Chapter 9: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You Can’t Make Money Writing Fiction

Series Note: I am now working on updating each chapter and putting together this book, finally, after over 100,000 words that started back in 2009. So I am updating each chapter and putting it up here now for those who have not seen them.  One new updated chapter every few days will still take me all summer to finish. Feel free to make comments and talk about each topic.

And again, anyone who has donated over the years will get a free electronic version of the book when it is all done. Thanks again for the support!

(Note: This post introduces the Magic Bakery idea and it caused a lot of stir when it was first posted. I have updated it for electronic publishing.)

This myth “You can’t make a living writing fiction” is so clearly hogwash, I shouldn’t have to include it as a chapter in this book. All anyone has to do is look at a certain fantasy writer in England being richer than the Queen. And the number of fiction writers on the Forbes List every year. And that’s not counting all the writers publishing their sales numbers each month just from Kindle alone.

But, alas, new writers hear this myth all the time, constantly, from every direction, and sometimes from longer-term professional writers.

So, it’s worth a long post I guess. It shouldn’t be a myth at all, but it is.

Myth Origin

We have all seen the silly studies that an “average” fiction writer makes something like $2,345 per year. And, of course, people look at that and think “Oh, my, no one can make any money writing fiction.” Of course, those who say that don’t know how studies are taken, or what a number like that really means.

Most of the big studies ask every person who has a dream of someday writing a novel. The writers asked maybe have finished a few short stories, maybe even mailed a couple. They go to a writer’s group regularly, and call themselves writers, because they are in the early days of learning their craft. They make no money. There are hundreds of thousands of this type of writer, all in the early days of learning.

Then, of course there are the writers who will never sell, a person with the best intentions, but no real drive to actually sell anything. Or if they do sell, it’s to a small press that pays in copies or worse yet these days, they give their story away free to an online press and don’t even get a copy.

Or they write poetry and are doing fantastic when they make a few hundred per year.

The studies ask all those writers how much they make, and the answer is almost always zero or not far above zero. Millions of “nothing” answers.

Then these studies include writers in organizations like SFWA, who lets a writer with three sales in the door. And Romance Writers, which has a huge chunk of membership that has never made a sale. All those thousands and thousands of unpublished or slightly published writers are included.

It’s stunning to me that the average is so high, actually. But the truth is to get the final answer up to a few thousand, a lot of people have to be making a lot of money with their fiction writing to pull up all the beginning writers.

Writing, to my knowledge, is the only profession that takes studies this way.

It would be exactly like trying to figure out what an average lawyer makes by also including every undergraduate who is thinking of going to law school and every law student in the study about what they made working the law. Lawyers, in that type of study, would make less than two thousand average I’m betting.

Where else does this myth come from?

Duh? The answer is simple. It comes from all the people who are, for one reason or another, simply too afraid to try mailing out their fiction regularly to places who buy it. Or too afraid to put the stories up electronically. Or only have one novel up and are wondering why they are not selling like Konrath. Or writers trapped in the agent myth, rewriting book after book for an employee.

For all those writers, it would be impossible to make a living at writing fiction. And thus, when you talk to them about making money, they are telling you the truth.

From their viewpoint.

How about a writer who has sold three novels and for the first time understands how the money flows? Or has gotten five to ten stories up electronically. Those early writers are saying the same thing, of course. Selling one genre book a year is not enough to make a living writing. Putting up just a few books electronically is not enough to make a living. Unless, you are fantastically lucky.

But most of us aren’t that lucky, so a writer with one book a year, who has bought in to the writing slow myth can’t make a living, and they are telling other writers the truth as well.

From their viewpoint.

So what about when you hear this myth spouted by a big name bestseller? I heard a New York Times bestseller in a keynote speech once tell 500 people there were only two hundred people in the nation making a living at fiction. Kris and I almost fell out of our chairs laughing, but we were just about the only people in the room laughing. Everyone else thought he was right. As it happens, I’m sitting next to him on a panel the very next hour, so as we were talking, I turned to him and said, “You know that 200 number is totally wrong.”

He look sort of stunned and said, “That’s what I had always heard.” (The myth hits again and is repeated by big-name writer who is making millions.)

I said, “If that’s the case, then don’t you find it pretty amazing that there are seven of the two hundred on this one panel?”

He looked down the panel at the seven of us, all full-time fiction writers sitting on the panel. Then I asked the 100 people in the room how many were writers making at least $80,000 per year with their fiction writing. Five more people, two of whom I recognized, raised their hands. Twelve of us in the same room at a writer’s convention. That stunned the keynote speaker, let me tell you, and we ended up spending the entire panel talking about this myth. And where that 200 number came from in the myth.

Turns out, there are about 200 NEW NAMES on the major bestseller lists every year. (There are 780 yearly slots on the New York Times list alone, not counting the same number on Publishers Weekly lists, same number on the Wall Street Journal lists, and the 2,600 spots on the USA Today Bestseller list in a year.) So there are about 200 NEW NAMES in fiction hit the bestseller lists every year that have never been there before. That’s just the top spots. I’m not talking extended lists.

And of course, in this new world, I’m not talking about the growing number of novelists making a living indie publishing. That number is growing by the day. But you get an idea where the silly idea of only 200 came from.

So, how many writers in the United States do make a living writing only fiction? Well, that depends on how you define “living.” That’s another shocker for me. For the longest time I figured over six figures gross per year was a living. At that level there are thousands and thousands of fiction writers making that much and a lot more.

