I enjoy writing, I really do. I don't want to kill my time to make a living. I want to enjoy earning money. I don't want to be rich, I just don't want to be poor. Can I make a living as a novelist? I live alone. Do I need to be a really good writer to make a living from it?
Is it possible to make a living as a novelist? Yes, a few people do.
Is it sensible to plan on making a living as a novelist, the way you might plan on making a living as a dentist or an accountant? Absolutely not. Very few of those who try ever make even pocket money from writing fiction.
A realistic approach is to plan on making your living doing something else and write novels on the side. If you ever make enough to live on, quit your day job.
You can, of course, make your living writing, perhaps as a journalist, copy writer, or technical writer. These are careers you can plan for and work towards with a reasonable hope of success.
The US Census bureau reports that 126,601 Americans are employed full time as "writers and authors", and they have a median income of $58,150. http://www.census.gov/people/io/
That's way more people and way more money than I would have guessed. They don't define "writers and authors" nor do they break it down into categories. This probably includes many people who have jobs writing, like people who write instructions on how to put together furniture and the like, as opposed to novelists. There's a separate category for reporters, so I guess this doesn't include reporters.
This article from the UK -- http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/celebritynews/11550871/Just-one-in-ten-authors-can-earn-full-time-living-from-writing-report-finds.html -- finds that 11% of Britons who describe themselves as "authors" actually make enough money writing to live on.
I know I've read several sources that say that hundreds or perhaps a few thousand Americans actually earn enough by freelance writing to make a living. (The exact number depending on how you define "author" and "living" and how you collect the statistics, etc.)
To echo mbakeranalecta, there are many professions where if you are at least reasonably competent, you have a good chance of being able to earn a living. A competent plumber or auto mechanic or accountant or lumberjack can usually find a decent job and make a comfortable living.
But there are other jobs where a few people achieve huge success and become very rich, while the vast majority earn little or often nothing. Jobs like rock singer, movie actor, drug dealer, and novelist. Success in these occupations depends on a lot of factors other than your individual skill -- call it "luck".
I've been writing on and off for over 20 years. I've published maybe 20 or so magazine articles, contributed chapters to four textbooks, and self-published three books of my own. I haven't added it up exactly but I'd guess my lifetime earnings from my writing are several thousand dollars.
Is it possible to get rich writing? Of course. Do many people accomplish this? No.
Writing is a wonderful hobby, but a terrible profession.
I make a full-time income as a novelist, but I self-publish. I also never started out wanting to make a full-time income, I just did it for fun, and published my first novel length original fiction because my husband nagged me into it.
I had a day job, but gradually I didn't need the money anymore, and having a product seemed better than providing a service. I cut back on my hours and gradually cut them out completely.
It is a little nerve-wracking having this career. Sometimes I feel like it can all go away in the blink of an eye. But that is true of most things, and actually, even if I stopped writing completely, I'd still earn some money without advertising.
Most amazingly, I get paid to daydream. How cool is that? I've heard there are about 10,000 authors in the U.S. who make a full-time living out of it. Those aren't great odds, but then, I'm not sure 1) what constitutes a full-time income 2) how many are doing it full-time and 3) how many people who are writing "full-time" are actually publishing? (Are they just sitting on manuscripts waiting for a publisher?)
Many people do make a living as novelists, but it's a very small percentage of the people who write. To offer some personal perspective, over the course of nearly 20 years writing, I've produced one traditionally published book (a picture book). It was well-reviewed, reasonably successful and went through more than one printing.
Over the lifetime of the book I made about $5000 total. Even doubling that number (due to the fact that I had to split my royalties with an illustrator), I'd have to regularly publish around eight books a year, to similar success, in order to approach the salary of my day job as a programmer.
Most professional writers are either insanely prolific, do writing-for-hire jobs and/or make most of their money on touring and speaking (and possibly direct sales). As with any artistic job, you could potentially be gifted, hard-working and lucky enough to create a big hit, but most people only get to that level after years in the trenches. For what it's worth, I get as much writing done now, in the evenings, as I did during the brief period of time when I was trying to do writing full time.
