Making a Living as a Writer

I started a thread at KBoards last year that asked an innocuous question. I wanted to hear from indie authors making $100 – $500 a month from their writing. My hunch was that the untold story of the indie revolution was that a vast number of authors were making real money with zero media coverage. Well, this weekend, author Christina Miller started a new thread that asks a more audacious question, and the response is just as startling. She wants to know how many indie authors are making a full-time living from their craft.

Check out the list as it currently stands.

I find this incredibly inspiring. To put this into perspective, I have met quite a few New York Times bestselling authors who rely on their day jobs. While working at a bookstore in Boone, I worked dozens of author events and never met a full-time author. We hosted award winning authors who dreamed of the day they could quit their day jobs. The only full-time writer I met worked as a journalist to afford the ability to write his fiction; most taught creative writing at various universities. Read this chilling account to see how bad it was within my genre BEFORE the e-book revolution.

The estimate in 2006 was that 50 to 100 science fiction and fantasy authors subsisted solely from their craft. In 2009, I remember hearing estimates of 300-500 authors in all of fiction (a number Dean Wesley Smith has famously refuted, though not to my satisfaction). I’ve read elsewhere that it’s closer to a thousand authors within fiction. It’s a number many of us are dying to know. I was interested in this before I wrote my first book, as someone who dreamed of one day becoming a full-time writer.

Christina’s thread goes a long way toward uncovering the changing dynamics in the world of writing. In two days, her list has amassed nearly two hundred names. This must be a fraction of the real number. Many who qualify won’t have heard of this thread. But I hope they do. And I hope more and more daydreamers and daily writers (as I once was) see this list. These aren’t New York Times Bestsellers (not all of them, anyway). These are people who write every day, who attempt to hone their craft, who tell entertaining stories, and who work in their PJs.

Is it a dream to one day write fiction for a living?

Yes.

Is it a ton of hard work and thankless years of published obscurity?

Absolutely.

Is there some luck involved, some good fortune needed?

I certainly think so.

But is this list growing? And will it continue to grow?

You tell me. What did you write about today?

COMMENTS (46)

That’s an interesting list. What I’d like to see though is the percentage of indie authors making a full time living.

Same! And then we would need to compare that to the number of authors who submit to the slush pile and go on to make a career of writing. I have a feeling the latter would be a MUCH smaller percentage.

Even better: What percentage of people who publish a book a year on average are making a living from such a consistent output? Indie vs. traditional? That would be a telling statistic. It would remove from the equation those who publish once and never write again and those who publish a traditional book ever two or more years.

I think the reason these questions fascinate is that the data is so scant. It’s all speculative, and therefore subject to our biases.

Michael Thomas

I can’t speak for fiction, but I started publishing non-fiction only 6 months ago, and I’m already exceeding $1200-$1500/month.

It started for me as a hobby that I expected to make nothing from, and now it’s a hobby that I see has the potential to help me get out of debt, save for the future, and even retire early.

You, Hugh, are one of the reasons I started self publishing in the first place. You continue to inspire. Who knows, maybe someday I’ll work up the courage to try my hand at fiction and see what happens.

It’s so heartening to read this. I feel like this is an amazing time to be a writer, especially a genre writer. One day I too hope to make a living from words.

(And what did I write today? Well, I got out 400 words after getting up at 5am. Then I got ready and came to work. Every little bit counts.)

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
This is exactly the proof that we all suspected, and that the publishers don’t want us to realize.

Michael Bunker

I’m very excited to be one of the ones on this list, and a lot of that has to do with Hugh Howey. Not because of fanfic… yet. I hope that will add to my income some day, but because it was Hugh who, in November of 2012 motivated me to start pumping out fiction works (he didn’t even know it!). I wouldn’t have written the WICK series if I hadn’t been motivated by Hugh to JUST WRITE and publish. I have never submitted to the slushpile, and never even seriously thought about trad publishing. I’m averaging between $3k and $4k a month over the last four months with about 13 titles out, and maybe 9 or 10 of those have been since December 26th of this past year – so effectively the first of the year. I haven’t made a dime from fanfic yet, but I will. No, I owe at all to the motivation to stay at the computer and write and publish, write and publish, write and publish. That is the one, huge thing I learned from Hugh. I am so thankful for that motivation, and I hope to pass it on. I bet there are thousands of people out there like me.

