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How Do You Make A Living As A Novelist?

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How do you earn a decent living as a novelist? How do you get started? Who pays you and when does it happen?

Brennan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog ” page:

You’ve probably already answered this question, but here it goes.

I’m in my second year of High School, and love writing fanfiction, so much so that I plan on making writing my career.

I’m wondering, how can I begin doing such a thing? Do I start as a freelancer and write blog posts and such, or write a series of short stories into one large collection, or move straight ahead onto the path of writing a novel (my big goal).

Also, while I’m in the process of writing this novel, how will I make income? I’m not entirely sure how all of this works; if a publisher will pay you as you’re writing, or if they only pay you when copies start selling, or what.

I know if you won’t be able to answer this, I understand.

Randy sez. These are good questions, Brennan, and plenty of older writers don’t think about them soon enough.

Your question came in while I was in New Zealand teaching at the delightful Romance Writers of New Zealand annual conference. My wife and I had a great time at the conference and also touring New Zealand both before and after the conference. I got to see Hobbiton! My wife conned me into taking a mud bath in the sulfur springs at a place called Hell’s Gate in Rotorua. We went sea-kayaking in Motoeka. We were out of the country for 15 days and it’s taken me almost that many days to get caught up on things.

Let me be blunt. Earning a living as a novelist is hard. I just sent out the September issue of my Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine this morning (only 9 days late!) and there I talked about the economics of fiction writing. A very few writers do stupendously well, earning millions of dollars per year. The top 1000 novelists make quite a good living at fiction writing. Everyone else struggles. They have a day job or a working spouse or an inheritance or they live in poverty.

There is no way to change that, because the market for fiction is a free market, and free markets reward only the top performers Xtremely well. There are fields where you can earn excellent money for mediocre performance. Fiction writing is not one of them.

All of that is the bad news. The good news is that fiction writing is immensely rewarding to you personally. If writing fiction is in your blood, then it’s in your blood and you won’t be able to stop yourself from writing. If writing fiction is not in your blood, then my comments above may steer you away from it into something safer and more lucrative, such as whipless lion taming or blindfolded skydiving.

OK, so let’s assume writing fiction is in your blood. What’s your career strategy? How do you break in? Who pays you and when?

Brennan, since you’re in high school. you’ve got plenty of time to develop the fundamentals. Fan fiction is not a bad place to start. It normally doesn’t take you anywhere moneywise (with rare exceptions like the Fifty Shades of Grey author). But you can get your feet wet using other people’s storyworlds and characters to learn how to write.

But fan fiction is not real fiction. If you’re going to write fiction, at some point you need to be an original. You can write short stories, but there isn’t a lot of money in them right now. (Short fiction may make a comeback with the rise of self-published e-books, but I’d say the jury is still out on how this is going to work out for short stories. Definitely novellas seem to be on the rise.)

So I’d say that eventually you’ll want to write a novel. A novel is a complex project and it takes a lifetime to master this art form. You won’t get paid until you sell your work to a traditional royalty-paying publisher or until you self-publish it. Either way, you MUST have a strong story before you’re going to get paid a dime. Let’s look at those two avenues for payment:

If you decide to publish with a trad publisher, then you’ll need an agent to help you sell your

book. Your agent will expect that your story is strong, fully developed, and well-polished. Some agents have the patience to work with an author who is 90% of the way there, but most agents have hundreds of wannabes submitting stuff that is 90% of the way there. If you get an agent, he or she will try to sell your work to a trad publisher. There is no guarantee this will succeed. If it does, you’ll sign a contract that sets up a payment schedule. You normally get paid in stages: maybe 25% on signing, 25% on delivery of the manuscript, 25% on acceptance of a polished manuscript, and 25% on publication. Right now, publishers play all sorts of games to prolong the payment cycle, so don’t expect these terms. Your agent gets paid 15% of what your earnings, and he doesn’t get paid until you get paid. A trad publisher will pay all the costs of editing, cover art graphic design, marketing, sales, production, and distribution. They also take the lion’s share of the money. High risk, high reward for them. Low risk, low reward for you.

If you decide to self-publish. then you have some upfront costs. You have to pay an artist to design you a cover. You really need an editor. (Every novelist needs an editor. I pay a freelance editor to review my work.) You may need to pay somebody to create the e-book files. Then you just upload those to Amazon, B&N, and the other online retailers and start earning money. If you take this route, all the responsibility is on you. If you have a crappy cover, bad editing, lousy marketing, or anything else goes wrong, it’s your fault. It’s high risk, high reward for you.

One of your questions was how you get paid while you’re writing. The answer is that you don’t. This is one of the horrible truths of writing fiction. Income is backloaded. Nobody is going to pay you during the early years when you’re learning to write. The big rewards, if they ever come at all, will come to you after years and years of unpaid labor. There is no way to make this sound cool. It’s not cool. When everybody wants to be a rock star, it naturally makes it hard to become a rock star. This is one reason why it makes sense to start working hard now while you’re still in high school and still have free room and board.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news. but the fact is that it’s hard to become a novelist. It’s even harder to get rich at it. You need talent–loads of it. You need training (people like me are here to provide that). You need persistence–this is the main ingredient. Keep persisting and in five or ten years, you’ll reach whatever your potential is as a novelist. If that’s good enough to get published by a trad publisher, then you’ll probably sell your work for an advance. If it’s good enough to reach your market, then you could also do pretty well as a self-publisher in the exploding e-book market.

But there are no guarantees. None. It’s quite possible to work for five or ten years and never earn a dime from your writing. I spent ten years writing fiction and in the tenth year, I finally sold a short story to a local magazine for $150. This worked out to $15 per year, or 3 cents per hour of effort. In the eleventh year, I sold my first nonfiction book and then my first novel, and I was launched. But I didn’t know that would happen when I began my eleventh year of writing. I was going on faith that someday I’d sell something.

What it all comes down to is how much you believe in yourself as a writer and whether that belief is well-founded. If you have talent and if you get the training you need, and if you believe in yourself enough to keep at it for years, then you can get published. Tens of thousands of writers have done that. Probably hundreds of thousands. But only a few of them ever become millionaires, so be careful of setting unrealistic expectations.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog ” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

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