(This post was converted directly from a conversational 2020 Twitter thread.)
Let's talk about getting paid for writing.
I've been making money off stringing words together since I was 21 and I'm happy to talk about my experiences in this area. If you too would like to get paid for writing, this thread might be helpful.
I'm primarily a creative fiction writer and an occasional columnist plus (if you follow me here on Twitter) you can see that I'm a rambling essayist. All of these things have made me money over the years.
The bulk of my passive revenue comes from self-published fiction. I don't see it as my PRIMARY career because it's more of a hobby or a lifelong passion that I would do whether I get paid or not, but my publishing/writing biz pays all my bills at this point and makes corporate work optional for me. This is very powerful since it allows me to be MUCH choosier with the jobs I take and exit situations that don't align with my goals as soon as I realize they're no longer serving my purposes.
I realized I wanted this type of situation very badly in my early 20s. And honestly it wasn't until my early 30s that I was able to actually make it work. It took a lot of experimentation to get there. I had to make a LOT of content to figure out what would work for me, given that passive income safety net was my goal. Also, if you want to get paid to write, you have to accept (like with any business but especially freelance creative work) that it could all come crashing down any minute. It's one of many self-supporting strategies I keep on the burner.
There are many different paths to success with writing and people who say there's no money in writing or that you'll never make it as an author/essayist/whatever are flat out wrong. If you have a basic mastery of spelling and grammar you have the potential to sell words.
I got started with this by reading a LOT (primary hobby from like 6-34), and I've always wanted to be a writer. No one ever really taught me good writing skills and so I had to learn on my own. I don't remember covering any of this in English class which still makes me mad. But you can't be a good writer without reading a ton of other people's writing. Gotta study your craft.
I cringe every time I hear a newbie wannabe fiction writer say that they don't read much fiction. Do you really have so little respect for your alleged passion?
I'm already getting DMs from people who are (understandably) skeptical of my self-publishing claims so here's my Amazon sales dashboard from BookReport which shows a portion of my total sales just so I can move on from having "proof" and get into the nuts and bolts of how I actually do this.
This, by the way, is a VERY MODEST level of success at this. It pays my bills but doesn't make me rich, and satisfies my personal goals for my writing work (minimal weekly input, maximum opportunity/time to work on other creative projects). I'll explain marketing later.
There are lots of different ways to get paid to write, though. I have friends who do content marketing, write fiction, write essays, do reporting... self-publishing is only one path. In college I worked as a games journalist and got paid for covering PAX and doing op/eds. When I give people advice for writing, you also have to keep in mind this is advice for getting PAID for your writing. Lots of good art exists that doesn't make any money. Be aware that you may not be able to make money as quickly (or ever) writing the thing you want to write.
So anyway, step 1 (after reading a lot) is just writing a lot. Anything. Preferably the type of writing you want to make money off of, since focusing will accelerate your craft in that area, but writing every day in a space where you can get feedback is great. I blogged for two years and made blogosphere friends and wrote hundreds of posts for free on games and game design before someone hit me up for a job as a games journalist, because they'd seen my stuff and that I could produce volume. If that's the kind of thing that's your jam, you need to build up a portfolio of lots of interesting essays or commentary on your interest area and get pitching to media outlets--but I kind of fumbled into that and it's not my primary expertise and I don't do it anymore.
When I was 26 (and still working full time in tech) I still badly wanted to be an author (rather than a journalist/essayist) and set out to try to write a fiction book and make money off of it. I saved up cash and took two years off to focus full-time on studying how to do it.
Part of this time was learning the actual craft of making good fiction, which I'd never really been taught how to do, and part of it was learning how to market and sell my work. As @pattmayne points out, there's a LOT of bad advice out there:
"The problem of course is that such advice might encourage people to spend money on self publishing, which overwhelmingly fails to earn most #writers any money. Forums are full of anonymous self publishing success stories... and they're amazon bots. Doubt here is healthy, folks."
This is because there's an echo chamber trap where a lot of new authors listen to other new authors parroting things they are told will work for them or do because they enjoy doing them (Twitter marketing to other authors for example) that don't really pay off.
I spent about a year working on my first fantasy novel and followed all of the advice that made sense to me. I decided to go selfpub over tradpub. I hired a cover designer, an editor, built an author platform, promoted it, got pull quotes, solicited reviews, did audio, etc.
I did a pre-order and a huge launch with author interviews on the blog circuit and basically anything else I could think of to promote it, including that Twitch stream I mentioned where people were shitty to me.
And despite having a great launch and a bunch of excellent reviews and a 4.5 star average rating, I lost almost $4000 and about a year and a half of tech industry wages to opportunity cost on that project.
It was a great learning experience.
