What makes a Writer? Part 2

In a previous post I talked about my feelings on what it takes to be a writer:  You need to write every day.  No one writes a novel in a day or a weekend or even a week.  I have a few points to add to that.

Running a marathon is an apt analogy for writing.  Running a marathon is a grueling, arduous event that boils down to putting one foot in front of the other a few thousand times until you cross the finish line.  Writing a book is similar because it’s just writing word after word until you’ve written somewhere between 70,000 to 100,000+ words.  

Let’s complicate the metaphor though because all great metaphors have depths that you can get lost in and by the time you find your way out you wonder if the author really meant for all that to begin with.  

No one gets out of bed without training and runs a marathon.  You start small, sometimes with a mile or less.  You run a couple days a week, strengthening your legs and shins and gradually build the distance each week.  Keep writing scene after scene, chapter after chapter.  It can take months or even years to train for a marathon.  For some, that marathon is the only one they will run.  For others, one marathon is just the beginning.  

This post goes out to all those that are in it for the long haul; all of you that don’t just want to write one book, you want to write several or dozens; all of you that don’t want to be writers, you want to be authors and especially those of you that want to make a living out of writing.  

If you want to write several books, then you can’t afford to take a lifetime to write a single book.  If you want to be an author then you need to spend enough time practicing that you’ll run a good enough marathon to finish toward the top of your genre.  If you want to make a living out of writing… Well, they don’t give endorsements out to people that finish in the middle of the pack and they don’t give endorsements out to people that  only run one marathon, no matter how fast they are.  So be prepared to run a lot of them.  

Let’s focus on our writers that want to make a living out of writing.  First, you have to practice enough to write a book that people want to read.  It will likely not be your first book and it certainly won’t be your first draft of your first book.  You will likely need to write multiple drafts of multiple books before you’re writing something people will pay money for; just like how our marathon runners needed lots of training and multiple marathons before they were finishing in the top of the pack and getting sponsorship deals.  

So let’s break with our analogy and talk about reality.  It is easier than ever to make money as an author.  Ebooks and self-publishing have been extraordinary democratizing forces in the industry.  However, that does not mean that just anyone can make a living as an author.  The most surefire way to make a living as an author is not by writing a single bestseller or writing to market or just being plain lucky (those last two things certainly help, but that’s another post).  

The most surefire way to make a living as an author is to have an extensive backlist of good books that people want to read.  How do you accomplish that?  We’re talking 10-20 books.

For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to run through the numbers using royalties from Amazon ebooks.  Let’s assume that we are selling each book for $2.99 and earning a 70% royalty rate for $2.09 royalty from each sale.  To make things simpler, let’s imagine that for every ebook sale we earn a flat $2.00.  In that spirit, all the numbers from here out are rounded.

Our goal is to earn $40,000 a year as an author.  Once we do that we can stay home, be content without a dayjob, and write full-time.  Your individual goal may differ, and that’s okay.  Regardless, the math and principle will work out similarly.  This means that to earn $40,000 a year (assuming $2 earned per book sale) we need to sell 20,000 books a year, or a rounded 54 books every day.  

Now, if we only have one book, that means we need to sell 54 copies of that one book every single day for a year to get to 20,000 sales.  To give you some insight, most old-school publishing deals assumed that a newbie author was lucky to sell 10,000 copies of a book at all. 

However, what if we’ve published five books.  Now we only need to sell roughly 11 copies a day of each book to get to 20,000 copies sold in a year.  Same income, but we can spread those sales out over all five books.  Now each book only needs to sell 4,000 copies in a year.  

If we’ve published ten books, that means we only need to sell between 6 books a day of each of our books to get our 20,000 sales a year.  This means that each of our ten books only needs to sell 2,000 books a year to hit our mark.  If you do the math with 20 books in our backlist then it gets even easier to hit our sales mark.  