Holy crap! Michael, that’s amazing. YOU are the story of self-publishing, man. My hat’s off to you.

That’s so inspiring! I’ve been dreaming of making a living off what I LOVE to do. I’ve been living the starving-gypsy-artist lifestyle for years now, even a grand a month would be a dream come true, lol ;) Guess we’ll see how my first Y.A. novel does, c’mooooon novel! In the meantime, I’ll just keep writing & eating tuna & peanut butter, ’cause that makes me happier than making lots of money at a generic 9-5. Never give up, never surrender!

Randy Ingermanson

Hi Hugh: Wow, it’s very cool to see Christina MIller’s list, which I think will grow quite a bit as more people hear about it.

In your post, you mentioned the estimate I posted on my blog that there should be roughly 1000 fiction writers earning a living. That’s an estimate based on the very reasonable assumption that income is distributed according to what mathematicians call a “Zipf distribution.” This is closely related to the famous “80/20 rule”. (I’m a theoretical physicist, so I have this uncontrollable urge to model reality using very simple models.)

Based on the model, I made an estimate that the top-selling writer should be earning right around $80 million per year, which is pretty close to the $94 million James Patterson is said to be earning (in a Forbes article published last year, where the 15 top-earning authors are listed.) And the model comes reasonable close to estimating my income from writing, which is much further down the food-chain. So I think it’s probably a decent model, but I’d love to improve it.

The problem is getting access to more data to validate the model across the full spectrum of writers. For one thing, most authors don’t want to give out their financial data, so you have to be careful to get the data anonymously. For another thing, getting a statistically significant sample is generally assumed to be hard.

I believe there is a way to get meaningful data anonymously from writers in a way that makes it possible to get a pretty complete economic picture for all writers.

My own opinion is that the future is bright for writers. Partly because I want it to be bright, partly because it looks like the data supports it.

I love the honesty and optimism in that last line. And one of the great things I’ve seen out of the indie author community is a willingness to share data. It was by sharing daily sales info for various bestseller rankings that we were able to correlate the two, which meant knowing how many copies were selling based solely on Amazon ranking. Since price is public and royalties are known, you can roughly estimate the earnings of any given title. It just takes a lot of work. Not that the work is necessary. I’ve seen an incredible willingness for indie authors to share their monthly earnings, from those making a little to those making a lot. KBoards is loaded with these threads. We just need some way to gather this info and people such as yourself who are smart enough to tell us what it all means!

Hugh, where’s the link to your $100-$500 a month thread. That’s the one I’m interested in because that’s the 1st one I’ll be on. How many were on the list?

I earned a bit over $500 in April with the three books of my debut trilogy. The first book went up end of January and the last book in the end of March. I am brand new at this and nowhere near being able to write full time, but it sure is exciting.

I think that puts me above the 50% mark for self published authors, if the statistic of “The average self published author earns $500 in a year” is at all correct. I am already past that hurdle.

First off: CONGRATS! That’s incredible, man.

Secondly: That $500 number is bunk. It averages in all the people who publish a book for reasons other than to sell a ton of copies or make money. Some people simply want to publish their NaNo book so a parent or friend can download it to their Kindle (or to see it on their own Kindle). That’s not a bad reason for publishing. But if they are going to include every single self-published book in an account of “average success,” then please start averaging in the un-agented slush pile into your chances of making it in the traditional machine. But nobody ever makes that comparison.

Thank you, Hugh.

“First there’s little white lies. Then there’s damn lies. Then there’s statistics.”

Patrice Fitzgerald

Love that list! Love the question… Last I looked it was at 140, so obviously, more people are chiming in.

I’m not in the “making a living” category yet, but I will be. Moving from publishing one grand magnum opus and waiting for success, to writing shorter faster and more, was a big step for me… and it took a while. But writing this way solves so many problems! It not only makes you money faster, it

1) gets you used to writing freely without stress — each book is only one in a long line of stories you’ll tell, so don’t sweat it. You’ve got the rest of your life to churn out books. Some will succeed, some won’t, no biggie.

2) lets you learn how to do descriptions, cover art, formatting, editing, etc., whether yourself or through others. And become a better writer! You can’t learn until you’ve done something several times.

