Making a Living Writing

Making a Living Writing

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig

I used to feel like the sole, income-focused writer in any group I was in.  I was  the one on any panel hesitantly bringing up ways that writers could make money with their writing.

I’ve noticed now that there are more writers like me out there and I’m more relaxed about being a commercial fiction writer.

I’ve been asked by parents, college students, and high school students about what degree is needed for becoming a writer.

But that’s one of the wonderful things about being a writer. You don’t have to have a degree in anything.  I was an English major, but that’s as far as I went with it.  When asked for my advice, I ask what type of writing they’re wanting to do and what their end-goal/their child’s end-goal is.  If the goal is “a career in writing,” then I’ll go as far as to suggest that they don’t go the MFA (Master in Fine Arts) route. They should instead read as much and as widely as they can and start writing.

One common complaint about MFA programs is that writers aren’t trained in the business of writing or on writing for a market (as explained by writer Yi Shun Lai in “We Need to Talk About Money: Practicality’s Place in a Writing Education“.)

Writers at the start of their careers should ask themselves: am I writing to please myself or am I writing to appeal to a broader market?My kids are older and if I didn’t make a living at this, I’d be getting a day-job.  Writing  is my full-time job.  I’m not making a ton, but I’m making more than if I taught school and more than I’d make at any other job; I’ve been out of the traditional workforce since my first child was born in 1997.

I do have 22 books on the market.  This obviously helps.

Tips for making a (modest)  living writing

It’s better, in the current environment, to self-pub instead of trad-pub (most of the time).  I experienced first-hand  cutbacks that publishers are employing to save costs.  When I started out, 3-book deals were the norm at Penguin.  That unfortunately changed.  The merger between Penguin and Random House meant a layoff for my editor. Now there are many stories about how difficult it is getting to break into the industry and the market. It’s obviously still possible to do so…but at what cost?  I made and make a good deal more from my self-published books than my traditionally published books.

Write for the market–modified. I got lucky in this sense because cozy mysteries became popular with the public around the time that I became interested in writing them.  I love cozy mysteries and I love the books that I write.  What’s selling well in a genre that you enjoy reading?  I can’t recommend that you write in a genre you’re not very familiar with or that you wouldn’t enjoy writing. There are standards/norms/tropes in genres that readers expect and are looking for.  They provide a blueprint for your book and for a better chance at success.  Writers should read as much as possible in their chosen genre and absorb as much as they can to learn about pacing, character development, action, dialogue,  and story arc.

Write series.  Series are currently more popular with readers.  I’m wondering if it’s because readers, once they’ve spent the time investing in the story world and characters, want to read more in that same story world.  Lucky for us–because series are easier and quicker to write for the same reasons: the story world is established, as well as the story’s recurring characters (descriptions, traits).  Most of the work is already done.

Write more than one book a year, if possible. Work smarter, not harder when it comes to the writing process.  If you’re not an outliner, see if you can at least come up with one sentence at the end of your writing day to give you a plan for the next morning.  What, basically, do you want to accomplish in the next session?  One sentence can give you much-needed focus the following day and help you write faster.

Again, work smarter, not harder when it comes to marketing.  Instead of knocking yourself out with marketing, focus instead on increasing visibility through tweaks of keywords and other metadata. Include links to your other books in your back matter.  Have a newsletter signup link in your email tagline, your website sidebar, and in the backs of your books (MailChimp is free for up to 2,000 subscribers). Whenever you have a new release, send out a newsletter to inform your readers.

Make sure your books are available to people in a variety of formats including online retailers,  audio, and print (CreateSpace and Ingram (for international audiences and bookstores).

Consider other ways to generate income from your writing.  Create a Patreon page for tips from readers (read this excellent article from author John G. Hartness).  Consider public speaking and publish a page on your website indicating that you do speak to groups (for a fee).  Author Joanna Penn outlines other ideas for multiple income streams in her post “Write Books You Love. Think Global. Consider Multiple Streams of Income.”

