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Providing for your family through your writing may seem like an impossible dream, but it’s not!
If you are willing to work 40 hours per week, you can make enough money to support your family. I know it’s achievable because I’ve helped many authors make it happen. It won’t happen overnight and you may not get rich, but you can make a living doing what you love.
Whether you’re indie or traditional, nonfiction or fiction, published or unpublished, there are four different ways to earn a living through writing:
First, let’s talk about some numbers, so you understand the market as it is.
The typical royalty for a traditionally published book is about $0.85 per copy, but most authors aren’t paid per book sold. Most traditionally published authors are paid through an advance from their publisher. The typical advance is $5,000, but that’s a little bit misleading.
If you have a literary agent, the average advance rises to $6,000. If you don’t have an agent, it drops to $3,500. Typically, only three out of ten books earn out their advance. For most traditionally published authors, the money they receive as an advance on their royalties is the only money they ever see.
You can’t make a living off a $5,000 advance. But don’t worry, there are other ways to make a living.
Even though $5,000 won’t pay your annual bills, understand that a major publisher may spend as much as $50,000 bringing your book into existence.
Here’s a sample breakdown:
|Printing and warehousing:||$15,000|
|Marketing and PR:||$7,000|
|Advance paid to the author:||$5,000|
Major publishers invest a lot of money to publish your book, even though you only get a small fraction of that investment.
Indie publishers can bring their books into existence for much less money. Indie authors spend around $5,000 or less to publish their books.
Here’s a sample breakdown of expenditures for an indie-published author:
|Cover and Interior Design||$1,000|
The indie author doesn’t usually have administrative costs, and there’s no advance paid to the author.
The major difference is that the indie author pays $5,000 out of pocket, up front, whereas the traditionally published author receives $5,000 in their pocket.
Indie authors start at a disadvantage because they’ve spent money. They have to make money just to get back to zero.
But indies make a lot more money per book.
While the traditionally published author may make $0.85 per book or $0.85 counted against their advance, an indie author can expect as much as $5.00 per book, sometimes more, depending on various factors.
With that said, the average print-on-demand book sells only 50 to 200 copies. The money isn’t in the paper, especially for fiction. The money is in the ebook sales. And this is where being an indie gets good.
Indies make a 70% royalty on ebook sales, assuming that they’re not priced in a crazy way.
For example, when you price your ebook at $4.99, you can expect a $3.49 royalty, which adds up fast. Top-selling indies are making $10,000 a month. Some are making even $100,000 a month. While it’s not typical to make a fortune with indie publishing, you can certainly make a living.
How to Make a Living with Your Book
Constantly Improve Your Craft
The first step to making money with your book is to become better than the average writer. The publishing industry rewards superstars. You become a superstar writer by becoming the best at writing books.
To accelerate your improvement, practice your craft by writing short stories. It’s a lot easier to get feedback on your short stories than your epic novel. Writing short stories can help you master the fundamentals of character, tension, and creating good scenes.
If you can’t write a good short story, how will you write your 400-page epic fantasy? In fact, epic fantasy writers especially need to write short stories because no one will give you feedback on your super long book.
The biggest obstacle holding many authors back, and the reason they’re not making money, is that they don’t realize they have mustard on their faces. They don’t realize their craft isn’t up to snuff. People may try to tell them, but they’re so polite about it that the author doesn’t fully understand how much improvement is needed.
Sometimes, the author just doesn’t have ears to hear the truth. They may receive criticism and chalk it up to the person not being “my target reader.” Sadly, you won’t have any target readers if you don’t accept this kind of feedback. That’s very tragic.
You may need to pay for feedback or pay for education. Making a living as an author is like making a living as a plumber. Before you get paid as a plumber, you have to go to plumbing school. Before you can make money as a writer, you need to get some education about how to write.
Fortunately, education for writers is very affordable. For $50.00, you can read five of the best books on the craft of writing. If you want to make money with your writing, you need to read books on craft and practice short stories.
Nonfiction writers aren’t off the hook. Your short stories are blog posts and articles. Your short-form writing will help you master the craft of writing a book on your topic. Additionally, you get your feedback through comments and emails from readers who interact with your content.
If you’re a novelist, you may be interested in our course, The Five-Year Plan. It’s one of our longest-running courses, and many authors have used it to improve their craft dramatically.
