For Aspiring Authors

Intro

This is probably the question I get asked most often. How do you become a full-time author? What makes this work? What’s the best way to make money writing?

I get asked this often enough that it’s becomes easier to write this whole spiel than to answer each person individually.

I’ll tell you the truth. Writing for a living is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. There’s something about any kind of art (especially the digital kind) where people just feel like they shouldn’t have to…well, pay for it. Asking a random stranger to take a risk on you with their hard-earned money, even at 99 cents, can seem like an insurmountable goal.

Worse, before you even get there, you have to write the book to begin with. And not just any book, but a good book that people actually want to read. Many aspiring authors completely miss that step.

I don’t have any easy answers. What I can say is that it takes time, dedication, and much more work than you would ever believe. If aspiring authors just knew how long it would take before you ever saw a penny for your work, most would give up on the spot.

It is a hard, brutal, and heart-breaking business. For every person who’s successful at it, there are ten more who aren’t, if not more. It’s called survivorship bias. We only hear about the ones who do well, while the others go off forgotten.

The point being, you have to be crazy to do this. There are much easier ways to make money. Are you crazy enough to attempt the insane gauntlet of making money writing fiction? If the answer to that is yes, then read on, and prepare in advance to be depressed by just how much work you’ll have to do.

You’re about to learn that actually writing the actual book is maybe 25% of the work, if not less.

Some caveats to start with. I will not go into great detail. The intent is just to give someone who’s thinking about doing this the broad strokes of what to expect, and I won’t mince words. I’ll give it to you straight, where in public I might just smile and nod since there is no easy way to convey just how brutal things can be without crushing that person’s hopes and dreams on the spot.

Too brutal? Yes, probably. But there is a silver lining.

If you are a good writer and know how to tell a good story, then it’s possible to make it as a fiction writer. And it’s possible to make a full-time living doing it. You’re actually more likely to do so these days than ever before. Even knowing that, the odds are not ever in your favor.

A lot of people against self-publishing like to quip that most self-published books never sell a single copy. Then again, this ignores that most aspiring authors go into this blind with half-baked plans, so if you go into this with a tenable plan and expectations, then you’re already ahead of the curve. So basically, don’t get your hopes up, but still have hope. Make sense? Probably not. Realize that to be lucky, you have do have to take a chance. And I’m going to outline a strategy that can hopefully give you the greatest chance possible to make it.

I’m just one person, with my own experiences, and my advice won’t work in all situations. It’s just the things that have worked for me. So this “guide” isn’t meant to be followed to a tee. I’m not even sure it should be called a guide. I’m just a midlist (at best) science fiction and fantasy author and there are others who are way more qualified to write this. This is just my experience, and that’s all I can write about. I will also only speak to self-publishing, because I don’t know anything about traditional publishing. I never had any interest in that path, because I like to do things my own way.

So with all that out of the way, let’s move on.

Mentality

This is the biggest hurdle to jump. And it’s something you need to wrap your head around or the rest of this is absolutely pointless.

Get it into your head that writing is just not fun. Sure, it can be fun. But when you do it every day, and you do it to make money, it does lose some of its luster.

It can actually be pretty boring. If writing were fun, then why is it so damned hard for a writer to sit down to do it?

I wanted to get this idea out of the way, because there’s sort of an unwritten expectation that if writing isn’t fun, you’re not doing it right. In fact, I would argue the opposite. If you can sit down and write, despite the complete lack of desire to not do it, then you are exactly the type of person who might excel at writing for a living.

So yes, it can be fun, but don’t expect it to be. It’s work, mostly. It’s gratifying, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun.

So with that out of the way, we can talk about having the “write” mentality going into building this writing career thing.

Don’t aim to write a bestseller. You will probably fail at that, because writing a bestseller is an almost unachievable goal, and bestselling status is not something you have control over unless you’re a well-known name or have a large advertising budget. Or hit the book lottery for mysterious reasons.

Don’t rely on luck or wishful thinking, or you’ll be disappointed almost every time.

Instead, rely on an actionable plan that gives slow, steady, and boring results. What is that plan? Write as many books as humanly possible in a genre you like writing in, and readers like to read in. That is the recipe for success.

How many do I mean by “many books?”

Literally, as many as you can. And preferably, in a long series where each book ends in a cliffhanger that makes the reader have to know what happens next, and they have to pay to find out.

You know that pissed off feeling you get when a TV show ends, and you just have to know what happens next? Yeah, do that with your book, and try to get over feeling evil about it. That is how you make money writing. We are a drug dealers, and stories are our product. How to write a novel that’s addicting is beyond this guide, but there are plenty of books and resources out there.

