I can't tell you how many beginning writers have asked me over the years if it's possible to earn a living as a full-time book writer. My answer is always the same: Yes ... and no.
To begin with, let's clear up a few misconceptions. Here are some all-too-commonly given tips to becoming a self-supporting, full-time author that I highly suggest you ignore:
- See what traits bestselling books have in common - The truth is, they have very little in common, as a quick glance at the NYT bestseller's list will affirm. And even if they had, jumping on the bandwagon to create a similar book that gets published from six months to two years later won't do you a bit of good, because the train has already left that station.
- Write a grippy book on a trendy topic - Been there, discussed that (see above).
- Build a huge following on social media, or become a sought-after celebrity - Social media, it's been proven, doesn't translate into book sales, so that advice is worthless. And becoming a celebrity—you mean, like Tucker Carlson or Kami Baby? Well, that's pretty damned difficult to pull off without a whole lot of time, patience, persistence, and luck. And, in the meantime, who's going to be writing your books?
- Learn how to write a fantastic pitch letter that promises editors what they want - Not even close. If editors knew what they wanted, they wouldn't need authors' submissions; they'd commission those bestsellers themselves. The truth is that editors rely upon authors and agents to tell them what they think is a hot topic. As for a fantastic pitch, I'm onboard with that one. Get an acquisition editor's interest piqued, and you're halfway home.
- Convince a literary agent to represent you and pitch your book to major publishers - Totally ridiculous. You'd have better success pitching your book to publishers yourself, even though most of them will summarily turn you down, than trying to land a legitimate literary agent to represent you, an unknown and untested writer with no proven track record. Agents make their living off the percentage they receive from selling their writers' works. No sales record, no attraction. Game, set, match! Got it?
Okay, with all that silliness out of the way, here are my recommendations for making a living as a full-time "book writer."
- Don't be a full-time "book writer." Be a full-time writer. Period! That means that, while you're slaving away, completing the Great American Novel, follow up on other income-producing venues. Write short pieces for your local newspaper. Write feature articles for small-circulation magazines, gradually lifting your sights to some of the "Bigs." You can make a few grand an article if you hit the right major monthlies at the right time. That will buy a lot of typewriter ribbons.
- If you're good enough at writing to do it full time, you're good enough at editing to do it part time. Advertise your editorial services locally and on the Internet, and take whatever jobs come your way.
- Critique students' written reports for $100 a paper. You'd be surprised at how many kids are willing to pay that and more for the chance of landing a good grade. Advertise in student papers or in the classifies of papers in big college towns.
- Take out a classified ad in a popular "shopper" weekly, promoting a flat-rate fee for cleaning up and polishing business advertisements before they go to press. Make the fee affordable, and I predict you'll soon be turning jobs away.
- Become a guest blogger in a subject area of importance to you. Or find a blog you like that you can improve through editing, and approach the blog owner with a pitch. I once edited a weekly Pilates blog for $50 a crack. That was $200 a month for an hour's worth of work total, and I didn't have to bust my butt.
I think you get my point. The bottom line is that writing is tough; writing full-time is even tougher. If you concentrate on books alone, chances are slim you're going to make it. But if you diversify into related areas, you increase the potential a thousand percent and still have time to get that book writing in. I know. I've been writing full-time for the better part of half a century in just that way.
Can you do it, too? Sure. But it's going to take a little flexibility and creativity on your part. Not to mention just a touch of humility.
D. J. Herda is author of the new eBook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.