Can You Make a Living as a Novelist?

Writers like James Patterson and Stephen King would tell you, undoubtedly, yes. It is absolutely possible to make a living as a fiction writer. Possible, but very difficult.

How do you define “make a living”?

What are your personal circumstances?

  • Are you fresh out of school — or even in school — with few responsibilities other than yourself? Or are you supporting a family, pets, a mortgage, two cars, and a fun vacation every year?
  • What country or region do you live in? How expensive are rent/mortgage, food, utilities, etc.?
  • Are you married? Do you have kids? Is your goal to be the sole source of support for these people?
  • If you live in the US, who pays for your health insurance?
  • Do you have outstanding debt?
  • How much money do you want to have for travel, vacations, and “fun stuff”?
  • Do you have a spouse or other person who provides a regular income and benefits, including health insurance?
  • Are you working a regular job now that you hope to give up? How much are you making in that job that you wouldn’t be making if you quit?

How you answer these questions goes a long toward defining the amount of regular income YOU need to “make a living” from your writing.

A whole lot of novelists who "make a living" from their writing are married with spouses who provide a regular income and other benefits like health insurance.

Where does the money come from — and when?

I am focusing specifically on novelists in this post. There are so many different kinds of writers and so many different writing streams you could tap. I don’t want to focus on those, however, because most novelists want to focus on their novels, not on hustling for freelance work.

So looking specifically at novels, how and when you make money depends on whether you’re traditionally published or self published.

I wrote a post on money in traditional publishing already. The TL;DR of that, though, is that for the vast, vast, vast majority of traditionally published writers, advances are low and split into several payments that can be a year or more apart. Royalties, if you are paid any over and above your advance, are generally paid quarterly.

The money in traditional pub, at least if you have a good agent, is in subsidiary rights. Audio, foreign, movies, merchandising. Each subsidiary right sold would have its own royalty percentage and payment schedule. A huge part of an agent’s job is to ensure you’re getting the money you’re owed and getting it on time.

Although self published writers can sell subsidiary rights on their books, most don’t. For most, the money they get is solely from regular book sales. How often you’re paid will depend on the distributor or retailer. Amazon, I believe, pays monthly. Some companies require you to reach a minimum owed before they pay you.

Making Money Takes Money

Although it’s possible to have a career as a traditionally published writer without a financial investment, it’s not unusual for traditional writers to sink money into publicists, publicity events, and marketing — and those expenses eat up small advances.

Self publishing requires a fairly significant financial investment to do *well*. (Yes, you can do it inexpensively. Not many people can do it inexpensively and actually sell many copies.)

Editing, covers, production of the digital files, marketing — it’s ALL on the self published writer, and you have to make it all back before you can say you’ve “made a profit.”

It Takes More than One Book

Whether you’re traditionally published or self published, it almost always takes more than one book to make regular money you can live on.

As mentioned, individual books rarely make much money. Even those that do, don’t make money forever, especially if they’re standalone novels. If you want to make a living from writing novels, you have to keep producing.

Traditionally published writers are generally asked to produce a book a year. Self published writers tend to produce two to four per year.

There are writers of both types that produce much more. James Patterson has a content production model that produced 24 novels in 2020 alone! Self-published writer Amanda M. Lee produces a similar number — she has multiple pen names — and she doesn’t even have co-writers.

That regular production, though, is where the money comes from. The return on investment (ROI) of a marketing campaign is much, much higher when the author has a large backlist. (So much higher, in fact, it’s questionable whether it’s even worth advertising if you have fewer than three books out.)

But when can I quit my job?

When you can quit depends on several factors:

  • Your personal risk tolerance
  • How many people are counting on you to support them
  • How easily you can move back into the work force if you need to
  • How much you have in savings
  • How much money you have (and will continue to have) rolling in predictably

One rule of thumb I heard was you could quit your job when you had five years worth of salary in the bank as a buffer. (Really? Wow!)

Another was you could quit your job when you had a year’s salary in the bank and could live off your royalties. NOT advances — royalty payments only.

Honestly, I think it’s up to you and your personal situation.

I’m in my 50s. I make a professional salary that would be difficult to replace. If I leave the work force, I likely will age out of my non-writing career and will be unlikely to re-enter at all. That means I can’t quit my job until I have enough in the bank to, essentially, retire.

If, however, I had several books out, and the subsidiary rights, etc. were providing a regular income that replaced…, oh, call it 75%… of my regular salary, I’d consider making the leap.

Bottom line

Yes, it’s possible to make a living as a novelist. It’s a lot easier for young people with few responsibilities to do it (especially if someone else is paying their insurance!) than people with mortgages, children, etc.

It’s worth shooting for. Crunch the numbers, make a plan, and don’t jump in without being pretty sure you’re ready to swim.

make a living

Hybrid authors: Which first — self or traditional?

Many writers have heard that being a hybrid writer — one that traditionally publishes some work and self publishes other work — is often where the most money is made. So, coveting that seemingly lucrative strategy, they ask, “Which should I do first — publish traditionally or self publish?”