You could write standalones (books that stand…well, alone) but you are far more likely to make money with a series. As long as you can sell/give away copies of your book 1, assuming you’ve done your job, you’ll hook enough readers who will devour the rest of your books. Because you’re an evil writer who writes cliffhangers, despite the bad reviews that earns you.

This is where most of you will stop reading, but it’s the truth. Write decent sized books in a long series in a popular genre that you like to write in. Write as many as you can. Commit to do so now, and you’re ahead of 95% or more of the people who try to make money writing.

It’s much easier to make a career writing twenty novels, all of them selling 2-3 copies a day, than writing 2-3 novels that sell 20 copies each a day.

How can that be possible?

I warned you that this wouldn’t be easy…

Writing a bestselling novel is hard, and how well a book sells is a factor outside your control unless, as mentioned before, you have a huge name or a huge ad budget, or you just get lucky.

However, writing many novels in a series is a factor under your control. It’s just going to take a lot of time to do it.

So, since our strategy does not rely on luck, it’s better to pick the second option. It’s harder, but more achievable. It’s the same principle that getting an education and decent job is a better survival plan than spending all your money on lottery tickets. One is certainly easier than the other, but that doesn’t mean it’s better.

So assuming you’re still with me, the question then becomes, “How can I develop the mental fortitude and brass balls/ovaries to write twenty novels or more without crawling into a pit of desolation and despair?”

If you actually try to answer that question seriously, then you will soon discover whether this whole writing fiction thing is for you.

I’m here to tell you that it’s possible, because I’ve done it, and hundreds of other authors have done it. I won’t lie, to achieve anything great, you have to sacrifice some things on the altar of your dreams.

The dream is not “Become a bestselling author who makes six figures a year.” Instead, it becomes something achievable. Something such as “Write four series novels a year in a genre I like to write in and readers like to read in, and give those novels decent editing, proofreading, and amazing covers, while also securing the funds through a job or other means to give my book the best presentation possible. At the end of five years, I plan to have 20 series novels, all of them selling a little bit every day, spurring sales on my later series novels by promotion of the first books in each of my series.”

One goal is specific and achievable with sacrifice. The other is just wishful thinking.

Writing books for a living is like starting a business, and you will need to treat it as such. In the context of writing novels for a living, that means showing up every day, for months on end. And it means not paying attention to sales numbers in the beginning, but instead focusing on building your digital book empire the right way.

There are no short cuts. You have to do the work and put in the time. That means words on the page, every day. No exceptions. You need to commit to do this the right way, and not make the perennial mistake of first-time authors: writing one or two books and wasting your time and money on promoting them when you should be focusing on getting up to at least 4-5 books in a series before spending a dollar on advertising.

Writing fiction for a living is a marathon, not a sprint. Pace yourself, but pace yourself as quickly as you can.

Git Gud

You better be damned sure that you can write. All of this pointless if you don’t know how to write a good story.

How do you get good?

You write, every single day. You devour every book on writing that you can. You read a lot, especially in the genre you’re interested in. If you want to supercharge your writing skills, just stop doing things in your life that suck your time away and focus on reading, TV shows, and movies. Immerse yourself in stories, but make sure at least 50% of that is reading.

You want to be a novel writer, after all.

How long this step takes depends. I’ve almost always written, but my first two novels have never seen the light of day. My third was Apocalypse (my first published novel), and at the time of publishing in 2012, it was very rough around the edges and probably had no business being published at that time (I’ve since reworked it to be more in line of the quality of my later novels. That said, my later novels are higher quality than even Apocalypse in my eyes).

Really learn your craft, and train yourself to write novels rather than short stories, novelettes, or novellas. Novels are what the market wants and expects for the most part, and it’s where you’ll make the most money. Readers will feel cheated if they read anything less than 60,000 words, usually, though that number varies by genre. In my genre (sci-fi and fantasy) the word count expectation is generally higher (usually no less than 80k).

It’s said a fiction writer needs to write a million words of crap before their writing is good enough for people to want to pay for. There is some truth to that statement, but I probably reached 500,000 words before putting out my first novel.

The point is, write often, and write a lot. Get good.

The Process

So you’ve “gotten good.” Now what?

You write as many novels as you can in a genre you love to write in, and readers love to read in.

For me, that was science fiction and fantasy. I’ve written 15 novels in that genre with plans for many more. When I die, I hope that number goes well over a hundred.

You have to figure out, logistically, how you’re going to make time to write. If you can manage an average of 1,000 useable words a day, that can see you writing one 90,000 word novel every 90 days.

That doesn’t mean write 1,000 words a day. That means write 1,000 words that are publishable a day, on average.