In the course, you’ll write a short story every month. You’ll read books on craft, and you can discuss what you learn with other students in the course. Some people say it’s like getting a master’s degree in literature, but it’s focused on writing for readers, not academic audiences.
If you want to write the kind of books that people want to read, you need to write the kind of books that people already want to read.
To make a living by writing, get to know what readers want so that you can serve them. Involve your readers in your book-writing process as early as possible so that you learn what they need and want.
Some authors are so focused on saying their piece or writing the story that’s on their heart that they can’t see where they’re going. It keeps them from making a living, and it torpedoes careers.
If you want to write what’s on your heart, you can do that. But you must realize that you’ll still need a day job.
New authors only think about the next book. They often try hard to make the first book they ever wrote into a masterpiece that puts them on the map. But that’s not how it works.
Your first book isn’t a masterpiece. Your first book exists to teach you how to write. For some authors, it was therapy writing. It was difficult and emotionally draining. You may have been learning how to write while you were doing it. Your first book is usually full of lessons learned and awkwardness. Let that first book be your teacher.
Here’s a metaphor: When you’re fishing, if you’re willing to take that first fish you caught and cut it up into bait, you’re going to catch more fish than if you take that first fish and leave the dock. There’s a time to walk away. But there’s also a time to reinvest.
Career authors who support their families through writing often write books in a series. When you write your books in a series, each book promotes each of your other books.
But if the first book in your series is the first book you’ve ever written, then you’re hanging your entire career on your worst book. It’s not good enough to make people want to read your subsequent books.
Every book you write makes you a better writer.
If that’s you, put your first book aside and start a new series. You can always republish a book later, and you can always start fresh with a brand-new first book.
Back in the day, when traditional publishing was your only option, if your first book was a failure, your whole career was doomed because no traditional publisher would touch you. That’s still more or less the case in traditional publishing.
But as an indie, nobody knows. If you have a failed book, that means no one read it, which also means it hasn’t hurt your reputation. As an indie, you can reinvent yourself at any time. And you can still sell books into a market.
For the most part, a book is judged on its own merits by readers who don’t know who you are.
The more books you have, the more money you make.
Let’s say you need $75,000 per year to support your family. If you write only one book a year, that book needs to make $75,000.
To give you some perspective, a book that spends a week on the New York Times bestseller list will make about $75,000. So you’re going to have to write smash-hit books. If your last book was not a smash hit, you can’t plan on your next book being a smash hit.
Your writing career is not about hitting home runs. You need to get on base with a solid base hit.
If you can hit home runs, it’s easy to make money. I’ve worked with authors who hit home runs, and their books sell millions of dollars of copies. That’s how they support their families.
If you invest heavily in your craft and your writing, you can get there. But it’s a lot of work. Most authors think they are the exception, that their first book is a masterpiece. They think they don’t need to put in the work. These entitled authors don’t get good enough to achieve those homerun results.
If you write six books every year, each book only needs to make $12,500 to add up to $75,000. And each book subsequent book will help promote the previous books.
Maybe you only need to make $10,000 per book, and you’ll get enough sales on your previous books in the series to earn a total of $75,000 in a year. That is very feasible. You can get there with only a couple thousand fans. There’s a very achievable goal if you’re independently published.
If you’re traditionally published, you’ll need five to ten times that many readers. But you also have access to greater distribution to get those readers.
The best strategy for you depends on the kind of book you’re writing and your strengths and weaknesses.
To learn more about your publishing options, listen to these episodes:
- How to Get Published with a Traditional Publishing House
- How to Publish Your Book Independently
- 10 Decisions to Make After You Decide to Indie Publish
Six books per year may sound impossible, but if you’re willing to invest 40 hours each week, you can get there. But you’ll need to learn how to write faster. Authors who make a living can write quickly.
Excellence = Quality + Speed
I recently hired a handyman and an electrician to do some electrical work on our home.
I noticed the electrician could change a light switch in half the time it took the handyman. And the electrician did a better job. The electrician charged more per hour, but he cost me less for the same work because of his efficiency.
He knew exactly where the wires went, and he knew exactly how to do it.
You can do quality work if you take forever. But if you’re willing to invest in the craft and be disciplined in your approach, you can become excellent. That means when you sit down to write, you’ll produce quality work quickly.
