Why You Will Probably Never Make A Living As An Author

A long, meandering post wherein I grind your dreams under my boot heel – and then lift you back up, maybe.

That’s a pretty grim headline isn’t it? After all, so many of us are chasing just that exact dream: Quit the day job and spend all day following our imaginary friends around our fictional worlds – in between rounds of Candy Crush and Peggle, of course. Sitting in your underpants, swilling coffee and slinging words. What’s not to like?

It’s a pretty gutsy claim as well. Almost all of us know at least one author who is able to do it full time. Not just the big names, but little guys just like us! However, you’ll note that word “probably” in the headline. That’s what this is about: Probability, not absolutes.

The true probability is what we have to face. Trust me, I’m an author, I know how to play the denial game. It’s a part of what we do. It also helps if you believe in long shots, and maybe have a bit of a masochistic streak. Most authors have never met an inside straight they didn’t like. But, you knew that already.

Consider that author you know who writes full time for a living. What do you really know about their financial situation? Do they live alone in a small place surviving on Ramen? Do they have a spouse that works and helps cover the bills? Kids to feed and clothe? Chances are, either you know very little about their actual finances and how they manage to make it, or you know enough to see that writing only pays their bills because they’re in a situation that makes it possible due to other factors.

It’s not just us little guys, either. Recently, I’ve read reports and surveys that put the average advance for published authors somewhere in the $5,000 range. That’s including (or in some cases only) the traditionally published guys. Think about that for a minute. The advance is very often the only payout for a book, in particular if it doesn’t earn out that advance. In most cases, the only significant income from a given book is the advance.

Now think about how long it takes to write a book. The amount of time is going to vary, but let’s say you work fast and diligently. A good time frame for the first draft of a book is something in the neighborhood of three months. That’s if you’re on the ball and writing every day. No blockages, no real days off, no days where you’re “just not feelin’ it”.

Setting aside the other effort and time that goes into a book, such as editing and revision, as well as (if you’re flying solo) cover art, promotions, and so on. Let’s just look at the first draft. That’s three months of work, for $5,000, plus a trickle of royalties far down the line, if you’re lucky and it earns out the advance and is still in print.

So, let’s figure thirty days in a month (no days off, remember), over three months, and call it ninety days. That $5,000 over ninety days comes to about $55.55 per day. Figure you’re working eight hour days (you probably aren’t, but that’s how we math this) it comes out to around $6.95 an hour. That’s less than minimum wage, for whatever that metric is worth to you.

But, the truth is, most of us can’t put in eight actual hours of writing in a day. There’s lots of other related tasks that can take up that day of work – promotion, answering email, editing, blogging, etc. Those things need doing as well, and the actual writing takes a lot out of you. So, let’s say you’re only actually writing half that time. That brings it up to $13.88 an hour, which is better. But, let’s not forget, you’re only getting paid for four hours of work that day, when you put in eight doing all the other (unpaid) work. After all, we’re just counting the advance versus the time spent actually creating the first draft of the book and this is a book you banged out in only three months. If it took you longer, the pay is the same for more time spent working.

Now, most of us aren’t going to see a $5,000 advance. We’re not going to see an advance of any kind. This example isn’t about little indies like you and I. We’re talking about midlist authors. The guys who fill up all that space in Barnes & Noble that isn’t taken up by the Stephen Kings and J K Rowlings of the world. There’s a lot of space to fill, and a lot of books out there to fill it. We’ll come back to that in a bit.

So, we’ve established that even the traditionally published guys are looking at very little return on what turns out to be a great deal of work. As for indies, things are more grim. Estimates put the average indie book earning something in the $500 range. The truth is, there’s (usually) no money in writing. In fact, I’ve often seen people lamenting this fact, but they never seem to follow their complaint all the way to the logical conclusion.

Well, here’s the hard truth: The problem isn’t “the industry”. It’s not “the system”. The problem isn’t the public, lack of literacy, or any of that. The problem is simple economics. Very basic economics of the sort that used to be taught in grade school.

Yes, writing is art. It’s also a product. Stephen King once famously said, “I’m the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” He was more right than perhaps even he knew. He is the equivalent of a Big Mac and fries, and so am I, and so are you.

Let’s agree on some ground rules: First, art is something that people need. We need it the same as we need food, water, and shelter. Just like those other necessities, if we don’t get it, we get sick. Can you die from “art starvation”? Beats me, but life without art sounds rather unpleasant.

