(Update 2016: About six or so years ago I did the first run-through of this post. I then updated it three years ago. Well, it seems a few people found the old posts and wanted me to update this idea for 2016.
And see if I still believe a writer can make a living writing only short fiction in 2016. Short answer. Of course. It is very, very possible, unlike ten years ago when I would have given a very different answer.
So following is the old post updated to 2016. Interestingly enough, not much changed. I marked updates where they were needed.)
Requirements Needed For a Writer To Make a Living Writing Only Short Fiction
1) A Work Ethic.
I started to say “speed” but so many writers think of speed-of-writing as speed-of-typing and no matter how much some of us say that isn’t so, it doesn’t cut through that myth. So I’m going to start calling “fast writers” simply writers with a work ethic.
(2016 Note: I am doing a workshop called Speed starting in September that will help writers with the hourly production rate. And we have a workshop called Productivity that helps with all the problems of getting into the writing chair. So unlike three years ago, we now have help for both parts of writing faster with quality.)
For your information, I type between 750 words to 1,250 words per hour and I have to take a break every hour to protect my hands and arms. I am pretty normal on that pace it seems after talking to hundreds of professional writers over the years. If you can go faster, good for you. Don’t tell me. My little four-finger-typing has served me well over the decades.
And some of you watched me do a 70,000 word novel in about ten days a few months back. (2016 Note: I also have a book out now of the blogs I did last spring doing a full novel in seven days.)
What is important is work ethic. How many hour-long sessions can you do in a day? In a week? Or how many 15 minutes sessions can you manage to add up in a day.
Once more to the math (that just makes myth-believers angry and frees the rest of us to do what we want).
If you type 250 words in 15 minutes, and considered your writing important enough to type for 15 minutes every day, you will finish 91,250 words in one year. Or about one longish novel. (Sorry, but it’s true. 250 words x 365 days = 91,250 words.)
Note that if you type for 15 minutes every day and produce 250 words and work only on short fiction, by the end of a year you would have completed about 18 short stories of average length of 5,000 words.
If you work for one really, really “tough” hour of writing (snicker) five days per week, and take two weeks off from the really rough pace (more snickers), you will produce (1,000 words x 5 days x 50 weeks =) 250,000 words in one year. Or about three novels.
Or about 50 short stories (at average length of 5,000 words).
That’s right. 250,000 words in a year. Working one hour per day and taking the weekends off and two weeks vacation.
So to make a living writing short fiction, you need a work ethic that will drag you to the computer at least one hour per day, five days per week. I know that’s tough. But if everyone could do it, there would be a lot of writers making a living with their fiction.
(Sorry, this work-ethic topic just makes me very snarky. And please don’t give me your pitiful excuses about having to research or think about your story or build character worksheets or rewrite your story a dozen times to make your story dull and boring and just like everyone else’s story. And please don’t talk to me about how your day job is 60 hours. I have heard all the excuses and am not interested in why you can’t dig out one hour a day average out of your life. If you can’t do that much, stop claiming you want to be a writer. At least to me. Thanks!)
(2016 Update: Work ethic still makes me snarky at times. But writers who want to learn I enjoy helping. I now just get snarky at the ones who think they know it all and believe in their own excuses.)
2) Writing Across Many Genres
If you want to make a living at short fiction, you need to understand and be able to write in most of the main genres. And if you think you can’t write in a genre, then you haven’t tried yet.
The main genres that short fiction sells well in are science fiction, fantasy, mystery, romance, erotica, western, mainstream, thriller, and all the subgenres of those genres. The more you can write in the different genres, the better off you will be in the long run. Of course, all genres, including literary short fiction, sell at one level or another, so don’t let genre thinking limit your writing.
And do it all under one name.
(2016 update: We have a genre structure workshop to teach genres, and the Expectations workshop will also help with that in a different way.)
3) A Love of Short Fiction
If you don’t love short fiction and read it all the time, don’t even think about this. Use short fiction at times to help your other work and learn how to write it well. But don’t even think of making a living with it alone.