But lately, I’ve been forced by discussions with students to look at reality a little bit more when it comes to “making a living.”

A $2,000 mortgage, $1,000 for various insurance, $1,000 for various utilities, and $2,000 more for food and other details, like clothing, trips and such. $6,000 per month after taxes needed to survive. $72,000 per year, but if you are married and your spouse works, cut that number in half. Your half, to say you are making a living writing fiction only needs to be $38,000 per year. Slightly over $3,000 per month.

And many, many people I know make nice livings on less than that. A bunch less. So my number was way high when it came to “making a living” so I have no idea how many thousands and thousands and thousands of writers make a living.

It’s a lot more than I even thought it was, to be honest.

How do fiction writers make money?

Numbers First: The common knowledge out there is that we make an advance against sales for our books. Now, if that’s where the income stopped, many of us would have a hard time making a living, to be honest. For those who have never had an advance from traditional publishing, let me break this down quickly.

Say you get a $20,000 genre book advance, two book deal. Total $40,000. Not bad money at all in this modern tight world. Advances can be much, much lower than that these days in genre, down to less than $5,000 per book without an issue. But for the math, let’s play with a decent book deal.

Each book is divided out into signing payment, acceptance payment, and publication payment. So $17,000 (after agent fee if you are still going that way) divided by three equals three payments per book of $5,666.

Say you sold this book back on January 1st, 2010. You got the contract in March, (if lucky after negotiations) sign it, get it back, and got the first payments on signing in June, 2010. First payment would be signing on book #1 and #2, for a total of $11,333. Not a bad check. I always like checks with more than one number to the left of the comma.

Your book was done when it was bought, but you and your editor in May had a conference for the rewrite, you get a letter, and you got the book back to your editor in June. They accepted the book in September, (if lucky) and in November, you got your second check of $5,666. Your total income for the year of 2010 was about $20,000. Not bad, but unless you have some very tiny expenses and a great spouse, you’re not making a living yet.

Publication comes in the fall of 2011 and you’ll be lucky to get the check a couple months later. How about book #2? You were writing it during the spring of 2010, turned it in during the summer, and the editor got back rewrites in the fall, and you got an acceptance check in early 2011. Publication for the fall of 2012. So your income from the two books in 2011 is $11,333, and only $5,666 in 2012.

Royalties (again, if you are lucky) wouldn’t even think of coming in until 2013 at the earliest, if the book is doing fantastic and earning out quickly, and you weren’t basket accounted and other details in the contract.

Do the math on this if your advance is $5,000 instead of $20,000. See why the myth gets spread so quickly and easily, even by early traditionally published novelists?

For that one contract to ever make you enough to live on for a few years, you are going to have to get very, very lucky and have the book take off big.

So, I seemed to have just made the case for the myth. Right? So how do so many writers make a living? Best way to describe this is a metaphor.

The Magic Bakery Metaphor

Think of us (every writer) as a huge bakery and all we make is pies. Magic pies, that seem to just reform after we sell off pieces of the pie to customers. And each pie can be divided into thousands of pieces if we want.

The Magic Pie secret ingredient is called “Copyright.”

Every story we write, every novel we write, is a magic pie full of copyright.

We can sell parts of it to one publisher, other parts to another publisher, some parts to overseas markets, other parts to audio, or eBooks, or game companies, or Hollywood, or web publishers, and on and on and on. One professional writer I knew sold over 100 different gaming rights to different places on one novel. He had a very sharp knife cutting that magic pie.

With indie publishing, most writers are only focused on one tiny aspect of their pies, the electronic rights. But interestingly enough, when a story or novel gets published electronically, it gets spread out to many, many stores, and sometimes other publishers see it and want to buy it for their project, or a movie producer sees it and options it, or a game designer sees it and makes an offer. So in this new world, getting stories up electronically can help out other sales given time.

So each professional writer has this Magic Bakery, making magic pies that can be cut into as many pieces as we want and many of the pieces can return as if never taken, even after being sold off. (You must learn copyright to really understand this.)

Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.

And extending this metaphor just a little bit farther, you don’t even have to have the same flavor of pie. Kris has Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Kris Nelscott, Kristine Grayson, Kris Rusch, Kristine Dexter, and others, not counting combining with me every-so-often for Kathryn Wesley or Sandy Schofield.

Each story, each novel is a pie. If you spread them out over a number of names (flavors) you have a pretty consistent cash flow stream because you have so many cash flow streams working. (Think a bunch of small streams flowing together to form a river and you get the idea.)

Indie writers who are successful at this new world are saying this all the time. Joe Konrath constantly talks about getting up more work, Locke didn’t even start publishing until he finished five novels, I push writing more and more here all the time.

Indie writers are finally starting to see the advantage to having more and more product, more and more magic pies. Traditional publishers always did. They would have five or six new books per month per list, and they built those big buildings on lots and lots of small slices from many pies.

So for you traditionally published writers, advances on novels is only one cash flow stream for a few pieces of a pie.

Repeat: Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.

Let me try to explain this using just one piece of the pie.

Say you sold the tiny piece of the pie called French Translation Rights, and your contract with the French publisher limited your book to trade paper only. (You could have also sold the piece of the pie that had French hardback rights, or French audio rights, or French mass market rights, or French film rights. You still have those in the pie and can sell them at any point as well. Get the idea?)

Your French publisher will have advances like your American publisher, and there will be royalties and so on. In other words, your French piece of the pie will flow money into your accounts just as your English novel sale does. And in this new world you don’t need agents to sell these slices anymore. In fact, you’ll sell them more often with just e-mail and direct contract. I’ll explain more in the agent myth chapters, so read on.

