Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing: Only 300 Writers Make a Living

This myth is so solid, I hear it repeated over and over again. And just today, a person I follow on Twitter repeated it yet again, sending all her followers to a web site that had some writer say simply “There are only about 200 or 300 writers making a living at fiction.” With nothing at all to back up the statement or even a second thought about what that statement meant if true.

The number is total and complete hogwash. I’m going to lay out some facts. And I will use math and other ugly arguments to show you that this number is a total and complete myth. And I hope to maybe dive a little into why this myth persists. Why beginning writers need it. So hang on. This myth is as ugly as it is stupid.

Before I go anywhere, there was an article in Publisher’s Weekly tracking the top book sales in 2009. For hardcover fiction, they list about 138 books down to 100,00 copies in hardback, for mass market the book had to sell above 500 thousand copies to even get mentioned, and trade paperbacks are added at certain levels. Go take a look at the article on Publisher’s Weekly and then read on.

Now, if you took a hard look at those numbers and authors, you would realize that even with the same author having more than one book on the lists, there are around 300 different names on those fiction lists. I am not on that list anywhere, neither is Kris or any number of writer friends who make their living writing fiction.

For the moment, let me leave that point and back up.

What is making a living?

For the longest time, I considered making a living at fiction at making more than $100,000 per year. Then in three or four workshops, I started talking to writers about reality. The writers’ reality and the amount it would take for them to “make a living.”

Most of the writers I talked to thought they would quit their day job if they were making fifty to sixty thousand a year with their writing. A number said that their spouse earned half their income, so they only needed thirty or forty thousand a years to make it happen.

After taking that poll for a number of workshops, I decided that six figures wasn’t required for “making a living” at fiction writing. Which just added in a lot more writers into the mix.

But for this discussion, lets just leave the number at one hundred thousand a year from your writing. Math is simpler. And besides, hard to argue with that number as a decent living in these recession times.

Right now, most new writers are saying, “Oh, I wish.” Yup, I would have to in my early days.

In the chapter FICTION WRITERS CAN’T MAKE A LIVING I talked about the Magic Bakery and talked about a theory where this 200 or 300 number comes from. So please right now go read that again and then come back, because now I’m going to jump off of some of those points. (And in the actual book this chapter will follow that chapter.)

Okay, now to that ugly math I promised above.

In the summary of book sales from 2009 in Publisher’s Weekly, the bottom book in Hardcover they listed had sold 100,099 copies.

So, the author makes on average 10% on each book sold (allowing for discount schedules and other contract things) and the book is priced at $25.00 (for easy math), the author makes $2.50 per book. 100,000 books equals $250,000. (Remember, that’s the very bottom PW figured was worth reporting.)

And it was for JUST THE HARDBACK. Now, if you went to the previous chapter on this topic and read about how a book or story works in the magic bakery, you will understand that this figures does not count any other income source for this one book. Paperback, audio, ePub, overseas sales to other countries, and so on and so on. And don’t even think about the money for possible movie options.

So bottom line, any author on that list from Publisher’s Weekly summary is making a LOT of money per book, far, far in excess of $100,000 per year.

On one book.

If you count all the different authors on those lists, which I did not exactly, but at a glance I can tell there are at least 300 different authors who made those lists. Some more than once. (See why the top brand name authors hit the Forbes Top Income Earners lists?)

Okay, so we’ve dealt now with the 300 top authors in fiction. But what about all the rest of us.

Or what about the fifty to one hundred writers who only sold between 80,000 and 100,000 hardbacks and didn’t make the list? Or what about those hundreds and hundreds of poor writers who only sold in the area of 30,000 copies in hardback and can only dream about that top list?

Let’s take one of them, shall we, and do that ugly math.

Same 10%, same $25 price, so author gets $2.50 per book. Author “ONLY” sells 30,000 copies in hardback, author only makes $75,000 in HARDBACK . Again, not counting all the other sales like paperback and overseas and so on. Again, we are back over six figures for that one book easily. Hundreds and hundreds more writers pile into the total number of writers who make a living.

I am still not included.

So, what about the writers who are more normal in publishing then the folks playing at the top levels? How do we make a living? How do us “working writers” do it who haven’t hit with any big books, or books that even sell 30,000 in hardback?

Actually, pretty simply. We write a lot more.

Back to the ugly math.

Say a writer does a small genre book. Books sells nicely at 20,000 copies in paperback actually sold. Writer got a $8,000 advance for the book. $6 book at 6% is .36 cents per book. Income is $7,200 so writer gets no more money than the advance, but publisher is happy and writer sells another book to them, or two or three.

