Thinking of writing fiction for a living? Think again.

A wise old rocker once said: “There are only two types of money to be made in rock and roll, less than you might think and more than you can possibly imagine.”

US_Dollar_banknotesThere are not many ways in which writing is like rock and roll, but this is one.

It was recently suggested that authors effectively live in a third world economy because, like such economies, the wealth is pooled at the very top of the pile and there is no middle class.

You are either very rich or very poor as an author and the poor outnumber the rich at about the same sky-high rates that the dead outnumber the living.

The market for fiction seems to be saturated with so many authors and an ever-growing reading pile of new books. To be honest the situation isn’t helped by the fact that many among the massed ranks of the self-published cut their own throats and everyone else’s by either giving their books away free or charging just a few pence a copy – so making it harder for the industry as a whole to charge viable rates.

The trouble with this race to the bottom is that it sets an amount of money in the public imagination which is a fair price for a book, and as this price collapses towards zero it brings the industry down with it.

It’s not yet as bad as music or news journalism where the public expect the product to be free as a matter of course, but, who knows, it may yet head that way.

And it’s not as though you can make money through appearance fees at festivals because, as we know, many of them, even the biggest ones, expect authors to work for free.

A lot of new writers who hope to have a book out sooner, or maybe later, dream of having this problem of course. They just want to see their book on the shelves and that’s what is important to them.

10421449_674248686040606_4388219743124469781_nIt’s important to me too. I sometimes visit my latest novel in branches of Waterstones near where I live, or at least, if I’m in there anyway buying a book, I will pause on the way past and take in the sight of it on the shelves. Is that a bit sad? Don’t care! It’s what I dreamed of doing when I was a kid, I didn’t dream about a bank balance, I dreamt of seeing my book on the shelf.

But it’s best to be honest about the financial situation for authors. And it’s best for new authors to come into this knowing the truth. Except for a tiny percentage right at the top of the tall tree there really isn’t a living to be made. Writing literary novels, or pretty much any novels, is effectively a hobby rather than a profession.

I don’t think I personally know a single novelist who lives off what they make from writing novels. They all have day jobs unrelated to writing fiction, as I do with my job in PR (insert your own PR joke here). Or they have a job which is somewhat related, such as teaching others to write, self-publish or market their books. Or they are retired and so can at least claim writing fiction as their only employment.

I wonder how many novelists make enough money to bring up a family and pay a mortgage from what they earn? A vanishingly small number I suspect. Still, the rest of us persevere, it’s something we do for love, not money after all.

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26 thoughts on “Thinking of writing fiction for a living? Think again.”

  1. Excellent post, Chris, and all too true. I have six books out (only two of which are fiction) and even with all those, my income from writing just above covers one week’s worth of groceries a month, let alone all the other costs of living. I definitely don’t write for the money and I don’t know anyone else who does either.

  2. Thanks Val, it’s a point worth making I think. Having as many books out as you do is a great achievement, and I’m proud of my couple too, but it’s certainly no way to make a living.

  3. You are so right, Chris. I suspect there may come a time in mainstream publishing when authors are replaced by machines.
    But I do realise from my own life that novels take a long time to get through, so it’s impossible to take on many unless you do very little else but read. It means that, with the huge over-supply of novels out there, you have to make choices and for most of us that means listening to our friends. That’s better than believing the hype but even then a) many recommendations are based on what people have heard of rather than what’s available b) the expectations that a reader/recommender brings to a novel are crucial. Those two factors lead us back to the power of the media in promoting what I’d see as a narrow range of books.
    So we have to think small and be critical as readers/authors and link up with each other.
    Anyway, I enjoyed interviewing you, Chris, in a small way on my blog a while back http://leslietate.com/2015/09/the-creative-interview-4-the-author-as-god-or-pick-up-artist/#more-315 Keep up the good work!
    And anyone reading this comment who might want to be interviewed about their creativity please get in touch. lstate@btinternet.com Thank you.

    1. Yes, the word love, clichéd as it is, describes it – remembering that love takes commitment, passion and constant vigilance. Writing is hard work in Keat’s ‘vale of soul-making’. You also have to laugh!

