Is Writing Full Time a Viable Option?

Is writing full time a viable option?Note: this originally was run in my newsletter, but given the responses, I thought I’d post it here on the blog as well.

Is writing full time a viable option?

Around 80% of the people I work with have mentioned that, ideally,eventually,  they want to be able to write full time.

At the same time, all over the internet and among the publishing community, they talk about how publishing has to be a labor of love, because nobody’s making money except the old school publishing heavy weights, the six figure debut gambles, and the self-publishing outliers like Bella Andre or Hugh Howey.

Let’s face it: it’s discouraging.

I’ve already blogged about approaching your writing career like a business if you ever hope to make a living.  That said, let’s look at some actual numbers and see what the likelihood is of “making a living.”

*Trigger warning: I will be using math.*

What would it take to make a gross income of $30,000 USD in a year?

Notice I did not pick an opulent “six figure” income.  What would it take to make $30,000?

The traditional route:

The first time advance is, on average, around $5,000 to $15,000.

Since an advance is against earnings, you won’t see another cent until after publication… which, in traditional, can be up to a year or more after you sign the contract.

Then, they need to do accounting  They hold what’s called “reserves against returns”, which means “yeah, you made $1,000, but we’re going to hold onto it, because we have to give some of that money back if copies get returned.”

You don’t generally see any money until the book has been out for a year or so, which could be two years after you’ve signed the contract and gotten that advance.

You also need to “earn out” — meaning you don’t get any more money until you’ve sold enough copies, and made enough royalties, to “pay off” the money they fronted you.

Let’s say you made 7% royalty on a $14.99 trade paperback.  That’s around $1/book.  So you’d need to sell anywhere from 5,000 to 15,000 copies before you saw any additional earnings.

Granted, there’s a higher royalty rate for digital, around 25% at least and as high as 40%, but the cost would (should) be a bit lower, as well. In this case, say $9.99 at 25%. That’s $2.50 a book. You’d only need to sell 6,000 digital copies to earn out a $15,000 advance.

Basically, you’ve been paid $15,000 at the top end of the scale, and you won’t see any more for two more years. If at all.

Oh, and with traditional, you’re probably working with an agent who helped land the deal (and hopefully negotiated for the best advance possible), who will take 15% of the advance and any future earnings.  So that $15,000 advance is really $12,750.  And the $1 per book is only 85 cents.

The other thing — if you don’t earn out in around 12 months from publication, the publisher is going to have serious qualms about offering you another contract. They can’t afford to shell out the up front costs of editorial, publishing and marketing on a low earner.

The self-publishing route:

Compared to the “sad 7” of traditional publishing, you’re making 70% of royalty digitally self-publishing. Even if you’re selling your digital copies for only $2.99 a book, that means $2 per copy — double what you’d be making with a traditional publisher at $14.99 a book.

And you get paid monthly (on a two month lag), not quarterly or twice a year like traditional authors. There’s no wait on returns.  Best of all, you don’t have to worry about earning out to keep publishing. You can publish as often as your heart desires (and your output allows.)

That said, you’re no longer just a writer. You’re a publisher.

That means you’re now responsible for editorial, including developmental editing, line editing, proofreading. You need formatting. You need to get a cover.  You need to create a marketing plan, you need to figure out pricing, you need to write the book description and choose the categories and keywords.

Some average costs:  developmental editing can be anywhere from $3-10 per page, and substantive or line editing is higher (because of the degree of detail and increased time necessary), so $5-25 page.  Formatting, if you outsource it, can cost around $25-50 per book. A cover can cost $100-500, depending.

So for an 85,000 word novel — around 340 pages — the cost at the low end of the scale would be would be:

Developmental editing —  $1,020
Copy editing — $1,700
Formatting — $25
Cover — $100

Total cost:  $2,845

(Before anybody jumps on me and says “that’s ludicrous!”, these are ballpark averages. I’m sure there are plenty cheaper places out there… although many may be overcharging at a cut-rate, if you get what I mean, so be wary.)

Many authors forgo this, simply because they can’t afford it.  Self-publishing is a bastion of DIY (Do It Yourself) and, alas, it often shows.  Many times, this is due to cost-cutting (“I don’t need an editor, I was a proofreader in college”), rush to publication (“I want to make money now“), as well as a lack of perspective (“my book is brilliant the way it is — why would I pay somebody to tell me to make it different?”)