In practice, that probably means write 2,000 words a day, finish up your first draft in 45 days, and then use the remaining 45 days to clean up those 90,000 words in the editing phase.

At the end of 90 days, you have your nice manuscript that you send off to a professional proofreader (which should set you back a few hundred dollars, depending on experience level). This is a crucial step that can’t be skipped or you will get burned terribly for it later. Not that I’m speaking from personal experience or anything…

If you’re a newer writer, you might want to consider using a developmental editor before proofing your book. It can be expensive, but it can give you an idea of your weaknesses as a writer and what you can improve on. I don’t recommend doing this for every novel, maybe just the first one or two that you plan on publishing. Unless you’re making a lot of money, it just isn’t financially feasible to do it for every novel, as experienced developmental editors can be very expensive.

Once the proof is back, make sure you have an awesome cover that both fits your book and the genre you’re writing in. If you’re unsure of what a good cover looks like, browse the top 50 books in your subgenre on Amazon. It’s unlikely a book will sell that well without a good cover, since readers totally judge a book by its cover. Expect this to set you back at least $300 per book. Make sure you get a cover in both e-book and paperback. We won’t go into audio, though it’s something to look into if you’re making good profits.

Are you still with me? Putting money down will certainly make things seem more real. Unfortunately, this is a business and it has its expenses. But the most important investment you can make you in your career is decent covers and decent proofreading. Just don’t consider doing this if you can’t afford either. Get a job, save up. Budget at least $500 per book. Make sacrifices if you have to.

If you’ve followed all of these steps (schedule you’re proofing and your cover artist waaay ahead of time. The best ones are booked months in advance), then you have what is hopefully a viable product that can sell.

Another optional step is to use a service like Booksprout to get reviews/beta readers for your book. You can also use a friend or other authors, as long as they know your genre. This is a great way to learn if there are any glaring issues in your book you need to fix before publication. You can do this in lieu of a professional developmental editor, and it’s a lot cheaper.

You will also have to learn to format your e-book. It’s easiest with a program called Vellum, but it’s only available for Mac. If you can’t afford/don’t want to pay the hefty $250 price tag, Draft2Digital offers their formatting for free. You just need to follow their style guidelines before uploading your word document. It’s easy, and it looks great.

Assuming that production line is all synced up, then 4 books becomes a very doable goal.

First Draft –> Final Draft –> Developmental Editing (Optional) –> Beta Reading –> Proofing –> Cover (ordered ahead of time) –> Formatting –> Publish

Note: you will not be efficient and will get many things wrong in this chain the first time. That’s okay. It’ll take time before you hit your stride. I only really started getting the hang of the whole write/publish/repeat process by my fourth book.

Tall vs. Wide

So you’ve written, edited, proofread, and have an awesome cover, and are anywhere from $500-$1,000 in the hole per book (I hope you have a job and disposable income). Now what?

Now, you publish. But an important decision awaits you: Tall or Wide.

Tall is publishing exclusively to Amazon and enrolling your books in KDP Select, which makes it possible for KU readers to read it. It’s an extra income stream and can make an author a lot of money. Amazon is where most of the e-book readers are, and it’s a huge market to tap into. That said, it means being beholden to one retailer and committing to the program for at least 90 days, a significant disadvantage. If you write in a super popular genre and your book is highly marketable to a U.S. audience, then you should consider KU. If not, read on.

Wide means you sow your wild oats and publish your book everywhere you can. This usually means the Big 5 e-book retailers where you’re most likely to see the most sales: Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and Kobo. There are smaller, more international markets as well that can be reached through sites like Draft2Digital, who I highly recommend. However, D2D gets a 10% cut of everything you make. Whether you publish direct to some or all retailers, or solely through D2D, is beyond the scope of this guide.

Publishing wide (my preference) has the advantage of you retaining true control over your work. Amazon can’t tell you where, when, or how you publish. Retailers outside of Amazon also allow you to price your book to free, which can be a powerful tool for spurring sales of later books if you write a long series. Amazon can price match the free book, allowing you to give it away on Amazon for free. You can easily promote that free book using bargain book sites like Freebooksy, Fussy Librarian, or the biggest one of all, BookBub, whose list of millions is so huge that it can be quite literally a career maker (as it was in the case of your truly).

If you can give away an average of 50 copies of your free book one per day, for example, and 5% of those downloads turn into hard sales of the rest of your series, well, that becomes very profitable very fast.

