Writing is my hobby. I have a full-time job, so there is no need for me to make a living on my writing. Since I do it mostly for fun, I’m not too concerned about making money. Most importantly, for tax purposes, writing is my hobby. Sure, I try to run it like a business by keeping track of expenses and sales, but overall I’m not doing much more than breaking even. This is fine. After all, a hobby is usually considered a “money pit” where you don’t expect to get a return on investment other than the pure enjoyment it brings you (think about other hobbies like restoring cars, reading books, or gardening as examples).
A few years ago, I received a review request from someone who had written a book. They were self-publishing and admitted that they were currently homeless and that this book (that they had taken over a decade to write) was their only ticket out of poverty. This got me thinking about what it would take to make a living as a self-published author.
What does it take to make a living?
Most writers who earn their primary income through being an author are traditionally published, as the advances they receive will be more than the royalties they’d make if they were self-published. Most traditionally published authors—especially the ones starting out—don’t make back their advances anyway, and thus don’t earn any further royalties on their works.
Alternatively, there is money to be made in copywriting and ghostwriting. Granted, your name will not likely appear on anything you’ve written. If you don’t care about your pride and mostly want to say you make a living with your words, this might be the best place to start. I know a couple who are doing something akin to this and seem to be making it work, even if it’s a ton of effort.
Before we get into specifics, let me lay out some of the math behind the finances of making a living with your writing. As a bare minimum, the annual salary for a family of four right at the poverty line in the United States is $25,750. Since most scenarios here are likely to be considered “self-employed,” we’ll have to add on 15.3% to account for taxes. This means an individual supporting a family of four needs to make $29,689.75 each year to stay afloat. To account for some overhead (i.e., inventory, shipping, business services, etc.), let’s round up to an even $34,000 for the three paths that I’ve introduced above. From my perspective, I’ve arranged these three from easiest to most difficult to achieve.
Rates here are a little hard to come by, but let’s use some Fermi estimation to say that these options could potentially earn you as high as $0.10/word or as low as $0.01/word. The quality of your work will determine how much you can charge for it. If you are a native speaker/writer of the needed language and have a degree from a university (a Bachelors’s in some form of writing helps), you already have a good base on which to start. The trick here is finding clients. Sure, you can set up a website and say you’ll write anything for anyone, but unless people hire you, you’re out of luck. Self-promotion is critical here, and I think the ~15% overhead I mentioned above should cover the networking needed to get your foot in the door. Alternatively, sites like Upwork and Fiverr can certainly get you started for minimal cost as you build your reputation. With these things in mind, you’d have to write anywhere between 340,000 and 3,400,000 words each year to be at the poverty level. Just know that the quality of your writing might require you to either pay for an editor to ensure your clients get polished work (which can require you to write more to compensate for the cost). To put this in perspective, I have occasionally written 100,000 words in a month in my free time, which might work if I had the reputation to bring in $0.10/word and had enough clients to allow me to write the full 100,000 words (with no editing).
2. Traditionally published
There are plenty of factors to consider here, but let’s use the minimum advance for a first-time author. While some books can make up to $50,000 for an advance (for authors with a pre-existing audience/fan base), the minimum is usually around $5,000. This means you’d not only have to write seven books each year, but you’d have to make sure your agent can sell them to publishers. Your agent gets paid when a publisher picks up your book, but that will likely cut into your profits by 15% for their commission (therefore bumping up the number of books you’d need to publish to eight). Obviously, the better you get at establishing a name for yourself, the more you’ll receive in royalties—thus reducing the number of books you’d have to write each year. Also, make sure you consider how long traditional publishing takes, as it might be longer than you think.
Here’s where it gets tough. The least amount of overhead for a self-published writer would be to publish eBooks since they don’t require printing and shipping costs. Even with Amazon’s 70% royalties, there’s still a sweet spot for unknown authors pricing their own books. Again, to make the calculations easier, let’s say you sell an eBook for $1.43 and earn $1 for each sale. This means you’ll have to sell 34,000 copies of that book to hit the poverty line. One way you can make this figure easier to meet is if you write multiple books each year. It’s not easy, though, as even if you self-publish ten books in a year, you’ll still have to sell 3,400 copies of each of them. Considering that most sales of self-published books peak sometime within the first month of release, you’ll likely have to make those thousands of sales in a single month. Let’s also consider that ~15% overhead might not be enough to pay for a cover designer and professional editor—both of which help with initial and future sales, respectively—for up to 10 individual books. Other ways to increase your sales include running ads on Amazon, Google, and Facebook, all three of which can cost a lot of money and might not gain you many sales if your keywords are wrong or oversaturated. Additionally, conventions are great opportunities to sell your books and build a fan base. However, these events require vendor table fees, as well as the costs for having physical copies available to sell (which, depending on your profit margins, might work in your favor). You still have to sell thousands of copies of your books to remain above the poverty line as a self-published author, which requires a lot of marketing on top of actually writing and producing a polished product.
With these three methods in mind, understand that this is what it takes to remain just above the poverty line for a single year. If you want to continue earning a living with your writing, you’ll have to do what I’ve described above every year. This also doesn’t account for saving money for retirement, so be prepared to keep writing for a long time.
In the end, I am fortunate to have the privilege to write as a hobby. I have a well-paying job that makes enough for my family (with retirement included). Not everyone has the free time or independent wealth to even self-publish anything if they’re working three separate jobs to make ends meet. This is why most of the authors you come across are (for lack of a better word) homogenous. If we want diverse voices in the writing community, we need to lift up, support, and promote authors who do not have the privileges that allow them to write without distraction. And while we cannot necessarily change the traditional publishers, we can certainly buy books from these authors to show our support. If we can make it financially beneficial for these publishers to take risks on all authors—not just the ones they know will turn a profit—we all succeed.
How much do you think you need to write/sell to make a living?
Which of the three options above appeals to you? Why?
Do you write for a living? Tell your story in the comments.