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.

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