While I feel it’s definitely been improving, it is a large reason why self publishing still carries a stigma, reasonable or not.

If you’re making $2 per copy, then you would need to sell 15,000 copies to make that goal number of $30,000.  Another often quoted statistic:  93% of all self published books sell less than 100 copies a year, and make less than $500.

At that rate,it would take you 60 years to earn your target amount.

So should we all just pack it in?

In my opinion…. no.

Not if you’ve got an entrepreneurial mindset, and you’re open to risk.  There are authors who are making this humble average, just from writing.  They don’t make headlines, but they are making money.

What we do need to stop doing is idealizing publishing,or maintaining an artist’s mindset to make a financial goal.

If these numbers made you blanch, then really consider what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it.  It’s okay to write out of pure passion, with a more relaxed pace, only because this book must get out or it’ll kill you. In fact, that’s why most of us started writing in the first place.  It’s perfectly acceptable to approach it as a pursuit that might bring you money, but that’s not the reason you’re in it.

If you know this, if you accept it, it will save you heartache. It will also buffer you against the clamoring “but you have to make money!” talking heads that will batter against you with well-meaning but otherwise stressful advice.

But if you do want to make a living, you’re going to have to work your ass off.  That’s a given.  It’s more than just the writing itself. It’s going to be your attitude, learning the business, making strategic decisions.

It means looking at things like series potential. It could mean going for traditional publishing on a multi-book contract.  Right now, publishers are leery of this, so it may take a while for you to earn your keep and prove your credibility.

It means considering “hybrid” publishing — working with a publisher on some titles, self-publishing others.

It means learning all the ins-and-outs of self-publishing.

It means looking seriously at your writing speed: the more books you produce, the more the risk is spread out, and the fewer copies per title you have to sell to hit your target.  It also gives new readers a back list to purchase, making more sales with less effort.

If you write slowly, then it means working with someone to create not just great, but stellar, unusual, and marketable books, and working with a top-line agent who will get you the biggest advances possible.  It also means accepting the fact that you’re playing roulette — you could win big, but the odds are slim.

It also means looking at the long game. It will take years of consistent effort, with little to no pay out, before you create a long-tail back list that will help generate enough passive income to generate momentum.  Also, you’re going to have some out-and-out failures, and it’ll probably take a while to settle into your groove.

Finally: don’t do it alone.

I’ve been a traditionally published author since 2000, putting out eighteen novels with Big 6 publishers.  I shifted to self-publishing when I started up Rock Your Writing, putting out my own titles, Rock Your Plot, Rock Your Revisions, and Write Every Day, among others.  There was definitely a learning curve.

Now, I’m putting this all to use, self-publishing my own fiction series starting in December.  I’ve spent the past two years building up RYW, and now I’m going to turn my attention back to my own fiction.

That said, I’d love some company on the way, as I experiment with my own work in what I’ve usually only done with other clients.

I’m thinking of opening up a private membership group for writers interested in self-publishing or hybrid publishing, and definitely in writing full time.  I was wondering — would anyone be interested in that?  If you could email me, I’d appreciate it.

The Slow Writing Movement.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been researching promotion, trying to come up with a plan that isn’t so frenetic.  What I discovered was, rather than simply a new approach to promotion, I’ve been casting about for a sustainable method of writing.

By this, I mean writing without burning out and freaking out… and still potentially making a living.

You’d think this would be a relatively simple thing.  Apparently, it isn’t.

Nobody’s interested in making a living. They only want to make a fortune.

–  Joss Whedon

I have been burned out by reading writing blogs.  They seem to fall into two camps:  those that see writing as a business, and those that see writing as an art.

The writing-is-an-art camp.

Those that see writing as an art bemoan the state of literature.  That people only want crap.  That something like (I won’t name names — think of any runaway bestseller that people are panning the hell out of) can make the NYT list, but any writer with “real talent” is forced to make less than $50 a year indie-publishing his or her own book.

They usually talk about how they don’t care if they make any money or if anyone reads their books — they’re in it because they can’t help themselves, that their writing is purely about self-expression and writing the best book possible.  They see branding as a plague and writing as, essentially, a hobby.

