Making a living writing fiction is probably up there with desert island caretaker and secretary to a zillionaire as one of the most appealing jobs in the world. People daydream about… well, daydreaming and putting it on paper for a living.
What they don’t realise is it’s entirely within their own hands.
A short bit of context before I go into this guide: I published my first short story in August 2012. My first novel followed in November 2012. Neither of them sold much, not at first.
But right now, on April 1st 2014, I can honestly say I’m making a living writing fiction. And no, that’s not an April Fools!
Okay so this post is a long one so I won’t do too much pre-waffle. But there are a few things I need you to know before blindly following/furiously disputing what I have to say. Firstly, these steps are what worked for me. I’m not saying they’re the one right way to do things–I’m saying they’re the way I did things after much trial and error.
Secondly, I’ve gone for a scattershot approach here. Things might seem in a weird, Memento-esque order. That’s because there’s so much to cover and I’m a fiction writer so I don’t have time to start formatting and editing a blog post into a neat little guide. Bear with me.
Ready? Okay. Here’s how I make a living writing fiction. And how you can too.
Write. Well, duh. If you don’t write, you can’t make a living writing fiction, and never will. Not just that, but you don’t deserve to. So write. Obviously.
There are a few elements to this point though. First, let’s talk about the WAY you write. Well, the only right way to write is the BEST WAY FOR YOU.
I’m mostly a pantser. I make things up as I go, but I have a loose outline to keep me on track. Some people outline every beat in advance. Others don’t outline at all. Either is fine as long as it works for you.
Seriously, find your own method and go with it. I learned I hated beat by beat outlines when I actually wrote a book that way and got bored shitless. I ended up binning the whole 80,000 word project. I realised I like a rough outline to guide me, but also the freedom to go off-road from time to time. But I’m glad I wrote this scrapped novel. It was good practice. I learned that style of writing wasn’t for me. So write your way and not the way anybody is telling you to. They’re usually wrong.
Which leads to part two of point one (this post is going to be long…): just write the book you want to read, but more importantly, don’t strive for perfection.
News flash: you’ll never write a perfect novel. And your first or second or tenth book will be FAR from perfect. Perfection is an excuse for writers to not write and instead spend time rewriting and marketing and whatever. Just let that idea go. Now. You can’t write a perfect novel, and you never will.
Got it? Good. You can, however, write the best novel you’re capable of. So write to the best of your abilities. Funny thing will happen if you do that: your abilities will keep on improving.
So write. That’s point one. I can’t stress how important it is. Every day you aren’t writing–even just a hundred words–is a day you’re allowing your craft to go stale. Every day you aren’t writing is a day of potential writing improvement you’ll never, ever get back.
If you want to make a living writing fiction, guys, you’re going to have to write. And you’re going to have to accept that not everything you write will be gold, especially in the early days. If that offends you, walk away before you get too hurt in this tough, tough career.
2. Edit meticulously.
Phew. Shorter point here. It goes without saying that once you finish writing your novel or story, you’re going to want to tidy it up. Editing consists of two stages: self-editing and external editing. You’re going to want both if you’re shooting for a career in fiction.
I’m not going to go into the self-editing details. My only advice is to trust your subconscious. Yes, by all means tidy everything up. But don’t tidy the ‘you’ out of your work.
Think of a first draft as a messy bedroom. You’ve got dirty clothes on the floor, dust on the desk, books all over the place. Editing is cleaning up all the things that shouldn’t be there. It’s reordering and shuffling things around to make the place look fresher. Over-editing, on the other hand, is stripping the posters from the walls, throwing the contents of the bookcase and the family photos into binbags. It’s stripping the room–or the work–of all originality, and it’s something you have to be wary of. I can’t tell you ‘how’. This is a balance you have to work out yourself. Might take a few books, but that’s the nature of the game.
Editing/rewriting does take time. It takes me roughly twice as long as it does to write a first draft. So be aware and willing there too.
A quick word on outside editing: invest wisely. Don’t shell out thousands of dollars on your first book if you know you’re not going to make that money back (if you don’t know yet: you won’t). Look for a reasonably priced editor with good praise and feedback. I’ve worked with four good editors but finally settled on one and he’s fantastic. Again, it might take a few tries. Just be sensible.