Let’s do some word count calculations now.  If you write 500 words a day, then in one year you will have written 182,000 words.  An average book is somewhere between 80,000-100,000 words long (depending on genre).  That’s about two drafts a year!  Not bad.  If you can allot an hour a day to writing and maybe some time to work on outlining, you should be able to do 500 words a day.  Even if you’re a slow typist that’s only 8.3 words a minute.  Keep this work ethic up for 5 years and you’ll have 10 drafts done.  

Let’s say you can do 1,000 words a day.  This is probably somewhere between an hour or two hours for most writers.  A 1,000 word hour is a damn good hour.  If you can manage this word count for a year then you’re at 365,000 words.  That’s roughly four drafts a year!  Keep that up for 5 years and you’ll have 20 drafts done.  

Now, this gets a little convoluted when you factor in editing.  You will likely write/edit a few drafts of the same book, but you get the idea.  I want you to understand these numbers so that you can come at this with realistic expectations.  I see too many people online that think they’ll be quitting their day job after a year or two of writing every other day.  

If this seems daunting, it’s probably a good thing, but don’t turn away yet because there are some silver linings down below.  

Turning a hobby into a side hustle has its difficulties.  Turning a side hustle into a business or a full-time job, well that’s a lot harder.   According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Business Employment Dynamics, about 20% of small businesses fail within the first year.  30% are gone by their second year.  Half are gone by year five and only 30% make it through their tenth year.   

This is where we need to talk about expectations and you need to be honest with yourself about what you want from writing.  Do you want to write as a hobby and just share your work with family and friends?  That’s easy.  Do you want to publish a few books and earn some extra money with your writing?  That’s a side hustle and as long as you’re not trying to pay the bills with writing then eventually you will get there.  If you want to turn publishing into a full-time job, then you have a lot of work ahead of you.  You will need to write a lot, edit a lot, and learn a lot.  You need to have an extensive backlist to have a real chance at being a full-time author.  

Time for a few silver linings.  If you focus on the math we did above, if you write good books and write enough of them, you will eventually earn good money from your writing.  Also, if you’re willing to learn and do a lot of work, you can save some money on editing and blurbs and sometimes cover art.  Writing does not necessarily need to have the upfront costs that a lot of other businesses have.  

In fact, in regards to the author business, I would bet that the reason most authors don’t make a living with their writing is simply because they gave up.  If you write each day, if you’re passionate about learning about how to write and about the industry, eventually you will accumulate the skills, practice, and drafts needed to make money as an author.  It may take a decade or more to accumulate those 10-20 published books in your backlist, but if you write consistently you will get there.  

For those of you that think that’s too long to make good money at writing, there are ways to speed up the process.  Take typing lessons, find other writers that can be beta readers to streamline your editing process.  And remember, getting a degree can take upwards of 4-6 years (not including getting experience in that new job field), so ten years of writing books seems reasonable to me.  

Let’s do one last thought experiment.  Let’s use three groups of authors, those that published one book, those that published five books, and those that published ten books.  

The first thing we would notice is that there are many, many more authors in the first group than in the latter two groups.  The more important thing is the percentage of authors in each group that earn good money off their writing.  There are so many authors in group one and it is so hard to make a living off of just 1 book that there are very, very few authors making a living.  

The second group (of 5 published books) has a lot less authors in it.  There’s probably still not many making a living off their books, but it’s much more than the first group.  

Then we come to our last group.  There are even fewer authors that stick it out long enough to publish ten books, but I bet you that a huge portion of those authors are making good money off of their books.  

I haven’t yet been able to find a published statistic that elaborates on this thought experiment, but the data here compares the average number of books between “Emerging Authors” (which I believe counts as making less than $5,000 per year and those authors making 100k per year.  It’s clear through that survey that the more quality books published equals a greater chance of success in making money as an author.  

On that note and in the spirit of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), set a writing goal and stick with it.  Even if it’s 500 words a day–Consistency is key. 

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