That was hard to deal with. I felt like a complete idiot and a failure. When sales trailed off HARD after all my friends had bought it and I hit the 30-day cliff for new books, I got really depressed thinking about how this was going to be impossible. So I quit. If I was going to lose money spending all my time writing one book each year, this was never going to be a viable business for me.
About two months after my launch, I just went back to working in product management and figured I didn't have the chops for writing. But eventually I burned out of that job for a variety of reasons and spent a summer picking up random projects (made a card game, did some coding) and easing back into writing.
I then got invited to a private author forum with people who actually were making money. This was eye-opening for me because they had lots of advice that contradicted the advice you hear all over Twitter and stuff. Many super-successful romance/erotica/specfic/thriller authors chilled there, including some names you've definitely heard of. Lots of pulp.
I don't use the word "pulp" disparagingly--I consider most of the fiction I make money writing to be pulp. Remember that I'm not trying to be David Foster Wallace. I'm trying to have fun and tell stories and get paid. Writing fast and writing a lot is a great way to do it. Authors tend to be prickly and opinionated and sensitive and proud a lot of the time, and the forum predictably imploded after about four months, but the lessons those authors shared were a goldmine for someone just trying to make selfpub work to make cash.
One of those lessons was writing to market. My fantasy novel had been a dark and serious mash-up of steampunk and high fantasy that was in this weird, tiny niche that was interesting to a handful of people but didn't really fit an existing category. Plus, like it or not, who you are is part of your author brand. The type of people (primarily young and male) who are going to tend to pick up a gritty steampunk fantasy novel are going to be less inclined to read it when the author is female. That was another mistake.
This is why you see a lot of initials and pseudonyms and pen names in fiction. Men can't sell romance as easily as women. Women can't sell specfic as easily as men. It can be advantageous to market yourself accordingly. If you want to be famous, there are easier ways.
Another thing some very smart authors explained to me was that when you're writing, you're not selling a story. You're selling an emotional package that taps into people's desires.
All genre fic offers similar emotional packages within its genre. To get people to want to give you money, you need to satisfy the emotional needs of the fantasy they want to experience through your writing.
Romance = love and sex
Specfic = power fantasies
Mystery = being clever
When someone tells you to "write to market" this is what they mean. There is a market for people who want to experience an emotion via prose.
Identifying that market and satisfying the emotional experience in a way that delights readers is what makes a book good. Also, you have to consider the size of the market. The romance/erotica market is THREE times the size of the specfic market because more people want to fall in love and get laid than want to read about finding a magic sword and killing dragons. Something like horror is even smaller ($80M horror vs $1.44B romance). So if you follow the money, your best odds of being able to make a little splash and take a piece of the market is going to be where the market is hottest.
You can still make money in any genre. I opted for romance and erotica because I enjoy writing it (it's more fun than I ever expected) and because it was the biggest available market. Erotica specifically is a good place to start because you can practice with shorter work and see what sticks to find your niche.
Once you learn the ropes and understand genre convention you can make any of them work with enough time and effort, but erotica is the easiest way to create volume that sells and learn the marketing and business side as you go. This is important because you are human, and you, like me, will make tons of dumb mistakes like spending $4000 on making an audiobook that no one buys with no back-catalog to drive readers into. Publishing lots of work teaches you better than any amount of reading advice. My early books were kind of garbage with their keywords and marketing and I didn't yet have other books for readers to pick up if they liked my writing. Grinding through this is the hardest part.
You don't start seeing appreciable income until you have a lot of content. This is for several reasons:
1) A lot of your publishing income comes from new readers finding you and going back to read your other work
2) Amazon has a 30-day cliff with new books where your visibility goes way down
You need consistency of publishing AND volume.
Erotica authors will joke about your "dirty 30", which is the idea that you don't start making real income until you have 30 books out there under a single author name.
It's not really a joke though. I think I didn't crack $1000/month until after I had 25 titles published. Some authors get "lucky" and have a breakaway hit, but this will not be you. You will not be E.L. James or Hugh Howey (neither of which really "just got lucky" by the way).
All of us who want to be writers agree with this but secretly hope you're the exception. You're not. And even if you are, it might be a short-lived victory if you don't have a back-catalog for readers to voraciously consume, because the market moves fast and the market moves on to the next hot thing.
ABP, always be publishing.
The other thing having a back-catalog does for you is that it gives you options for promoting your work and lets you experiment with different strategies. You can test your best books in audio or foreign languages, try going wide (outside of Amazon), try going perma-free. Giving away a free book to get people to read more of your writing feels like the hardest thing ever when you only have three books out there. It's not even a blip on your radar when you have fifty books.
Making money over time is about brand and platform. Because remember, this isn't about selling ONE book. This is about building up a fan base who wants to read everything you write because they like the flavor of your emotional packaging.
