There are several paths you can take to learn how to make a living writing fiction. From traditional, to self-publishing, to hybrid publishing: they all have their benefits and letdowns.
But remember: becoming a full-time fiction writer is easier now than it has EVER been before.
But how exactly are they different, and how do you know which is right for you? Then what do you do once you’ve chosen your path?
This guide on how to make a living writing fiction covers:
- Traditional publishing career author route
- Self-publishing career author
- Hybrid publishing
- How to choose between career author options
- How to prepare for your author career
How Much Does a Fiction Writer Make?
Fiction writers can expect to make as much as they put into their work, but it largely depends based on their publishing method, book retail price, book sales, and royalty rate.
Self-published authors can expect to make up to 60% royalties on each sale whereas traditionally published authors typically make around 10% royalties after their advance is paid out.
What this mean for averages is that a self-published author can expect to average around $4.50 per book sale and a traditionally published author can expect around $1.50 per book sale.
What this means is that for a 300-page paperback book self-published on Amazon, retailed at $14.99 with a 60% royalty rate and Amazon charging $4.45 for printing, leaves the author with $4.54 per book sale.
This is Amazon’s formula for printing cost:
$0.85 (fixed cost) + (300 [page count] * $0.012 [per page cost]) = $4.45 (printing cost)
This is Amazon’s formula for royalties:
(Royalty rate x list price) – printing costs = royalty
0.6 x 14.99 = 8.99 | 8.99 – 4.45 = $4.54
The amount you fully earn as an author depends on how many books you have, how many sales they get monthly, and how heavily they’re marketed. A full-time fiction author running successful Amazon ads, for example, can expect to make more than a self-published author without ads.
How do you become a successful fiction writer?
To become a successful fiction writer you have to write consistently, read often, find a process that works for you, and publish at least 1 book a year on average.
This may sound like a lot, but if you truly want to have a career writing fiction, there is a good amount of upfront work, consistency, and learning the methods that lead to success in the first place.
Think of it this way: maybe people spend thousands and thousands to go to college for 2-4 years and get a degree in their field, so they can become successful in their field. You may have to put that much time in upfront, but not necessarily that much work.
If you want to learn how to become a full-time author, check out our Fundamentals of Fiction program to get started.
How to be a Full-Time Traditionally Published Fiction Author
Traditional publishing is probably the method you’re most familiar with. It’s when a book is published through a traditional publishing company, typically having gone through an agent acquired through a query process.
Publishing houses you’ve heard of might include Penguin/Random House, Harper Collins, Hatchette Book Group, and Macmillan. There are HUNDREDS more, but these three are a part of what’s referred to as “The Big Five.” Publishing with one of The Big Five is often seen as a mark of success for an author.
Most authors you know are traditionally published. Stephen King, Alice Walker, Anne Tyler, Cormac McCarthy, Neil Gaiman…
But is traditional publishing the route for you? Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Pros of traditional publishing:
- Money upfront! Most traditional publishers offer an advance payment for the right to publish your book. For a debut author, the average advance can be around $5,000 to $15,000. As writers grow and get more publications under their belt, this advance can be much higher.
- Little monetary investment. If you publish traditionally, the cost of editors, designers, printing, and such are covered by the publisher.
- Clout. Like I said, being published traditionally–particularly by a company in The Big Five–is seen as a mark of success. Many people perceive traditional publishing as the more, or only, “legitimate” form of publishing.
Cons of traditional publishing:
- Likely no royalties/lower royalties. If and when your book has sold enough copies to surpass the advance you were paid, you may start to receive royalties per book sold. Most books will never reach this threshold. The royalty rate for traditionally published books can fall between 8% and 15%, depending on the format (ebook, paperback, hardback) and the number sold. But like I mentioned, few books reach that threshold of sales to begin receiving royalty payments in the first place.
- Less creative control. If you have ideas for covers, formatting, marketing, or even the specific content of your book, you might be disappointed with the traditional publishing process. The creative decisions will be in the hands of your publisher, and it will be marketed in whatever way they see fit. Some publishers might ask for your input, but ultimately, the decision is theirs.