How to Write Faster
Write Early in the Day
My dad says, “He who hoots with the owls at night cannot soar with the eagles by day.” If you give your rested mind to your writing, you will improve your speed and quality. Your mind is most creative in those first morning hours.
If you’re trying to write at the end of the day, there’s nothing left in the tank.
I’ve talked with and worked with thousands of authors. Successful authors make writing the first priority of the day. Regardless of what else happens in the day, they get the writing done. They create a habit of daily writing.
Treat Writing Like a Real Job
Seinfeld has told the story of sitting at his desk not wanting to work. He looked out his window and saw construction workers walking through the cold rain after their lunch break, going back to work. He saw they probably didn’t want to do their job either, but they did it anyway.
He realized he owed it to his craft to be as dedicated to comedy as the construction workers were dedicated to construction.
Stop making excuses.
Remove the word “writer’s block” from your vocabulary. Become the kind of person who writes regardless of how they feel.
Authors typically want to make the “bestsellers” list and not the “best writers” list. To be a bestseller, you must learn how to sell.
Subscribe to the Novel Marketing Podcast to get book promotion tips and trips sent to your phone every week. Once you subscribe you can browse our back catalog of 300 episodes consisting of hundreds of hours of training on how to sell and market your books. You can binge our past episodes for free!
Listening to podcasts is an inexpensive way to level up your marketing skills.
Experiment With Price Points
If you wrote an addictive book that readers can’t put down, and they’re dying to read your next book, consider experimenting with price points. You may want to aggressively reduce the price of the first book in your series so that you can get more people addicted to your series. Then make subsequent books in the series more expensive.
You won’t know the best price for your book until you’ve tried different prices.
As an author, you need to think of your career as a business. As a business owner, you must reinvest in your business. Farmers don’t eat all the grain they produce. They save some of it for planting in the next field.
Some of the money you earn through writing needs to be reinvested for acquiring new readers.
Hire an Agent (if you are seeking a traditional publisher)
Based on the above numbers, this should go without saying, but some authors balk at the 15% an agent takes. Agents add more than 15% to how much you make, a lot more.
Receiving 100% of $1,000.00 is not nearly as fun as getting 85% of $1,500.00.
Don’t be bad at math. Don’t let percentages keep you from seeing the actual numbers.
Relaunch (if you are indie)
As you write more books, you can relaunch older books. This tactic works especially well for indies.
If your first books came out before they were fully baked, you can go back and reread them with enlightened eyes. If you’ve written dozens of books, you’ll see what needs to be improved, and you can rewrite and relaunch those books.
You can offer a whole new book to your audience without doing all the work of creating an entirely new book. Reworking and relaunching a book is far less work than building a book from scratch.
If you’re traditionally published, you can make money on your older books by becoming an Amazon Associate. Learn how to become an Amazon Associate by listening to our episode How to Spend LESS Time Marketing Your Book.
Most traditional authors don’t fill out their advance. In fact, only 30% of authors do earn out their advances. If you received a big advance and haven’t earned out, you can still make some money through affiliate programs.
How to Make a Living with Your Knowledge
One of the best ways to make money with your knowledge is through public speaking.
Some of the earliest books were transcribed speeches. Somebody wrote down what the speaker was saying.
You can make money through speaking fees when someone pays you to make a presentation. You can also sell your books at the back of the room after you speak, and you will likely make $10.00 per copy or more. If you sell 100 copies at the back of the room, that’s $1000, which isn’t bad for an hour-long talk.
The following episodes offer a comprehensive look at how public speaking and back-of-room sales can increase your income.
- How to Sell Your Book in Person (and make way more money per copy)
- How to Get Your First Speaking Gigs
- How to Sell a Ton More Books with Public Speaking
- Public Speaking for the Introverted Writer
Some people wonder whether the conventions and public speaking will never come back. Events are coming back, but it may take longer than we anticipate.
If you’re not speaking in person, you can still reach people through podcasting.
I reach more people with my podcast than I ever did with my public speaking. Flying around the world for speaking engagements was a lot of fun and a lot of hassle. Podcasting increases my reach and decreases my travel schedule.
I am adding sessions on how to start a podcast to my course Obscure No More.
The primary way I provide for my family is by selling the courses I create.
