Make a Living at Writing?

From J.P. Kenna:

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.

Link to the rest at Blue Collar Author Blog

Some time ago, PG posted an item inviting visitors to TPV who had a blog post they thought might be of interest to others visiting TPV to send him a link.

PG mentioned that weekends tend to be times when he has more difficulty finding items of interest to TPV visitors than during the workweek.

J.P., the author of the OP, took PG up on his suggestion and sent him a link to a blog post.

While PG is certain that J.P. was already famous before he sent PG a link, perhaps J.P. is a smidge more famous now.

If anyone else would like a teeny bit more fame, feel free to send PG links to items you think might be of interest to the world of TPV via the Contact PG link at the top of the blog. You won’t be deemed pretentious if you send links so something you have written yourself. (PG would prefer not to receive links to something you have plagiarized yourself, however.)

You can, of course, send suggestions at any time, but after mid-day on Friday plus all day on Saturday and Sunday are the times when traditional publishing is especially somnolent (perhaps everyone is working on his/her/their stupid statements for the coming work week) and PG’s other sources of interesting material also slow down, so feel especially free to send him something then.

25 thoughts on “Make a Living at Writing?”

  1. Ha, I want to volunteer for this but my newest efforts are about being a “counter-cultural writer,” by which I mean a conservative one, and may feel too political for people. (I am doing a short form podcast, between 6 and 15 minutes, about topics like hatespeech, civility, compassion, etc.). This is my experiment on the new platform,, and so far it’s been interesting.

    Maybe I’ll do something a little more businessy, and if so, will send it along. 🙂

    As for making a living in an increasingly oversaturated world… yeah. Building out from niches seems a good idea. :,

    • I’m interested in cautionary tales.
      As Heinlein used to put it “If this goes on.”

      I’ll keep an eye out.
      Those tend to annoy the heck out of the humorless true believers, which makes them fun.
      Good subjects for pondering, too.

      • I’m not really a debate type, so most of my takes on things are personal and anecdotal. But on the bright side, I’ve got a lot of personal and anecdotal built up from 20+ years as the “wrong kind” of Hispanic woman in science fiction and fantasy circles. :,

        • Sounds familiar.
          Sometimes factually reporting what you lived conflicts with the ideology of the true believers. “You can lead a horse to water…”

    • Dear M.C.A.,
      While I may be of a more liberal bent than yourself, I could easily rant on the excesses of PC (not to be confused with PG). Such as censuring Dr. Seuss–who joins a rarefied group, which includes Laura Ingles Wilder and Mark Twain.
      The best to you,
      J.P. Kenna

      • True liberals are my allies, the accelerator to my brake pedal. But it’s the very principles that made liberalism great that allowed it to be colonized by evil ideologies. I think there are more of us on one side (sanity) than our checkboxes make us think. 🙂

  2. Thank you, Mr. P.G., for conferring your moment of fame on me. Fleeting though such can be, it all helps. If I may add, there’s no Mc on the front of my last name (you are far from the first one to make this very-forgivable error). Perhaps it might be time to change my surname from Kenna to McKenna. I always preferred the sound of it–more complete, somehow. Without the Mc, the name is like a train without an engine.
    Apologies for the bad simile. The best to you,
    J.P.K. (Blue Collar Author)

    • My apologies, Mr. Kenna.

      My only excuse is that my Scottish ancestors must have haunted my keyboard for a bit yesterday.

      • My Irish ancestors forgive your Scottish–especially at this time of March, approaching the 17th. Just wondering, however. Normally each early afternoon I get the Passive Voice in my inbox, in plain email (as opposed to parchment) format. I was especially looking forward to it today (Sunday, March 7th), but it never showed up. Ah well, there must be reasons.

  3. When the rate of available supply increases far greater than the rate of demand, prices fall. When the number of suppliers also increases, average earnings fall.

    There is a simple test we can all safely do at home. What happens to widgets? The same happens to books. Books aren’t special.

    “But, I’m different. I am a fresh, new voice.”
    “No, you are a widget.”

        • Your attempt at flippancy is noted. Your lack of any argument except to repeat, over and over, ‘Books are widgets! Books are widgets!’ is also noted.

          You appear to believe that all books are interchangeable. This hypothesis is drastically insufficient to explain differences in market performance from author to author and from title to title. Indeed, if books are merely interchangeable widgets, there is no point in publishing a new one. Ever. You may wish to be careful before committing yourself to the premisses that lead to such a conclusion.

          I suggest you revise your hypothesis before offering it again.

          • Uh, books are consumables as far as a lot of readers are concerned; hence the existence of used book places. Read once, dispose. Not everybody is a collector, treasuring every single book in a special shelf to reread over and over. Those folks exist but they’re the minority. The majority just wants a bit of entertainment and every once in a while they head off with a box to the nearest HalfPrice books or twofer paperback place to convert a pile of old reads into new reads.

            In fact,the whole “serendipitous stroll through the aisles” meme the book sniffers are so fond of is itself proof of the (relative) fungibility of books. Those folks walk in looking for something to buy, *anything*. It could be King or Patterson or some total unknown but the fact that unknowns have a shot at the sale at all speaks to the fungibility of books.

            Now, there are restrictions, like with all generics: fungibility is never absolute nor is it across categories. People don’t buy napkins in lieu of toilet paper except in emergencies. Rather fungibility applies within categories/genres; Harlequin built an entire empire out of the fungibility of romance (and scamming authors, but that’s a separate story) and the various big and medium publishers maintain separate imprints for the classic genres to facilitate shelving by interest, to funndl shoppers closer to their product.

            And like everything commercial, there are black swans that *appear* to disprove the laws of commerce (pet rocks, lava lamps) but actually highlight how everything else conforms.