And your German sale would be the same. Your Russian. Your Italian. And so on and so on. Thousands and thousands of pieces of the magic pie can be sold.

One more time: Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.

Say you sold English Language audio rights to a story you had indie published. Does selling this one piece of the pie stop you from selling any other piece of the pie?


And when the audio contract goes out of force, the audio rights piece of the pie suddenly appears back in your pie and you can resell it again.


You create the inventory, the pie, just once, but can sell it for your entire life, having pieces you sold keep coming back to the pie over and over, and your estate can keep selling that pie for seventy years past your death. Nifty, huh?

But here is the problem most writers face:

Magic Bakery owner who opens a shop and has only one new pie per year, only one flavor, has little chance of making enough money to make a living and keep his business open.

Just imagine as a customer walking into your mostly-empty store. You have a huge empty bakery that you have promoted everywhere, but you have only one pie on the shelf.

Customer turns and leaves.

But imagine my store… I have shelves and shelves and shelves full of pies, twenty flavors, willing to do new flavors at any moment to customer demand, willing to sell off small slices of any pie at any time. I have a lot more chance of having a lot of customers and making a living than a store with only one or two pies.

When you step back and look at any retail store, what I am talking about is sort of basic business. I have inventory. I have a crowded store and am making more inventory all the time.

Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.  If I have four hundred pies in my shop, each with a thousand possible pieces, I have a huge inventory to make money from.

Go back and look at my myth chapters about writing fast and about rewriting. See how it’s all starting to fall together?

A Real Life Example:

One afternoon while at a writer’s retreat I wrote a short story called “In the Shade of the Slowboat Man.” The story took me about five hours.

— Five hours to create that pie. It was rejected at the market I wrote it for, so I sold it to F&SF Magazine. Decent money.

— Then I sold another slice to the Nebula Awards Anthology, another small slice (nonexclusive anthology right) sold and then returned to the pie.

— Then I sold it to another reprint anthology (same right again), another small slice sold and returned to the pie magically for another person to buy.

— Then I sold the rights to an audio play made from the story, making more off of that slice than the other three before, and then I was hired with Kris to write the script from my story, so more money yet again.

— Now I have that story on Kindle, B&N, Sony, iBooks, Smashwords and other sites selling and making nice money each sale. And I have put it in a collection so it is making more that way each month as well.

I have made well over $10,000 income from one short story, and I still have the pie on my shelf in my Magic Bakery, still there for sale, even though it is selling electronically.

Say I decide to make a novel pie out of the story. Short story pie will remain and continue to make money, novel pie will be created and both will have thousands of slices to be sold.

I had Hollywood once give me $1,000 every six months for three years simply to give them the chance to buy a slice of one pie (story) on my shelf. That’s right, I never SOLD anything from the pie. I simply said “Give me a thousand bucks every six months and I won’t let anyone else buy that one small slice of that one pie.”

They never touched the pie and I made six thousand bucks off of that option.

I love this business.

It Doesn’t Take a Lot of Sales to Make a Living.

Now understand, Over thirty years I have published over 100 novels traditionally and hundreds of short stories. I have over 9 million copies of my books sold. Yet many of you reading this have never read a single word of any book or story I have written. But somehow I have been making a living with my fiction for over 25 years now.

Why? Because I have a very full Magic Bakery, with a large number of pies to sell pieces from.  You haven’t read any of my fiction. Yet here I am, making a living with my Magic Bakery.

Can you do the math on my short story challenge? Not counting the money I am making selling short stories or novels to traditional publishers, just do the math on my challenge stories.

Let’s pretend I actually hit 100 stories this year.  And each stories sells 5 times around the world each month. Only five times average. Some stories will sell like crazy, other stories will rarely sell. But with 100 stories I can get a good average.

(As of this writing in July, my stories from the challenge are averaging around 10 sales per month and the collections are better, from what information I have so far. But I’m going to just say 5 sales average.)

The math:

Each story makes 40 cents x 5 sales = $2.00 per month.  When I have all 100 done that will be $200.00 per month.

Each story will be in a five-story collection, and each collection will sell for $2.99, so I will make $2.00 per collection sale x 5 sales per month = $10.00 x 20 collections = $200 per month.

Each story will be in a ten-story collection that sells for $4.99, so I will make $3.50 per collection sale x 5 sales per month = $17.50 x 10 collections = $175 per month .

Total Conservative Sales for 100 short stories is $575 per month. Or $6,900 per year.

And that should just go on into the future the way electronic sales are going.  And I did not count the POD sales on the collections. That’s another slice of each pie. Or overseas sales of each story. That’s another slice.

I sell one slice here, another slice there, a bunch of slices over here, and I keep selling them and the new stuff as well, over and over and over. I understand copyright completely, and I use that knowledge.

Can you make a living after writing only one or two novels and a few short stories?

The answer is no, of course, without getting fantastically lucky. You have a bakery with no inventory. You have nothing on your shelves. Nothing to really sell to customers, and even if they do buy a slice and decide they like your bakery and your goods, there is not much else for them to buy.

But once you fill that Magic Bakery, once you have customers who know where to buy, know that your product is a good, quality product, then the money will come.

Each piece of the pie is a cash stream.

And a writer with a good inventory and the ability to sell the inventory to customers can make a large amount of money with fiction writing.

If I can do it, if I am one of the thousands and thousands of fiction writers making a living with our fiction writing, you can do it as well.