And oh–don’t be scared of editors. They don’t know your book better than you, contrary to many myths. They’ll make many great suggestions, but if you disagree with them, disagree. Better than them making your book suck by misinterpreting something. They are human after all.
3. Good cover, good blurb, good sample.
I often consider these three as the holy trinity of selling books. You can do anything–tweet, blog, advertise– but if you fail to get these right, you won’t sell any books.
For a good cover, you’re probably going to want to hire someone. Like editing, make sure the price makes sense. You’re a business, after all. Look at other genre books for inspiration. Ask yourself the main themes of the book. Again, this might take a few tries, but it’ll be well worth it in the end when you have an amazing, cost-effective cover.
The blurb/product description is even trickier. People get paid thousands to write copy, and yet it’s the stage many authors rush through in the publishing process. Those authors go on to not sell many books, then blame the likes of Amazon, or ‘bad luck’ for their own failings. So read some blurbs from best-selling books. Study them. Break them down and work out what works and what doesn’t. Then use everything you’ve learned to write a blurb of your own.
Samples are pretty self-explanatory: make it easy for a reader to work out whether they love or loathe your book. Yes, I know your gran’s cat’s brother’s fish really wanted you to include that dedication right at the front, but it’s eating words out of the sample, so that fish can quite frankly get screwed.
Don’t create any roadblocks between your reader and your book. Do this by having a good cover, a good blurb and a good sample. Oh, and the best book you can write at the present moment, too.
4. Publish the book. Then write another.
I can’t believe this is actually a step in the whole ‘make a living writing fiction’ thing, but enough people struggle with it to warrant it. Yes, you need to publish your book if you want to even have a shot at selling. If you’re afraid of being judged, then deal with that in your own way. Because you will be judged by everyone. You will be loathed by someone. ACCEPT THAT. Then publish.
I’m talking here about independent publishing. If you have some sort of issue with that route, then good luck to you. I can’t offer any advice about traditional publishing because I don’t have much experience there. Keep practicing and keep your fingers crossed for that lucky break, I guess.
See the second part of this point? That’s a biggie. Most people when they finish writing a book hit social media and start promoting the thing. I’ll go on to promotion later, but for now, just get on with the next book. Pat yourself on the back and treat yourself to a nice meal for finishing–whatever it is you or your family/friends do when you’re celebrating. Then write the next one. And the next. You’ll improve as a fiction writer this way. You won’t improve by blocking out three months to promote. Simple.
5. Write your own favourite book.
I’m jumping around here I realise. But just trust your gut. Don’t write what’s popular because it’s popular, or what you think is selling because you want to start selling instantly. Write the book you’d want to read. Trust there’s other weirdos out there who are into the same crazy shite as you.
6. Focus on building a solid backlist.
This, again, ties in with the whole “write and keep on writing” thing. Focus on producing a quality backlist of titles.
Some people turn their noses up at the idea of writing a lot of books. There’s a belief that the more books a person releases, the less quality those books contain. This isn’t true. The reason people are getting more books out nowadays is because of the freedom of independent publishing. Writers can write two, or three, or four, or five books a year, and they can get them out there to the reader without having to wait around for a publisher to give them the all clear. Back before indie publishing? Writers wrote two, or three, or four, or five books a year. But they didn’t have the freedom to release them on their own schedule. So that’s the only difference here — freedom.
We’re indies, so we’re free to write and publish to our own schedules. Practice writing, practice getting better, and build a quality backlist. You’ll be amazed at how much you improve along the way, and how much readers notice your improvement, too.
Also, the truth is, it’s easier to write five okay sellers than one bestseller. It’s how mid-list writers have been surviving and thriving for centuries. Just because Dan Brown only puts one book out every half a decade doesn’t mean that’s the only right way to do things. It’s a damn fortunate way to be able to do things, but hey. Nature of the game.
7. Write in a series.
It’s no secret that series books sell better than standalones. I’ve found this out through experience. My first two books were standalones and they sell fewer than the rest of my books (despite loads more reviews, blog tours, positive buzz, bigger launches, more expensive covers… etc). My Brian McDone books and my Dead Days series sell better than anything else I have on sale. That’s because readers like series. Always have, always will.