Online courses are a great way to teach people valuable skills. Nonfiction writers will have an easier time creating an online course around their topic. A course on your topic will make more money than a book, but the two go hand-in-hand.
Your book can reach a lot of people. Since it has a low price point, it creates a low barrier to entry. But you will make a lot more money within a substantive training course than you will with a book.
I have one author client who makes six figures from his consulting business.
He has only a few high-net-worth clients. They know him from his books, and they call him because they want to pick his brain. The more knowledge you have, the more people will want to pay to pick your brain. You can do your consulting in person or over Zoom.
Your book is a key that can unlock the door to consulting.
How to Make a Living with Your Writing Skills
Become a Freelance Writer
With each book you write, you get better at writing. Your writing skill set is very valuable. The fastest, easiest way to put that skill into practice is to become a freelance copywriter.
Businesses desperately need good marketing copy written by people who speak English and write well. The demand is effectively limitless, and the supply of good writers is low.
It’s easy to find people who think they’re good writers. It’s much harder to find people who have read books on craft, sought mentoring, written short stories and blog posts, and know how to write for normal people.
The kind of writing you learned in college is divorced from what works in the real world. That’s why you don’t see bestseller lists dominated by CFA graduates.
If you’re reading books on craft, writing pieces that connect with readers emotionally, and using small words and short sentences, then some websites would hire you today.
- Fiverr (affiliate link)
Each website lists projects or jobs. You take a job, you get paid, and your client will leave a review on you and your work.
When you first get started, you’ll have no reputation on the site. You can list your credentials and say you’re a great writer who deserves a high wage, but you have no proof without client reviews.
When you start seeking jobs on these sites, you need to take low-paying jobs from companies or individuals willing to take a risk on someone with no reviews. Then blow them away with your stellar writing and start racking up reviews as proof of your skill.
The more five-star reviews you get, the more you can charge. Some freelancers charge $50-$100 per hour for writing, and they’re worth it.
Sell Ads on Your Blog
There are many ways to place ads on your blog. Google or another ad partner will insert the ads automatically. It will bring in money and protect you when you write a viral blog post.
When I wrote my viral blog post, I got a $500 overage fee from my web hosting company because I got a million views in a month. You don’t have to put ads on your blog, but if you’re writing posts that could be going viral, this could be a great source of revenue.
If you know how to write enduring posts that answer questions that thousands of people type into Google, you’re probably getting a steady stream of traffic. If you place ads on that page, you can have a somewhat passive income where you get a check every month from your ad partners for the page views you’re selling.
If you’re writing fiction, put your writing skills to work as an editor. It’s one of the most common ways to make a living as a writer.
Editors make $20 to $70 per hour and sometimes more. Top editors can make hundreds of dollars per hour, especially if they have published a couple of home run books. If you have credibility and a good reputation, you can command a high editing fee.
Some writers don’t want to hunt down typos, but there are different types of editing. As an author, you’re better qualified as a developmental editor. Developmental editors edit the story. They help create better characters, make the plot more interesting, and look for ways to increase conflict or tension. It’s big picture editing.
For nonfiction, a developmental editor edits the ideas and the degree of persuasiveness. As a developmental editor, you’ll tell the author which illustrations don’t work or where the argument is weak.
Tens of thousands of authors quietly make a good living editing. It’s a great job. As they say, “Publish or perish, the editor always gets paid.”
You get less glory as an editor, but if your goal is to support your family, sacrificing a little glory may be worth it.
Many editors write their own books between jobs.
Write for Magazines
Many magazines, online and offline, are in desperate need of writers.
Novelists and nonfiction writers can write for magazines, but it may be a little easier for nonfiction writers.
Writing for a magazine is a great way to get free feedback from a professional editor. They pay you $20 to $50 for your article, and then they give you feedback.
When you receive those edits, you’ll get to practice working with an editor. You’ll become more familiar with Microsoft Word, and you’ll learn how to use Track Changes.
All those little things will help you get better at writing faster.
How to Make a Living with Your Celebrity
You can make a living as a writer on the strength of your our credibility alone. And you don’t even need to be that famous, just trusted by a few thousand people.
You can sell special access to events like a backstage pass or a premium insiders club. Online you can create focused mastermind groups. Even an autographed copy of your book could be considered special access. If you have a limited-edition, signed and numbered hardback, you can sell them for $100 to $200 each.