So what is a living wage?
Now let me come at this topic from another direction. What is a living wage?
That’s going to depend on your overhead and what part of the country you live in. $25,000 per year might be enough in some places. $100,000 a year might not be enough in other places. All depends.
So figure out what’s good for you and do the math accordingly as I am going to do below.
However let me say this. The short fiction I have up right now is making me a living wage if I was living as I was living in 1988 when I sold my first novel. I would not have had to bartend four nights a week if I had this income from short fiction.
(2016 Note: Even more true now. I make more money now on short fiction than I did three years ago.)
Okay, quickly, I want to outline the different major sources of income from short fiction. And there are a lot. But many will not happen for every story. So I’m going to just list some of the major ones here first and then go into details later.
1) Sell your story to a magazine or anthology
2) Indie publish your story
3) Group your story into a collection (or collections) and indie publish the collection(s) both electronically and in paper format.
4) Audio sales
5) Overseas sales to overseas magazines and publishers
There are many others, including movie sales, apps, and secondary print markets, but for this discussion, let me just stick to the top five.
Some of the keys to the above five are pretty simple.
For #1 you must only sell your work to five-cent-per-word markets and up that return the exclusive rights to your story to you no longer than six-to-nine months after publication. Maybe one year at most. (Most magazines and anthologies will keep nonexclusive rights beyond that to allow the story to stay in their issue or anthology, but that is no big deal since you can republish and control your story. The key is that the exclusive rights must come back fairly quickly.
For #2, you must price your short story at at least $2.99 no matter how short it is. (I know some of you don’t like this idea. Fine, keep your story at 99 cents and keep making 35 cent in the discount bin. No problem for me, and not something to talk about in this discussion.)
You also must dig out the few hours extra per week it takes to publish your story and do the cover.
I also put all my short stories into a stand-alone paper version just for me because there is no extra costs. I sell those paper versions for $4.99 and surprisingly, every-so-often one sells. But they do make my $2.99 price look better for the electronic version.
(2016 Note: I haven’t done paper versions of my stand-alone short stories in the last few years, but am starting again this fall. I have about ninety short stories to catch up, so going to take me the winter. Amazon rep at RWA Nationals just said that if you have all three states, the search algorithm goes up.)
For #3, you need to price your collection decently and also get it into paper. You also must dig out the few hours to do the collections every time you fill another one.
(2016 Note: I do Smith’s Monthly every month (33 of them since this post went up three years ago) with four short stories in each issue. A form of collection and starting a new collection series this fall as well.)
For #4, either do your own audio recordings of your short fiction and sell them through the different sources, or go to Audible.com and run through their ACX program. Better to have some stories going one way, others another way. No matter what, getting the audio cash stream running is the key.
For #5, you need to be aware of overseas markets and contract them at times to see if they are interested. (They often take reprints.) Yes, there are places to find overseas fiction markets. And yes, just as here, magazines buy from writers from all around the world. This takes time to build, but can be a slow but steady source of income once you have magazine editors overseas that like your work.
The bestselling writer Douglas Smith has some great information on this at Smithwriter.com.
Building a Career and Income
I know a lot of you beginning writers out there are upset that your first novel or first short story didn’t sell much, if any. Or even your 30th short story isn’t helping the flow much. And we can go on for a long time about the reasons. But let me just list the few here quickly why you might have no sales. And I will talk below about expectations of sales.
1) Your cover looks like an amateur did it.
2) Your cover doesn’t scream the genre of the story.
3) You don’t know your genre and thus have placed it for sale in the wrong place.
4) Your sales blurb is all about the plot, is passive, and dull and doesn’t help sell anything
5) When you look inside, you have made it so no reader gets to your opening chapter. (2016 Note: This has changed some in the online stores now.)
6) Your price is 99 cents or an odd number.
7) All your books look different, are not branded to your author name, and thus no one can find another book to read even if they read one and liked it.
8) You have a stupid web site (like this one) that doesn’t help readers find your books.
9) You are writing under four or five names and not linking them in any real fashion to help readers.