3) gives you some perspective on the whole thing. We writers tend to be dramatic. What??? Me??! Dramatic?!!! Our art is very IMPORTANT. We are sensitive. We get hurt when we get snippy reviews. It’s hard to open that vein and write when you feel you might be rejected (and face it, you will be, sometimes, by some people). Producing more toughens you up so that it’s not all so personal. It’s just one book. One reader. One tiny percentage of your immense talent just waiting to burst forth on the world.

4) lets you see what succeeds and write more of that, rather than the book about ice-skating armadillos that never found an audience. Although it might have, if you’d put them in a silo.

5) makes you more money! Because when you have that eventual hit, people go back and look at everything you ever wrote. And even buy it! Except that one about the armadillos.

Pardon me if I’m a little punchy. I just sent off my “Deep Justice,” Part 3 of the Karma series, for formatting. I’ve been rewriting and proofing all day. Down in the Silo! A little stir-crazy…

Patrice, in the $1,500/month club, heading for $2,000 next month!

Brilliant points! And congrats!

Patrice Fitzgerald

Thanks, Hugh. You are the inspiration.

Heya Patrice! Good work :D
It it so great that Hugh and writers/readers post and comment on that kind of topics. Im writing my first short story right now, so I am trying to get “educated” as much as possible on the topic of selfpublishing. Also it is a bit more difficult for me since I chose to write in english instead of my home language- norwegian (for some reason i find it easier to give my wonky ideas form in english). The difficulty I am thinking of is that I dont really have any English enviroment around me, so my contact with the language consist mostly of reading and TV (I try to watch as many shows, programs and documentaries as possible as well as read a lot) But since most of that is scripted, real-life dialogues are not really something that is easy to find for me. So that makes me a bit unsteady in writing dialogues in english- they feel sometimes to obvious, to planned. (Any tips on how to take that literary challenge with dignity?) But in addition to those kind of “writing challanges” there is also another aspect: self-publishing is not realy something that is too known from where I am, and that means I really have to dig in the topic of selvpublishing in english-speaking world if, have to work and research. So again, another challenge (which i really dont mind)That is exactly why it`s so helping and also comforting to find all that information on selvpublishing and read about so many experiences from different writers. Without that datapool I personally wouldnt be thinking of selfpublishing at all (was not something I thought about before WOOL) So big big thanks for sharing your craft and experiences and keep on posting! (Im sitting ready with my information- eating utencils, ready to devour!)
I dont really have a “big” dream about publishing and I feel like even if 1 person would buy, read and like my story, I would be honored and that is really what that is about for me. The rest I would take from that point and see how the whole thing goes. By the way Hugh, people are reading your works in Norway more and more- and from the reviews I see here, they are loving it! :D

Just to wrap the whole comment up with something pointless and reveal myself as a complete “dork” (Oh wait! I already did it!) I will “fun fact” you guys. Did you know that in Denmark they have a wool brand that is called Holst Wool. Completely made me think of Holston.

Patrice Fitzgerald

Anna: What a great fun fact! Your English is tremendous, and easily beats my Norwegian. ;-)

I find that, with dialogue, reading it out loud after writing it helps a lot. Then I can see if parts of it don’t flow or seem artificial. Sometimes I write “I am” instead of “I’m,” when in speaking, the latter would be more relaxed and natural.

Do you have any native English speaker friends? You could meet over a cup of coffee and have him/her read your dialogue to see if it comes naturally. Or if you don’t know anyone in that category, how about posting (Facebook, or a bulletin board) for a native speaker who would like to have a bit of help in Norwegian in exchange for their flowing English? I am sure there are ex-pats there who would love to get some quality time with a local speaker.

What kind of story are you writing?

Patrice

Patrice, thanks so much! I havent actually done that before (reading dialogue out loud) I tend to just read it over and over in my head, but I think it would make a great difference to hear it instead, giveit a voice. I`do have some english-speaking friends that unfortunately do not live here in Norway, but heY, there is skype en e-mail ! (just have to man up a bit before sharing! …Ill get there:)

I am currently writing a story that follows a young bioingeneer living in a “secluded” metropolis build on the surface in the open sea, as he gradually starts to uncover some interesting things about the city and its people.

I for one am very grateful for all of you indie writers out there. I’m an avid consumer. Yeah, I have thought of writing my own book, got started it, and realized I truly hate writing. So… It’s all on you guys. I need you to keep writing your creative stories in order to feed my addiction.