Some podcasts are selling knowledge. People come to the Novel Marketing Podcast because they want the knowledge I’m handing out and not because they know who I am. Other podcasts thrive on the fame and credibility of the podcast host.
Related Products or Merchandise
Nonfiction writers may have an easier time selling related products and merch.
For example, Dave Ramsey has very successful books that teach his envelope system of budgeting. When you go to his website, you’ll see that he sells envelopes for organizing your money. You don’t have to buy envelopes from Dave, but he sells a lot of them to people who want the official Dave Ramsey leatherbound envelope system.
You can also sell merchandise. The more successful you are, the easier it will be to sell merchandise with your book cover or logo.
Endorsements and Affiliate Revenue
You can earn big money by using your celebrity and credibility to give endorsements.
I’m not saying you’re going to get hired by a big brand.
I’m talking about affiliate revenue. As I mentioned earlier, you can use affiliate links for your books, but you can also use affiliate links for other books. When you review books similar to yours, you can make money by using affiliate links from Amazon or another online bookstore. You get a commission on those sales.
Many businesses have affiliate programs.
Some businesses offer courses, and they use affiliate marketing to spread the word. Some courses offer affiliate commissions from 30%, 40%, sometimes 50% on a $500 course. You don’t have to create your own course to earn money. You can promote another course and earn money through their affiliate program.
If you bring enough students there, you could make a living by promoting courses through affiliate programs. I know authors who make most of their money doing affiliate marketing for other people’s products. They curate the best of what other people make and then send their audiences there and make the easy money.
Affiliate marketing can be lucrative, but there are some pitfalls in affiliate marketing. The following tips will help you avoid those pitfalls.
Affiliate Marketing Tips
Only recommend products that you already use or plan to use. Only recommend books you have read or books by authors you trust.
If someone asks you to be an affiliate, ask them for a sample. For example, If someone asks you to be an affiliate for their course, make sure they give you access to it.
Choose affiliates that are interesting to your audience and only recommend products that will make their lives better.
Always disclose your affiliate relationship. If you do a good job thrilling your fans, they’ll want to use your affiliate links to support you.
Whenever I use an affiliate link, I disclose it in parentheses right next to the link. Legally, I could simply put the disclosure anywhere on the page, but I like to indicate which links are my affiliate links.
Affiliate links don’t cost readers anything extra, but they help support my show. I got enough email requests from listeners that I created a Recommendations page on my website. The Recommendation page lists the various products I’ve recommended on the show and the affiliate links for those products. It is a good source of revenue, and I appreciate listeners who use those links. It helps me support my family and keep this show going.
Don’t just promote affiliate programs. Sometimes an author will do an affiliate promotion for a $1,000 course with a 50% affiliate commission. Suddenly they’ve made $10,000 with a single campaign, so they decide they’re only going to do affiliate promotions.
But you still have to serve your audience and be interesting. If you only promote courses, your audience will lose interest quickly.
Recommend competing books that you like.
Your super readers will read multiple books in a month. One year, I listened to 100 audiobooks, and no single author can supply that kind of demand. Don’t be afraid to recommend books that are like yours. If you give good, honest recommendations, your readers will trust you.
To learn more about writing reviews and recommendations, listen to our episode on How to Write Book Reviews Readers Want to Read.
You Only Need One Tactic
Not every writer can or should implement all these tactics. Consider this article a pantry where you can pick up only the ingredients that will enhance the dish you’re preparing. Don’t use all of them at once.
As Randy Ingermanson told me, “It’s better to dig a single well 100 feet deep than to dig 100 wells that are only one foot deep.”
Focus on a few of these strategies. Once you get one working, you can progress to the next one.
The Five-Year Plan to Become a Bestselling Author
I crafted this plan with bestselling and award-winning author James L. The Five-Year Plan is a step-by-step guide for your writing career. Learn what to do in each quarter of the year to avoid the mistakes that hijack success for most authors. Set yourself up for success. Learn more at NovelMarketing.com/courses.
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Your support keeps this show on the air.
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What a fantastic post! Thank you for being so generous with all this information.
One of your best podcasts ever, Thomas! A+ for the Numbers section — that’s a must-read for every author planning to build a career. I’m going to share this with my list. Thank you for the Novel Marketing Podcast treasure trove!