There will never be a better time to write fiction for a living….
Stuart Harrison, author of Snow Falcon. http://www.stuartharrison.com
That’s the good news. Here’s the caveat…. That doesn’t mean it will be easy.
Writing fiction as a means of making a living is a profession, it’s a job. I should say that right away, because though it seems self-evident, I’ve come across plenty of people in my time who don’t think of writing that way. They want to be writers, by which they mean they want to be paid to write, but somehow there’s a disconnect between that desire and the recognition that, by definition, writing is therefore a professional pursuit.
These people think that writing is not work. Rather, it is art, or craft, or a creative endeavor or whatever label you want to put on it. The implied argument is that writing cannot therefore be considered a job, because a job is something that has to be done according to certain standards governing output and time spent. The argument continues that writing is something you do when the mood strikes, when the creative urge hits you and you just have to sit down and write, whether it is two in the morning or halfway through dinner. If the lightning strikes, you just have to drop everything and go create. This is utter delusion.
Nobody ever successfully wrote for a living that way. If that’s how you view writing, then it is an interest, a hobby, and this article is not directed towards you so you should stop reading now, if you haven’t already.
Okay, so having dealt with that issue, let’s jump right to the question every aspiring writer is eager to have answered (the kind who wants to make a living doing this, remember). How exactly do I go about it? How do I turn the ideas in my head into something that people will pay good money for? Well, it’s pretty easy really, and it’s also extremely hard.
Here’s an analogy of how it works. Let’s say you want to do something else with your working life. Maybe you want to be a graphic designer, or you want to run a company or you’d like to become a builder, plumber, lawyer or whatever (though why anyone would want to become a lawyer I do not know). It doesn’t matter because the principles are the same.
What you do is you learn your trade from a recognized source of expertise, which might mean a period of specialized education followed by on-the-job training, and then you work at it for the next forty or fifty years and try to get better at it. You’ll probably start on a low income, but that income will improve as you get better at your job. The better you are compared to others who do the same job, the more you will probably earn as your reputation grows. So there you have it. It really shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that writing fiction for a living works in exactly the same way.
There is no magic bullet, no secret short-cut, that’s the way it is. Work hard, learn your craft, keep doing that and you should be able to make a living if you have the basic requirements. Like any other profession, not everybody is suited to the thing they start out doing. Again, that’s just the way it is. How do you know if you’re really suited to writing fiction? Well, there are plenty of places online to get feedback these days. Do a search for online writing communities, and these are good places to start. If people say your stuff sucks – and no matter what you do to try and fix it and no matter how hard you try, if after years of effort people still say it sucks – well, it probably does.
On the other hand, if you get decent feedback you might move onto publishing something that people may buy. Maybe you make a lot of money, or a little money. Chances are it will be the latter, but it is a start. Over time, if you continue to work at it, your income will grow, and there’s a chance you might become a well- known writer of bestsellers one day. You might get rich, just like people in other professions might also get rich. The best, the select few at the top of any profession, can achieve that and more. No different for writers.
There is no shortage of advice for aspiring fiction writers concerning the practical aspects of learning the craft of actual story-telling. It’s everywhere on the internet, either free or for sale as books, ebooks, or online courses. I’m not going to get into that aspect of the craft other than to say that it stands to reason that if you expect to make money from any endeavor, then you have to learn how to do it.
Clearly, if you want to write fiction, then you should read fiction. If you want to write for TV, then watch the kinds of shows you’d like to write about. This is so obvious it really doesn’t need to be said, but there is another dimension to this advice. It is this: You can learn how to write characters, how to create plots, how to create tension and conflict and all the other mechanics of the process. None of it will do you any good at all unless you also understand the market you are writing for.
A market, in this sense, are the readers who might buy the kind of material you want to write. Generally, the overall market is defined by breaking it down into certain genres, for example, thrillers or romance. Genres like these are very broad. There are many different types of thrillers and romance stories. For example there are political thrillers, financial thrillers, legal thrillers, etc.
Almost any of the accepted genres can be broken down like this, and often this is what resellers do online to make it easier for readers to find the kind of books they want to read. Physical bookshops often do the same thing, and then arrange each section alphabetically.
This is all useful for the reader and therefore for the writer too. It helps to know where your material is going to fit in because, for one thing, then you start to get an idea of how large your potential market is. The more popular a genre is, the more potential readers there are who might buy your work. On the other hand, there will also be a lot more competition in the form of authors who are trying to reach that same market. That’s just life.