- More barriers to entry. Like they say, if publishing a book was easy, everyone would do it. The barriers to entry for traditional publishing are extremely high. Even if you write a strong, compelling book with amazing characters and sparkling prose, that genre might not be what’s marketable right now. Publishers usually have specific types of books and authors they’re looking for–very few people are going to fit that mold. It’s very common to get rejected due to no fault of your own or your book’s–it’s just not what they’re looking for right now.
- Longer process. Traditional publishing is a long, long, winding road of querying, rejection, revision, repeat. A manuscript could be rejected a hundred times before being accepted, if it ever is. Even after acceptance, it can take years from then until you see your book on shelves. This is why writers often have several projects going on at once in various stages.
Traditional publishing is likely the safer, more widely approved way to publish–if you can get in.
Self-Publishing for a Full-Time Fiction Career
Self-publishing has flourished into a thriving industry in the last few years. It has shifted from low-quality, cringe vanity projects to a legitimate and respected publishing option.
Self-publishing might be for you if you’re just starting out, interested in a lot of creative control, or have a special (not particularly trendy) project in mind.
It’s also an excellent option for entrepreneurs, life coaches, and other professionals to showcase their expertise, add to a product offering, supplement an online course, and countless other purposes.
Some self-publishers you may have heard of: Margaret Atwood, William Blake, Charles Dickens, Stephen King, Anais Nin, E.L. James, Rob Dircks.
Some of these authors have gone on to be traditionally published. Self-publishing can be your foothold to a traditional book deal, or it could be a main or supplemental income for as long as you’d like.
Success rarely includes fame, and there are tons of writers making a living self-publishing their books. Don’t think that self-publishing isn’t lucrative if you can’t list famous self-published authors off the top of your head.
So is self-publishing for you? Let’s look at the pros and cons.
Pros of self-publishing fiction:
- Creative control. You decide what happens with every aspect of design and promotion. If you’re a creative person with tons of ideas, this can be a great opportunity to have your hands in every part of the process and make it exactly what you want it to be. No one to answer to, no one to say “no”.
- Higher royalties. Like I said, IF a traditionally published book sells enough copies to reach the threshold to receive royalties, the royalties are low. With self-publishing, your royalty rate can easily be 10 times as high as traditional royalty rates.
- Fewer barriers to entry. The only thing stopping you from self-publishing is yourself. Everything is within your reach and control, and there are no industry barriers to publish.
- Business control. Much like creative control, the way your book is handled and promoted is up to your publisher. If you’re your own publisher, that means it’s up to you!
The first example to come to mind when I think about business control is my decision to offer free ebooks during the beginning of COVID-19 lockdowns. If I’d traditionally published my collections, things like that wouldn’t be an option for me. If you’re the kind of person who likes to be in control of business decisions, self-publishing might be the route for you.
- Quicker turnaround. Like we discussed earlier, traditional publishing is a LONG journey. Self-publishing can be as quick as you’d like. I know romance authors who drop an ebook once or twice a month–and make bank doing it. The process and steps of self-publishing are completely up to you, and if you want to speed produce books, there’s nothing stopping you.
Cons of self-publishing for fiction:
- You drop the money upfront. Unlike traditional publishing, all costs of production fall to you. Editors, designers, artists, marketing–any and all costs are yours to bear.
- No guaranteed profit. As we mentioned, most traditional publishers offer an upfront payment, regardless of how your book performs. With self-publishing, your paycheck hinges on sales.
- Stigma. Even though self-publishing is becoming a more lucrative option for authors every year, there is still stigma around it because of the lack of barriers to entry. It’s easier, sure–but everyone knows it’s easier.
A hybrid author is the best and worst of both worlds. They self-publish and traditionally publish.
This is what I intend to do myself. Why? Because I write short story collections, a genre that is particularly impossible to catch a publisher or agent’s interest. I fully intend to continue publishing collections while I query my fantasy novel for traditional publishing. Maybe I’ll hate traditional publishing, maybe I’ll love it!
