Can You Make a Living as a Writer?

Doug Landsborough
June 30, 2022
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We live in a time when more people than ever are taking their passion and turning it into a career. Making a living off writing is no exception.

But, when you look at the statistics, there is a disheartening number of authors who are barely making enough to cover the costs of groceries for a month.

Worry not, fair writers, because you can make a living as a writer. It just takes some understanding and, like all careers, dedication and hard work.

In this blog, we’re going to talk about what it takes to turn writing into your career. This includes:

  • Some realities that career authors need to face–and they aren’t obnoxious, I promise
  • Five steps to make money with your fiction
  • Other income streams to help buff your career

Ready to make money with your book? Let’s get going.

Making Money Off Your Fiction: Some Realities

Okay, let’s start with facing some realities that fiction writers must face. I’m not stating anything revolutionary here, but these are things you need to know.

It’s okay to want to make money from your writing. Honestly, some writers act as if dreaming of actually selling your story is blasphemous. It’s not. You won’t lose your writing license because you want to turn your passion into a career.

Publishing is much different today than it was a decade ago. Both self-publishing and traditional publishing are now valid, lucrative options for writers. But the way you navigate either stream is different than it has been in the past (and we’ll chat about it later in the blog).

One book will not replace your day job. Sorry, that’s just how it is. We live in a world where entertainment is devoured at an incredible rate, usually paying as little as possible. You might have the best story ever, but you’re going to need to write the next one, and the next one, and the next one if you want to make a living as a writer.

Most writers don’t make enough to consider writing a career. But just being here means you’re willing to do what it takes to be one of the writers who does make a living from their books. If you want a detailed breakdown of how much authors make, check out this blog over here.

The two types of writers

A quick note that I hope doesn’t come off as obnoxious: there are two types of writers out there, and this article is only for one of them.

The first type of writer is someone who writes exclusively for the passion and joy of writing. It’s a hobby, an outlet, or something they do in their spare time. Maybe it’s an escape from the real world into something better (or, if you’re like me, something way worse). Maybe one day this writer will publish their work and make a buck or two, but that’s not the goal. The goal is simply to tell a story.

The second type of writer is the one who is actively choosing to make a living as a writer. They take their passion and combine it with knowledge from great online resources and classes (like DabbleU!), and learn what practical steps need to be taken to turn writing into a career.

To be clear, there is no one type of writer that is better or worse than the other; there is just the style that is better for you. The best way to determine which one is best, you need to figure out what your writing goals are. Those goals will dictate the camp you fall into.

This article, however, is for those looking to move from the first type of writer to the second, from passion to passion+profit. In fact, some writers who only write for the sake of writing might find the rest of this article downright heretical.

If you don’t ever want to make a living from writing fiction–which, again, is absolutely okay–then this blog might not resonate with you.

But if you are looking to be a full-time writer one day, then read on!

Make a Living Writing - Step 1: Finish a Dang Good Book

This should come as no surprise, but the first step to making money with your fiction is to have a piece of fiction for people to read (after they pay for it, of course).

This maybe should have been a reality check up above, but listen: you’re a writer. You need to get writing and finish that awesome story that’s hanging out in your head. Without that book, it will be tough to make a living from your writing.

That’s easier said than done, right? Writing a book is a massive endeavor, especially if it is your first book. Those 80,000 words don’t just write themselves, unfortunately. Want to know the #1 secret to writing a book?

You actually have to write.

If you want writing to be your job, treat writing like a job. Take it seriously. Write every day when you can. Make writing a routine. Understand that writer’s block is just a term we like to use when we just don’t feel like writing.

You aren’t alone in this journey, either. If you’re struggling with finishing your book (whether it’s your first or fifth), check out our awesome guide to writing a book. And connect with other writers to absorb their wisdom over at the Story Craft Café–just don’t use it as an excuse to not write!

Step 1.5: Celebrate

A crucial step that many writers tend to overlook: celebrate when you finish your book.

Throw a party. Open that bottle of wine. Go out for dinner with your partner. Rent a movie and eat ice cream. Do whatever floats your boat, but do something to celebrate.

Writing a book is something that many people dream about but only a fraction of people accomplish. You’re an author. Be proud. 

Make a Living Writing - Step 2: Make it Better

There’s this common phrase amongst writers that “your first draft is trash.” Or substitute trash with obscenities that my boss won’t let me put in this article.