Some may never complete a novel.

The writing-is-a-business camp.

There’s a spectrum here.

You have the aggressive self-promoting indie, for example, who is working on increasing his productivity, branding his work, posting on LinkedIn about his latest tweet about Pinterest pins.

Then you’ve got the anti-indie, who sees self-publishing as the lazy man’s way out, a fool’s gold rush for amateurs who can’t hack it.  This group might suggest that true writers know the industry, pay their dues, and realize that if you want to play with the big boys (and make the bestseller lists), you’ve got to think like the big boys.  Or, namely, the Big Six.

Here’s a new one.  Writing-as-farming.

Wait.  Writing as… farming?

If you think about it, there are a lot of parallels.  We’re producing something for others to, essentially, consume.  But we’re not constructing  a building or mass producing cars.  A lot of factors can influence the novel — and we’re never quite sure what the seed is going to ultimately yield.

You could just garden for yourself, sure.  No harm in that.  In fact, there’s a lot of pleasure in that, and you could putter around and try different things every season and if all you wind up with is weeds, well, shit happens.  Better luck next year.

You could try to start a commercial farm.  You could pick a really popular “crop” and plant a boatload, hope that you get a good harvest.  If corn suddenly becomes unpopular, you could tear up the soil and start over with beans.  It would mean a metric ton of work, and a good deal of risk, and you’d need to go for marketability and speed and transport — hardiness over flavor, in some cases.  You’d need a larger market to make the whole thing profitable.  It would be anything but a hobby.

The Artisanal Farmer.

Or you could grow stuff that you like, that you know other people want… because, well, you hang out with a lot of those other people, and they’ve said, “you know, I really wish someone would grow a really tasty heirloom tomato around here.”  And you’d think:  well, I frickin’ love heirloom tomatoes.  And I’ve got a good sized plot of land.  And you know these guys are willing to pay more for good, local, tasty tomatoes.

You might not make a living off it for several years.  But you’d have a bunch of really fun tomato aficionados to hang out with, and hey, yummy tomatoes.  That doesn’t suck.

As word of your tomatoes grows, you find that you’re onto something. You’re growing maybe some other stuff, too… corn and beans, let’s say, that are also heirloom and they work with the tomatoes. (Permaculture!)  And you’ve got enough demand that you’re ready to shift to part time on your day job.  And you bought the empty lot next to you, and you’re building the soil so you can grow a few more crops.

You’re not going to suddenly buy a twenty-acre farm out in the boonies.  But you can make a decent living, selling things people want, growing things you enjoy.  While you’re still working quite hard, it’s work you love.

Neither artist nor corporation.

While a delicious, luscious heirloom tomato can be a thing of art, I don’t think farmers think of themselves as artists.  They know that there’s craft, science, and hard work in what they do.  The plants don’t give a damn if your Muse is feeling recalcitrant.  The land needs what it needs.  And every day is different.

That said, they don’t all say “I’m going to compete with WalMart” either.  They’re not looking for the best tomato strain to travel cross country in an eighteen-wheeler so they can capture more market share.

The Slow Writing Movement.

I believe that writing involves hard work.  I think it’s important to know the industry, to understand the factors involved.  I think it means continually improving your craft, putting in the hours, planning and revising and being open to feedback.

I believe that writing means connecting with readers.  I think that it’s important to know who you’re writing for.  I think that this audience should be larger than simply yourself, although I think it can be considerably smaller than most would have you believe.

I believe that writers deserve to be adequately compensated for the work that they do.  I also realize that “adequately compensated” is a moving target, especially in the new world of digital publishing.  Yes, a book costs less than a latte.  But the author can, in theory, make more per copy on that “cheaper” book than he might have in a legacy publishing structure… even after overhead costs of editing, design and promotion are taken into account.  Things vary.

I believe that we can take some more time in crafting quality novels.

I believe that, through thoughtful connection rather than calculated hype, we can slowly build an audience that will sustain our work.

I believe that once we move away from the “bestseller” approach to fiction, we can start to develop a more enjoyable, higher quality, and still profitable model of business.

And I may be crazy, but I strongly believe I’m not the only author that thinks this way.

Please share, re-tweet, or forward… and let’s see if we can’t start growing a movement that, in my opinion, is long overdue.