The Secret?

Just write, finish what you write, mail or publish what you write so someone can buy it. You know, Heinlein’s Rules will build you one very nice Magic Bakery in a very short amount of time, actually.

And, oh, yeah, it’s also a lot of fun.


Copyright © 2011 Dean Wesley Smith
Because of the new world and technology, my magic bakery got a lot more valuable lately. This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. I’m giving you this small slice as a sample. I’m giving you a taste, but not selling any of the pie.

If you feel this helped you in any way, toss a tip into the tip jar on the way out of the Magic Bakery.

And I would like to thank all the fine folks who have donated. Once this book is done, I will send you a copy. The donations and the comments both after the posts and privately really kept me going on this. Thanks!

If you can’t afford to donate, please feel free to pass this chapter along to others who might get some help from it.

Thanks, Dean


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40 Responses to Chapter 9: Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: You Can’t Make Money Writing Fiction

  1. Magic bakery is no joke. Got my check in the mail today for an anthology reprint on a story that’s sold — in various ways — quite a bit since it was published in 2010.

    In fact, this single story has to date netted me $1,600.00, a figure I will repeat because I think it’s rather startling. $1,600.00 is more than some small publishers will give you on a novel advance. And I’ve earned that on a lone novelette, first sold in early 2010, first published in late 2010, and which I’ve done precious little promotion for.

    Those “slices” I’ve sold off? All of them have come just because somebody — somewhere — read and/or noticed the story and said, “Hey, I like this, I want to buy a piece!” And so they did. And I’ve not even scratched e-publishing, which is also bringing in revenue every month, on the same story.

    Also, that $2,345.00 median? I’ll easily hit double that amount next month, for the year 2011. And I’m just a new guy, writing in a niche market. Some of my friends in the local area — Utah being the writer breeding ground that it is — easily rake in ten to one hundred times that much. And I can count at least a dozen or more Utah pros, right off the top of my head, working in YA, horror, science fiction, and fantasy alone. I’d probably rack up a list of several hundred pros, all Utahns and all earning thousands, to tens of thousands, to hundreds of thousands of dollars per year; all from fiction of one variety or another.

    Yup, clearly, nobody is making any money at this writing thing.

    (big smile)

    • dwsmith says:

      Brad, it is great fun, isn’t it? The more inventory you have, the more money you make, even when the sales are small per unit. Keep up the great writing and keep having fun, that’s the key. Have fun and the money flows.

  2. David Barron says:

    If even I can make money writing, you smart people can too! Thus far, my writing income pays for the beer I would be drinking if I weren’t writing so much. This is known as a ‘virtuous cycle’ and should be exploited.

    Loved this article, and I think it’s the Most Important Myth to kill.

  3. Eliza Tilton says:

    What a great article and so true. Thanks for the insight!

  4. Mark says:

    “(As of this writing in July, my stories from the challenge are averaging around 10 sales per month and the collections are better, from what information I have so far. But I’m going to just say 5 sales average.)”

    Thanks for sharing. Is that across all channels?

  5. C.E. Petit says:

    There are a few other problems with this meme that Our Gracious Host was too polite and circumspect to mention. Since Congress removed the word “gentleman” from the oath of commissioning when they saw me coming, may I suggest that I’m less polite? ;-) In any event:

    (1) The meme presumes that the print-publication income from fiction-writing is the only source of a writer’s income. Can I just say “Joyce Carol Oates, Professor of English, Princeton University” and leave it at that? (And anyone who claims that despite actually maintaining a teaching load her “day job” has adversely impacted either the quality or quantity of her output needs a reality check and a quick trip to the Library of Congress catalog.)

    For many fiction writers, perhaps that’s a realistic part of the plan; however, it need not be. Not all fiction writers need to be tenured professors sitting in endowed chairs at Ivy League schools; consider, for example, the part-time stock analyst who writes political thrillers and appreciates the cross-fertilization of his thinking in both areas (who will remain unnamed because he uses a not-publicly-known pseudonym), or the physician who hates golf and other “traditional” physician pasttimes because they’re not wheelchair-friendly (ditto, opposite gender this time)… or Scott Turow.

    And, to be truly sarcastic about the whole issue, how does one count income from a fiction writer’s participation as an instructor in seminars on the publishing business? Even if that income is only used to offset the expenses of providing the seminars, it’s still income as a direct result of the fiction-writing. Our Gracious Host’s seminars that he has mentioned here are only the tip of the iceberg… and yes, the implication that the commercial publishing industry in New York bears more than a passing resemblance to the RMS Titanic is with malice aforethought.

    (2) Most fiction writers don’t write exclusively fiction. Really. They do things like write reviews for the NYTBR, and articles for (cough, cough) WD, and so on… and they need not be particularly prominent to do so. For example, look at the list of published fiction-writers who appear as the author in the table of contents of WD in 2010; by my count, a lot more were barely known than were “bestsellers” of any kind. A couple of articles a year, across the vast breadth of hungry markets, and one can possibly weather the viscissitudes of publishing and royalty schedules with aplomb.

    Too, a fiction writer’s other published writings need not be in or about “writing” per se. Consider, for example, reuse of that research invested in the novel on Ben Franklin for a children’s biography of Ben Franklin (again, a real example with the name withheld).

    This is entirely consistent with the Magic Bakery model, because this Magic Pub also acts as advertising/marketing/publicity for the Bakery’s pies… and, unlike most advertising/marketing/publicity, the author gets paid for being a publican, and then gets paid for the additional pies sold, too.