10) You are a beginning writer with only a couple of books written and haven’t yet learned the skills of storytelling.
And so on…
For this, I am going to assume you are mailing appropriate stories to top magazine markets, indie selling your stories in every electronic market, doing collections as often as you can, and pushing toward audio and overseas markets. In essence, using at least the five major ways of earning money from short fiction.
And when I mean all sources electronic, I mean Kindle, B&N, iBooks, Kobo, Smashwords, D2D and so on… All of them. (2016 Note: Wow, had to change a few of those.)
SALES ASSUMPTION: I am going to assume each indie-published story and collection sells an average of two copies around the world each month. Some stories will sell none, others will sell thirty. Again, the number is two for both the short fiction and the collections from ALL sources, not just Kindle.
(2016 Note: I have reduced the short fiction sales down to 2 copies per month. Used to be 5 but things have changed in three years. However, I know three writers, one a friend here in town, who sells a lot more than five copies per short story per month. So the range depends on the factors above and series and other things like that.)
Average!!! Remember, average!!!
Will you hit two copies average early on? Nope.
You might not hit it until you have over a hundred titles up under one name. You might hit it if you are really lucky and writing in some genre that you are hitting dead center. Most of us take a lot of time to average two or more copies. Some writers I know haven’t done it in the first three years, others have.
Even more frightening is that most writers don’t know how many copies every month they are selling. They look at the Kindle numbers and get depressed. Remember, think world and long term.
And by the way, “long term” means longer than six months. I am going to talk about the third year from the start of a short story writing program. Nothing sells well if you only have a few titles out.
Okay, how will all this work out? Time to find out.
— You write 50 short stories in a year. They average around 5,000 words.
— You keep doing that for a second year and a third and so on. (I know, that hour a day is daunting.)
— You and your first reader think that about 25 of the stories each year are appropriate for mailing to traditional magazines and anthologies. (Romance has almost no short fiction markets, so most of those would just go indie right off the bat.)
— You are good enough storyteller and marketer to sell 5 stories to those traditional markets the first year and ten per year after that, since some of the stories from the previous year are still on the market..
Income from Point #1 during the third year: 5,000 words x 10 stories = 50,000 words x 5 cents = $2,500.00 income per year. (Chances are it would be more than that, but let’s stay low. Remember, this is after the third year. You have been building up to this.)
The advantages of doing this are far more than the money. Those traditional sales to magazines and anthologies push new readers to your indie published work as well and help you get on award ballots and into organizations and so on. Some of the best promotion a person can get is by selling to a major magazine or anthology and they pay you to advertise your work in their magazine.
— The other stories each year are published indie. And also the ones that are coming off the market after exhausting the good-paying traditional magazines. Or they have been published and reverted to you from the market after a sale.
— By the end of the third year you will have written 150 short stories and have about 100 of them indie published.
Income from Point #2 during the third year: 100 stories x 2 sales per month average = 200 sales per month around the world. Income from sales is $2.00 per sale. So 200 x $2.00 = $400.00 per month or $4,800.00 for the year. (Again, a lot of factors to drive this number up or down such as number of pen names, ability of storytelling, ability to do covers and blurbs, and your choice of topics, plus your blurbs.)
— Each story needs to be in at least one five-story collection. So by the end of the third year you will have 20 five-story collections published.
Collections sell more, so we go to five sales per month per collection.
— Each story needs to be in a larger collection with at least ten or more stories. So by the end of the third year you will have at least 8 large collections.
— Five-story collections priced at $5.99 electronic and ten-story collections priced at $7.99 electronic. Profit from the first is $4.00 (rounding) per sale and from the large collections $5.50 per sale, again rounding.
Each collection also needs to be in paper editions, but let’s just round that money into the five sales for now. But it might be pretty large as your list of books grow.
Income from Point #3 during the third year:
— 20 collections x 5 sales per month = 100 sales x $4.00 = $400.00 per month or $4,800 per year.