            As for Rowling, I wouldn’t be so sure about Harry Potter not being fungible; the Percy Jackson books did fine. And publishers unleashed a horde of “the same but different” magic school books, most of which did okay which is why they kept on doing it, because of fungibility. People read Potter, wanted more and moved on to the next kid fantasy to catch their interest.

            Trade publishing is *built* on “the same but different”, which is to say, fungibility. That’s why cookie cutter series exist, why Patterson’s book mill prospers, why L. Frank Baum wrote dozens of Oz books. Formula books exist because formula books sell and trade publishing like the deluded folks from the OP are targeting is all about fungibility.

            Now, navel gazing litfic and meaning of life philosophical treatises are uniques. But genre writing is all about finding a market and giving them what they want. Entertainment. If it’s mystery, you offer up a puzzle, if it’s good SF you offer up some food for thought. But commercial writing is writing to market. Some do it well, some do it poorly, and some are frankly clueless. (No need to worry about those.)

            Books are unique at the author level but where the rubber meets the road is with the reader, who pays the freight for the entire business. And what they are looking for is entertainment. Sometimes it’s the comfort of “the same but different” (at *their* level it works, again, because of fungibility) and less often the challenge of the total unknown.

            That is how consumers as a whole behave.

            And if you’re in the publishing business to *make* money you have to keep that in mind. If you have other goals, like spreading a specific message, or making money off dreamers, then it can be safely ignored.

            I’m no fan of “economics is everything” but neither is it something to be blythely waved off. Consumers are economic creatures first and foremost. If you need evidence, think of Agency Part Deux and price elasticity. Folks have forgone or delayed purchases of overpriced ebooks and replaced them with lower priced Indies and KU reads. Or they wait on the library. Or go watch Netflix.

            That is textbook fungibility.

            Not fun for tradpub authors but it is the reality of the marketplace.

          • Your lack of any argument except to repeat, over and over, ‘Books are widgets! Books are widgets!’ is also noted.

            Widgets are books! Widgets are books!

      • If books *aren’t* widgets, then how come J. K. Rowling can’t charge $100 per copy for her books?

        • I think you might mean why *Scholastic* doesn’t charge £100. 😉

          Rowling sold control of book pricing. But she retained control of derivative rights and especially movie rights. Much like George Lucas keeping control of STAR WARS merchandising way back when. Smart.

          “…it’s where the money is.”

        • She can charge $100 for her widgets. The problem is selling at $100. She prefers to price at a level where she makes lots more money.

  4. My Irish ancestors forgive your Scottish–especially at this time of March, approaching the 17th. Just wondering, however. Normally each early afternoon I get the Passive Voice in my inbox, in plain email (as opposed to parchment) format. I was especially looking forward to it today (Sunday, March 7th), but it never showed up. Ah well, there must be reasons.

  5. The rapid increase of supply of self-published books was inevitable. The same pattern happened decade or so earlier with EBay. This new online auction platform appeared. Some people took the opportunity to clean out their attics and were astonished at the response of eager buyers. Some of these started hitting yard sales to reproduce the phenomenon. A handful did so well that they quit their day jobs and rented warehouse space, making a good living from the process.

    Then the inevitable happened. Word got out and a bunch of other people decided to join in the fun. Supply soon outstripped demand. Worse, the network advantages favor a single large marketplace rather than several competing marketplaces. Once one passes the others, a feedback loop develops with both buyers and sellers favoring that leading marketplace, regarding the others as a waste of time. Sellers soon discovered that EBay was not their friend, as it changed its terms to favor itself. The party didn’t last long.

    With self-publishing, about a dozen or so years ago the technology and market conditions made this a viable business model. A few writers dipped their toes in and were delighted by the response. Some quit their day jobs to write full time, pulling in a very respectable income. Then the EBay pattern repeated itself. The main difference is that Amazon seems to have done a better job of keeping the writers satisfied. I don’t see the complaints about Amazon like I used to about EBay. It isn’t clear to me whether this is because Amazon is kinder and gentler, it is better at public relations, or simply the Stockholm Syndrome.

    See also: producing YouTube videos as a business model.

    • Gold rushes are endemic to new tech.
      Think back to the white box PC clone era. 500 companies each gunning for 5% market share.
      Good rushes end and the quick buck types move on. The players who understand the market and focus on serving the customers properly endure and thrive.

      Right now there is a good rush in video streaming.
      This one is BIG with REALLY BIG money at stake.
      The failures will likewise be big. Like tbis one:

      ~$1.5 Billion in losses in six months.

      As for Amazon, they have the benefit of singulary inept enemies. By all rights, ePub should have been the VHS to Amazon’s LASERVISION but the Agency conspiracy killed it and allowed Amazon to capture the “hearts and minds” of consumers. Focusing on whether autbors are happy or not is to miss the story of their success. Kindle is a Network Effects empire, based on the sheer size of their customer base, created by Agency (all stores had the same prices so why go with the one with the smaller catalog, more restrictive user policies, and less capable ereader/app?) and reinforced by KU.

      Suppliers don’t *have* to like Amazon to understand that they need to have a presence there to reach their customer base. As long as the *customers* are happy it doesn’t matter beans whether the BPHs or authors are happy.

      It’s been the same for 40 years in tbe PC Software business. It’s called the Tyranny of the Installed base. Look it up. It is the inertia that results from millions of consumers voting tbeir wallets to their best interests and forcing suppliers to choose between ideology and revenue.

      Consumers are happy with Kindle. End of story.
      (Even hardcore Kobo and Nook owners are known to buy ebooks from Amazon and convert them to ePub.)
      So it comes down to picking your poison.
      Most folks in the content businesses just shrug it off because shoppers do what they want to do, ideology be darned. Like the bank robber said, “…it’s where the money is.”

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