However, don’t make a book a series just because. Let every project reach its natural length. I know this seems to go against what I just said, but take my book Killing Freedom, for example. I initially envisaged it as a series—and may one day revisit it—but I figured the story works better as a standalone. So I put it out as a standalone and went on to the next project, which did just so happen to be a series.
So stay true. Stay honest. If a book feels like a series book, good news for you—readers love series in all genres. But if not, then that’s fine, too. Just make sure you take note of the next point, which might just be especially important to you…
8. Create a loss leader.
Okay, we’re talking real business here. Loss leaders are an ancient business “secret” and yet they work so effectively in all mediums. Think about the supermarkets. That discount bread you notice when you enter? That’s a loss leader. Free samples of aftershave in a magazine? Discounted first issues of magazines? Loss leader, loss leader.
In eBooks, a loss leader is a way of getting readers to try out your work with as little resistance as possible. Currently, the best and most effective loss leader is free.
Now I know, I know—free is scary. But just think about this example: I give away episode one of my Dead Days series completely free to readers. They can then go on to buy the entire series if they enjoy it, or just the individual episodes (more on pricing and value perception later). Through creating a loss leader, despite losing a sale, I gain a reader. And nine times out of ten, if a reader enjoys a first book, they go on to buy the rest, so it isn’t a sale lost at all. It’s multiple sales gained.
Now, free might not work in future. The business practices of this post will still apply, though. Just give away your entry product—and yes, books are products, accept it—for as low a price as you can. If it’s 99c, do that. If it’s $4.99, do that. Just create a resistance free way for readers to try out your series and, in my experience, you’ll gain readers.
9. Make the reader pay for the next book.
This is the important part of the loss leader step. The whole idea behind loss leaders is that you make the reader pay for the next book. So if it’s a series, this will be the second book, or a whole season boxset.
But what about standalones, I hear you call? Well, there are a few ways to go about this, but you have to be careful. A good way to create a loss leader to a standalone novel is to create a short story prequel to the standalone and make that free/whatever loss leader price. Be careful, like I say. Don’t force a prequel if there isn’t one. But even an accompanying story, or a history of the book’s world. I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with something inventive enough. Create a prequel/accompaniment, LET READERS KNOW that it is a prequel/accompaniment, and when they get to the end, let them decide whether they want to continue exploring your world.
Sub-point: Back matter MATTERS. When your books end, you should have full-page where you ask yourself, as a writer, “Where do I want my reader to go next?” For loss leaders, this is the next book, or the boxset. For standalones, this is your mailing list (more on this later). This is how a loss leader works or fails. Make sure you don’t skimp on this.
Another sub-point: Boxsets are particularly useful at attracting readers. I price all my individual episodes of Dead Days at $2.99, but the full season boxset is $7.99. Really drill home that 45% saving to your readers. It creates value.
10. Don’t waste too much time marketing.
This is a controversial viewpoint. Again—sorry. This is how I do things, and how things work for me. Do things your way and the way you’re comfortable with.
Personally, I don’t think much marketing is worth the time or effort. Even this blog post is killing me to write because it’s words of fiction that I could—and probably should—be writing. But y’know, helpful chap and all that…
Focus on the writing. Do not start taking breaks and promoting your one book. Well, you can—but don’t stop writing to do so. And remember, all promotion that you do in the future will be much more effective when your series is complete, or you have a few books out.
Think about it. What’s the point of a discount of an author’s book, or a DVD? It’s to get you to buy another book/DVD. So if you’ve only got one book to sell and you’re discounting and promoting that, then you’re a bit stuck, right? Sure, you could be boosting your mailing list (again, will discuss later), but is it really worth the time it’s eating into your writing schedule?
For me, marketing is creating a loss leader and engaging with readers. That’s my method.
Focus on the writing. Focus on improving as a writer. Sales will come if you follow these steps. I promise.
