make a living as an author

Make a Living as an Author: Debunking Author Myths

My inspiration for this week’s episode came from an email I received from Nick Stephenson a few years ago. He wrote about the biggest lies about being an author.

What he wrote stuck with me, and I have expanded it with other lies I have heard since then.

I want to make a living as an author.

Go ahead. Tell five of your non-writer friends, “I want to make a living as an author.” See how they respond, but I predict you will hear one or more of the following phrases:

  • Are you planning to go back to school for a Bachelor of Fine Arts or a Master of Fine Arts? Because publishers are only looking for qualified writers.
  • It takes years to get published.
  • You should write in such-and-such genre. Those are the books that are selling the best. Or a variation on that is: such-and-such genre doesn’t sell.
  • Writing is a nice hobby, but writers don’t make much money. You can’t support your family by writing.
  • You’ll have to get some writing credits in literary magazines before people will take you seriously.
  • Self-publishing isn’t really publishing.
  • Last but not least: “I have a great story idea you can use.”

For the longest time, I avoided writing because I didn’t believe anyone except the golden few, Stephen King and the like, could make a living by writing fiction. Eventually, my dream grew stronger than my resistance. Am I making a living this way? Not yet. But I strongly believe it is possible through indie publishing.

Most of this well-meant advice sticks in our brains. We hear these myths–I have trouble saying that word–myths often enough that we start to believe they are true. 

Myth: Publishers are looking for authors who have a fine arts degree.

You do NOT need to earn a BFA or MFA in creative writing to get published. There’s nothing wrong with getting or having an MFA or a BFA, especially if you want to stay in academics. That is fine. However, your degree does not mean you will be a successful author.

In fact, these programs crush the spirits of many would-be authors and breed insecurity. Publishers are looking for good writing. Period. Publishers do not care about your academic prowess if you are writing fiction, though your experience and education are more important if you write non-fiction. 

Publishers care about your writer’s voice. They care about your understanding of craft. Most of all, publishers care about whether your book will sell and whether or not your behavior is professional.

Those qualities don’t come with an MFA. Your voice and your skill can only be acquired through nose-to-the-grindstone personal effort and paying attention to thoughtful critiques from peers and editors. You don’t have to pay a fortune in tuition for the privilege of getting your work shot down in class.

Don’t think you have to go back to school to become a writer.  A strong writer who honors deadlines and is easy to work with is more desirable to a publisher than a diva with an MFA.

Myth: It takes years to get published.

Yes and no. If you are determined to follow the traditional route to publishing, then you should be prepared for a long wait and plenty of rejections. Publishers have limited budgets and shrinking manpower resources. They have a handful of contracts to award each year and a giant queue of prospective authors to choose from. It is a numbers game, and you will be subject to the whims, prejudices, and strange ideas of agents and editors.

If you pursue self-publishing, then your book can be published tomorrow. Will it sell? Only if you know how to market it and only if your book is reader ready. You can learn to market, and you can get help to prepare your book for sale. It takes effort and dollars, but a book can go to market in a relatively short period of time.

That’s precisely what Amanda Hocking did back in 2010 when she made her paranormal vampire series available on Amazon. Her novels spawned thousands of imitations and fanned the vampire craze into a bonfire of epic proportions. The rise of self-publishing fed the hunger for dystopian fiction and new science fiction, like Andy Weir’s novel, The Martian, which he self-published first before he sold it to a mainstream publisher. He is an outlier, so don’t think this will happen for you.

Myth: Self-publishing isn’t really publishing.

This myth doesn’t even merit a response, but I will address it anyway,

Tens of thousands of indies have books people pay to read; if your book has been purchased by actual readers, your book is published. If your book is in the hands of an agent who is still trying to sell it to a publisher, then you are not as published as an indie who has sold their books to the public.

In the past, agents and publishers were the gatekeepers. If they didn’t think your book would sell, then you wouldn’t get a contract.

For independent publishers, the readers are the gatekeepers. If readers purchase your book, you have passed the test. If they leave positive reviews, so much the better. No publishing contract required.

Myth: That genre doesn’t sell. Only books from such-and-such genre are selling now.

“Nobody reads Regency novels these days.” 

“Horror is out.” 

“Westerns don’t sell anymore.” 

False, false, false! Certain genres dominate the marketplace, but if you want real success, you need to choose a niche where readers are thirsty for new material. Regency, horror, and westerns have a dedicated fan base; if you want to write great books for those fans, then ignore the naysayers and do it.

In fact, if you have an idea for a new genre, a crossover, or a mash-up, then go for it. Pay attention to what readers want; you may have discovered an under-served niche market.

Make a living as an author.

So far, we have debunked a few myths authors confront about writing–lies about education, how long it takes to get published, and choosing a niche or genre.

The last myth I want to address today is the one about earning a living as an author. You can make a living as an author.

Myth: You cannot earn a living by writing. Writing is a nice hobby, but writers don’t make much money.

True. And false.

Seldom does an author hit a bestseller out of the park on the first attempt. As I said before, Andy Weir is an outlier. Most authors, even traditionally published authors, do not make a living by writing. Usually, they make supplemental income from their book sales. But that does not mean you cannot make your living as a writer.

You can. But much hinges on what you write, how well you write, how open you are to opportunities for new writing experiences, and particularly, how much effort you are willing to put forth into marketing yourself and your work.

If you write fiction, you need to develop a backlist and find readers. The better you are at creating a fan base and the more prolific you are at writing books they want to read, the more success your work will attract. Even Andy Weir wouldn’t have succeeded without building a tremendous crowd of rabid fans, and his success did not happen overnight.

If you write non-fiction, you also need to build authority and connect with people who want to learn from you. Stay in the fight because success eludes those who quit.

There is a concept, initially proposed by Kevin Kelly, that all you really need as a creative is to find one thousand true fans who eagerly wait to buy whatever you produce. You may not get rich, but you can make a decent living this way. I will link to his article in the show notes. Maybe we can do a deep dive on this idea in a future episode.

Build your backlist. Connect with readers. Also, don’t turn your nose up at creating multiple streams of income related to writing like: author services, writing articles, teaching, freelancing, technical writing, ghostwriting, and so forth. Be creative. Be business minded. And don’t believe that writing fiction is the only avenue to making a living as an author.

So my question for this week is:  What lies are holding you back from writing? Please share.

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