Imagining a long 10 book series:

50 free downloads times 5% average sell through (a typical number) to the rest of the 9 books = 2.5 sales per book per day on average = 22.5 sales overall per day for that series. If you’re charging 3.99 for each of those books and getting 70% of that, then that equals $62.84 a day, or $22,937 a year. Not bad at all! It’s stuff like this that’s the reason I emphasize writing many books in a long series rather than standalones or chasing bestseller status. Imagine having twenty books, and you can double that number of royalties. Of course, the numbers could be better or worse, I’m just working with averages or what other authors have reported. If you write 4 books a year with those numbers, then it will take you 5 years to get to that point. At 10 years, you will easily be a six figure author when factoring in stuff like paperback sales and audio, which you should be able to afford by now.

That above paragraph was written just to inspire you, because so much of this has been doomy and gloomy.

That said, KDP Select is the most popular choice, and the usual advice most authors give is to try it for 90 days and see if it works out for you. I don’t think that’s bad advice. Who knows, you might hit the jackpot and have books that KU readers want to devour. That said, those 90 days might be better spent building up a presence on other retailers.

In short, it’s not an easy choice, and you need to research it, hard, before you make a decision.

My personal strategy is to write long series and give away the first book for free on all retailers. The idea is someone will read the free book, get hooked, and be happy to pay for the rest because they would not have taken a chance on my writing. Let’s face it, I’m pretty much Joe Schmo since my name isn’t really recognizable outside of the walls of my home. So giving away the first book in my series for free is how most new readers discover me.

I guess I’m like the grocery store people who hook you with a free sample. Sure, most people who grab the samples are freeloaders, but a certain percentage will like the sample so much that they’ll buy the whole enchilada as well.

One caveat: I would not recommend this strategy for series that are shorter than 4 books. And I would not recommend setting the first book to free until you have at least 4 books out in the same series, and only if sales aren’t where you want them to be for book 1.

Inspiration

Well, those are the basics. The rest of this is simply meant to help you find your inspiration.

All of what I wrote above, from first to last, is really, really difficult to do. You will be lost in the trenches most of the time, and it’s important to remember why you’re doing this.

There will be many ups and downs. I still get those highs and lows on an almost daily basis. Writing fiction for a living is certainly exciting and I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to do it for so long.

What has always inspired me personally is imagining the future I want. Back when I was starting out as a lowly corporate drone or warehouse worker, I’d imagine what it might be like once I had a few books out. Back then, I was making low three figures a month. Enough to make a difference, but not a career. I became inspired by the idea (after perusing many author’s forums and such) that my goal needed to be to write many books, and to give away my first books for free.

Maybe I couldn’t make a career until I had 15 or so out, so I prepared my mind for that possibility. That’s how badly I dreamed of writing for a living.

Of course, having a crappy job I hated also worked as a negative influence.

I’m lucky in that I started early. In 2013, my books were promoted by BookBub and I went from my making low three figures a month to four figures. Six months later, after publishing my sixth book, I quit my day job earlier than I ever expected to.

I wish I could report that things took off even more after that. However, I sort of fell into a funk and forgot the reason why I was doing what I was doing. I entered a slower period of my career where I’d go a year or so between releases. Despite writing more books, I was making less money overall as the publishing landscape changed and more competition entered the market.

I found my inspiration again in 2019, and have since remembered my original goal: to write as many good books as possible, in a genre I like, that readers like to read in. It wasn’t easy correcting course, and I made a lot of mistakes playing catch up, but I’ve reached a point where I’m rounding the corner and prepared for a successful 2021.

I plan to release no less than 3 books early next year, and three more throughout the rest of the year. To reiterate for the millionth time, it’s writing lots of books in a big genre you like that readers like, too. And to write in a series and find any way possible, including giving away free books, to hook readers into your series.

Ambitious? Yes. But I’ve remembered my dream, and I know what it takes to be successful at this. Now, I’m going out and doing it!

My whole point being, you have to find your reason for doing this. If there isn’t any reason that’s powerful enough for you to sit down, day after day, doing what amounts to boring work, then this isn’t the right career for you.

If, on the other than, all of the above excites you rather than depresses you, then you probably have what it takes. If it doesn’t excite you, then you need to dive deeper and try to figure out what success looks like to you.

In the past, it was making a living as a writer, no more or less. Now, it’s to make more money by releasing more books so I can support my growing family. For another it might be just to have their work published. Others might be satisfied with writing just a few novels without money being one of the goals.

Those goals are totally valid, though all of the above was written with the express intent of how to make it as a fiction writer in current. From the humble opinion of one writer.

Conclusion

Even if it seems like a lot of information, it really is the tip of the iceberg. There are so many ways to do this, and my way is just one of them, at least for me. The point is, to dive in and find something that works for you. But no matter how you decide to go about it, writing a series in a popular genre with great covers and editing will probably be instrumental to your success.

So, that’s my answer posed to the question at the beginning of this page, of the best way to become an author in current year. I hope you have found it at least somewhat enlightening.