— 8 large collections x 5 sales per month = 40 sales x $5.50 = $220.00 per month or $2,600.00 per year. (rounding)
— Total Income from Point #3 is $4,800 plus $2,600 = $7,400.00
Income Points #4 and #5: Just assume if you are doing them they are making up for any shortfall in the numbers above. Given a few years, audio could bring you in a few thousand per year easily, if not more. I know a number of people who are making a ton more than that. But for now, we’ll leave these out of the calculations. Too much to explain. Just call points four and five insurance back-up.
So during year three what is the total income?
Are we close yet to making that income you desire?
$2,500 + $4,800 + $7,400 = $14,700 for year three.
Not bad, but not there for most people. (Remember I said long term?)
So year #4 you add in another fifty stories.
Your traditional sales of $2,500 stay the same under Point #1. (Remember, you are getting paid to advertise your own work in their pages.)
You make 50 x 2 = 100 sales per month x $2.00 = $200 per month more x 12 = $2,400 more per year from Point #2
You have ten more short collections and say four more long collections. The math works out to about $4,000 per year extra (rounding).
So each year you keep up the pace of 50 new stories you add into the mix about $6,400.
You can figure out where you will be in your own need to make a living. And assumes nothing explodes, meaning movie or other rights sell, or you hit a major award, or a series really takes off.
(Note 2016: And realize writing that many stories you will have books in series and series do sell better and end up as novels and so on. Also, this is assuming that your stories you already have up all still average 2 sales a month. They tend to if you keep adding in new work.)
And the total should keep climbing as long as you are writing. (It will level and drop slightly if you are not, but still a nice steady retirement income for a long time.)
There are lots and lots of ways this could go better or go worse than the numbers I laid out above. Let me list some.
— Success or failure on such a plan will depend on your ability to write stories people want to read and traditional editors want to buy. That means (as you write) you must continue to work on your craft and skills as a storyteller. If you don’t do this, just forget even trying this. You must have a hunger to get better every day, every story.
— Success or failure on such a plan will depend on your ability to make sales traditionally with short fiction. The more times your stories appear in traditional magazines and books, the better your indie stories will sell and the better the reader base you will slowly build. (Note: An ad in Asimov’s/Analog is about $800 per page. They pay you instead for filling ten pages with your story. And then give your story back in a few months after publication.)
— Success or failure will depend on your ability to learn how to do good covers, keep your costs down to almost nothing, learn how to do active blurbs, and that you keep up with the changing technology. (If you hire out the work of laying out covers and books, forget this. You have to do it yourself for your own publishing company.)
— Success or failure will depend on your ability to get to writing regularly most days, and when life tosses you a monster, you go back to writing when you get through the issues. This is the most difficult for all of us. You climb back on and keep going.
— Success or failure will depend on your ability to think long term with your planning. (Watch, most of the comments I will get about this post will be about looking at their short-term sales on a few stories. Those mean nothing I’m afraid.) Average. Become a better storyteller. Read books, take classes, think long term.
— Success or failure will depend on your ability to start and push new cash streams such as audio or overseas sales or whatever is coming next. You may discover that over time your biggest cash stream isn’t something that exists right now, or that I didn’t mention.
But, all that said, it is very possible these days for a good short story writer to make a nice living writing only short fiction. You have to love it like I do. And you have to love writing it and be challenged by it.
Or, you could do as I do and have the short fiction be a really really nice addition to my writing income.
But no matter what your belief is about the chance that writers can make a living with only short fiction, the math does not lie.
You might not agree with my assumptions. Fine. Change the sales average around the world every month, including paper for the collections. Do the math yourself.
(2016 Note: I can tell you this, my stories, over time, average slightly better than three. Some a lot more, some don’t sell at all. But I also have Smith’s Monthly and each story gets allocated a percentage of the income for the issue. And I don’t sell traditional that much, maybe only four or five a year.)
We are solidly in a new golden age for short fiction. For those of us who love to write and read short fiction, this new world is just heaven.
Ten years ago I never dreamed making a living with short fiction was possible.
But it is possible now.
Have I said lately how much I love this new world?
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