Why am I such an indie author fangirl? Most of the books coming from the traditional publishing route leave me uninterested. Once again, thank you for writing and doing all of the work I am loathe to do. Thank you for the crack.

The world needs more of you, Felicia! :D

Two questions:

1. Someone mentioned FanFic as a source of income… explain this please! How does this work, exactly?

2. What’s the point of having an agent if you’re self-publishing right to Amazon?

Thanks!

1. Some people are charging money for fan fiction. See REDSHIRTS by John Scalzi, for instance. Or 50 SHADES OF GREY by E.L. James. Or any of the WOOL fan fiction.
2. I self-publish here in the States, but an agent is mega useful. She helps me publish overseas, negotiate with Hollywood agencies, and secure domestic deals like the print-only deal with Simon & Schuster. I couldn’t do without her.

How does one go about securing an agent? I have had 2 books published which I thought were being published by a regular publishing company, but then learned is actually considered a self-publishing. I’m pretty clueless when it comes to self-publishing? Thank you.

I have no idea. I couldn’t get an agent when I wanted one. By the time I didn’t think I needed one, they were coming to me. Querying seems like a very long shot.

Wooo! This list is awesome. Is there one for “makes enough from writing to supplement working part time at a bookstore” yet? Because that’s the one I’m shooting for come August.

As an avid reader, this makes me happy. The more quality books out there, the more I have to read. The more people making a living off of the books that entertain me, the happier I will be.

As a writer, who is currently writing a whole ton of backlogged books to publish in the second half of 2013, this makes me even more excited. I am not trying to be a millionaire (would be nice), but if I can pay some bills, or hell even cover my day job wages some day, I will consider it a huge success.

Thanks for continuing to share your positive attitude Hugh.

I personally know two other authors who aren’t on the list. TR Harris and Steven Konkoly. Now, I’m on the list, and I’m fairly visible in terms of my sales (100K+ books last year, on target for well over 200K books this year), but they are more low-key about their success. But they’re both doing quite well. More than full time income well, by a long shot. Which raises an interesting point – if I’m just one guy on the list, and I know two verifiable names who are also making bank, then I wonder how many more names on that list also know two who more than qualify but aren’t on the list? One can quickly see that the number could be triple or greater the representation there. Which should excite the hell out of those who are toiling away every day, hoping for that goal. If it’s a handful out of tens of thousands, that’s a lottery. If it’s hundreds and hundreds, that starts looking a little different. Still tough and still competitive, but certainly more attainable.

Russell Blake
Suspense Author
http://RussellBlake.com

Patrice Fitzgerald

Russell: You’ve been wonderful in sharing your story and your increasing success on your site. Thanks for reaching back to those of us who are working our way up to self-publishing (or hybrid) for a living.

We need an acronym for that. Self-Publishing For a Living – SPFAL (sounds too much like Fail!)… MALSP – Making a Living Self-Publishing (sounds bad). Hmm. Self-Publishers Making It (SePuMI)?

I’ll work on that.

IWG – Indies Winning Big!

I am a full time author. I’ve sold more than175,000 books on Amazon kindle in less than two years. I was a complete unknown before my first book in 2011. It might be safe to say I’m still relatively unknown.

Unreal. Congratulations, Saxon! This is precisely what I tried to get across with my Salon article. I’m getting a lot of undue attention when I haven’t sold all that many more books than you have. Again, congrats!

Um, wait…I know you. At least you have that going for you!

Same genres as you, Hugh, and still freaking out that I’m also on the list!
Though, it took me a while to realise that I should be.
I published my first book at roughly the same time as you, and my sales were very small, like a hundred bucks a month, which was still awesome to me since I was being paid for my hobby, but the figure kept going up every month until it was $500 per month, and then $1000.
Then I launched the Arisen series (with my co-author Michael) and BOOM!
Zombies meet Delta Force and the SAS…sells! (Okay, so THAT series isn’t the same genres as you)
Who would have thought that six months later I’d be looking at not $1000, but $5000 per month? Not me.
I didn’t quit my day job, I just kept putting it into a savings account, thinking of how it would be nice to go full-time one day.
Then I got made redundant and it hit me that I didn’t have to go get another job. I’ll just write some more books!
It’s still very strange to see my name on that list considering I’ve never really spoken to an agent or a publisher. I think I submitted to two or three a few years ago and didn’t get a reply. Go figure.