This approach isn’t for every writer and shouldn’t be for every writer.  Some writers write purely for the love of writing and write to please themselves and those closest to them. Some write only for the love of producing art.  Sometimes those writers still have an amazing career that supports them financially.

What other tips would you include here for writers interested in writing for a living?

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27 thoughts on “Making a Living Writing

  1. I wrote a series, but I’m lucky to produce a book every other year. (Or less.) But then, writers need to make sure that writing full time is what they really want. I don’t, which takes the pressure off of me to produce.

    1. Alex–Exactly. What is it that we’re wanting to get out of writing? If it’s a full-time income, we probably will need to push the time we spend writing and the speed in which we write to the point of being somewhat uncomfortable. Obviously, no need to write that fast if we’re pursuing becoming a bestseller. But for most genre fiction writers, income comes with a higher number of published books. It’s just, unfortunately, the way it is. But if we’re planning on keeping a day job or writing on the side, stick with a pace that’s more comfortable.

  2. This is so interesting, Elizabeth! Thanks for sharing your insights. I think one of things about writing is that it involves so many different skills that go beyond just putting words on a page in an interesting way. Those business aspects of writing really do matter. Those business ideas aren’t always taught in MFA and similar programs, as you say. Wonder what a course in them would be like…

    1. Margot–Good question! And a tricky one–you’d have some wanting to pursue a traditionally pubbed career (class in synopsis writing, querying, writing for a market), some more interested in a self-pub career (marketing, connecting with an audience via social media, how to protect oneself when putting together a team of editors, cover designers, formatters, etc.)

      1. Hi Nichole,
        I love your DIY MFA. I try to read something in the craft area or marketing quarterly, but I’m falling behind. Time is not my friend. :) But I do have the last two years of RWA conference MP3’s and I listen to them as I work the day job. It keeps writing on my mind almost 24/7

    1. Diane–They really don’t. I’m starting to feel some pressure from my audience. I still write 2 series, which means that I alternate between the two. I hear from readers of both series, wondering when the next book is coming out (and why it’s not out yet). Faster is definitely better, even though some days I definitely feel a touch of burnout.

  3. Thank for all the wonderful tips! There are things up there I never thought about. I absolutely love the idea of jotting down your writing goal for the next day.

    I write and read in fantasy and “we” do love our series. We fall in love with the world, setting, and characters and just want more. :-p

    1. HR–Thanks! It’s an easy way to remain focused (especially during those early-morning writing sessions!)

      I think fantasy readers *really* get it! That’s got to be the genre with the most fan-fiction…where readers really want to immerse themselves in the story world. That’s got to be so incredible as a reader and writer!

  4. With the topic of series, I am starting to wonder if it’s not better simply to wait until all books are finished before releasing them on the market. That way, even though there is likely a greater time invested without any return, the reader doesn’t have to wait and can enjoy them all at once.

    1. Bruce–There are probably pros and cons to doing that. Financially, it’s likely a toss-up…have readers buy the books quickly and at once (although the visibility on Amazon’s algorithms would be a bonus) or have readers purchase them as you write them and have a bit of extra income as you go. I’d think the bill for editing and covering them all at once might be steep, so I’d probably get covers and editing as I finished them, even if they’re not immediately released. Easier on the pocketbook.

      I’ve noticed a LOT of serial readers out there…sort of a binge-reading phenomenon. Because I’ve got 10 books out in one series, readers who discover the books tend to read them quickly. An interesting side-note on that: they discover series continuity errors that way! I’ve had to make several corrections when alerted by these eagle-eyed binge readers.

  5. Hi Elizabeth – great tips and ideas here: thank you. Perhaps writing for the local newspapers or similar, and giving talks … opening up your market place .. not overdoing it – but being available … as I see you mention in your last suggestion …

    Thanks for these – so helpful .. cheers Hilary

    1. Hilary–Freelance writing for newspapers and magazines are always good! I did some freelance stuff for a local parenting magazine for a while (the type of magazine that is given away in restaurants, etc.) Lots of good options for supplementing income. Hope you have a happy weekend!