Your understanding of the game changes when you have a much larger body of work. Plus if you DO get lucky and get a breakaway viral hit eventually, then you already have a bunch of content for new fans to buy. It's a force multiplier. Even if your early work is bad fans will recognize that it's your early work and still buy it because they like you. So write a ton, publish all of it, and learn from your mistakes. One-star reviews are soul-crushing when you're just starting out. Now I barely look at reviews because I know I have people who love it anyway.
You have to push past the suck.
This advice, of course, assumes that you've already practiced enough to be able to do the very basics of telling a story with an at least somewhat competent grasp of grammar and spelling (or have a good proofreader). But you'll get better at that too with time and effort. Let's talk about marketing.
So you've picked a healthy market and a niche you like, where you SEE OTHER AUTHORS MAKING MONEY (very important, look at sales ranks), and you've started producing content. You're writing fast and short at first because you're learning. Now what? Well obviously it's time to get on Twitter, promote your books, spend lots of money on ads, tell all your friends, go to book signings, do author interviews, and appear on podcasts, right?
I mean those things aren't bad and might even be fun if you enjoy them and MAY even get you a few new readers here and there, but it's not the best use of your time and energy.
Think about leverage. It's HARD to build a social platform. Doubly so if you're selling something. I don't really believe Twitter is a great vector for authors to promote their work. People will share your work on Twitter anyway if they like it. You shilling for yourself as a newbie author isn't a great way to make friends. Unless you have other interesting things to say, begging people to buy your experimental dystopian fantasy solarpunk mystery/thriller/specfic mashup is mostly going to be ignored (and it's annoying).
Ad buys are a terrible idea unless you have a big back catalog already because, as I already discussed, most of your money comes from people tunneling through your body of work--not from the one book you're promoting. When you do dip your toes into paid ads (and you eventually should when you have the back catalog), it's a whole new skillset to learn and you'll make mistakes all over again.
You want to try lots of stuff with small spends and prune aggressively to learn to do it well. The reason that you don't necessarily want to tell all your friends to go buy your books is that your friends are probably not all in your target market demographic. Their reading tastes will be varied. You want die-hard genre fans to read your books most of all. This is because your Amazon "also-boughts" are going to be a good vector to push people into your other work, and your friends will pollute them if they all go buy your book. The algorithm won't link your book to other genre books as easily and you'll miss new readers.
Other than my personal privacy, this is one reason why I don't share my books with my friends a lot. I don't want them as readers because they're probably not the diehard fans I'm looking for under my pen. You need to keep your brand consistent. Book signings and readings have also really not impressed me, generally. Especially on the indie circuit, it tends to be 3-6 authors who show up to a very small gathering of other authors and their friends. Nice as a social outlet, but you don't want those readers anyway. You'll spend an evening chatting with some smart, interesting people--which is great!--but it's not really going to do much to promote your work. I tend to see these as more useful for fan service once you build a following, if you feel the need to be seen.
Author interviews on websites are worse than useless unless you're already famous or people care what you have to say for some other reason. Not only does no one read them, but if they do they'll be the wrong readers. When was the last time you read an author interview? Podcasts might be a little better if it's genre-specific and has a good audience, but it's still probably not the best return for your time and effort.
If you do these things, you should do them for fun and not assuming it's helping your promotional efforts much. So if nothing works to promote your books, what do you actually do?
You're going to love this.
Write more books. Literally nothing will help your writing biz as much as publishing more content. Why?
1) More back-catalog to sell FOREVER
2) New books can chart during the 30-day window and find you more of the RIGHT readers
3) Readers who already like you will buy it, better $$$ for time
Also it creates more opportunities for linked also-boughts and for existing fans to have a new reason to share your work with THEIR reader friends which IS a good way to get new readers, since they're hardcore genre fans and so are their friends most likely.
The only marketing strategies that I have personally found to be worth my time other than just writing more books are:
1) Building a mailing list (ideally by giving away free content)
2) Making a book permafree
3) Very careful and methodical ad spends once you have a catalog
The mailing list is great because your diehard fans want to know when you have a new book for them and it gives you a tool to spike yourself in the charts when you first release, which is super important for visibility and maximum lift before the 30-day cliff.
Permafree books are very useful to attract new readers in your genre who want to "try before they buy." The barrier to trying a new author who offers a free book is so much lower than with even a 99-cent book. Getting a new superfan is much more valuable than 30 cents. And ad spends, once you have the back catalog to make it worth it, are a good way to make sure you get eyeballs browsing over your most popular titles in Amazon's ad banner semi-consistently.