    (3) It’s a lot easier to make/maintain that living on the Oregon coast, or in St. Louis, than it is in New Yawk City. That is, the baseline should not be some abstract number of dollars that will get gobbled up rather rapidly by major-urban-center prices and “necessities,” but (in governmentese) needs to be adjusted for local costs of living, and tax systems, and so on. An example based on law-student expectations should suffice for the moment. So long as one avoids working as a public defender or for a civil-rights organization right out of law school, the local “starting salaries” offered to newly minted attorneys qualify as “a living.” (We’ll leave paying for law school loans out of it for the moment…) Even within this state, that was a 100% variance from low to high the last time I cared a decade and a half ago… and the difference between small-city rates in downstate Illinois and big-firm NYC rates was even bigger.

    * * *

    So, to the advocates of the “200″ figure: Even if your math was accurate (it isn’t, because it completely neglects the income of, say, Nightfall, Inc., since that’s “company income” and not the author’s income), there’s a big difference between “solely from” and “enabled by.”

  6. JohnMc says:

    Second time I have read this article. As great now as it was a month ago. But this time around the light bulb went off. The point being the `myth origin` component.

    Surveys are a form of polling. Its a half century old craft of slice and dice. There are different kinds — pull vs push, self selected vs membership directed, didactic polling, telephone surveys, heck even mobile phone text surveys these days. There are also different purposes for surveys — informational, statistical, persuade or dissuade a particular group(s). But the most critical component is WHO is paying for the survey? I don’t want to burden you Dean but it would be quite interesting to see who paid for the surveys, not who is listed as the authoritative source for same.

    Without sounding too conspiratorial, lets say that the top five publishers in the 1960′s got together as they are want to do, and came to the common understanding that they are awash in manuscripts that they have little time to read. It would benefit our editorial staffs greatly if we could get the flood down to at least a small river just so we can lower our dumpster bill. Somebody comes up with the bright idea that one of the great motivators for all this flood is a perception of riches. So lets dampen that enthusiasm. The lower we can get the number the better.

    So they front the monies to Editor and Publisher and the like to run surveys. They know like any industry 20% make 80% of the money, so the number is going to be low. E&P then publishes the results. Rinse and repeat every 2-3 years. Perceptions are reality. Many stop their dreams in mid-stride based on the news. The side benefit for the publishing houses is that it gave them more control over the process. To be successful you had to have name recognition. The purpose of the surveys was solely to dissuade, we publishers have enough thank you, now wouldn’t you like this $22.95 book from author ‘X’? She is our top writer for 5 years running.

    Sorry for the length.

    • dwsmith says:

      JohnMc, you are right about surveys, and I honestly don’t know who does that survey every few years. But I am sure it isn’t publishers as you suggest. You are giving a bunch of corporations and such a TON more credit for being organized than they ever could be. And remember, the big “Six is a myth as well. There are thousands of publishers. And one thing I do know for sure about publishers, both as one and working for large publishers over the the years, is that they can barely keep themselves organized, their people organized. Thoughts like you suggest would require skills that they just don’t have and never have had. You give publishers far, far too much credit. And at the moment they can barely keep up with some of the changes.

      So, sorry. Just would never work that way. If publishers were that smart, they never would have lost their hold on their monopoly of distribution for one.

  7. I’m so glad you’ve revamped the Magic Bakery post. I’ve been searching for it and couldn’t find it.

    I certainly needed to read it again. Thanks!!!

  8. Cora says:

    Thanks for this great post which I somehow missed the first time around.

    In my university creative writing class (which skewed heavily towards poets and literary writers), the prevailing assumption was that the only way to make money writing was either via contest wins or teaching gigs. The idea of actually making money by selling stories, poems or heaven beware novels seemed utterly foreign to them.

    At the time, the top earner of the group was a girl who had won prestigious poetry award for the princely sum of 1000 euros. I was in second place with a few hundred euros and I was the only one who had earned that money by actually selling stories and poems. We had a couple of people who had earned a hundred euros or less via smaller contests. It’s gotten a bit better by now, since one of the people from that class wrote a non-fiction bestseller and another sold two novels to traditional publishing. But most of those writers never earned anything, because they never sent out their work anywhere else than to non-paying university magazines.

    And of course, the stories I sold back then are earning me more money now via e-publishing. The magic bakery, it works.

  9. Camille says:

    Studies are almost always done by someone with an agenda.

    I see a lot of studies now days, though, which are done by companies which are looking for data to support their sales pitches. For instance, companies and organizations which make their money from going after IP pirates tend to be the ones who do the “studies” which prove what a terrible threat piracy is to large companies which can pay for their services.

    Even an organization like SFWA, no matter how good their intentions, benefit from a study which makes it seem hard to make a living off writing. A study like that does two things — one, it scares away those who are easily scared off, and thus gets rid of hassle and competition; two, it convinces the remainder of how much we NEED SFWA to help us deal with the difficulties of making a living in publishing.

  10. Er, Dean? I read C.E.’s post as being on your side.

    I thought he was saying that on TOP of the Magic Bakery, and in no way denigrating the pie, a professional writer can start seeing income from other areas related to being the writer of fiction…like ice cream on top of each slice of pie.

    Mmm… pie.

    Do you have any sources to recommend in regards to pursuing overseas/translation sales?