I’m not a fan of this thinking. Yes, your first draft has a lot of room for improvement, and you will spend a good deal of time and energy making it better. But don’t get the notion in your head that your manuscript–the thing you’re passionate about–is worthless. It’s just not in its final form.

That’s why the second step to making a living from your writing is to make your story better. As much as I don’t want you thinking your first draft is bad, understand that no successful author publishes the first draft.

So, once you’ve finished your story, you’ll want to do these three things (and sometimes repeat them):

  1. Revise. Take a few days or a week away from your story, then go back at it with a fresh eye. Read through for plot holes and content you want to improve; don’t go looking for typos and whatnot at this point.
  2. Send to beta readers. Yes, it’s your story, but you need an outside perspective to point out issues or weaker sections. The best beta readers are those who read your genre, so try networking with some of them. If you know writers in your genre, they make darn good beta readers, too.
  3. Hire an editor. No book should go out without an editor getting their hands on it. While there are different types of editing that can help your story, you need a copy edit at a bare minimum. Note: if you’re traditionally publishing, your publisher will have an editor work with you on your book.

Accepting and applying feedback is a big part of two of those three steps and an important part of your writing career. Understand that well-meaning feedback will improve your book–and a good book is a crucial part of making a living as a writer.

Step 2.5 Celebrate

Time to celebrate again!

Once you’ve gone through all these steps, you’ve accomplished another major part of your career: turning the first draft into the final draft. You’ve polished your book, and it’s all glittery and sparkly now. 

Many writers will say that this step is even more difficult than the first one, so celebrate when you accomplish it!

Make a Living Writing - Step 3: Trad of Self?

Once you have your finished book, you have a choice to make in your writing career: traditional or self-publishing.

Both options have their pros and cons, and each path is very different from the other. Some folks will gravitate towards one option or the other almost immediately. Others might have a tough time choosing between the two.

What’s important to understand is that neither option is inherently better than the other. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, tell them to take their gatekeeping attitude and go away.

Realistically, the decision between traditional and self-publishing could take up an entire series of blogs. Some authors even pursue both types of publishing over the course of their writing career. So I don’t overwhelm you with too much info, here’s a breakdown of traditional and self-publishing.

A Quick Look at Traditional Publishing

Traditional publishing is the route most people think of when they think of a career writer. There can be a couple different ways of going down this route, but it usually goes like this:

  1. Write and perfect your book
  2. Query your book to an agent (and get accepted)
  3. Receive an offer from a publisher (that may or may not have an advance)
  4. Revise your book with your publisher
  5. Release your book
  6. Repeat

Note that I said usually. Some folks will have different publishing journeys while pursuing the traditional route. There are medium and small publishers out there who accept submissions directly or might reach out to you if you have an established base and repertoire of books. Also understand that there is a lot of work that goes into each step. Be prepared to work.

Traditional publishing comes with a slew of benefits: more marketing power behind you, potential for advances, some of the best editors in the industry helping you with your work, more mainstream recognition, and less stigma from people who don’t understand the publishing world.

It also has some drawbacks: less creative control over some aspects of your book, lower royalties, potentially never earning out your advance, and a painstakingly slow production process.

When it comes to authors who earn the most, traditionally published authors rank the highest. That said, the average income of traditionally published authors has been declining year over year, while self-publishing, which we’re looking at next, sees big increases in average earnings every year.

A Brief Glance at Self Publishing

Self-publishing used to have a nasty stigma associated with it–and in some close-minded circles, still does–but much of that has disappeared over the last decade as e-readers have come to dominate the reading landscape.

With self-publishing, you are in control of every aspect of your writing journey, but that all comes with a cost of both time and money… two things I could really use more of. Again, self-publishing journeys usually go like this:

Write and perfect a book

  1. Hire an editor
  2. Create a cover and format your book (can be outsourced)
  3. Pre-release marketing
  4. Release your book
  5. Post-release marketing/advertising
  6. Repeat

Marketing is included in two of these steps, but it’s basically a constant throughout your career. Self-published authors are a small business unto themselves. You need to run your social media, learn how to advertise, build an email list, and create an awesome community ravenous for your books.

Sounds like a lot, right? But let’s look at the pros and cons of self-publishing.

