Make a Living at Writing?

There’s money to be made in writing fiction. But not necessarily by those doing the actual writing. As the number of books being churned out in this age of self-publishing has increased astronomically, the odds of making a living wage as a writer have contracted, along with the likelihood of being published in the traditional manner–unless you’re a celebrity; or already a best-selling author.

I’m neither. I’m also retired and on fixed income, allowing for a modicum of spare time but little disposable income. In years leading up to retirement I began seriously writing–at times, compulsively. As a lover of American history and fiction, it was a natural to combine the two. Though no fan of digital technology, I couldn’t deny that the advent of the word processor and cheap laptop computer have been a boon to writing. But then there are the unintended consequence. Not the least of which is, too many people are writing and not enough are reading.

Blissfully unaware that I was merely adding a to a growing surplus of what was now becoming a commodity called “content,” I held onto the hope of some discerning eye in the publishing industry running across my work, seeing something of promise in it, and offering to publish it as a finished book. Isn’t this the dream of everyone who picks up pad and pen, then typewriter or laptop, thinking they have a story–or stories–to tell?

Until the rise of the 21st Century, standard procedure was you submit your work to an agent, who then markets it to a publishing house, which then–it they like it–will agree to edit the work and print it and market it. The beauty of this system is the agent and the publisher, rather than charge the writer upfront for these services, will take a vested interest in the success of the work. The book sells, the publisher profits. While not perfect, this system mostly worked for the benefit of those involved, including the general public as readers. As for the writers, they didn’t need to spend hundreds, or likely thousands, of dollars they didn’t have on support services, in order to see their book in print.

Those of us who put off serious writing until the new millennium failed to take into account that the publishing industry had been evolving into a conglomerate of fewer and fewer companies, now down to four. While publishing had always existed to make a profit, the increasing “corporatization” prioritizes profits for stockholders over all other values, including the enlightened practice of taking a chance on unknown writers, who just might turn out a best-seller or two in the future. In keeping with the corporate ethos rising since the 1980s, publishing books that might just be moderately profitable as opposed to “mega-sellers” has been another casualty of this shift in priorities.

So is the transformation of “big publishing” really a loss? There are many who see the rise of self-publishing, aided by such developments as print-on-demand, along with marketing opportunities on social media, as a path of true progress, away from the “legacy” publishing establishment that’s grown hidebound, resistant to new technology; while retaining the lion’s share of royalties. All of which are largely true. Advocates point to the rise of services that have emerged with the growth in self-publishing. And there are self-published authors getting noticed. And even making money.

What doesn’t seem to get as much mention is the number of self-published writers who don’t get noticed, who don’t sell enough books to even begin to cover the costs of getting them into print. Often overlooked is that the vast majority of successful self-published writers can trace their initial recognition to having been traditionally published.

As the carrot of reward enticingly dangles on the end of the stick ahead of the self-published writer, for many, likely most, the stick can grow longer. Since the transformation of publishing, the average monetary return to authors has been shrinking. Those making money are more likely the providers of services, such as content editing, proof reading, layout, cover design and last–but not least–marketing. These services don’t come cheap. Nor should they. Certainly the providers of quality services, from layout and editing to marketing, deserve fair compensation. But when added up, they can put the carrot out of reach for those who struggle to afford it. And these are the very services once provided by publishing companies, giving the publisher a financial stake in the success of the book. This essential partnership is lost when–as has become the norm–the writer at his or her own cost must hire out the services, whereupon the provider gets paid whether or not the book succeeds or flops.

As I write this, I’m launching a novel, Joel Emmanuel, which has won two awards from Chanticleer Reviews (CIBA). I looked into a very reputable hybrid publisher but rejected their offer, because for me the upfront cost was unaffordable–shades of the vanity presses! Also, I was put off when told that, unless I paid extra for editing and/or proof-reading services, no one of the staff would even read the book. The fact that the author keeps 100 percent of any royalties generated is meant to be a selling point. But to me it meant that the publisher has little vested interest in the success of the work.

My book is now available on Amazon, as a paperback; and soon as an e-book. I was drawn to publishing through its KDP program because there is no upfront fee. KDP also can guide the writer through layout and cover design, along with printing (for a very reasonable cost per book) and distribution. KDP keeps a percentage (less than half) of any royalties. Ironically, in this way Amazon acts more like a traditional publisher, with a stake in the success of the book.

The odds for an unknown writer these days to get traditionally published are comparable to that of winning a mega-lottery. The initial gatekeeper, the literary agent, may well be an underpaid, overstressed intern, whose job is to shield from the more senior agent the overwhelming number of manuscripts submitted each day. The intern or junior agent knows the agency is not looking for new talent, or possibilities, but rather panning for that rare gold nugget, the next best-seller! In the process, how many works brimming with possibilities–submitted by yet-to-be-discovered authors–end up in the shredder?

J.P. Kenna receives blue ribbon for Joel Emmanuel.
Not all rewards are monetary.