  4. I love the picture of you hovering around the bookshelf where your novel sits. If I’m lucky enough to get mine published, I’ll be doing just the same thing, only I’ll go one step further. I’ll be pretending to read it, saying, ‘This looks like an amazing book… must buy it.’ 🙂

    1. I confess I do occasionally hover Wendy. In fact, when I took the photo of my book on the shelf which appears with this article I remember a lady browsing nearby looking at me as though I was some kind of nutter.

  5. Interesting read. However, this kind of stuck out.

    “To be honest the situation isn’t helped by the fact that many among the massed ranks of the self-published cut their own throats and everyone else’s by either giving their books away free or charging just a few pence a copy – so making it harder for the industry as a whole to charge viable rates.”

    When looking for a new book, I’m either faced with established authors (trad) wanting $10 + for their e-books (set by the publisher), or a new author (self) trying to establish themselves by offering their book at a lower price – and in my opinion – more reasonably priced.

    $2.99 – $3.99 is reasonable for a digital copy. If I want to pay the higher cost, I’ll walk into the bookstore to buy the physical book.

    Your thoughts?

    1. Hi Victoria, The publisher sets my prices so I don’t have control over that, and they do have costs to cover as a business of course. I don’t agree with giving away books for free though, I think it cheapens the whole thing and is a big mistake, even though the authors who do it see it as a brilliant marketing wheeze. I wrote more about that here. https://www.chrishillauthor.co.uk/2013/10/books-for-free/

  6. Hi Chris. Thank you for directing me to your previous post. I can agree, however to produce an e-book is minimal – except for the cover art – and nothing to publish across the digital platforms. All costs go into the hard copy. Unless you’re looking at in-house editors as well, which your final draft should’ve already been looked at by your editor before submission.

    At least in your previous post you mentioned traditional authors as well. I just find it frustrating when I come across posts that point the finger at indie authors, when it can easily be re-directed to the big five driving up pricing. $20 from one of my favorite author’s? I can’t see the justification for that purchase, in addition, the poor quality produced as of late. Again, looking at e-books only. I will happily pay more for a physical copy.

    1. The cost is minimal? Structural edit, copy editor, proof-reader, cover art and cover design – not to mention the small matter of 18 months to 2 years of my life. i have to sell 2000 books at £2.99 (the cost I charge, because the market dictates I can’t charge more) to recoup this outlay. I am very unlikely to see 2000 copies. The book I have just won Writing Magazine’s Self-Published Book of the Year for has sold 150 copies in a year.

      1. I think the public idea that books are somehow cheap or free to produce is one of the things which pushes the price down. It is a nonsense though – if someone is working to create an object or service which is of value then they deserve to be paid for it.

  7. Excellent post, Chris. I am in the midst of my own experiment — writing a novel — 5 years in the making.

    I am doing it out of love for writing, yet I also had an encounter over a decade ago, which told me to pursue the story. However, I am also a realist. I’m working toward a goal… a vision… a plan and at the end of the day, I will be satisfied in completing the task; and then, feel accomplished should my story be published.

    I constantly tell my children, “You can do whatever you put your mind to in life.” My pursuit is not only for me, but to be a positive example for them.

    1. Good luck with it Roger, I’m sure you will get there in the end. And many of us who write fiction you clearly have a more compelling reason than money for doing so.

  8. Sad but too true, and well-written as well! I have been writing non-fiction about the stresses of midlife change for the past ten years. I haven’t made a bundle on my books, but I have loved every minute of it. I was a frustrated librarian for 25 years before I began writing for a living in 2006. In my case, I write for entertainment (of myself!) and to maintain my mental health through my 50s and 60s. In that regard writing has been quite a success in my life!

    1. Thank you Laura – glad to hear your writing is rewarding, if not financially then in other ways. That’s winning the battle I always think and makes the hard work worthwhile 🙂

      1. Oh dear – hope they weren’t too disappointed! Still, as fiction writers themselves I’m guessing they already know the score.

    1. Hmm – not so much an article as an advert for a book on how to make money writing fiction 🙂
      I’d just point out – I’m not saying nobody makes money (even I make some!) I’m saying most authors of fiction don’t make a full time living at it. That’s certainly been my experience anyway.

  9. Based on what I know of the stats, the answer to your question is lower than 5%. Most of us are not winning, and it looks increasingly like the days when being a professional author was realistic, are largely over and most of us can only ever hope to be part time.

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