So writer can do four books a year and makes $32,000 on just the advances from those books. (Now, remember that magic bakery?) Maybe not the second year at this pace, or the third, but at some point the author will have built up enough inventory that more things are popping. At four years, the author will have 16 novels finished. Overseas sales happen on a couple of them, audio sales happen every year on a couple of others, maybe a small option on one of them from Hollywood, rights reverted on two and the books are now selling on Kindle and other income sources directly to the writers.

And the pace just builds up. As each year goes by, more and more factors in the magic bakery kick in until at one point you find yourself doing just fine.

That’s the group I’m included in.

But understand I’m a lot faster than four books a year. I write across genres, I ghost novels for writers, I write a ton of short fiction as well. I make money on all of that as well with my little magic bakery.

Am I unusual? Oh, of course not. There are far more writers like me than writers on that big Publisher’s Weekly list. Or playing in the big books just under the list. In fact, the majority of writers who make their living at fiction seldom, if ever make that yearly list. Granted, those brand names on that list get all the press, but the thousands of us just working along do just fine and dandy.


Bowker reported that last year (2009) there were 75,000 publishers.

Bowker reported that last year (2009) there were 47,541 NEW books published through standard fiction publishers. (Not counting POD at all.)

Bowker reported last year (2009) that three were 29,438 new young adult books published.

(Get the full report here.)

That means that EVERY DAY through normal major publishers there were 213 regular fiction and young adult fiction novels published. (47,541 plus 29,438 divided by 365 days.)

Every day.

Let me repeat that one more time to let it sink in. 213 NEW FICTION TITLES EVERY DAY.

Ugly math: If a writer could manage four books a year, it would take OVER 19,000 writers doing four books a year just to fill what was published last year.

19,000 writers doing four books a year. Or 38,000 writers doing two books a year.

Yup, there are only 300 writers making a living writing fiction. SNORT! Anyone who repeats that number is just too stupid to do a simple Google search to find the real truth.

(And also Bowker announced there were about 250,000 POD books done as well in 2009, but they didn’t break then down as to how many were fiction.)

Still don’t believe the numbers? Want a test as to how many fiction writers there really are with your own two eyes?

Walk into a Barnes and Noble superstore and stand just inside the door and look around. Realize that most of those books you are seeing in that store will be replaced by the “turn” in less than a month. And the ones up front will change daily or weekly.

Now simply start picking up books and see if you recognize the author name. Up front you’ll find the brand names and the folks who are on that big list. But at the new release table how many names do you recognize?

Then walk the aisle of the romance section, the mystery section, the science fiction section, and then go to big section, the “fiction” section. Your eye will be drawn to the big names scattered in there, but look between them and the thousands of authors with books there THAT month. Most of their books will be replaced within the month by the same number of new books coming in by a different thousand authors.

And B&N can’t begin to carry every one of the six thousand new books in fiction being put out every month between adult fiction and young adult.

The truth: The publishing industry is a huge machine that needs product.

I have no clue how many thousands and thousands of fiction books a standard superstore holds, but if there were only 300 major authors making their living and writing one or two books a year, those shelves would be pretty empty, those stores soon out of business.

So, why do I think this silly number, this stupid myth gets repeated over and over?

My opinion only. (No math, no study behind this opinion.) Two reasons. First, I think it’s fear that causes this myth. And it works like this:

New Writer is afraid to actually take a chance and write and practice and put work out there in the real world. And if there are only 300 people making a living at writing, it is therefore impossible to do and so why should I even try.

In other words, those who hold that silly myth and repeat it need the excuse it gives them for there own lack of trying.

Second reason: Ego. New writer writes a book, sends it to an agent, no agent likes it, so therefore IT’S HARD to get published, and that has to be because there are only 300 people doing it. It CAN’T be the new writer’s fault, it can’t be because the writer can’t write well enough to even get into the 77,000 new fiction books being published in a year. It can’t be because no one who could actually publish the book has even seen it because of a myth the writer believes in with agents. It has to be someone else’s fault because the writer thinks their very first book is brilliant. Ego.

Well, no excuse. Over 200 new fiction books a day are put out by major publishers in JUST THIS COUNTRY alone. You stop making excuses and get past the myths and get your skill levels up and do four books a year, after a few years you are making a living. And if you write something that hits bigger for you and you end up on that Publisher’s Weekly list, you are pretty rich by most standards.

That only 300 people make a living at writing fiction is the stupidest and most destructive myth outside of the agent myths. Time to get past your fear and your own ego and chase your dream of making a living at fiction.

There are a very, very large number of us doing just that. After all, someone has to fill those shelves every month.


Copyright 2010 Dean Wesley Smith
This is now part of my inventory in my bakery. (Confused on that, read the Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing post about making money with writing.) 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 are really keeping 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. Every week or so I will be adding a new chapter on the myths and sacred cows of publishing. Stay tuned. Upcoming are chapters on bestsellers, having it made, more on agents, and so much more. This business has a lot of myths. An entire book full.

Thanks, Dean

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