A word on paid advertising—I’ve run several. Some are great and I use them regularly as a part of my promotion strategy. I had a couple of BookBub ads of my debut standalone, and various other effective ones like Pixel of Ink, Kindle Books and Tips, and Freebooksy. An ad can be effective, especially when you’ve got a complete series (which I didn’t at the time, but it did admittedly make me a bit of extra cash). But ALWAYS research before you buy a paid advertising spot. Check how many active Facebook/Twitter followers an ad site has. Check KBoards for reviews. And always remember before shelling cash out: can you make the money from the ad back? If so, good. If not, then move on to the next ad.
Or just get back to the writing and advertise later.
11. Create a fucking mailing list.
Excuse the f-bomb, but this step is THAT important. Create a fucking mailing list. I’ve mentioned it before, and I’ll mention it again. A mailing list is the single most important marketing tool in your repertoire. If you don’t have a mailing list, every reader who enjoys your book is a missed opportunity for a long-term fan. They’ll slip through your fingers like rice through… fingers. Screw metaphors, I’m way out of creative mode right now.
Seriously, though. Readers read so many books nowadays, what with the price and instant availability of ebooks. So sure, they might enjoy a book of yours, but if you can’t find a way to connect with them and keep them informed of new releases, they’ll forget about you. Sorry, but it’s true.
So find a way to remind them. And that way is the mailing list. The go-to guide on the mailing list is from SM Reine over at Kboards, so check that out. But basically—set up a Mailchimp account, put a link to it in the back of all your books, and then use it to keep in touch with readers.
How often should you send an email out to your readers? That’s open to debate, and there’s multiple ways of getting this working. Personally, I send out one every couple of weeks or so. I release a lot of books, so I don’t want every email to be an advert for a book. Instead, I do things like cover reveals, reader polls, stuff like that. Nothing spammy. All very conversational. And I always reply if a reader gets back to me. Always.
Side note—Create a Facebook and a Twitter page. You don’t have to use them much, but Facebook is a good accompaniment to a mailing list for things like cover reveals and excerpts, and Twitter is a good way to connect with fans. Don’t let it suck all the time out of your writing, and just have fun with it. In the early days, I used to schedule tweets and things like that, but that really didn’t work for me. Whenever sending out an email, Facebook or tweet, remember to ask yourself the following: as a reader/social media consumer, would I want to read this? Usually, this is all you need to ask to know whether you’re on the right track.
Don’t spam. Just connect.
12. Have a website.
Just a basic WordPress site should do, as long as it looks professional and has links to all of your books. I pay a few pounds a month to go self-hosted, but it’s really up to you.
Also, blog if you want to. Excerpts, cover reveals, progress reports and the like are all good for long-term readers and fans.
Oh, and quit stat-watching if possible. The people who want to find your blog will find it eventually. So be patient, as hard as that may be. 🙂
13. Don’t stress about reviews.
Again, another controversial one. I don’t personally pay much attention to gathering reviews. Some authors do, and that’s fine. It works, and that’s great, and another wonderful way of going about it.
However, in my experience, reviews don’t generally affect sales significantly enough.
Case study: my most downloaded free book currently has a two-star average at Amazon UK. Sure, it grates a little to see it with that average, but it does in truth only have three reviews, and one of them looks like it’s been written about another product completely. Factor in the fact that free books generally get reviewed more harshly. Oh, and factor in that it’s a short story too. Yeah, review nightmare right there.
But alas, for some weird reason, it’s the most downloaded book of mine. So I just run with it and trust that some of those people who enjoy it and go onto the next one are out there spreading the word in their own ways.
Readers are intelligent. They can sniff out an intentionally malicious review a mile away, so don’t worry about those. If they like the sample, they’ll read the book. Just get your head down and move on.
14. Be willing to obsess.
People ask me how many hours I work a day. I tell them it would probably be better to ask me how many hours I’m awake a day, because technically, my brain is always working.
When I’m not writing, I’m reading up on business news, or learning craft, or sending out an email to readers, or writing fucking mammoth blog posts like this. I can’t help it. I’m completely obsessed with writing. And that’s okay. I take breaks (more on that in a minute) and stay healthy, so obsessing is fine.
Plus, just think about it. I’m obsessing about my job. I actually love my job so much that I can’t stop thinking about it. How many people can say that about their jobs?
