Can You Make a Living As a Novelist?

A reader asked whether I thought it was possible to make a living as a novelist in the current environment. We’re seeing deep changes in the publishing industry. That can be scary, because change creates uncertainty. But I believe that this is the most exciting time ever to be a novelist. We have more publishing options, more delivery options, and more ways of connecting to potential readers. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to make a living as a novelist. In fact, it may be more difficult now, because readers are more demanding and sophisticated. So what can you do to increase your odds?

1. Write a stellar book.

Whether you choose traditional or self-publishing, your manuscript must have no major flaws. Major flaws include:

  • Numerous grammar and spelling errors
  • An opening that doesn’t hook the reader
  • No distinct voice
  • A plot that doesn’t move
  • Characters that readers can’t identify with quickly enough
  • Wooden dialogue
  • Overblown descriptions
  • Events that seem to happen at random without a connection to the main character’s journey
  • A contrived ending

The gatekeepers in traditional publishing will keep you out if your debut novel has these flaws. But if you go with self-publishing, you can publish your manuscript anyway. The problem is, no one will buy it. You won’t get the word of mouth endorsements you need in order for the novel to succeed. And anyone who does read the book will avoid your future ones.

2. Write another stellar book.

Very few people can make enough money to retire on from their first novel. It’s likely that it will take 3 or 4 novels before you build a fan base. You must be in it for the long haul. Ideally, you should follow up your first book with your second in six months to a year. Readers who love your book, and are panting for more, will give up on you if you keep them waiting too long. Bob Mayer recommends that you don’t self-publish until you’ve got three books ready to go. Only then will your promotion pay off in sales.

3. Don’t put more time into promotion than you do into writing.

These days, even fiction writers need a platform before most acquiring editors will consider them. If they Google your name and don’t find you, that’s bad. You should be on Facebook and Twitter, maybe LinkedIn and Google+. It also helps to have a blog with a decent number of hits. But none of that matters if you’re not focusing on your manuscript first, making it the best it can be. Read books in your genre, study the craft, and write every day.

4. Eliminate non-essentials from your life

Writing a novel is a full-time job. If you’ve got another full-time job to pay the bills, then you need to eliminate things from your life that don’t contribute to your writing practice. That doesn’t mean giving up your social life. If you and your spouse enjoy throwing a Super Bowl party every year, don’t let your writing get in the way of that. But if the only reason you watch the big game is to see the commercials, then maybe your Super Bowl Sunday would be better spent in front of a keyboard than in front of a TV.

5. Get feedback on your work (from someone who’s qualified to give it)

Chances are pretty good that your mom will love your novel. After all, she loved those crayon drawings you did when you were three. Were those crayon drawings masterpieces because your mom loved them? No. The same is true for your manuscript.

Join a critiquing group, either local or online. Participate in events offered by writing organizations, and seek out fellow writers you can trust to serve as beta readers. Keep in mind that the first few times someone critiques your creative writing, it will be excruciating. But in time, it gets easier. You start looking forward to the feedback because you know it will make your work stronger.

6. Want it more than you’ve ever wanted anything

Chances are, writing your first salable novel will be a long-term commitment. It requires you to pour in your emotions, to be more honest than you’ve ever been. It means giving up your leisure time. These sacrifices are hard, so ask yourself: can you go to your grave satisfied if you never become a published author? If the answer is yes, then you may not have the drive and the passion it takes to see this thing through.

Success in publishing is about 30% talent. The rest is timing, perseverance, and luck. A lot is out of your control. But if you want it enough, you work hard enough, and you keep at it for as long as it takes, you may just have a chance.

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