    • dwsmith says:

      Kathleen, yup, seems you were right. And of course a writer can make a ton of money extra outside of direct writing income. I don’t count it and didn’t in my post, but it is there. Many writers take speaking fees. (Kris and I do not for the most part, mostly just asking for expenses if we travel to teach and we do very little of that.) But speaking fees are valid, as are teaching fees, which for us are finally above break-even (actually we lost a ton for years) and the extra is going to help fund-up our publishing company.

      As for overseas translations sales, they tend to come to you if you have your work out and available either through traditional publishers or indie electronic publishing. The key is TO NOT have an agent. Little did Kris and I know that agents and their co-agents in other countries were not helping us make sales, but were in fact hurting us and stopping lots of small deals. And then holding the money at times because they didn’t think we knew about it. Not kidding. Coming in a few future posts. But since getting rid of our agents, we have made ten times the overseas deals we did with the agents. Why? Because of a thing called e-mail. (And for those of you who don’t know copyright, Berne requires all contracts to be in the language of the author.) Also, overseas contracts tend to be very basic and simple while contracts here have gotten silly in their complexity. Here you need an IP lawyer. Overseas you can often do them on your own without much worry.

      Oh, and instead of the money floating for months and months through first an overseas agent and then a US agent and losing 20% and ALL ROYALTIES, you get the money direct deposited in your bank or in Paypal and you actually get the royalties.

  11. Wow. Dean, I didn’t read CE as disagreeing with you at all. Rather, I saw him adding this perspective (paraphrased and summarized): “Even if the myth were somehow true — and it’s not — the ‘truth’ of the myth is entirely relative. The premises of the myth are flawed, because ‘making a living’ varies for different people in different locales and different circumstances. And they’re not measuring all the income that writing might lead to, and they’re measuring individual income and overlooking corporate income.”

    I’ll grant that his comment seemed a little off topic when it discussed other sources of income and corporate income; but I thought that was a way of pointing out that even if the myth is in some twisted sense “true”, that doesn’t mean you have to starve to be a writer.

  12. C.E. Petit says:

    Methinks we have a failure to communicate… and it’s largely my fault.

    I do not accept the “200 myth.” I was trying to list examples of real people and circumstances who are excluded from the “200″ by the perpetrators of the myth, and I did not make that clear at all. For example, I picked Joyce Carol Oates precisely because I’ve heard a perpetrator of the too-low-figure myth exclude her by name “because she’s primarily an academic these days” (direct quotation). Similarly, there’s an old IRS-data extraction out there that looks at Schedule C under the (old, pre-1997) “writing” classification… which is why I brought the other business structures up, because they don’t show up on that data extraction. The same goes for the “I kept my day job” authors, because regardless of their earnings the advocates of “200″ don’t include them; Scott Turow, the current president of the Authors’ Guild, “doesn’t count” because he’s a partner in a major Chicago law firm.

    My intent was to support the Bakery model as an appropriate business/personal structure, but absent enough caffeine I did not make clear that the examples I was citing each chip away at the “200″‘s underlying validity. The problem that I have is with people who immediately “quit the day job” when they get the first nibble from a dubious publisher with the expectation of forthcoming riches from that first novel-like substance, and with boosters (you are probably thinking of some of the same con-artists I am, Dean) who encourage writers to think that way — not with a years-of-production business plan based upon consistently building inventory with ever tastier pies.

    There is a limited number of fiction writers who manage to make a decent living from their fiction for over a decade… but that number is at least one, and closer to two, orders of magnitude greater than the purported “200.” I’d guess it’s closer to 5,000 or so… and that’s for fiction; it’s a lot higher than that once one includes nonfiction aside from journalist-employees. But that’s only a guess, and that’s all it ever will be.

    So I guess this is sort of an apology for jumping in without making clear why I was jumping in.

    • dwsmith says:

      Now we agree, C.E. and my puzzlement is past. Thanks for clearing that up. And I think the number is above 5,000 and growing with electronic publishing, but have no proof at all. And of course, the “making a living” number is very fluid as I tried to point out. I always sort of think of it as above six figures on my fiction only. But that’s just a personal measurement for me and many of the professionals who have come here have shown me clearly that a full-time professional writer making their living can be a distance under six figures, which I find very cool, actually.

      Thanks for clearing up your statements. I most certainly read them exactly opposite of how you meant some of them. And thus had to jump on my trusty steed, grab my bent stick, and whack away. (grin)

  13. It just…comes to you?


    This bakery IS magic.

  14. david says:

    I think that a lot of the problem is that it is not guaranteed income and people like stability, even if it pays them less in the long run. I see writing a book, or selling paintings as a business like any other, and you become the director of your own business, which does not suit everyone.

    • dwsmith says:

      David, if a person needs stability in money and can’t handle odd cash flow, they should stay away from trying to make a living with their fiction writing. Although, interestingly enough, one thing us long-term professionals are talking about a great deal these days is now with indie publishing we are getting regular checks, something most of us haven’t had in decades. Trust me, when you’ve been a freelancer for a long time, a regular check is just weird.

  15. Regular checks? Hear hear! After a decade freelancing I still don’t quite believe it. Hard to overstate how much fun it is, even in these early days, when it’s small :-)

    • dwsmith says:

      Sorry, folks, I have deleted all comments about SFWA here, including a couple of my own. And I have deleted my first comment to CE because I was too harsh for what I thought he was saying. Sorry, CE.

      Thanks for the comments folks, but I just don’t want to go down the SFWA bashing road. And I am the worst of the bashers I’m afraid. So no SFWA talk. Back to the topic of the post, making money with our fiction writing.