Second, art isn’t just the hoity-toity bullshit you think of when you think of museums and the like. For some people, that’s their artistic kink. But, art isn’t just that. Art is entertainment. Honestly, there’s little more to it. Art is music, whether Mozart or Metallica. Art is as much The Walking Dead as it is Masterpiece Theater. Art is contentArt is a commodity.

As an author, are you an artist? Sure. But art is not the big deal we make it out to be. It’s a product, and you are a producer of that product. So, here’s the grade school economics lesson: Supply and Demand.

When Demand outstrips Supply, prices go up. When Supply is plentiful and goes beyond Demand, prices drop. Consider tomatoes. Before technology made tomatoes available year-round, having tomatoes for sale during winter meant you could charge an arm and a leg for them. Demand was still there, but Supply was gone south for the winter.

Now we’re out there producing tomatoes in the middle of summer – lots of them. One estimate I’ve seen has Amazon listing 32.8 million books for sale, in various formats from paperback to audiobooks. Just Kindle alone sports over 800,000. Add in the other arts (entertainment) such as television, movies, music, video games, and everything else that we use to distract ourselves and you’ll find that there’s no shortage of art. Supply is doing just fine.

This isn’t a new phenomenon either. The truth is that long before the “ebook revolution” there was always plenty of art. Supply has always exceeded demand. The garage bands out there hoping for a record deal, the authors of the past who pecked away at their typewriters while collecting hundreds of rejection letters, the thousands of folks waiting tables out in Tinseltown, hoping for their big break. It’s been going on as long as people have been around. The first guy painting crude animals on the wall of his tribe’s cave probably wished he could make it, if only just the right shaman would look his way.

To recap: Art is what you make. People need art. But there is plenty of art to pick from.

Now that we’ve thoroughly destroyed your dreams of making it as an author, here’s why you just might make it!

For starters, the internet has opened up a whole new world. We’re still discovering the ways in which the internet is changing our lives. But, one big change is that now you can connect with people on an unprecedented scale, regardless of geography, social status, income level, or most of the other factors that used to keep us apart. Those people aren’t just the folks you play Farmville with – they’re all potential members of your audience.

Now, let me stop right there for a moment. That is not a suggestion that you start spamming up your Facebook friends list trying to sell your book. Proper, polite, and sane promotion is off the topic here, but please, don’t be a jackass.

Back on topic, there are other reasons why now is the time to be an author. The old limitations are gone. The gatekeepers are slain. No longer are good books passed up by publishers because they don’t know how to promote them, or they just don’t have room in their calendar for another publication, or they lack the funds to market yet another book. Now, the final arbiters of what’s “worth reading” are the actual readers themselves – as it should be.

Despite the massive Supply of books (and other entertainment) it is still possible to build an audience. So, how do you do it?

You keep writing, that’s how. You write more. You write better. You engage your readers. You keep going.

If you write a book and put it on Amazon, it’s just going to sit there. Why would it do otherwise? Your task isn’t to write a book. Your task is to write a damn good book. Then, after you do that, you let people know. After a while, they’ll start to find you. But, you have to meet them halfway. You have to write another book – better than the last. Then another.

You get good cover art. You get an editor. You make your work better than the rest because it has to be. If you’re looking for professional pay, you have to do a professional job.

It’s not a new statement to say that being an indie author is a marathon, not a sprint. People have been saying that as long as there have been indie authors. Before that, they probably said the same about traditionally published authors.

So, in spite of the long odds, in spite of the nonexistent income, in spite of the difficult work, we keep writing.

It’s a marathon, so I’m going to keep running. You should too.

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8 responses to “Why You Will Probably Never Make A Living As An Author

    • Thank you!

      This all grew out of some thoughts that were bouncing around my head during the “day job”. I’m sure I’m not the first to figure out that the reason there’s no money in writing (and lots of other artistic pursuits) is largely because of supply and demand. But, when it came to me, I couldn’t think of anyone else who had talked about this. Instead, all I heard was complaints about the lack of money to be made, rather than the base reason behind it.

      And still, we must write. We do it for all the non-monetary reasons. We do it because we have stories to tell. We do it to connect with people on a level that only writing can. We do it with the hope that maybe someday we will write that next Great American Novel and join the big names.

      Beats buying lottery tickets… 😉

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