Friday, March 1, 2013

Can You Make a Living from Writing?

On a library poster with a recent novel.

There are a lot of myths about writing, not least of which is the amount of money involved. This myth goes in two directions – one, that's impossible to make a living as a writer, and two, that it's easy money, especially writing for children. Chances are you know it's not easy money. And it is possible to make a living – though most of the writers I know who are doing so are not surviving just on writing fiction.

Since I just finished organizing all my tax information, I thought I'd discuss my financial breakdown. (Not breakdown as in "Oh no—my finances have broken down!" but rather breakdown as in “an analysis; division into parts.”)

I am a full-time, working writer with no other source of income – well, at least if you count all the writing-related activities like teaching, critiquing, and giving writing workshops as part of the larger category of "being a writer." This means I can't just write what I want, when I want. I have to find ways to make money, while also considering how best to advance my overall career and find time for the writing I love.

2012 was a pretty good year. Without getting into specifics, let's just say I made somewhere between 70% and 100% of the per capita personal income average for New Mexico, where I live, depending on the source you use. New Mexico has the fifth lowest per capita income in the US, but it's also relatively cheap to live here. (Tip: if you are depending on freelance income, living someplace cheap is a big advantage.)

Let's look at my sources of income:

Magazine Articles: 22%. This includes about 20 articles, paying from $100-$600. Many were for Children's Writer or Writers Guide to 2013. I also did several for a New Mexico publication, one for a science magazine, and a few online articles.

Critiques: 21%. I did about 25 individual critiques, material ranging from synopses to 300+ page novels, plus a set of critiques for a contest. (Learn more about my critique business.)

Work-for-Hire Books: 13%. I wrote three short nonfiction books, plus one longer one, but only half the income for that came in before the end of the year.

Self-Publishing: 13%. By the end of 2012, I had five books published in e-book and print on demand, but the amount earned per book varied dramatically. I may follow up on this in another post, if there's interest.

Teaching: 11%. I taught two in-person classes through a writing organization and also taught students one-on-one through a correspondence school. In 2011, I did a lot of workshops at SCBWI conferences around the country, but not in 2012.

Royalties: 9%, all from The Well of Sacrifice, the first novel I ever sold. It came out in 1999, but it’s still in print and used in many schools as supplemental fiction when they teach about the Maya. None of my other royalty-paying work has earned out yet.

Educational Test Passages: 8%. I think I did six or eight passages, some of them in two related parts. This seems to be seasonal work with short deadlines.

School Visit: 1.5%, and this was actually from a visit done a previous year. Some authors make a lot from school visits. I don't particularly like doing them, and they are not really convenient or well-paying in my area, so I haven't pursued this, but I will do them when asked.

Novel Advances: 0%. I did not sell a new novel in 2012. In fact, I haven't sold original fiction since 2008. (Part of that is the choice to write more novels for adults under the name Kris Bock and self publish those.)

A couple of things stand out for me in looking over this information. First, no single source of income dominates. I couldn't afford to lose any of them, except maybe that one school visit. In addition, the two biggest categories, articles and critiques, involved dozens of separate projects. Your mileage may vary, but for me, I need a lot of types of work, and a lot of individual projects, to make a living.

Nonfiction is a major part of my work. It looks like about half my income was nonfiction, with the rest split between fiction and teaching/critiquing. (I haven't broken it out in detail, but briefly, one of my self-published books is nonfiction, Advanced Plotting; the other four are fiction. Some of the test passages were fiction. I've done some work-for-hire fiction, but this year was mostly nonfiction.)

Again, other authors may make more of their money from fiction, or school visits, or whatever. Some may get big advances or have lots of books paying royalties. There is no single path or right path, but I hope my "breakdown" has at least been interesting, and at best has given you some ideas for your own career or insight into what it means to be a writer.

Chris Eboch


  1. Thanks for sharing this. I have to laugh when someone says that publishing a book will bring a fortune. Interesting all the things you're doing. You're a very busy person.

  2. You have always impressed me with your skill and reach, Chris. You truly are a one-woman business and a writing machine!

  3. Interesting! Very versatile in your ability to turn writing into a supporting career!

    My answer to your title question is "yes" - at least that's been true for me for the last year and a half. I like your per-capita average income criteria, so I looked it up for Illinois (which is ranked 16th in the country). Last year, I made about 72% of the average, but almost exclusively from my self-published fiction (the remainder from classes/workshops/speaking and a tiny royalty from my small press book). However, I made most of that in the second half of the year, so in 2013, I'm looking to make about double the average (of course, we're only a couple months in, so it's always sketchy to predict such things).

    I'm amazed at how many writers actually DO make a living from their writing these days. It's a great time to be writer!

    1. Thanks, Susan. It's great that you are making so much from self published work. I'd like to hear more about that – is it for children?

      I'm not making a huge amount from self-publishing yet, but in 2012 I made five times as much as in 2011. If that rate of increase keeps up, I'll be very happy!

  4. I do believe you can make a career in writing. But to do so means you have to think outside the box and consider the 'business' of writing, what you are able to accomplish, how you need to budget and set goals. Thanks for sharing your views. But it is a business which means cash flow ebbs and flows.

  5. This was interesting, Chris--and I'm very impressed that you have finished organizing all your tax information!

  6. This is fascinating, but also a little overwhelming. It looks like to make a living as a writer, you have to be more business-woman than writer! Of course I'm probably exaggerating, but maybe I should just appreciate my non-writing day job a little bit more.

  7. Chris, this is fascinating. Thanks for sharing. I'm not yet making a living wage as a writer, but I'm still plugging away.

  8. Thanks for sharing this with us, Chris. As my co-blogger Esther Hershenhorn often says, we writers much "cobble together" a living. I wish more people were aware of this. Most people (mainly non-writers, but sometimes beginning writers, too) I meet think all writers match J.K. Rowling's earnings.

  9. Thank you everyone for your comments. Yes, there is a business side to writing, assuming you want to be published. Whatever path you take, the business will intrude at some point, unless you just want to write for your own pleasure and never try to find an audience. But hey, it still beats having a "real job"! I'd rather be a writer/businesswoman than work for someone else.

  10. Interesting. Thanks so much for the breakdown and peek at some of the practicalities.

  11. Wow, thanks for sharing and your honesty. This is usually a topic writers want to shy away from. Good to see a professional approach :)

    1. There is power in knowledge! Plus, I love the MythBusters, so why not bust a few myths of my own?

  12. That's lovely of you to share all of this, Chris. It's a hard go and for everyone who has their first book out, remember that the second book (Especially in a series) sells the first, too. I keep reminding myself that as I head into Bk 2. Also, doing class visits, coming as a visiting author (especially to international schools) is great, too. Many schools have authors-in residence. International schools will often pay travel, housing and per diem. The last school I visited (a British International School here in Cairo) paid me £500 per day doing presentations in classrooms. Many schools pay more. Writer-In-Residence programs often pay between $10,000-20,000 per school year. The benefit from getting into classrooms is that people learn about your books. My publisher said they could actually see spikes in sales every time I went out on the road.

  13. This is fascinating. I've never seen it broken down in this much detail before. It's really eye-opening for me since I've yet to sell anything!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!