It’s The Best Time On Earth To Be A Writer

Since 2009 or so, I’ve been saying to people it’s the best time on earth to be a writer. We all know why. Digital self-publishing makes it possible for a writer to earn real income outside the walls of the Forbidden City. And writers within the walls can start a separate stream of income on their own (provided they’ve wisely worked out a fair non-compete clause).

We’re far enough along now to know certain things about self-publishing. We know it is not a “gold rush.” We know you have to provide quality product, which generally means highly entertaining (fiction) or useful and unique (non-fiction). We know that the more prolific you are the better your chances of increasing your flow of income.

Now comes another report from Author Earnings, the enterprise started by self-publishing star Hugh Howey. Some of the findings in this most recent report are startling.

Self-published authors are clearly earning as much as traditionally published authors on the largest e-book sales platform in the world.

Note, this is not taking print sales into consideration. But still, it’s an astounding fact. Just think about how much the professional writing world has opened up in the six years or so since digital self-publishing began to take off.


[T]he parity we see in our author earnings charts between self-publishing and Big 5 publishing has a lot to do with the latter’s existing titles and not their new releases. How you decide to publish your manuscript today means looking at the difference in earnings due to recent works. Self-published authors are not just holding their ground with Big 5 authors when it comes to releases after 2011, they are out-earning Big 5 authors by a 27% margin.

This is huge, and comports with what I’ve found by both experiential and anecdotal evidence.

While the extreme outliers from both camps earn most of the income–similar to what we see in most entertainment industries–there is health and wealth down the long tail for self-published and Big 5 published authors alike. In fact, they almost perfectly map onto one another.

This is the real story. It is ever more possible to earn a living wage from writing IF––and this is key––you actually know how to write. This is a craft, after all. You can’t sell a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck (because if it doesn’t, it sucks).

I mentioned that my experience and my acquaintance with several self-publishing authors doing extremely well (I’m talking five figures a month) demonstrate why this is the best time in history to be a writer.  

As I step back and look at these writers, I notice that all of them were previously published under the traditional system. This doesn’t mean there aren’t non-trads earning at that level. Far from it. But it does mean that the circle I’m acquainted with all proved their writing chops first within the walls of the Forbidden City.

Which validates another thing I’ve been saying ever since I started teaching self-publishing workshops: if you are a new writer, and you do hope for a career at this, you need to put your books through a grinder that replicates what an agent or publishing house would do with them.

You need to be objective and you need to be hard. Heck, you may even need to reject yourself. I mean it. How many first novels have ever sold? Or sold well? Or should have ever seen the light of day in the first place?

Most first novels are like that first waffle coming off a lukewarm griddle. Chuck it and start a new one. If the new one tastes right, then keep them coming. Pile them high and don’t be stingy with the butter and syrup.

When I was first starting out as a writer, there was a stat I read somewhere that said the average yearly income generated by fiction writing was around $3000. This was sobering indeed. It wasn’t going to stop me, because writing fiction is what I wanted to do with my life. But it did have me planning to keep on practicing law for forty years.

Now that stat seems quaint in its irrelevance. That was a traditional-only statistic when print books in bookstores were the only game in town.

I have no way of knowing what the average income of productive fiction writers (meaning at least one novel a year) is today. But for a self-starter who knows his craft and is willing to write for the rest of his life, the future is a heck of a lot brighter than 3k a year.

There is also good news for writers who write for other than commercial reasons. If you’re into literary or experimental fiction, or if you have a subject you’re passionate about, you can now give those books life without having to pay four thousand bucks for a print run (and then suffer the indignity of ten boxes of unsold tomes in your garage for the next twenty years, until you finally give up and donate them to the library, which won’t take them because there are too many). 

Anyone can publish a book now and, if there’s quality attached, you can generate a following. It may be small but it will be heck of a lot larger than when you were unpublished.

Today the acton is with what I call the ownlist writers.

And for those writers who still desire to enter the Forbidden City, the gates are not closed. They are guarded with more vigilance, however, owing to the high risk of the business these days. The purse strings are tightening and deal terms can be fraught with peril. So caveat scriptor. Work with a good agent and get to know contracts. As my grandfather used to recite:

A wise old owl
Sat in an oak.
The more he heard,
The less he spoke.
The less he spoke,
The more he heard.
Now wasn’t he a wise old bird?

Keep your eyes and ears open, listen and learn about what’s going on in the book world, what to avoid, what terms to walk away from. Don’t leave your fate completely in the hands of another, ever again. Be a partner, not a patsy.

All writers should dip at least one of their quills in the rushing stream of self-publishing. As I said a couple of weeks ago, take risks and don’t be afraid to fail.

Technologies and markets will ebb and flow. Godzilla and Mothra will sometimes duke it out. But the game has changed forever. The future is now. And now is the best time on earth to be a writer.

Carpe typem. Seize the keyboard!