You can potentially make a living as a novelist, but you have to reassess what that means.
Writing a novel is as much a part of being a novelist as slicing people up is being a surgeon. If someone else publishes your work then book sales are a trifling part of your income unless you are extremely popular.
Firstly you need to promote yourself and the book. You can sell your own books, give talks, do radio, judge competitions, run a digital marketing campaign, or make appearances at festivals.
Next you need to use your writing skills to make money. This means teaching writing, running workshops, editing or developing books with others, or writing articles for a few hundred dollars a pop (if that).
Then you supplement an income with prizes, grants, competitions, and writing residencies.
Being a novelist is like any other serious profession. It's full-time, it involves a lot of tedium, and it takes a few years of training and not getting paid before you make any money. To make writing novels exclusively into a living (not many 'writers' do this) you either need to be talented enough to get grants or hardworking enough to market your own work.
A lot of people overplay the level of luck involved. Are you seriously talented and capable of being original? Are you happy to work 50 hours a week? Can you write half a million words a year? Will you be constantly creating working and promoting it? Are you content to earn less than a manager at Starbucks?
Think of being a novelist like trying to become a professional athlete. Do you think you can get into the Olympics by just playing basketball once a week with your friends?
Yes, authors can make very good livings. I personally know a number of self-published fiction authors who earn well into six figures a year. Quite a few of them earn seven figures a year. This year will be my first year to earn six figures. I'm a self-published romance author, and I publish 2 full-length novels a year. So, yes, it's possible. Will every author succeed at that? Unfortunately no. It depends on the skill of the author, the quality of the book cover, and how effectively the author promotes/markets his or her own books to the targeted audience. Best of luck to you!!
Artists starve. They hold food service jobs part time, or the like, and devote themselves. Or they have alternative forms of income or a supportive spouse or savings.
To try to give yourself a reasonable target, taking into account the time it takes to publish and see an income from an accepted manuscript, six years (a number out of my behind) is my suggested time commitment. You won't know unless you try. This gives time for three or four full-length novels.
You can do it! It starts with page 1. Some artists do quite well. But don't get your hopes up.
Last year I decided I'm going to be an author and make a living out of it. Here are my two cents:
I was a chef for 15 years. Do you have any idea how hard it is to open a restaurant and have it succeed? Well, the odds are not in your favour. But if your food's good, if you understand your clients, if you put in the work – and I mean you have to be ready to clean toilets if you must (a restaurant with poor toilets is dead) –, if you have a good grasp of what to aim for and are willing to adapt, it may take 3 to 4 years to build a steady clientele, but you will get there.
Same with novels.
Write novels people want to read, be ready to do the dirty work, tend to your audience and nurture it. Once you've gained the trust of a certain number of readers you are set.
Don't forget the importance of a good art cover, graphic design and formatting, good developmental editing, good copy editing, and marketing. Do not just throw money at Amazon. Find out where your audience hangs out and go there. Start a blog and newsletter. Build your readership one reader at a time. Make offers to them, sell merchandise, and make your readers feel unique, giving them the chance to own part of your fictional worlds. Once you have a foothold you can also coach aspiring authors or sell courses, plus books on how to write with your unique insight. Build your brand.
Remember, it takes as much time as opening a restaurant and has about the same chances of success. But people open restaurants all the freaking time, carelessly, and no one bats an eye, but the moment you say you want to be an author, they all hiss like scaredy cats. The thing is you need more than one novel to kick you off, so you better start producing quality material, invest a lot of your time and money to make it look professional and figure out your marketing strategy.
A lot of self-published books don't sell, and that's largely because the author did a poor-ass job of making it look professional and took no interest in interacting with their audience. Just go through the lists of newly published books and see how poorly made most of them look. Or walk through the streets and see the same restaurants popping up with the same boring menus and horrible service trying to cheap out their way to riches. Writing is like everything else: you have to commit and you have to do it right.
Do you agree? Or am I just full of dreams?