This week, in case you didn’t notice, a record was made on Kickstarter. Brandon Sanderson and his company Dragonsteel Entertainment started a Kickstarter campaign to sell the 4 novels he secretly wrote during pandemic shutdowns, along with optional, associated swag. The campaign shattered the Kickstarter record for highest earning project within 3 days, causing quite a buzz in many circles, but most especially in the circles of writers and authors I frequent.
Now, first, I have to say that NO ONE deserves this more than Sanderson. He is an excellent author who has also nourished his gifts of time management, love of actually writing, understanding how to write well, and marketing to be one of the most prolific and successful writers of our time.
And this is the key and the caveat to what many aspiring authors are thinking is now a ‘golden ticket.’ “Oh, KICKSTARTER is the key!” they think to themselves. “This is how to achieve the income I want! I can skip the painful process of sending manuscripts to agents or publishers! I can avoid the slow tedium and low numbers of my self-published Amazon books! THIS IS HOW I SUCCEED!”
There is this myth that I constantly see floating around that writing, just writing, should be rewarded, and the only thing holding back the success of any author is the systems in place that block them from that golden palace of Success. I can’t even count the number of aspiring authors who believe the following falsehoods:
- Once I finish my first book, I might need to edit it, but I will publish it and that will start me on the road to success!
Nope. Ignoring the other skills required (marketing being a big one), you are not the exception to the rule that almost no one does amazing with the first book they write. Most people don’t even PUBLISH the first book they write. Sanderson, for example, wrote THIRTEEN books before publishing any. THIRTEEN. And that was from someone with a MFA (Masters degree) in writing.
- Once I get published, I will be able to make a living by writing, it’s the big success I have to really work for.
Sorry to burst your bubble, but again, no.
Put on your seatbelts, kids, I’m gonna dive into some statistics.
For most jobs, knowing the average (or mean) is useful, because you are looking at what to expect someone to pay you, or the income to expect if you work independently and charge average rates. But writing isn’t so simple. Sometimes you can be hired (and, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 44,240 people in the U.S. were employed as writers or authors (defined as someone who originates and prepares written material, such as scripts, stories, advertisements, and other material, and excluding News Analysts, Reporters, Journalists, Public Relations Specialists, and Technical Writers) as of May 2020. Of those 44,240, the mean income was $78,680. But the median income–that is, the middle number in the data set, which is a little better than the mean for our purposes–is only $67,120. “That’s still not bad,” you may say. But folks, that’s authors employed by someone else. Scriptwriters with jobs. Ad writers. Ghost writers. Rarely authors writing novels. And out of 165.7 million people employed in the U.S. in 2020, 44 thousand is a pretty small number.
So how do I the independent author numbers?
Again, that’s difficult. The US Census Bureau collects data on what a person’s self-reported full-time occupation is, and while the full-time is also limiting, it does give us more information. In 2019, 130,883 people in the U.S. self-identified as full-time writers or authors. Of these, the median wage was $61,189. “That’s a little less,” you may say, “but still not bad.” But this is where the “full-time” comes back to bite us in the keister. Full-time means they usually aren’t doing another job. Which means they either have someone else bringing in the bulk of the income for their household, or else they have begun to earn enough to not have to work another job to support themselves (and possibly their families). That second group is going to skew the income numbers much higher.
A less comprehensive but more directed at what we want to know resource is the Author’s Guild survey. They regularly conduct surveys to get this important info, pulling from their own guild and other writing groups in the country. There were only 5,067 responses in their latest (2018) survey, but as it’s the best we’ve got, we hope and assume that the sample was representative (that is, even though it’s only a PART of the total data we want, that it accurately represents the WHOLE, within an acceptable ‘margin of error,’ i.e., the wiggle room for variations). And you know what their detailed survey of authors listed the median annual income for an author as?
So, no, you cannot count on being some glamorous full-time author. It’s possible. But writing is NOT a get-rich-quick scheme.
- But isn’t it so much easier to get published now?
Yes, it is.
But here’s the rub: when something becomes too easy, so that literally anyone can do it, it loses its value. Which is precisely WHY the median annual income for an author has dropped so low.
The old ‘doorways’ authors had to pass through–agents and publishers–have often been vilified in the publishing process. And there WERE some problems with that, which often happens when a few have so much power. But it wasn’t all misogyny or racism, there was also a lot of understanding of what makes good writing, what readers want, how to market, and other really valuable wisdom when it comes to actually making money selling books. This meant that when an author was able to get past the gatekeepers at those doors, it usually meant that the writing was good enough to sell, and the agent and publisher chose the work because they deemed the work worthwhile to support with their services.
