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

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.

age

Traditional Publishing — Money, Money, Money

To wrap up this series on traditional publishing, I want to talk a little bit about money, money, money. I touched on this earlier, but it’s worth a post of its own.

Traditional publishing pays royalties, a percentage of revenue the book earns. The royalty percentage varies depending on the format of the book (hardcover, trade paperback, ebook, audio, etc.).

Some publishers give an “advance on royalties,” more commonly called just an advance. They estimate how much in royalties they expect the book to earn over its lifetime and pay you that money up front.

If your book earns more in royalties than you were paid as an advance (“earns out“), you’ll receive the extra as regular royalty payments.

If your book does not earn out, you do NOT have to return any of the advance. That money is yours unless you cancel the contract before the book is delivered.

The contract will specify whether you get an advance, how much it is, and your royalty percentage for each format. The contract will also specify WHEN you are paid.

The Advance

The advance is generally NOT paid in a single lump sum. Instead, it’s paid in parts. It could be…

  • two parts
    • 1/2 on signing, 1/2 on delivery (or 1/2 on publication)
  • three parts
    • 1/3 on signing, 1/3 on delivery, and 1/3 on publication
  • or even four parts!
    • In these days of COVID, publishers split payments into more parts to ensure they had necessary cash flow.

The larger the advance, the more parts the payment is likely to be broken into.

Money, money, money — How much is the advance?

Most advances these days are between $2,000 and $10,000. There are definitely higher advances being paid — all the way into seven figures, almost always for multi-book deals. But more and more small and medium-sized publishers are paying no advance at all.

Your advance will be sent to your agent. Your agent will take her 15%, and then write you a check for the balance. You will be responsible for paying taxes on the money you receive.

Let’s look at an example of how this actually plays out

Writer A gets a $5000 advance on her book. It is paid in two parts: on signing and on publication.

  • When the contract is signed, the publisher pays $2500.
    • The agent takes 15%, and the author receives $2125.
    • Depending on the writer’s other income, she will pay 10-30% in taxes, netting between $1450 and $1900.
  • When the book is published — 12 to 18 months later — the publisher will pay the remaining $2500, and the author will net the same amount.

To avoid the math, the general rule of thumb I use is that, after paying their agent and taxes, the writer will ultimately net 50% of the advance. So don't go too hog wild with that check!

Earning out

Writer A was paid an “advance on royalties” of $5000. That means she will not be paid a royalty amount until the amount she earns in royalties passes $5000.

Each publishing house sets a schedule for how often royalty amounts are tallied and paid — it will be in your contract.

Example

For Writer A let’s say her publishing house pays quarterly.

  • At the end of the first quarter after publication, Writer A has earned $500 in royalties.
  • $5000 (advance) – $500 (earned) = $4500 (of advance remaining to be earned).

Writer A already received that $500 as part of her advance. She will receive a royalty statement showing the calculations but will not receive a royalty check until she has earned another $4500 in royalties.

Realistically, most books do not earn out, so this is likely all the money this author will earn from this book.

Let’s dig a little deeper into royalties.

Royalties

Royalties are a percentage of the book’s sale price. Unfortunately, figuring out royalties isn’t as simple as multiplying your royalty rate by the number of books sold in that time period.

Retail or net

Your contract will state whether you’re paid on retail or list price or on net sales.

  • Retail is simple. Writer A’s book is priced at $19.99. Her royalty percentage is 8%. So she earns $1.60 for every copy sold.
  • Net royalties are based on the amount the publisher actually sells the book for. If they give the retailer a 50% discount, that means your royalty figure is based on that 50% amount, not the list price.

Net sucks. If the publisher wants to pay on net, then your agent should negotiate a significantly higher royalty percentage to counter it.

Now let’s add another wrinkle in royalty calculations

Returns

Most contracts allow publishers to retain a “reserve against returns.” Printed books are actually sold on consignment, which means that retailers can return books that don’t sell. However all of the books that were sent to a retailer were counted as “sold,” so those books returned have to be subtracted from your sales.

The reserve against returns clause allows the retailer to hold back some of your royalties to cover returns. As returns come in, the actual number of sales and correct royalty amount is computed.

All of this information is on the royalty statement. One of an agent’s most important jobs is making sense of the royalty statement and making sure you — and she — are getting all the money due.

What if I didn’t receive an advance?

If you didn’t receive an advance, your first royalty period begins after the book’s publication.

Example

Say, for example, the publishing company pays royalties quarterly. In this example, say your book launches on Feb 15, and the first quarter ends March 30.

  • Your first check will cover the period from Feb 15 to March 30 and will likely arrive in April or May.
  • Your next check (assuming sales) will arrive three months later.
  • If they paid annually (Jan-Dec), your book would launch on Feb 15, and you probably wouldn’t receive your first check until the following February!
money money money

Traditional Publishing — What happens after my manuscript sells?

You have signed your contract. Congratulations! You have a book deal. But what happens after the manuscript sells?

As of the publication date, I have not had a novel published. I am traditionally published in nonfiction, however. This post is based in my personal experience and conversations with other published authors. This is just a high-level overview!

Editing

Editing is a long, in-depth process:

  • The first step is developmental editing. Yes, more rewriting. Your editor will send you her changes and suggestions, and you’ll be given a period of time in which to do them. (Welcome to a schedule!)
  • After developmental edits come line edits. This is the pass where individual sentences and word choices are examined in depth. This is really your last chance to make changes.
  • Then comes a round of copy editing to finalize your manuscript. Want to drive your editor crazy? Keep making changes.

Many new writers are terrified of the editing process. They’re afraid the editor will ask for changes they don’t want or will strip their voice out of their story. Let’s put these fears to rest.

First, editors do ask for changes, but they don’t ask for blind obedience. From personal experience, I can tell you these changes nearly always make for a better story. But what if you don’t want to make a change? Then talk to the editor. Discuss their ideas and your reasoning. Find a compromise. Or don’t. Something you get to say no! Sometimes it may be a deal-breaker to say no, but that’s not true of everything. Approach every conversation with an open heart!

One thing new writers don’t always understand is that the editor won’t be making the changes. YOU will do all the work. So your ideas aren’t going to be changed in a way you don’t like, and your words and style won’t be bastardized. It will always be your work!

When you get to the line edits, again keep an open mind. Read the suggestions. Taste them. Consider them. Sleep on them. If you don’t like the suggestion, don’t make the change. Use comments to explain why. This is a discussion, a back-and-forth, a collaborative process. Learn from it. The editing process will make you a much better process!

Layout and cover

After the manuscript is copy edited, it is sent to people who will do the layout for print or ebook. The former is a much more involved process.

When the layout is complete, you’ll get a chance to review the text “on the page.” This is strictly a chance to correct mistakes. As tempted as you are to tinker and make changes, the time for that has passed.

Next they design the cover. Some publishers will give you a chance to offer ideas or to select from several possibilities. Don’t expect to have more input than that, however. You won’t get to design your own cover, and you may not have any say at all.

Pre-launch marketing

A few months before the planned release date, the marketing push begins. This can be huge or practically non-existent. The more money the publisher has invested in your book, the bigger push you’re likely to get. You’ll be expected to participate and to come to the table with marketing ideas.

Release day arrives, and you become a published author! The marketing work will continue for several weeks.

The entire process, from the sale to release takes 12-18 months. You won’t get to choose your release date. The publisher will consider all of the books they’re releasing and choose the day they think is best.

after the manuscript sells