Clearly you need to know what people like and expect from a thriller, if that’s what you are writing. However, something that is often overlooked in this issue of genre is that people don’t really fit into neat and tightly defined categories any more than books do. Sometimes they do, but not always.
What I mean by this is that many people buy books across a range of genres. A person who buys thrillers might also buy mysteries, historical, romance or almost anything that happens to interest them. Despite this seeming eclectic taste, what is actually going on is that readers make choices based on criteria other than simply genre. Those choices can be affected by any number of things such as current buzz, reviews, marketing and so-on.
Yet underlying all of that is the fact that different groups of people read novels for different reasons. Some read for pure, uncomplicated entertainment. Some read as a means of fantasy fulfillment, some for escapism and others for more complex reasons such as the fact that fiction can provide insights into the issues of life facing us all.
My point here is that in broad terms novels can be challenging and thought provoking to any degree. Often, the more of this intellectual capacity a novel has, the more it is deemed to be literary, though these terms are all very subjective. There are novels that are little more than the literary equivalent of chewing gum, and there are those that would be better likened to a dish you’d find in a restaurant with three Michelin stars, and there is everything in between.
It’s often said that writers need to know about the genre they are writing for, but genres are categories, not people. It’s useful if you can define your work tightly as a cyber-thriller, for example, because it makes it easier for people who like cyber thrillers to find your work in the first place.
But the further up that scale, between chewing gum and fine-dining you are striving to reach, then strict genre definition becomes less important. As a writer you need to understand that. You need to understand the kind of readers you are hoping to appeal to, because then you can try to write books that they will find satisfying.
Today, as things stand, it’s often said that the publishing industry is in turmoil. The reason for this is that the online purchasing of books has been a game changer for the traditional publishing houses as well as for retail chains. Online selling changes everything; from price, to visibility, to all forms of marketing.
What has changed the book landscape more than anything else though is the rise in popularity of e-books and the subsequent proliferation of independent author/publishers who have discovered that thanks to Amazon and others (but mostly Amazon) it is now fairly easy for anyone to publish and offer for sale a book that they have written.
Note I say ‘offer for sale’, because actually selling your work is something else entirely and without getting into the detail, for a broad idea of what I mean, refer to the first paragraph in this essay.
There are many ways for a writer to publish and sell his or her work these days and the situation is fluid and ever-changing. In many ways it has never been easier for writers to publish. If the traditional avenue of agents and publishers themselves don’t work out, assuming those paths are ever considered, which they may not be, then the door is not closed anymore.
There are many, many examples of novels that were rejected by numerous agents and publishers that eventually found a way onto the market and went on to become big sellers, some of them truly huge sellers. Today an author can publish an e-book in five minutes on Amazon. Of course that doesn’t mean it will be a bestseller, even if it is a great book. Many factors come into play. Luck is a big one but it isn’t the biggest. Need I even say it, but see the first paragraph of this essay for a clue as to what is.
My personal view regarding e-books and hardcopy print books is that both will exist happily side-by-side for a while. As I said, things are changing all the time. It may be that people won’t buy e-books individually anymore, but rather will pay a monthly subscription to a service that allows them to read books from an available library without paying anything extra.
Amazon has launched a service like this and it makes sense. It’s a bit like music streaming services which are growing rapidly. The only problem with Amazon is that it insists that publishers offer their work exclusively on Amazon if they want to be included on this service. Many do, though this is a dangerous road to tread when it is clearly designed to further dominate the market. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
Right now I think e-books generally are most successful among specific groups of readers, and I think the same will apply in the short term to subscription services. It isn’t the genre so much that determines whether or not a book is particularly suited to the e-book market as opposed to the print market, but rather it depends where that book sits on the literary chewing gum/fine dining scale I talked about earlier.
The lower down the scale a novel sits, the more likely there is to be a large pool of readers who will buy it as an e-book. I think this is because a large proportion of e-book readers simply want to be entertained by fiction. These are the readers who are less likely to stray from the genres they know and like because experience tells them that those genres, whether romance or thriller or whatever else, deliver what they require from a novel. Price is a more important factor for these readers than for others.