So it’s okay to be obsessed. Copy/paste this section for anyone who throws obsession at you like some kind of snarky accusation.
15. Stay healthy.
I just had to take a break from writing this post because, well. It’s long. Longer than any other blog I’ve done. And my back was hurting, so… PING. Just about time for the “stay healthy” section!
Although it’s okay to obsess, it’s also important to stay healthy. It’s so easy to just stay inside and eat the contents of your fridge while writing yourself into a coma, but it’s also important to know when to take a break. I had a nasty cold at the end of last week. I really wanted to carry on writing, but my head was just throbbing and I couldn’t stop coughing and sneezing. So I took a few days off and just lay on the sofa watching True Detective. It really helped. I came back to the writing fresh and excited again.
Go for walks, too. I really recommend this. Even if it’s just a twenty-minute walk down the road, I’d advise doing this every day. It keeps you healthy, and it keeps you happy. It also gets my creative juices running, so hopefully does the same for you. But yeah—getting out of the house is good. Which ties in to the next point…
16. Stay social.
Writing is wonderful as a career. But it’s also easy to get isolated and depressed. I speak from experience—I’ve had my down days and I’ve had my up days. Life’s life, and all that.
It’s really crucial to stay social and stay in touch with the outside world. People in regular jobs go out into the outside world every day and come home to escape. Writers, we sink even further into ourselves for our day job. So it’s a good idea to plan some social time a few times a week.
I have a few ways of handling this which, like everything, has taken a few attempts to get right. I go out to write in the library or a café a couple of times a week. It gets me around people, and gets the brain into social mode even while writing. At weekends, I see my friends at the pub or go to watch a football match or something. I say “yes” when social opportunities arrive in evenings and weekends because I’ve spent a day alone and I know it’s good for me to get out.
It’s also a good idea to stay social because people are the best subjects for fiction. Seriously, you can learn loads from just sitting on a bus and listening to people speak. So if you really, really hate going to the pub and things like that, just take a bus journey and listen to the people around you. Maybe one or two of them will be lucky enough to end up characters in your future works, right?
17. Don’t be afraid to say no.
That said, don’t be afraid to say no when you have to. I just had to say no to a friend earlier about an appointment for tomorrow afternoon because I’ve got a lot of catching up on writing to do after being ill last week. I felt awful about it, but I had to do it, because writing is a job and it should be treated that way.
Yes, writing is fun, but it’s a job. So set yourself a schedule and turn up when you’re supposed to. Don’t slack off. If you’re considering taking a day off, Kristine Rusch has a great concept called the “inner boss” that is well worth reading about. Basically, picture the nastiest boss you’ve ever had and ask them whether you can have a day off. If they say no, then you’re probably looking for an excuse to procrastinate.
18. Always think long-term.
Long-term thinking is the key to success. I’ve seen so many writers start up with big plans to launch books with expensive marketing campaigns and lengthy blog tours only to… well. Still only have one book out. And no more blogs for a months. And no sign of progress. It’s sad, but it’s what happens with short-term thinking.
Pricing is crucial to long-term thinking. Price right and in line with other works in your genre. Sure, 99c might sell you more copies in the short run, but will it make you as much money? Or would $2.99 be better in terms of earnings? Study your genre and choose a price point for yourself.
This isn’t easy, I realise. I’m always obsessing about pricing. My best advice would be to pick a pricing method at the start of the year based on your projected output and try your best to stick to it. Generally, I price novels at $4.99, serial episodes at $2.99, and serial boxsets at $5.99-$7.99. This is based on my projected output and all ties in with how my loss leaders work. So study that and work out your own method. There’s no one size fits all way here. Sorry.
19. Keep learning.
The biggest mistake a writer can make besides stopping writing altogether is thinking they know it all.
I take lectures and craft workshops to this day. I’m currently taking a six-week character voice workshop with Dean Wesley Smith at WMG Publishing. I’m learning a lot about craft and incorporating what I learn into my new work. I’m also being humbled at how little I did actually know about certain elements of craft, but also excited about incorporating new techniques going forward.
