes on, you produce more books, you have more fans. As long as you keep producing, and you keep making them happy, it gets better and better. And your royalty statement keeps growing.
Here is the truly beautiful part. For each new work you produce, it has the potential to reach a whole new group of fans. A portion of each new group you find has the potential to go back and purchase your other works. It keeps building and building. To put this in perspective, my 13th novel (1st book of my 4th series) is coming out in October, but all my earlier novels are still being purchased by people who just found my work through something else. On my last royalty check for the 6 month period ending in December 2014, my first novel, which has been sitting out there since 2009, still earned enough to pay my mortgage for the entire year.
That same royalty statement had 9 other items where I was still getting paid for work I’d done years before, so it is pretty sweet. You can’t reach that unless you keep producing books. Years ago Kevin J. Anderson—who has never won any prestigious literary awards—gave me the single best piece of professional writing advice I’ve ever heard. BE PROLIFIC. I’ve tried my best to do so. I’m on 13, that’s why I live in a nice house and my neighbors are doctors. He’s on 125. That’s why he lives in a castle and his neighbors are all Denver Broncos. You see where I’m going with this?
The more you write, the more likely you are to create something that resonates with fans. I’ve had wannabes tell me that quality is never synonymous with quantity. On the contrary, the more you work, the more you write, the more likely you are to create something truly wonderful. Or in the context of this post, the more likely you are to produce something that pleases a whole bunch of fans.
What if you’ve done this, and you’ve written a ton of books but none of them are gaining traction? Then you need to take a real hard look at your business. What are you doing wrong? The biggest problems I’ve seen are that the writer simply isn’t that good, but sometimes they are, and they just aren’t finding the right audience. In that case, why? Are you writing in the wrong genre? Do your covers suck? Does your marketing plan suck? It could be a million things, but just like any other failing business, you need to be honest in your assessment.
It doesn’t matter how you accomplish all this, all that matters is that you are getting enough reliable income to live off of it. On that note, if you’re a struggling writer, and you could live anywhere with an internet connection, why are you living someplace with a super high cost of living? Don’t be stupid. You can’t afford “atmosphere” yet.
Once you quit your day job, now you can write more, which speeds up the whole process. When to quit your day job is all about opportunity cost. When you are at the point where the hours spent working your day job are not as lucrative as the hours spent writing, that’s when you should think seriously about quitting.
I loved my last day job. I was senior management at a company that did good work, with good people, and I got paid a lot of money. I hung onto my day job longer than I needed to because I had found an accountant’s dream job. But one day I got a royalty check large enough that I realized I was actually losing money by having a normal job. At that point, I warned my boss, and I started training my replacement (who a few years later is now a published author himself, so the circle of life continues).
Everyone’s circumstances are different. If you are a grown up and you have dependents, you need to be smart about building a writing career. Don’t be stupid. Some careers will develop faster than others. You may end up with an unexpected hit or a movie deal, but even then, be smart. Your next book may be a total flop. There are plenty of authors who are a flash in the pan, have a hit, and are then never heard from again. Normally that’s because they got lucky before they’d really learned how to be reliably good.
I know a lot of “professional” authors who don’t sell jack, don’t make any money, and have zero fan base. They don’t make a living off of writing, but rather they are usually trust fund babies, still mooching off their rich parents, or their spouse supports their hobby. They are dilettantes. Unfortunately these people also tend to be the loudest about any given writing topic, and just full of helpful rules to impose on new authors. Ignore them.
The best writing advice ever is from the song Rock Superstar by Cyprus Hill. I kid you not. Listen to it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W4VpE-0zitU Learn it. Live it. Save your money, man.