I want to stress that I’m making broad generalisations about readers and markets that shouldn’t be regarded as anything other than that. This essay is about what you have to do to make a living as a fiction writer, and though the first paragraph covers the most important part of that, I think the e-book market has opened up another avenue for writers of all kinds. Right now, if you want to write what I’ve termed chewing-gum fiction, which used to be called pulp-fiction, then becoming an independent author/publisher focused entirely on the e-book segment is a good way to go.
Don’t get me wrong though; I’m not saying that writing that kind of fiction is easy, because it isn’t. It requires a certain set of skills so that the author can deliver work that meets the requirements of readers, which are really quite demanding. The story must move quickly, the characters must conform to the standard of the genre, the issues are usually very clear-cut; black versus white, good versus evil and no shades of grey (unless you’re talking about erotica), and the writing itself must be of a reasonable standard.
If you don’t deliver on these things, the reader will quickly give up and will never buy another of your books again. To do well in this market requires different skills from those required by somebody aiming for a more discerning reader, but that doesn’t mean those skills are any less easy to come by. Once you have them though, there is a large potential audience out there who will happily pay two or three bucks for your book and they will probably buy lots of them.
If you are aiming for a more discerning reader, somebody who prefers to eat in a restaurant as opposed to grabbing a burger at the drive-thru, then things get more difficult for the independent author/publisher. A lot of people still prefer to read paper books rather than use e-readers or tablets. There are all kinds of reasons for this, including resistance to change, the satisfaction and pleasure people get from owning a library and so-on, but whatever the reasons are, it is a fact that it is much harder for an independent author to reach those readers.
Even by publishing a print-on-demand version of your novel you will struggle to convince them to buy it because P.O.D. is more expensive than a mass produced paperback. This group of readers is also far more likely to rely on traditional reviews from newspapers and other sources to make their reading choices. In that sense they are probably far more risk averse than somebody who is paying two or three dollars for an e-book.
The dynamics of the fiction publishing market are changing all the time, and I consider myself to be a reasonably discerning reader; I like my fiction to have substance. When I go out to eat I choose restaurants where the food is interesting and well prepared. I don’t like fine dining much because the whole experience seems deliberately pretentious, and I don’t like fast-food because it’s often empty calories. In terms of reading, I am one of the many exceptions to the generalisations I’ve made in this essay. I read everything on my Kindle. I don’t miss paper books any more, but if I read something that really made an impression on me I might want to put it on my bookshelf, and then maybe I would go and buy a hard-copy. It hasn’t happened yet though, and I’ve had a Kindle for nearly two years now.
Having written all the above, I should mention that when I began writing seriously, about eighteen years ago, I managed to land publishing deals in a number of countries with a novel called The Snow Falcon, which became a bestseller. I was thirty nine years old and I’d been writing full-time for about three years when it happened, so not exactly the lifetime of slow and steady work and learning I talked about at the beginning of this essay.
That novel was followed by four others, the last of which was published in 2003. Because I invested the money I made during that period reasonably wisely I’ve never had to stop writing and find some other kind of paid work, even though I haven’t had a publishing contract with a mainstream publisher since 2003. During the intervening years I’ve written screenplays and unpublished novels of various kinds, and in retrospect it feels as if I had to start all over again. I’ve certainly put in the time and effort. I’ve heard it said that people like me, who experience this kind of almost overnight success, have it tough if things don’t continue to work out the way they begin. Amen to that.
Over a period of two years, working full time, I wrote a novel called The Flyer which is about the life of a young, isolated man who feels that he has no place in the world, and who eventually becomes a pilot during WW1. It is more literary than not, whatever that means. Not three Michelin stars, but not Denny’s either. It’s the kind of book I always wanted to write and I’m more proud of The Flyer than I am of anything else I’ve written, including The Snow Falcon, which allowed me my fifteen minutes of minor fame.
So far though, I haven’t been able to get the book traditionally published. I have no idea why. So instead, I published it as an e-book, and it is selling okay and is being well reviewed, but it will never reach the audience I would like it to reach unless it is picked up by a publisher who will put their weight behind it. Such is life. I won’t give up though, because I believe in the book. I believe in it so much that I’ve written a sequel and I’m part-way through a third. That’s the other thing you must have: Tenacity. In spades.
Finally, whatever route you choose to go down to pursue your writing dreams, remember this: it is a profession. Be professional. Hire professional people to design your covers if you decide to go the independent route. Hire an editor. This is an absolute must. Most of all though, never stop working on your dream. It is not a sprint, it is a marathon, just like the rest of life.