You’re not perfect. I’m not perfect. JK Rowling isn’t perfect. Tolkein, King, Shakespeare—they weren’t perfect. Nobody is. But we can improve. We can embrace new lessons as we walk through life. And we can incorporate every new trick and craft method we learn. How fun is that?
20. Stay aware of business developments and movements.
Again, this is all part of the “be obsessed” point. You’re a writer/publisher, so stay aware of business developments in your industry. I do this by reading blogs like The Passive Voice, as well as keeping up to date with discussions on KBoards.
So stay tuned in. Stay aware. Things change quickly in publishing, and you don’t want to be left behind while the wiser 1% have already moved on.
21. Sell your books everywhere.
Controversial, again. I used to believe in KDP Select, and stand by my initial proclamations that it used to be a great way of getting sales started. Now, my method is different. It’s okay if you use Select. That’s your method. But this here is mine.
I sell my books everywhere I can. I sell at Kindle, Nook, Kobo, Google Play, Apple, Smashwords, in paper. I’d sell in audio if I could in the UK. I treat my book, once I’ve finished the creative part, as copyright property, and I sell that copyright in as many forms as I can. I create multiple revenue streams. For me, it works. Five sales of one book at Amazon might not look a lot for a month. But add up the five everywhere else… yeah. It adds up.
Oh, and also, I know it’s such a cliché, but you really don’t know what you could be missing out on until you put your books out there. I don’t sell loads at Nook, Kobo or Apple, and was reluctant to put my books in Google Play. Now, it’s my second biggest revenue stream just behind Amazon. I dared, and the dare paid off. So don’t be afraid. Try, or don’t try and never know.
We’re writers. If we don’t consume the media form we are involved in, how can we ever hope to create a good story?
Read for pleasure. How I do it is if I enjoy a book, I go back and I work out why I enjoyed it. Was it the character’s voice or attitude? Did I like the twists? The structure? The prose? I go back and I figure out.
Same for books I don’t enjoy. I don’t spend as much time on these, but I do ask myself why I didn’t totally connect with them. Usually, it’s down to character, story or pacing. So it makes me realise how important these elements are to keep working on.
Don’t deconstruct for deconstruction’s sake. We’re trained as students to tear books apart before we even enjoy them. But don’t do this, if possible. Instead, deconstruct because something worked. Enjoy first, ask why you enjoyed it later.
Also, watching TV shows and films does count as reading. It’s the consumption of story, and we’re storytellers, so it 100% counts. That’s my excuse for watching The Walking Dead finale at 8am yesterday, anyway.
23. Stick to your guns.
Like I said before, with all this information and all the things being said—sales figures, reviews, amount of books—it’s easy to get discouraged from writing. But you have to accept that writing is a tough job. It’s fun, but it’s tough.
Fact: we all have bad days. Just write about them instead of wallowing in them. I’ve written some of my best scenes when I’ve been in a grumpy mood.
24. Grow a backbone.
Directly relates to the last point. Writing truth #85437857834: People will upset you. Sometimes, those people will be close to you. It’s hard for 9-5 office people to accept that somebody else sits around at home and makes stuff up sometimes. And often, those people don’t realise that we’re working hard, just like them, even if it is from the comfort of our homes. You might notice friends making snarky comments, or family members rolling their eyes when you tell them you’re going to write. Sound familiar?
How do you deal with this? Simple. Deal with it. Then turn them into a character. And give them a rough time in your next book. 😛
25. HAVE FUN!
Yes! Final point! And this is my favourite of all. Not just because I’m absolutely delighted to reach the end of this mammoth post, but because it’s so true. WRITING IS FUN!
If writing is not fun, then what the fuck are you doing? Go get another job. You get to sit alone in a comfy chair and a warm room and make shit up (in the wonderful words of Dean Wesley Smith). You get to consciously dream, and people PAY you to do it. What isn’t fun about that?!?!?!
Okay. I’m done. I’m burnt out, and I’ve got a football/soccer match to watch later. This post in a nutshell…
Write the best book you can—the book you’d want to read—preferably in a series.
Make it as easy as possible for readers to try out that first book.
Get those readers to buy your next books.
Make a living writing fiction.
PS: If you enjoyed this post, consider checking out one of my free books or something. They’re all over there on the right. Cheers.