If a senior literary agent gets to read more than an opening paragraph and sees that shining nugget, and chooses to submit the work to publishers, there’s still the possibility no publishing house will accept it. If in fact the writer himself has struck gold and a reputable house accepts the work for publication, in this day of corporate cost-cutting, it’s increasingly likely that most marketing efforts will be dumped into the lap of the author. And while there are exceptions, writers are notorious for being introverts, lacking the drive for self-promotion (an activity which also takes time and energy away from actual writing). And as for providing editing services, the publisher will expect the work to be mostly edited already. And the days of the likes of Maxwell Perkins are long gone. Likely the editor will be a freelancer working on contract, and may well change during the process. The legendary though stormy partnership formed between Scribner’s editor Max Perkins and the eccentric novelist Thomas Wolfe is a relic of history.

I never thought I’d be a shill for Amazon, but unless you’ve already been on Oprah or in some way have achieved celebrity status, KDP seems to be the only game in town. I’d be happy to be proven wrong.

About jpkenna

Born in industrial northeast New Jersey, BA in history U. of Maine 1967, have since lived in Alaska and Washington State. Variety of jobs, including railroad and maritime industries. Currently writing 6-part historical novel series, focusing on Irish-American theme, working class point of view. Railroad construction, rise of labor movement, socialism, I.W.W., growing up in Catholic Church all featured. Books are available from Amazon and Village Books, Fairhaven (Bellingham, WA, USA)
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5 Responses to Make a Living at Writing?

  1. Pingback: Make a Living at Writing? – The Passive Voice

  2. It is scary out there… But then, I find the older I get, the less I care. I write for myself… tragedy or godsend… it no longer matters. Life’s the journey — not others watching you board a train. 🙂 Nice post!

  3. Thanks for positively acknowledging the rise and influence of independent publishing and self-publishing since Kindle and later Nook, Apple, Kobo and Google Play broke the publisher paradigm. With, as you point out, the “big four” dinosaurs unwilling to nurture talent or publish the midlist, it’s fallen upon the rather wild-westish world of digital indie publishing to fill in the gaps.

    But I think you’ve portrayed two items inaccurately.

    One is the idea that it’s harder, rather than easier, to make a living as a fiction writer today.

    In absolute terms, the number of working, living-wage authors has exploded as much more of the pie goes directly to the writers–and in unit sales terms so many more copies are being sold digitally than in print, most of them by indies. Consumption of first-sale copies of digital books has risen at least tenfold since 2009, fueled by voracious readers who never could get enough content under the old system.

    Note that I say “first-sale” copies–and that’s critical. With no secondary market for digital content every purchase is a new purchase, with money going to the author, unlike secondhand print copies. I myself have sold hundreds of thousands of digital copies at prices ranging from 99c to 5.99, keeping 35-70% of the purchase price, and that’s not even counting earnings from subscription services like KU.

    True, competition has become tough, but that’s a mature business for you. At least the author’s success is not in the hands of gatekeepers and bureaucrats and rent-seekers. It’s firmly in the indie author’s hands. While my experience is not typical, it’s achievable. I know many independent authors who have bootstrapped themselves into making a living, and many more who make a part-time living or supplement their income. And, they’re generally much happier writing and selling online modestly, day to day, than the author of an older era who had to constantly wonder if their next book would be picked up, deal with an agent, etc. Bottom line, there are more working authors and more opportunity today than fifteen years ago.

    The second item I believe is inaccurate is this: “Often overlooked is that the vast majority of successful self-published writers can trace their initial recognition to having been traditionally published.”

    While I cannot absolutely prove or disprove it (and I doubt you could either), my personal experience with hundreds of successful indies and thousands of aspiring ones, via forums such as WriterSanctum and KBoards, and conferences and organizations such as 20BooksTo50K, as well as giving talks about self- and indie publishing, indicates nowhere near the “vast majority” of successful self-published authors have any connection at all to traditional publishing, other than rejection letters and perhaps a few short stories published in periodicals. In fact, in my experience only a small minority of successful indies gained initial recognition from traditional publishing. Most (defined as more than 50%, to be generous to your assertion), like me, made no headway with traditional publishing before achieving life-changing success as indies–and many coming up today never even bothered trying.

    In fact, my educated and experienced estimate is less than 10% would fall into the “trace to traditional” category, simply because of the numbers. There are at least 5x as many, and probably closer to 10x as many, working fiction writers today than in the 2000s, in the BK (Before Kindle) era. Even if every single working traditional author transitioned to being a hybrid indie by self-publishing their backlist, they would constitute less than 20% of the current total–simply nowhere near the “vast majority.” The numbers simply aren’t there.

    Unfortunately we don’t have much solid data available to resolve the discussion, and I’m not terribly concerned either way–except to make sure aspiring indies know that the opportunities are plentiful, and there’s no need to have a connection to traditional publishing, certainly not anymore. The trads have contracted in market share, while digital indie has grown, and will continue to do so, percentage point by percentage point–because going direct to the customer is so much more efficient, agile, and lucrative. Just like with the music industry, the route to creative and commercial success now has multiple potential pathways rather than only one.

    Thanks again for a thoughtful post.

  4. Pingback: No Wasted Ink Writers Links | No Wasted Ink

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