This is absolutely just my opinion, but my opinion is very firm: traditionally publish first. I believe this for several reasons.

Reason #1

Self publishing well takes a fair amount of money, excellent craft, and a LOT of business knowledge.

I . . . don’t have the energy to explain how jumping into self publishing as a beginning writer with little industry knowledge and little marketing skill isn’t a good way to start a career.

If you’re self publishing books and not getting great sales, you’re hurting your traditional publishing chances. Publishers don’t care that the book was self published. They see one thing: low sales.

If you have books out with low sales (no matter how you were published), it’s very likely you’ll have to traditionally publish under a different, unrelated name — which means any existing fan base won’t find you. You’ll be starting at zero anyway.

Reason #2

If you self publish first, you’ve blown your debut status.

Traditional publishing values debut writers and top sellers. Those in the middle, not so much. This goes back to sales numbers. Unless you show some pretty amazing sales from those early self pubbed books, you’re back to being asked to change your name and start over.

This bit of info actually contradicts some commonly heard (and incorrect) beliefs.

  • “Oh, I’ll get several titles published, and then I’ll be more attractive to publishers.”
  • “Traditional publishing doesn’t look at nobodies. I have to make a name for myself before they’ll sign me.”

Both of those statements are demonstrably false. Let me repeat: Traditional publishing LOVES debuts. Debuts don’t have a sales history. They have POTENTIAL. Agents and publishers love potential. Potential means this new person might be the next big thing!

Don’t blow your debut status.

Reason #3

Traditional publishing gives you a wide fan base that you can leverage for self published books in the future.

It’s really, really, really hard to build a fan base with self publishing, especially if you don’t know how to do it. Again, I’ll repeat, coming into traditional publishing with low sales and a small fanbase isn’t a strong selling point.

Traditionally publish first, and have their publicists help you learn how to market. Let their big reach help you get a wide readership. Have that in your back pocket when you self publish to give your new book added visibility.

Reason #4

Traditional publishing will introduce you to the business side of publishing, and do so with a much easier learning curve than you’ll face if you self publish first.

Seriously, being professionally edited — developmental, line, AND copyedited — is a master class in the craft of fiction. Few writers can afford to pay for that level of editing when they self publish, especially for every single novel!

But, but, it takes so long!

Yep, traditional publishing is slow, and there’s a LOT of rejection, especially at the beginning. I know. I’m in the query trenches myself.

If you covet the career of a hybrid author, deal with it. Slow down, build your craft, and then traditionally publish FIRST.

Write the other books and put them in your back pocket if you want (for a publishing blitz after you’ve fulfilled your traditional contract). But trad publish under the name you want, use it to build a wide reader base, and THEN leverage that existing base when you self publish.

traditionally publish first

The REAL Reason to Limit POV Characters

I love to hang out on forums that cater to writers. Doing so, I run across certain questions that come up over and over, and I hear certain ideas over and over. One statement I hear frequently comes up during questions about multiple point of view (POV) characters.

“I have to have multiple pov characters, so my reader will know that character’s background and feelings and motivations.”

I respectfully disagree with that statement.

Don’t cheat your reader

Consider this example: You’re writing a Romance. Carol is dressed for the prom, waiting eagerly for her boyfriend to arrive. Bob is on his way but stops to help someone with a flat tire — a pregnant woman in labor! He saves the day. Bob is late; Carol is livid. She won’t listen to his excuse and breaks up with him.

If you’ve shown us both sides, you KNOW why Bob was late. You KNOW it was a good reason. You KNOW Carol is in the wrong. You’re just reading along to get to the place where Carol finds out the truth. Awww. That’s nice.

But what if you didn’t know Bob’s side? You’re immersed in Carol’s story. You feel her excitement, then her hurt. You’re with her as she makes up possible reasons. You’re angry when she’s angry. Bob’s an ass! We don’t need him. He ruined PROM. Then later, when she finds out the truth, you’re shocked! Guilt! Sadness! But then they make up, and you feel the love and joy.

As a writer, you do a HUGE disservice to your reader when you tell them everything you know. 

Conflict is critical

Consider this. In real life you have just one point of view: your own. You are never in anyone else’s head, and yet I bet you do pretty well figuring out other people’s backstories, motivations, and feelings.

You don’t NEED to know what everybody thinks, what they’re doing, and why they’re doing it most of the time. When you do need to know, you find out by asking, by watching, by listening, by making assumptions and drawing conclusions based on the info you have.

In real life, sometimes you don’t know something, and it causes you stress. Sometimes you draw a conclusion and it’s wrong — and you make a mistake or feelings get hurt. Sometimes people lie.

In real life those things suck, but in fiction? That’s called CONFLICT, and it’s GOLD.

If you tell the reader everything you know, you kill the conflict and suspense.

One POV is hard

Writing strictly from one pov is difficult, but it’s often the best choice. Writing from one point of view doesn’t mean you can’t reveal backstory, motivation, and feelings of other characters. It means you reveal them differently. 

