What are the Chances of Making a Living Writing Fiction?

In my last post I talked about the self-doubting that can come creeping in when chasing your dream. And no doubt the risk of failure is probably bigger than the chance of success, but how slim are the odds of making it as a professional writer of fiction actually?

If you are an amateur writer yourself (and if you’re reading this, there’s a fair chance you are), then you’ve probably heard something like, “It’s impossible to make a living as a writer” or  read articles claiming that the average writer only makes X low amount of money a year.

On the other hand a lot of people out there are claiming that it’s easier than ever to make a living as a writer now that self-publishing is a viable way to go.

So which is it?

Well, both, and neither.

Lets look at the last statement first, that self-publishing has made it easier to make a living as a writer.

It’s true that ebooks have made it incredibly simple to publish a book. It’s also true that it has become possible for authors to sell books to niche markets that never would’ve been viable and, thus, worth it for traditional publisher. And those authors can even make a living out of their small audience, if they can be prolific, keep delivering quality work, and their audience is loyal.

As I said, simple. But is it easy? Hell, no. And that’s why there are thousand of self-published authors out there who are not selling enough for an espresso down  at Starbucks.

One book isn’t going to make you rich. Heck, it’s likely no one will notice you’ve put it up for sale at all. Those who make in as self-published authors are usually incredibly prolific, have practiced for years beforehand, and are continuously working on their covers and marketing as well.

Of course their are freak examples who make it with one book, like E.L. James (author of Fifty Shades of Grey), but those are extremely rare outliers. The kind that only serves to destroy  any sense in your data set.

What ebooks have done is to make it possible for a wider range of what is often called mid-list authors to make a living as writers. These are people who aren’t bestsellers, who write a lot of books but go by unnoticed by the wider public. But it hasn’t created a fast track to success.

Then we come to the second statement, that it’s impossible to make a living as a writer or that the average writer makes almost no money.

You’ll often find professional writers who says it’s impossible or near impossible to make it as a writer (which seems a bit contradictory considering they’re doing just that).

I think the problem here is that people often take this statement literally when it’s just meant to be cautionary, to shatter the illusions of aspiring writers who think they’re bound to be bestsellers as soon as they’ve finished the first draft of their first novel.

And all those studies showing the average wages of writers… well, they’re usually next to useless. Where do they get their data from? What’s the criteria for being a writer? (If you want some more useful information on author earnings, you could, for example, check out Tobias Buckell’s research into advances for speculative fiction authors.)

Sure, if take the average income from fiction sales for every person who have published a story or two on amazon, then, yes, the average income for a writer is way below living standards. But you wouldn’t include an amateur who’ve just sold their first painting in a similar study for painters, right? Or med students in a study about the income of doctors. But that’s what those studies are doing when trying to determine what kind of money writers make.

Lets crunch some more realistic numbers and see if that will gets us a little closer to the truth.

There’s about 200 new names on the major bestseller lists each year. The number of sales it takes to become a bestseller varies a lot depending on the list, the time of year, whether we’re talking extended or limited lists, and just who you’re asking. The numbers I’ve found range from 3000 to 10.000, so lets say around 5000 books sold in a week isn’t a bad estimate.

Assuming you’ve published traditionally and wrote a pretty standard sized book and got standard a standard contract, you’re making  around 1.25 dollars of each book. Those 5000 books aren’t going to make you rich (6125 dollars to be exact), probably just earning in your advance. But that’s for one weeks sales, and I think it’s fair to assume the book will continue to sell at least a little afterwards. And having that “bestselling author” to stick on it will probably increase sales of your next book too.

So that’s 200 writers a year moving very close to becoming professionals, assuming they continue to deliver quality stuff regularly.

If that’s not enough for you, I have a few extra numbers up my sleeve too.

Each year the Danish libraries publish a list of how much money they pay out to the individual authors in their catalogue. What’s worth noting is that the top of the list consists mostly of longtime authors, some of which are retired with a few current bestsellers speckled in between.

I make a fairly decent amount of money as a chemist, around 90.000 dollars a year. There are 14 authors who get at least that amount of money from the libraries a year. 4 of which I’ve never heard about.

I reckon I could live a pretty decent life with half that income. So going down the list, I count 76 authors making 45.000 dollars or more off the libraries.

As mentioned a lot of the top ones aren’t publishing much anymore, but the ones further down, the ones I’ve heard about at least, are still active, so let’s make the assumption that the library money is only half their income and the rest comes from actual sales.

There are 170 authors (nice round number) on the list that makes that amount of money (27.500 dollars or more)  off the libraries.

Now, Denmark is a tiny country with around 6 million people compared to the around 305 million in the US. Danish is hardly spoken outside Denmark and Danish books are therefore not sold anywhere else unless they’re translated. Around 15-20% of the Danish book market consists of English books, and then there’s the share taken up by books translated into Danish.

I’m going to oversimplify the calculations. 6 million Danes, take away the 20% of the market which is in English and ignore the translated books. 305 mill./ 5 mill. = a factor of 61.

61×170 authors = 10.370 authors making a full time living as writers in the US.

As I said, this is an oversimplified equation and it’s probably impossible to correlate the Danish and US numbers this way, but it does give a nice indicator that several thousand writers are making a full time living of their fiction. And the number doesn’t even take into account the mid-list authors who are living off self-pub niche markets. Not to mention the many semi pro writers who have part time jobs or supplement their writing with stuff like teaching and editing jobs.

So the conclusion to the question of what the chances of making a living as a writer is really depends on how you choose to look at it, and which statement you tend to believe most in. The chances might be way worse or better than you think.

It’s probably impossible to come up with exact odds. How much money one would need to make to make a living differs a lot from person to person. Would you include authors who made money through other revenues such as teaching or public speaking? What if they didn’t have to do those other jobs to make a living wager? What about writers you also write non-fiction or write for other purposes than purely literary fiction? And to what part of the population should you compare those making a living, everybody with book up on Amazon?

So the only clear answer I can give you is: it’s definitely possible to make a living writing fiction. And for me, personally, doing the research for this blog post was very inspiring. I have higher hopes of making it someday than I’ve had for a long while. Though, I carry no delusion about it being a quick or easy trip.

I hope this post have helped some of you aspiring writers out there with keeping up the motivation to keep going.

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