  16. Martin Vavpotic says:

    I’ve read this article once before but it was a nice refreshment. What I got from it this time is this: I need to learn more about BUSINESS of writing.

    The writing part of being a writer is coming along fine, just need to invest more time in it. The business of writing, however, is still alien to me.

    Dean, might I encourage you to add some more detail about the business part of writing? You’ve already written so much about managing time and money but what about managing the sale and copyright

    I’m not even sure I’m making a point here. It feels as if there is a lot of things I should know and I don’t even know how to ask about it. For instance, I’ve never heard of some of those slices of the magic pie. From what I saw by reading the real life example, you sold rights for a single story to three publishers. I don’t even know what anthology means (still learning up on my English lingo).

    I hope you see what I’m aiming at.

    • dwsmith says:

      Martin, anthology means collection with a bunch of writers in it. As for what is possible to sell out of a magic pie (meaning how much can you divide down copyright if you are good at it?), the answer is as many times as you can get others to agree to.

      In contract negotiations with book publishers, the fight is to hold on to as many of the slices of your pie as you can and the publisher wants to buy for the same amount as many slices as they can. Logical business. The balance of a good contract is often is in the middle somewhere.

      The key is just learn basic business, then apply it to fiction writing. And around the world business is business for the most part. You need to have a store that is stocked with inventory. You need to have inventory that customers want to buy. You need to make that inventory visible to customers as much as possible. And then your prices need to be reasonable but of value to keep your customers coming back. Publishing in all its aspects is no different.

      Basic business: Control your own work. Never let another person sign checks. Always know where every penny is. Always know exactly what you are signing. Value your work and your business. Keep learning all the time. Always strive to make your work better. And never get in a hurry.

      So to learn publishing for the most part, start by learning just good basic business, then never forget it. Why I do these myth posts is because often very logical business people toss all common sense and business-learning out the window when coming to publishing and that’s just wrong. Writers let agents control all their money and their paperwork. Writers seem willing to give away their own work and sign anything just to “be published.” (I hope indie publishing is changing that one.) And so on.

      So just learn basic business and then apply it to publishing and you will have 99% of everything you need to know. From there are out it’s just a matter of learning the jargon.

      • dwsmith says:

        I had forgotten that when I did this post the first time, I got some of the weirdest spam. Seems the word “money” makes them come out of the woodwork. (grin)

  17. Magic Bakery question for you, Dean:

    I’ve found some good resources for information on film and television and foreign publisher markets (the kind that are helping me get an idea of how they work, so I can figure out how to position myself to take advantage of them and/or whether to expend the effort at this stage), but I’ve not been able to dig up much on the less-frequently-exploited rights areas.

    In terms of casting one’s net for non-film subsidiary rights deals (for example, BBC’s audiobook broadcasts, or manga adaptation deals, or board games/video games/etc.), can you recommend any resources for understanding how those marketplaces work?


    • dwsmith says:


      Never occurs to me to “cast my net” as you say. I just don’t go after these overseas and audio and movie projects. They come to us, honestly. Through this web site and through Kris’s any publisher of any form on the planet can find us easily. And they can find a lot of our work now with a stroke of a few keys and an easy search. Trust me, they like your work a ton more when you don’t shove it at them, but they find it and come to you. So, in short answer to your question, I don’t know of any resources to help on that. Just never occurs to me and seems like a huge waste of time to go fishing in those areas. They will find you and your work if you make it available and it fits what they are looking for.

  18. You know, Dean, it’s funny. I never heard this myth until I read your original post about it. But then, I never though about or intended to write or sell fiction until late last year, when I decided to give it a go. From my perspective as a reader, and as a non-English major who’d never considered what the writing business was like, it was patently obvious that people made money from writing and selling fiction. The wouldn’t do it, otherwise! And there certainly wouldn’t be an entire industry built expressly to support it if there wasn’t any money to be made! If anything, I fell on the opposite side of the pendulum: I presumed that folks with book deals were making money out the wazoo. Of course, that belief wasn’t based on anything real, either. Just goes to show how much difference a change in perspective can make. Anyway, thanks for these posts. It’s always fun learning new things. :)

  19. Passive Guy says:

    Dean – Another excellent post.

    One of your recurring fundamental messages is the author as entrepreneur. That’s a different mindset than traditional publishers and agents impressed upon authors. The indie author is looking for income streams wherever he/she can find them and recurring revenue is the holy grail for the best kind of streams.

    I’m not trying to spam your comments, but earlier today I blogged about some interesting comments Seth Godin made about how much easier it is to sell to your friends – people who know you, trust you, etc., than it is to sell to strangers.

    Seth writes non-fiction, but I think the principle is the same for a fiction writer and his/her readers. Here’s a link –

    • dwsmith says:

      I haven’t read it yet, PG, but will. And I agree. Once a writer has developed a relationship with an editor, they tend to go back and the editor trusts the writer and the relationship works fine. I had a wonderful friendship with the great editor of Star Trek, John Ordover. We worked together on a lot of projects and I trusted him completely and he seemed to trust me with projects and coming up with ideas. It was great fun. John left publishing and now is the successful owner of an art gallery in New York and he and his wonderful family are doing great. It was actually lucky for me that he left when he did because I liked working for him so much I might have just kept writing Trek and other projects for him instead of branching out into my own work. But still I have fond, fond memories of those years. And a lot of writers got their start because of John. He was the driving force behind Strange New Worlds. And even more interesting, he’s a great writer. I bought one of his first short stories at Pulphouse.

      So yup, relationships, friendships, when they can develop, are wonderful between writer and editor.