Remember that it's all about getting dedicated readers, not selling one book. For your brand itself, if you opt to use a pen name, make sure that your author name, pic, and bio matches the tone and character of other authors in your genre. Shamelessly emulate the commonalities of the leading authors. Whatever they're doing is working. To land in your market appropriately, your cover, title, and blurb all need to match the tone and content of what fans expect in that genre. Study what other authors do and remix into something similar. Fans will skip over a book that fails to meet what they're used to seeing.
Also, covers are SO important. Everyone judges books by their covers. It's the first (and often only) thing they see and it should be able to immediately convey the genre and tone of your work.
This goes back to the emotional package you're selling--remember, readers want something like all of the other things they already like but just a little different.
The best way to communicate that is to emulate the books they already like.
You can pay for covers as cheap as $50 but if you have ANY artistic skill or familiarity with photoshop, it might be worth taking the time when you're just starting to learn to do your own.
This helps you study cover design and develop an eye for good vs bad even if you buy.
YouTube has tons of resources on cover design. You can spend a weekend learning and make covers better than anything you'll get on Fiverr. They don't have to be fancy to not be terrible.
I feel similarly about editing. Don't go overboard on spending $1000 on an editor for your first book. It probably won't be a hit no matter how well it's edited. Pay for a cheap proofreader if your quality is bad but just focus on getting better first. The caveat here is that a good editor can be VERY helpful with identifying tics and patterns you have which make your writing worse, so it's useful, but from a cost-benefit perspective it won't be worth it for your early stuff. You can always re-edit and republish later.
This feels like a good time for a reminder that this is a thread about getting PAID for writing--not about creating amazing art. I do think pulp can be amazing art, but perfection is your enemy while you're learning and obsessing over quality will distract you from writing.
You can also workshop your work with smart author friends for free if you're willing to trade services and help each other get better. I think this is a much better option to improve your book quality than paying upfront for most beginning authors.
Going into the Kindle Unlimited program vs going wide is another question that comes up a lot for people. Amazon requires exclusivity if you're in Kindle Unlimited and it gives you a massive visibility boost and special marketing options. I'm still torn on this one. A lot of people use a blended strategy of KU for the first 90-day lock-in period and then take it wide to Apple, B&N, and Google, which is my preference. Amazon is by far the dominant player, and I make 90% of my revenue through their network. I've experimented with wide, KU-first, and KU-always, and wide first was the clear loser for me because you miss out on early ranking during your 30-day launch window. The other two are a financial wash for me. But everyone has different opinions on this.
And if you're not playing with foreign translation and audio once you have a big enough catalog you're just leaving money on the table. I prefer to pay up-front for audio because it's fairest for both you and the narrator--they get paid a fair rate even if the book tanks. Anyway, those are my tips and how I get paid for my writing. A lot of successful authors tend to not talk about this stuff much because it can attract a lot of negative attention. People can be jerks sometimes and there's a lot of bitterness out there. This is similar to what I was saying in my occult thread about people trying to use tools they don't really understand and deciding it doesn't work and people are lying to them. But it does work if you learn to do it.
Uh, that's a claim about writing, not magic. I still take the magic stuff only half-seriously.
But this isn't rocket science. If you're a half-decent writer who understands how to create the emotional impact genre fans want, you can sell your work with focus and effort. If it's not working for you, you most likely:
1) Haven't written enough books
2) Aren't writing to market
3) Aren't on brand for your target market
And obviously you may be being unrealistic with what "working" looks like too--you can't expect to do gangbusters right away.
Also, I love you all, but pleeeease don't ask me to look at your work. It's very uncomfortable to have to say no, and I don't have time with my own projects, and the quality of any individual work you might have matters less than making more of it and building your brand.
The last thing I'll mention just because it's a pet peeve is that prolific authors VERY FREQUENTLY get asked where they get so many ideas and we joke about it to each other a lot.
The simple answer is that ideas are cake because you're remixing the same emotional payload.
Every fantasy story has the same plot.
Every romance story has the same plot.
Every mystery story has the same plot.
All that differs are the specifics of the setting, the characters, and the conflict. Literally spin a random generator and pick. "Oh, a random or downtrodden nobody finds a magical MacGuffin or a secret talent that catapults them into a position of newfound importance and prominence! I bet they'll encounter a nasty villain who is doing bad things and use their Chosen One powers to save everyone."
The art and fun of it is in taking that same genre backbone and breathing life into characters and settings that your audience relates to emotionally because they come from your unique observations and life experiences.
It's all about resonating with people's emotions.
For genre fiction at least, the plot specifics matter a lot less than WHAT the conflict is or HOW the magic works or WHICH unspeakable evil acts the villain is performing.
Just make characters people see themselves in and have them do cool stuff.
Anyway, I'm happy to answer some questions about any of this stuff if you have them because lots of very kind people answered my questions when I was starting and flailing too, but please understand that the best thing you can do is to just go try to figure it out.