30 thoughts on “It’s The Best Time On Earth To Be A Writer

  1. “You can’t sell a vacuum cleaner that doesn’t suck (because if it doesn’t, it sucks). “

    I probably shouldn’t post when I’m exhausted but with regard to vacuum cleaners, they suck for only a short time then they cease to suck at all (at least in the experience of this unfortunate multiple vacuum owning customer). Although my main point is definitely my crankiness over crappy vacuums, the analogy to writing would seem to be that you can get someone to give your first book a shot but if you start cranking out crap and get sloppy, you’ll lose customers.

    Which follows the theme discussed here all along–high quality is the best key to success.

    BK Jackson

  2. I absolutely love the options authors have now. I’m more willing to write out of my comfort zone, even on spec, because I know I don’t require a 3rd party to publish. I’m also willing to stretch my skills by writing shorter projects, something I wouldn’t have done a few years back, because I can self-publish it at a good price point value for my readers. Win, win.

    Have a good Sunday, Jim.

    • Right, Jordan, it’s all about options, choices, and being able to showcase new material. These choices weren’t around as little as 8 years ago!

  3. Thanks, Jim. I appreciate all your efforts to keep us informed. I loved reading the Author earnings report. I especially liked the comment from Hugh and Data Guy, “Our advice to an aspiring author today might be to do one of two things: either build a time machine and travel ten years into the past to query their work — or self-publish today.” It took me 21 years to get a traditional publishing contract and now I feel more hopeful than I have for a long time. I’m wondering how authors who have been traditionally published for a long time are sorting through all this. Have a great Memorial Day.

    • Jillian, it is a seat-squirming time for many midlist writers and their agents. Crystal-ball gazing was a lot simpler “ten years into the past.”

      But we writers can do one thing no one can stop–keep writing … and know that there are options for the finished work.

  4. I am really excited to be an an author during this time. As Jordan said, I feel like I can take chances and try new things because I know that I have more control over publishing.

    I’ve been reading a ton of books on self publishing to figure out how it all works, and I feel more empowered than ever. I’m talking to cover artists and professional editors, and I’m on track to publish my serial in the next few months. So exciting!

    I’m ever grateful to you guys are the Kill Zone who provide excellent advice.

  5. This is a great time to be a writer. For me the real allure of self-publishing is that the gatekeepers are out of the equation and your work is judged by readers.

    The option to make reasonable living seems to have disappeared in traditional publishing – either you are NYT bestseller, a personal friend of either Simon or Schuster, or you’re out.

  6. Another excellent post, Jim, and written in your usual accessible and entertaining style! I’ll be sending my clients to read this one, too.

    And I could add to the advice about producing a quality product before publishing to run your work past some savvy beta readers or a discerning critique group to catch any parts that drag or are confusing, etc., then it would be best to get a professional edit from a reputable freelance editor who reads and edits your genre. Be sure to check their credentials and get a sample edit first!

  7. Thanks for this, Jim. Especially at a time when many Hachette authors are playing hard the victim card — as if they never had any options or alternatives to their predicament. As Joe Konrath has been saying these last few days, when it became clear that Hachette wasn’t the partner he envisioned in the building of his career and the growth of his book sales, he hired a lawyer and sued to get out of his contract. Now he’s quite happy with the control he assumed over his career. And wonders why unhappy authors don’t move to do the same.

  8. Very encouraging, but I still worry (as a reader) that the self-published works are not as clean, tight and well written. Without the stringent editing and careful consideration of the work that publishing houses do, how can readers be sure the product is worth purchasing?

    • Readers can download a sample for free, or read the first several pages online. Which means writers better be impressive up front.

      And, if they are, finish with a bang. Because a bang brings bucks, in the form of sales on subsequent books.

  9. JSB–Thanks for another “value-added” post, useful to all writers. At some point, I hope you’ll take up what might be considered the downside to self-publishing, vis a vis those who continue to seek a trad publishing arrangement. After two agents took me on but failed to sell my work, I self-published one of those two books. I am now hearing that having done this will be viewed negatively by agents and editors. Am I wrong to think I’m caught between a rock and a hard place?

    • The idea of “negative impact” is an old canard that is fast disappearing. Publishers know they need new talent, and self-publishing is a farm system for them. A writer doing well here may be approached, and that’s when the real decision-making comes in.

      So be unafraid, Barry, of getting your stuff out there. just remember what i said about putting through the grinder.

  10. Another bonus point about the current status of publishing is how authors and readers can connect directly like never before. I see this as the biggest plus. Reader feedback can be invaluable, and so can the new friends you make along the way.

  11. I’m not even a published author (well except for two short stories) and I have an app coming out soon! 😉

    I’m an expert, and I’m cheap, but I love you all. I will post here. I promise!! 😀

  12. James, your posts are always so inspirational. Thanks so much for the wise words. I love how you remind us that we have to put our work through our own grinder now. Our name is on the cover of the indie title–we should make the book worthy.

    I’m so thankful to be a writer in the age of literary possibilities.

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