As self-publishing has taken over, however, it hasn’t just made the door easier to get through. It’s pretty much removed the door. ANYONE can publish a book now. Crud, your neighbor’s cat could publish a novel. You don’t require editing, cover art, even typesetting to publish a novel (which is why I am no longer impressed by someone saying that they are published. It takes more to impress me), just a keyboard and an internet connection. This has opened some doors and encouraged niche reading markets we didn’t know existed before, which is good. This has driven down prices of a lot of reading material. But it has also overwhelmed readers with options, the MAJORITY of which are terrible. And it has led a lot of idealistic people to think that now that the gateway (which, in their hubris or naïveté, they believe are only mean, arbitrary or classist blockades, rather than useful, intelligent filters) is gone, that they can gain the idealistic success garnered from historical authors (who had to go through the old vetting system) or the current outliers.
TL;DR: you can’t have your cake and eat it, too. The same system that made publishing harder made the average published novel far better and far more profitable. So you have more authors who can call themselves published. But most of them make a lot less than they used to.
- Sanderson changed all that, though! His Kickstarter PROVES I can get totally rich just by putting up a good Kickstarter!
Ah, the heart of the matter.
First, you have to understand that the $25.5 million (so far) raised by his Kickstarter is NOT his profit. Not by a long shot. His name isn’t even the primary name behind the Kickstarter, it’s his company, Dragonsteel Entertainment. So you have to divvy up that number with:
- Kickstarter’s cut
- Video/marketing production costs
- Full staff of his company
- Production costs for cover art, editing, typesetting, binding, shipping, etc.
- Production costs for the swag, which include artist rights, physical production, shipping, etc.
And that’s not including the hundreds of hours that this UNUSUALLY AND EXTREMELY efficient, practiced, and proficient author has already put into those 4 novels and has yet to put into them (as they still need editing).
So, yeah, his personal profit will be sizable. But not nearly as sizable as it seems.
Secondly, what he’s doing is just not new. At all. Authors have been crowdsourcing their works for YEARS through well-known crowdfund sites like Kickstarter or GoFundMe. There is even a crowdsource platform or two specifically for authors to get support for their books, though they require some vetting.
If you didn’t know about authors using crowdsourcing for years, well…that proves my point better than anything else.
The bottom line is, writing isn’t a get-rich-easy (or quick) thing. The methods by which an author can best earn the most money with writing have changed over the years, but the underlying skills required stay the same:
- Know the language you’re writing in. REALLY well.
Blow off spelling and grammar all you want, but good authors know the language well. Why? Because good writing is about communicating. And communicating means that there have to be SHARED methods (language) of conveying ideas. I’m not super pedantic about every grammar rule, especially because dialects (which have rules, too!) convey a lot as well, but if you don’t speak the core language of your audience, you can’t communicate with them.
- READ. This is absolutely essential at every level of the craft. Anyone that tells you otherwise is wrong. It’s not a matter of ‘purity,’ as though other writers will taint you. Complete uniqueness in what you write is not only impossible, it’s overvalued. You will learn good things from reading good books, and still be strong enough to come up with your own stories.
- Know people even better than you know language. The best stories touch people emotionally even more than intellectually (though the language is essential to convey the ideas and feelings). People have to relate to them or want them in some way. This not only is the root of all good fiction, but it is how you interest people enough for them to spend money on your work.
- Work hard. Real success takes time and effort. Parts of the effort may vary a bit from generation to generation, but it’s always there!
- Be willing to be vulnerable. Not only is some vulnerability required for good writing (because stories require conflict/obstacles, pain, and vulnerability, even if those things don’t ‘win,’ and if the author can’t feel the pain, the reader definitely won’t), but it is required for good publishing. You HAVE to be vulnerable. If you think you can avoid rejection by avoiding editors, agents, and traditional publishers and skip straight to self publishing, you are wrong. Not only wrong, but wildly, publicly wrong. So instead of a private rejection from a single professional (at least some of which can HELP YOU), you are setting yourself up for many people to publicly recognize how bad your writing is, and they have no professional interest or ethics to be quiet, private, or nice about the loathing your writing may engender. Please don’t do this to yourself. Be vulnerable enough to reach out to professionals in the field, and listen to what they have to say enough to allow for improvement. This will get you far more of the approval you crave.
- Make good connections. Writing well is one thing. But if you really want to be a ‘successful author’ (as in, popular, profitable, influential, etc.), it usually takes more than just writing (same as pretty much any industry these days). Sanderson showed this with his success: it wasn’t just about the writing. He connects with his fans regularly, in both traditional (book signings and conferences) and new (YouTube and other electronic media) ways. He built up a team that supports him well. He is there. And that takes his overall success way beyond what simply “writing well” could ever do alone.
If you find yourself discouraged by this post, don’t. If you didn’t love writing but you were trying to do it because you felt it was an easy way to make money working from home…well, it’s better to find out now than later.
If you DO love writing, but don’t know if you’re good enough, I’m here to tell you that you can keep trying. Needing a lot of time and practice to do well is NORMAL. Practice. Read. Seek learning. Practice more. Read more.
And if, perchance, the sacrifice to reach the level of writing ‘success’ you wanted isn’t something you are willing or feel able to make, that’s okay, too. It’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Writing for yourself is enough. Writing for friends or family is enough. You don’t need to ‘justify’ it by making it pay at all. You are enough.