  20. Camille says:

    I think there is actually one pervasive reason — and it’s a good one — which makes people believe this.

    If it’s impossible, then you can’t be called a failure for not doing it.

    And this is something that has to do with the non-writing world more than the writing world. When faced with the relative who says “I don’t see your book at my Walmart so you must be a loser” it’s a lot easier to trot out those stats on how nobody makes a living at writing, even Joyce Carol Oates.

    Many writers have a hard time letting go of that (and also the “Writing is Hard”) because they see it as armor.

  21. Sam Lee says:

    Great update and advice, Dean, and as timeless as ever. This and a couple of your other myth-busting posts really opened my eyes, so much so that I can only look at the writing business through business eyes! (g)

    I just spotted yet another agency adding an epub “house” to itself and expect you’ll have to update this entry with (gasp) yet more math for the next wave of writers who will be left wondering why they can’t make a living at writing in the new world of epub when their agents-turned-publishers take 15-50% after an undefined “net” (and, after paying for covers, editing, and formatting themselves) and when the money and sales numbers goes through these same agents-turned-publishers first.

    To paraphrase Konrath, 15-50% of undefined net, forever, is a very, very long time, but there are already plenty of unthinking sheep lined up for the slaughter and burning to know how they can get ahead in line.

    Thanks again for providing one of the few voices of sanity in this business and taking the time and effort to educate us newbies!

  22. Sam Lee says:

    Fantastic update and advice, Dean. This and a couple of your other myth-busting posts really opened my eyes. Now I can only look at writing through business eyes! (g)

    I just spotted yet another agency “adding” an epub arm and expect you’ll have to update this entry with (gasp) more math for the next wave of writers who will be wondering why they can’t make a living at writing in the new world of epub when their agents take 15-50% off after “net” and the money goes through their agents-turned-publishers first.

    To paraphrase Konrath, 15-50% of undefined net, forever, is a very, very long time.

    Thanks again for providing one of the voices of sanity in this business and educating us newbies.

  23. Bélier says:

    Here’s a french translation of this article :

  24. Tina says:

    Wow one of the most useful posts I have read in a while! Thank you for opening my eyes to more than a few things!

  25. Just when I thought Amazon was probably my best port of call. All these multi pies look extremely appetising. Thank you for the inspiration to keep up with the IT challenge!

  26. Andy Decker says:

    I have read this before but since self-publishing I forgot it is a long-game. Need to make more pies. Thanks for the sanity check.

  27. Alex Hajicek says:

    Dean both you and your wife have forever changed the course of my life regardless of the outcome for the better and there is no way I will ever be able to repay the two of you.

    I had just graduated college and had landed a ‘good’ job at an accounting firm. Little did I know it was going to be 80+ hours a week on salary.

    I learned the hard way ‘playing it safe’ is a losers game and the cost is too high (to the soul). I was depressed and felt stuck.

    I had to make a choice, one most people will label me a fool for doing but after 6 months of this hell I couldn’t take it anymore.

    I quit.

    So I got a job with very reasonable hours (40) a week which many people would of said was a big step back but not only are the hours better but I’m able to listen to audio books for large chunks of my day. (Big win)

    Yes I’m getting paid to read and now I know what I need to do with my life.

    For sure your ‘Sacred Cows’ series has been my bible but one I have for too long been afraid to follow.

    I had been frozen with fear for what seems like forever. My writing had literally stopped.

    I know that it will take thousands of hours and millions of words to gather the lessons and skills to become a true professional but still somehow spilling pure $hit onto the page can literally stomp my ego to pieces.

    I’m pushing through that fear (finally putting words to page again) but I think it might be a good post to maybe take a deeper look at your own journey.

    I know in passing you’ve talked about your hardships, multiple jobs, and how everyone around you doubted your decision to pursue being an author over being a lawyer or anything related to it.

    Still they are just snap shots into a chasm us aspiring writers must all cross. I have great respect for what you’ve accomplished but more-so what you’ve overcome.

    I’d love to hear more in detail about the mad hours you worked. The rough and slow transition from part time jobs to becoming full time. ect.

    Currently I’m trying to redress every failure and refocus all my efforts. It can be tough at my age. Too many hormones. Too many people telling me this is important, or that is important and on a larger level I just don’t want to leave my life with regrets.

    But I know from too many long walks and too many tears that I don’t have a choice. I have to do this and I want to give it everything I have got. One word. One day. One story at a time.

    I don’t want immediate success. I want to build a career the right way with hundreds of stories.

    I will make a bi-weekly posts however brief discussing my progress, things I’ve learned, failures and how I plan on overcoming them.

    I’ve made a pact with another creative friend of mine, setting modest goals where by the end of each week we have to pony up $20 bucks if we fail to deliver (to The plan is to slowly increase these goals each week as they are met. Mine is currently and simply a written word count of 1,000 words a day which I hope to slowly increase to an average of 3,000+ words a day.

    I certainly don’t expect you to be buried under my words Dean but just having these written here in public where someone like you can see them I know will set a fire under my butt.

    Forcing myself to let you know I only wrote 1,000 words this week or something else as weak is something my pride just won’t allow.

    I continue to wish the both of you the best.

    For my dreams and most importantly for giving me the tools under which they may be built.

    Finished 2,020 words today so far…will continue pushing throughout the night.

    Congratulations on the workshops and Fiction River.


  28. Sound advice, I will spread the word. I’ve just started baking that magical pie myself, and hope it proves delicious!

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