Love my day job but I realized I love writing more. I’m certainly heading in the right (write?) direction and hope to be full time a year from now. Better get back to writing…

Great post. I’ve been struggling to finish several works over the past two years and this is highly motivating to see that it’s not just the international superstars like Hugh that make some money self-publishing. I guess I’ll get back at it.

Brian D. Anderson

Interesting post. I currently sell enough to make a living and am inspired that many others are as well.

You know you’re an inspiration to me, Hugh. This might be the right place for me to tell you I recently sold my first short story. It was accepted in an anthology, but the unique thing about my deal was that I can self publish it right now, which I have on KDP Select. I still waited for some form of gatekeeper to tell me it was any good first, but it’s a step.

You’ve been on my mind as I plan what to do with some other short stories. Do I submit and wait a year for them to get published in an anthology which people might never finish? That’s how I read anthologies; I almost never get through all the stories. Or, do I pay an editor and copy editor to help me polish up what I have and let my readers show their willingness to read it by paying the $.99? With all the free fiction out there, and partly read anthologies, I think it makes sense to ask readers to put a little skin in the game, as long as I’ve done my part to interest them in the story.

Anyway, that’s what I’m doing to try and earn a living as a writer. Of course, I’m still working on the novel, but this has been fun in between the labor of rewriting my ending. Keep inspiring, Hugh!

Congrats, Tim! Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.

Owen R. O'Neill

I thought I’d just add my two cents, even though it may be quite premature. My my co-author and I just published our first novel on May 6th, and so far it has made us almost $700. Maybe that will the last $700 it ever makes, I have no idea. It is the first novel of a series so I can hope the others might do as well. Frankly, if we made $700 off each book in the series, I’d be pretty happy.

That said, I’d like to extend Hugh an huge Thank You! for all the advise and wonderfull insights! While you were not an inspiration for me to start writng (I actually began the novel we just published over 20 years ago) you did help us finally get over the finish line and point the way towards what I feel with be a bright future.

Hi Hugh!

My wife is on that list, and one of her main motivators for self publishing was the words of guys like you and JA Konrath. Indie writers are so open to share their sales data and revenue numbers and that motivates others to take the plunge, I assume. This openness and willing to divulge real world data will continue to grow the number of authors who support their families with book sales.

Conversely, as Hugh points out, I believe that many traditional published authors don’t make enough to earn a living and DON’T share that fact with the rest of the world – and that opaqueness fails to drive more writers to enter the fray – leaving manuscripts that the world may like to read sitting dormant on a hard drive.

Lastly, it’s the long tail of the backlist that makes e-books so valuable. My wife has titles that are approaching 3 years of age that consistently sell 10 copies a day at $2.99ea. Of course she writes like a madwoman and releases new books every 10 weeks to stay visible – but that backlist is where the true excitement is – those books will sell FOREVER, never going out of ‘print’. Each one is a mini-annuity paying $600 a year with zero additional effort.

Now, how did she get to this point? The traditional slush pile. Over 500 rejections in 4 years time, with accompanying constructive criticisms, helped her to hone her work to what actual readers would enjoy when she finally launched her indie career via KDP.

Future indie authors should not skip this vital step in the process, in my opinion – valuable feedback from industry professionals is crucial to future indie success. Good luck to all!

Amazing points, all of these. Congrats to your wife for her success. It’s a wonderful accomplishment.

I think you are right that traditional authors do aspiring writers a disservice by not being transparent about their earnings. And it is the reason many indies share their successes. We want other writers to know this option exists and that it’s an increasingly viable one.

Hugh –

I always wanted to tell stories and thought that I could.

I purchased a book 10 years ago about “How to write and sell your first novel”. For the first 90% of the book I thought I was going to be a published author until I came to the part about “Finding a Publisher”. I wanted no part of that mind numbing process.

I stumbled across your story of success late last year and found my way to Amazon and KDP. I put up my first book in a series on March 23, 2013.

My series has done very well and has surpassed anything I could have imagined. I anticipate going full time by the end of the year. I hit the $500 per WEEK mark last month in my fourth month and routinely sit at around the #30 spot of horror authors.

I owe this to you! You showed me what was possible. Now, back to writing.

Thank you for leading the charge! Next time your in So Cal, I owe you at least a lunch!

Take care

Wow! Congrats, Jeff. That’s amazing progress in a short span of time!