In this series, I'm going to break down exactly how to make a living writing fiction. There are many writers who are more talented than I am - there are also many who are far more successful - but I've been doing this for a number of years and I'd like to help others do the same.
I decided to start this series because of an email I recently received:
"Hi Michael. I watched one of your videos and was surprised when you said you write fiction full time. I've got a couple of novels on Amazon and make some beer money but I just don't know how it's possible to quit my job for this. I really want to. I guess I'm asking you to share your secrets LOL. How did you do it? Is it financially viable?"
Okay, I paraphrased a little, but I've been asked this question several times and recently answered a post about it over on NosleepOOC. Let me give you the TLDR version first:
- How do you make a living writing fiction full time? - A combination of hard work, luck, stubbornness, and diversifying my revenue streams.
- Is it financially viable? - A writer's income is highly variable. You have to plan for that and treat your finances differently from someone working 9 - 5 (more on this soon). However, yes, it's completely viable. I'm living proof of that.
Let's look at my revenue stream so you can see how I make money writing fiction, but first, an important point about being passionate about the work.
Be Passionate About Writing
The best chance you can give yourself at becoming successful is by being passionate about your goal. I know some people dislike the process of writing or editing, but even if you can't find joy in the making, you should focus on what will make you happy - the feeling of accomplishment when you finish your project.
Although I sometimes find writing difficult, I remind myself of what makes me love the process as much as possible. I always wanted to be a fiction writer. When I was a kid, I would fold sheets of paper in the middle and have my mum or dad staple them together so the pages opened like a book. I would then write the title on the front, draw the cover, and then write a blurb on the back. It never occurred to me at that age that you should write the actual story first! This simple memory of making something for fun, and not worrying about who would read it, is a great motivator. I chase that memory. Occasionally, I find that same feeling again and it keeps me going. Too many writers are bogged down in the paralysis of 'is this any good?' and 'what will people think?'. The only reader who matters is you. If you love it, there's someone else out there who will feel the same.
This is not a personal history of why I write. I'm sure I'll be self-indulgent enough to write about that one day, but for now, remember to find what makes you happy about your writing and hold onto that for dear life. Armed with this, you will succeed by resolutely carrying on when others falter.
Now, let's look at how I make a living writing fiction.
How I Make Money Writing Fiction
I'm going to now list all of the ways I make money from my writing. This will give you an idea of how it's possible for me to write fiction full time without being a household name. I think this will be helpful for those hoping to do the same. There are other revenue streams out there, so always keep your eyes open:
- Traditional Publishing
- Story Options
Let's go through these and break them down.
I'm going to let you into a little secret. The truth is, I write using more than one name. In fact, I write under several names. Why do I do this? Primarily, it's because I write in different styles, which can put readers off from buying your work over time. A pen name also lets me experiment in new genres and ways of writing without the fear of it impacting my 'reputation', if you can consider I actually have one. Lastly, I can write faster and with less care under a pen name if I'm just trying something new. Interestingly, especially in the horror genre, two of my pen names are at least as well known as my real name in the horror community. I do wonder if people ever guess that they're me!
Across my different pen names, I've published several books. Under my own name, I scored a top ten bestseller on Amazon. The irony is, that book - 'On a Hill' - was thrown up unedited just to see if I could put a book out. At that stage, I didn't expect people to buy it, but I figured out a way to funnel people towards it effectively. This resulted in way more reviews than I expected. A great reminder to never self-publish until you've polished your draft. Self-publishing is a great way to generate an income from your writing, but it's very competitive. Currently, I've sold around 50,000 books. I consider myself very lucky to have reached those sorts of numbers. However, there are writers who sell millions of copies online without any traditional publishing deal. I'm hoping to scale up in that direction.
I've been lucky enough to have been published in three anthologies under my real name and a few others under my pen names.
Ah, ghostwriting... Does this make you uncomfortable? If it does, writing full-time fiction might not be for you. If you don't know what ghostwriting is, it means I write a book and someone else's name goes on it. This happens throughout both the publishing and music industries. Does that suck? Sometimes. I tend to write for publishers who use several writers for the one fake name, rather than a real person claiming that they wrote something. The name is really a placeholder for a number of writers. Much of my income comes from ghostwriting gigs. I've written in almost every genre imaginable for clients, but I tend to focus on mysteries and horror these days. As a freelance writer, ghostwriting can save your life when your own sales dip. My next goal is to phase ghostwriting out completely by the time I'm 45, only writing under my own name. It's a tall ask, but even if I can't manage that, I'm lucky to get these gigs, as I can work for myself consistently because of them. They also occasionally open doors for my own work. I use a number of sites to find ghostwriting work, but you might find my Upwork profile to be useful as a sort of template if you're wanting to do the same type of thing.
I currently have eight options for scripts and stories with various producers and production companies. This involves being paid a small amount to sign a contract. That contract stipulates that if the buyer goes into production, you'll receive a large sum for the rights. If the option is not renewed every 1 - 2 years, then you are free to sell the script or story to someone else. Essentially, these agreements provide the buyer with the first 'option' to buy or pass on your script. Production companies buy up a lot of options, so only a portion actually get made. It can be a nice financial boost for a writer to sign one, though. I've been approached by these buyers because of my writing, but have managed to option some scripts proactively as well. I'll post about this in the future.
I run several podcasts, most of which do not generate much money beyond a little advertising revenue. However, The Ghastly Tales Podast is amassing several thousand downloads per episode now, so it'll hopefully not be long until it is more profitable. Most episodes feature my stories. Where I do make a little more, is to sell non-exclusive rights to third-party podcasts. This allows them to use a story or script I've written for their podcasts. I've been very lucky to be involved with a number of excellent podcasts who have been very supportive of my work, including The Nosleep Podcast, The Creepy Podcast, Gallery of Curiosities and Chilling Tales for Dark Nights among others.
Again, I don't generate much from Youtube, but it's enough to help with website hosting and some other small things. I primarily use Youtube to show my short films and audio adaptations, as well as some fun livestreams on Ghastly Tales. Where I have made a good amount of money is in writing for other Youtubers, mainly scripts and stories for them to read or produce on their channels. Some of this is ghostwriting, but most of it is not.
I have a Patreon where I give early access to stories to patrons, alongside some exclusives like my podcast Horror Hideout and some behind the scenes info about my projects.
Lastly, I've been paid a number of times as a fiction coach. I enjoyed this immensely and that's why I've decided to start up my own writing classes for free, alongside my new Youtube writing channel (which will be launched soon!).
Diversifying Your Revenue Streams as a Writer
I can't stress enough how important it is to diversify your revenue streams. Writing is about creating art, but if you are going to make a living from it, you have to treat it as a serious business as well. As you can see from the different ways I make money from my writing, if one revenue stream collapses (and believe me, this happens from time to time), I have enough redundancy in my other streams where I can continue to make money until I repair or replace that lost revenue stream.
When I was starting out, I got caught short with this a number of times, which put me under substantial financial stress. If you put all of your eggs in one basket, you are risking your finances unnecessarily. That's not to say that you should never specialize. If you are lucky enough to be selling tens of thousands of books every month, then it's probably a good time to focus mainly on that. However, always look for a plan B. My plan B is having other revenue streams to pick up the slack.
In my next article in this How to Make a Living Writing Fiction series, I'm going to go step by step through how I found my readers. In the meantime, follow me on Twitter for more updates.