There are plenty of authors who hybrid publish.
So which publishing option is right for you?
It depends on you! Are you so excited to have creative and business control of your publications that you don’t mind the initial investment? Maybe you’re a self-publisher.
Are you in it for prestige and the potential comfort of one big paycheck? Traditional publishing might be for you.
Like me, are you a multi-genre author? Maybe you’re a hybrid!
Consider your options carefully, but let’s talk about the steps you should be taking now, regardless of your writing career goals.
5 ways to prepare for your author career
Here are five things you can be doing right now, even without a finished book, to give yourself a competitive edge in your writing career.
#1 – Practice the craft
The most worthwhile time investment for a writer is, surprise, writing! Even if it isn’t to produce new content you intend to monetize, writing for practice is a great use of your time. There are loads of writing seminars you can take online. And check out free writing tutorials on YouTube!
- Writing exercises
- Keep a daily journal
- Post to a blog
- Use writing prompts
#2 – Learn the industry
Get involved with the writing and publishing industry. Connect with writers who have found success in the publishing route you’ve chosen, as well as writers who are at your level.
See what they’re doing, note what’s working and what isn’t.
#3 – Build your platform
No matter how you’ve published, all writers benefit from a platform.
Build your readership, even before you have a book to sell, by doing the following things:
- Social media – Set up your professional online presence with consistent branding, high-quality profile images, and regular content. Engage with readers and other writers!
- Produce content – Before you have a book to offer, think of other things you could create to attract an audience. Here are a few ideas:
- Start a YouTube channel – Maybe your videos are about writing, or maybe they’re not–just make sure to mention your writing projects every now and then!
- Write a blog – Posting regular content can draw traffic to your website, putting your books, services, mailing list, and brand in front of new people.
- Develop a course – Show your expertise in writing or another area to build credibility and establish an extra income stream. I publish classes through Skillshare, and based on the current rate of growth, those courses will be 10% of my income by the end of the year.
- Create an aesthetic Instagram or Pinterest account – Writers and readers love aesthetics. If you’ve got a knack for it, create a post schedule, log some back content, and make a thing of it!
- Remember to include an email list signup on your website! A mailing list is a powerful author tool.
#4 – Build a network
You’ll eventually need to know people in the industry, like editors, agents, designers, other writers, readers, reviewers–it’s great to connect with people before you need them.
Even if you don’t hire or work for a connection directly, the more people you know, the more opportunities you and your writing will be thrown in front of.
Here are some tips for building your author network:
- Follow people in your industry on social media.
- Be friendly! Reach out, but be mindful that writers with sizable followings get a LOT of messages every day. Smaller creators and writers are much more willing to give cold call messages a read and response.
- Create content. Creating something other than books so you can share things more regularly can help to build your platform and network. Make something cool, and other people will notice!
- Remember that not every connection has to be a two-way street. Make sure to follow people just for the sake of learning and being plugged in. If you’re new to Twitter (the social media platform of choice for most writers), here’s a list of starter follows you might like–
- Kayla Ancrum is an amazing writer with an active, hilarious Twitter feed.
- Joyce Carol Oates has a huge following with witty and informative tweets.
- Aiden Thomas’ feed is always hype, colorful, and a fun place to be.
- Terese Mason Pierre shares a ton of resources for writers, like open calls for submissions.
- Kelly Quindlen sets a good example of how to interact with other writers. Give her a follow and see how she replies to other writers and their content.
- John Meehan offers a perspective from the place of academic writing, as well as thoughtful takes on current issues in publishing.
- Other industry types you might want to follow are editors, agents, and publishers, and readers of your genre!
#5 – Ask for help when you need it
Ask for help when you need it!
If you’d like a team to guide you through the process of writing and self-publishing your book, look no further. Take the first step by scheduling a consultation with one of our Publishing Success Strategists now!
Whether you choose traditional publishing, self-publishing, or a mix of ‘em, use these tips to build a strong path into your author career.