Pros: more creative control, higher royalties, much faster production time (some authors release multiple books per year), and some people love the thrill of doing it all themselves.

Cons: much more expensive (you either outsource a lot of steps or learn to do them yourself–be careful that you don’t sacrifice quality to save a buck, if you can help it), no potential for advances, and constant marketing/community management.

Like I said before, self-published writers are, on average, seeing drastic increases in average earnings while traditional publishing is in decline. This might seem like a no-brainer, but traditionally published authors still out-earn most of their self-published peers.

Don’t despair if you love the idea of self-publishing, though. Some authors are still making six-figure incomes every year.

Make a Living Writing - Step 4: Do it Again

Okay, so you’ve written a book, perfected it, and decided how you want to publish it. Now it’s time to do it all again.

Unfortunately, a single book will not support you for the rest of your life. Sorry, but that just isn’t possible. And do you even want that? Passionate storytellers either have a bunch of stories in their heads or feel the urge to create, create, create. 

If you want to make a sustainable career out of writing, you’re going to need multiple books to support your income. That means you’ll always want to be writing or planning your next book. This way, readers not only have multiple ways to give you money, but they have just as many ways to discover your writing in the first place.

If it works with your genre, writing a series is a great way to make more money. You only need to hook readers on one book to make them ravenous for more (and this is especially true for Kindle Unlimited readers–those people are a different kind of reader).

Since we’re trying to make a living as a writer, you should learn to find the places where you can work on your next book. Come up with your character arcs in the week between your first draft and your revisions. If you’re a plotter, you can go through the entire Snowflake Method while your book is with beta readers or an editor. If you really don’t feel like writing one day, jot down notes about the sequel instead.

This doesn’t mean you can’t ever take time off–that’s no way to live–but remember that we are treating writing like the career we want it to be. That means working, even when we might not want to.

Make a Living Writing - Step 5: Marketing

We’ve established that marketing is crucial to self-published authors, but it’s just as important to those looking to traditionally publish, too. Sure, some parts of your marketing will look different, but all authors need to embrace the importance of promoting themselves and their books.

You can write a bunch of books without putting any effort into marketing, but don’t be surprised if no one finds your books. Sure, maybe one person a month will stumble on your Amazon page. Maybe one every other month will buy your book.

And $3 every other month doesn’t make a career.

Book marketing is a huge subject, and we’re constantly adding resources here on Dabble to help you out. As you get started, here are some options to promote your books:

Social media is free to use and a great place to build a community around your books. Some sites, like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter, are great for being discovered by new readers, too.

Paid advertising is the most effective way to get strangers to see your work, but it’s also the most expensive. Really do your research before investing in ads on Facebook, Amazon, or Pinterest, or with services like BookBub–otherwise you will burn through cash quickly.

Interviews on blogs and podcasts help you reach a larger audience. Plus, they are a lot of fun!

An email list is an author’s most powerful tool, and it only costs the time it takes to write a weekly or monthly email and the money for the service. People who subscribe to your email lists are telling you that they want to hear from you and are that much more likely to buy your new release. Use a lead magnet to grow your list and stay in constant–but not spammy–communication with your subscribers.

Other Income Streams

Writers aren’t limited to just the income from their books. In fact, the majority of writers who do this full time have supplemented their income by diversifying it. This could include:

Creating a course or resources about writing. Share the knowledge you’ve gained and help others pursue their dream, too!

Speaking gigs at colleges or conventions. Each writer has their own journey, and many event organizers are willing to pay to hear about it.

Teach the craft at your local college to inspire the next generation of writers.

Write non-fiction for magazines and websites. It might not be fiction, but at least it pays to create words.

It’s important to understand that most of the above–or any other ways you can think of to diversify your income–are dependent on you establishing yourself as a writer. So, while income streams are important, focus on getting some books out there, first. With that being said…

Get Writing!

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it at least one million more times before I die: you need to get writing. If you want to make a living from your fiction writing, you need to complete your book.

And Dabble wants to help get you there. In addition to all of the awesome resources we have in DabbleU (which has high-quality articles being added multiple times a week), our newsletter is chock-full of tips, tricks, and resources for writers who want to turn their passion into a career.

So if you’re serious about this whole writing thing, click here to sign up for our weekly newsletter and take that next step to becoming a full-time writer.

Happy writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.