Sometimes it means you drop hints using body language and off-hand remarks from other characters, and you trust your audience to put it together.

Other times it means you don’t reveal those things until the pov character figures it out — and that’s OKAY. Again, that’s when we get the most emotional bang for the buck.

telling all you know

Update on Querying

When I jumped into the query trenches back in September, I said I wouldn’t be giving an update. I lied, LOL.

I’m not going to give you stats — who I’ve queried, how many people I’ve queried, number of requests, number of rejections, etc. Instead I’m going to talk more about the experience and an unexpected choice that experience drive me to make.

The Experience

Intellectually, I knew querying would be hard. I knew it would be long. I knew there would be tons of rejection. I knew this book might not get picked up.

The head knows. The heart does not.

Querying is soul destroying. It killed my interest in publishing. It killed my interest in writing. The new story I had been so anxious to start sat untouched.

The problem isn’t rejection — it’s lack of feedback. I don’t expect feedback on queries, but it sucks to get no feedback on fulls. There are many reasons for rejection. Some are things I absolutely have no control over. Others, though, are manuscript issues that might be fixable. Am I wasting my time sending out more queries? Can I change something and get more interest?

Awful. Horrible. Soul destroying.

The Unexpected Choice

I don’t believe that writers aiming for traditional publishing should pay for professional editing. Pro editing is expensive, and it misrepresents your skill level. But I needed to know if my manuscript was fatally flawed.

I chose to get an editorial assessment from someone at Reedsy. His name is Dominic Wakefield, and he had worked for Harper Collins and Little, Brown as an acquisitions editor for books like mine.

An editorial assessment isn’t editing. It’s more like an extended book report. He read my book, and he told me what worked and what didn’t, and he gave me concrete suggestions for improvement.

It took him about a month to do the report, and we followed that up a week later with an hour long phone discussion.

Was it worth it? For me — 100%! I had told him my big question was whether there were issues — fatal flaws — that would prevent me from getting an agent. He addressed that on page one: No. In his opinion, the manuscript was good enough as is to get an agent.

He went on to give me various suggestions to make it even stronger, nearly all I agreed with. But the value for me was in reassuring me that I’ve just got to keep looking for that agent who falls in love with my manuscript.

Let me be clear: Reedsy is high-end, and it's expensive. Getting an editorial assessment was extremely valuable for me, but it's a lot of money.

The Experience after the Assessment

Just asking for the editorial assessment back in December settled my heart a bit. I created a new list of agents to query, and I began noodling on the next book.

After receiving Dominic’s feedback in January, I felt even better. I sent off the new queries, and (until work took over my every waking moment) I did significant pre-work on my new WIP.

But rejections are still rejections. Especially full rejections.

I don’t know if I’ll send more queries for this novel. I still have fulls and queries out, so I’m not giving up. I’m just not sure I’m going to put my energy into Doubting River anymore.

If work allows — seriously, I may be working seven days a week through the end of May — I’ll work on the new novel. If Doubting River doesn’t land me an agent, I can put it in my back pocket and query my next book.

What about self publishing?

I am not anti-self pub. I actually think self pub is awesome. But it’s not a great choice for standalone book club fiction.

If I were to self publish Doubting River, it would blow my debut status. If I want to traditionally publish in the future under my own name, blowing my debut status would not be a good thing.

So I’ll never say never, but right now, self pub isn’t in the cards.


Age in Traditional Publishing

I’ve seen people of all ages — both teens and older people — wonder if they have any chance of being traditionally published. Do not worry! People of any age may publish. The industry cares not about your age, only about whether you are producing sellable material.

Quality is the issue, not age

Being traditionally published is difficult, no matter how old you are. It’s ultra-competitive. Good novels don’t get picked up. Novels that aren’t written at a competitive level certainly aren’t going to get picked up.

I’ve heard both teens and older people gripe that they aren’t being picked up because of their age. In my opinion, that’s an excuse. If you want to be traditionally published, it can take YEARS of writing, getting feedback, and querying to finally write a novel that interests an agent.

Young people complain they won’t be  record-breakingly young if it takes that long. Older people complain they might be dead if they wait for all that. Unfortunately, that’s how the industry works. It takes only the best, and the competition is fierce.

They don’t know your age

The truth is, unless you tell an agent or publisher your age, they don’t know — and you shouldn’t be telling them. They’re not choosing (or rejecting) YOU. They’re selecting your book.

If you’re considering traditional publishing:

  • Do not mention your age in a query. It will not get you a break, and it may prejudice them against you.

  • Be aware that you are competing against professionals. Your age doesn’t get you any special consideration.

  • Your age may be relevant after the book is sold, when Marketing is looking for a hook, but it’s not relevant when you’re looking for an agent or publisher.

  • Present yourself and your query package professionally. The industry won’t see “child” or even “newbie.” They see “unprofessional” and reject.

  • If you’re younger than 18, be aware that if there’s a contract, your parents will have to sign it.

  • If you are self publishing, age is also irrelevant beyond providing a tax information and a credit card to pay for services that require upfront payment.