  6. Thanks for writing this. I have author clients that almost feel guilty when they admit they are writing to make money. Somehow it doesn’t feel right for a creative to say that, I guess. Well done. It will give them confidence. I am sharing this in my weekly newsletter.

    1. Thanks so much, Chris! And yes, I think that’s a prevalent worry for writers: will my interest in making money mean I’m appearing/am dishonest to my art? The starving artist was never a good role model for writers, though!

  7. As always, an excellent and useful article full of good advice! My only concern: self-publishing. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not really the panacea some make it out to be. For an aspiring writer, getting traditionally published might be better as a first step in the world of publishing than self-publishing. It’s a personal matter really, much depends on how good you are at marketing yourself online (because that’s where most of the game takes place). If you’re not very good, then it can become quite difficult. With one million new titles in the Kindle Store every year, it’s hard to stand out if you’re not really very market-savvy!

    But once you’ve established yourself as a writer – even as a mid list author – then online self-publishing is certainly an excellent idea: gives you control over cash flows, and marketing, and the way the book looks and everything else, it’s just great! Your fans know you, they flock to you and buy your books, the back list and new titles alike.

    So the way I see it, for a newbie to break into the book market today requires everything you say so brilliantly in your article, plus a two-step approach: First, get traditionally published, next turn to self-publishing…Do you agree that makes sense?

    1. Hi Claude! Thanks so much for coming by.

      You make a good point and I really hesitate in my response. It sounds disingenuous for me to say that I *wouldn’t* go the traditionally published route prior to going the self-publishing route…because that’s exactly what I did! At the time I started out (2009), it was the smartest thing to do. I think that it *did* help me to make a name for myself because so many readers were shopping at Barnes and Noble and Borders and my books were there.

      But now I feel as if a bookstore presence isn’t as vital and that not as many readers do their book-buying there. What’s more, the only marketing the Big 5 (then the Big 6) did was in merchandising–paying the stores for beneficial placement–and in putting the books in their catalog.

      I think the only reason I’d advise someone to go the trad-pub route today is if they genuinely need that validation starting out. If that gives them the confidence to pursue their career further, I think I’d tell them to go for it. Other than that, I wouldn’t advise it (and it does make me uncomfortable to say that: do as I say, not as I did, ha!)

  8. Very interesting and helpful post! Thank you for writing in Elizabeth. I’ve been an AVID reader of cozy mysteries since I picked up my first Agatha Christie, way back before the dawn of time, as my children are fond of saying. I have done some work recently involving cozy mystery proofreading, editing and character profile development. I know there is a cozy mystery inside of me just waiting to get out, so I would like to ask you — when thinking about self-publishing, do you recommend getting your ducks in a row (that is at least one book of a cozy series written) and then uploading it to Amazon’s Create Space and letting the rest follow naturally? Or is it best to really buckle down and try to submit a series to a known publisher such as Berkley Prime Crime? Thanks for any insights you may have. DebH

    1. Debra–You sound exactly like me! Except that I didn’t go the editing route (and I can see where that probably has helped out tremendously in terms of seeing structure, etc.)

      If it were me, starting out now, I’d say to skip Berkley (which is one of my old publishers). The reasons behind this are: the terms aren’t as good (they used to have 3-book deals, now the deals are usually 1-2 books at a time), it’s too competitive to get in with too little to show for it once published (low royalties compared to self-pub), and I wasn’t crazy about the last couple of contracts I saw from them (had to have help from my agent removing non-compete clauses). The very last offer I saw was a digital-first type deal, and I asked for my character rights back. That’s because I only needed a publisher for the bookstores, not for digital, obviously.

      That being said…you *could* write for them as well as write for yourself. I was a hybrid writer for a while, juggling 2 series for Penguin and 1 of my own. But, time-wise, the querying and publishing process is incredibly slow–I’d probably plan for 2 years.

      Summing up, I’d go self-pub unless I were dying to trad-pub. Thanks for coming by!

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