How Authors Get Paid, part 2

This link is going around Facebook and a couple of people who took my creative writing class sent it to me:

From what I’ve seen myself, I have no reason to doubt the BBC’s stats. I believe these are all UK specific, but the general idea probably translates over to the US as well.

Only 1 in 9 professional authors could earn a living solely from their writing in 2013.

Almost half the money made by professional authors is earned by just 5% of authors.

The top 5% of authors earned 42% of the income.


Now if you are expecting some Occupy Wall Street type screed about how that’s unfair, somebody has too much privilege, or JK Rowling should stop writing to give other writers a chance, or how you shouldn’t read white authors for a year, or you shouldn’t read male authors for a year, or asinine nonsense like that (and sadly I’m not making up any of those), you are on the wrong author’s blog.

Screw that. You guys probably thought I was joking when I wrote my Alphabetical List of Author Success because my critics kept calling me D List but it turned out to be all sorts of scientific. Thanks, BBC. (And by the way thanks for Luther too, which is the 2nd best cop show ever, but not for firing Clarkson and ruining Top Gear, though. I can never forgive you for that)

Today I want to talk about how struggling writers can make more money. My creative writing class wasn’t so much creative writing, but how to get good enough at creative writing that you could make a living at it. So we’re not going to whine about how Stephen King makes more money than you. That’s for losers. We’re going to talk about how to make money at writing.

My personal philosophy is that all writers need to put GET PAID in their mission statement. All that artistic creative stuff is nice too, but make sure GET PAID is in there (in all caps).

When you get a chance I recommend reading this post I wrote last year in response to some dipstick who didn’t understand how book sales work claiming my career was in free fall.  You can skip the first half with the internet bickering, but after that using my own books and royalty statements, I explain how best seller lists work, advances, royalties, back lists, and extra sources of income like subrights, dramatic, audio, foreign, etc. I wrote it to spite a dumbass, but the information is actually useful so we’ll consider that our part 1.

Before I quit my day job and became a full time author I was an accountant and a small business owner. I’m going to write this blog post wearing my accountant hat, so it is going to be cruel and it may hurt your tender artistic feelings, but tough. Do you want to make a living at this or not? If you want to be a dabbling hobbyist so you can brag to your friends you’re a writer, quit reading now, because I don’t want to listen to your whining in the comments. This is aimed at people who want writing to be their job.

First off newer and aspiring authors you need to realize a few things about the nuts and bolts of the writing business. It is a business. It doesn’t care about your feelings or your personal drama. You are just an entertainer. There are millions of other people who want to be entertainers. You aren’t a special snowflake, unique from the million other special snowflakes who also want to write books.

Novelist is one of those jobs that lots of people think sounds fun, but they have zero concept of how much work it takes for most of us to succeed. People have delusions that it is easy. You work for a few hours a day, and make millions of dollars. These are the same kind of delusions the masses have about being rock super stars, fashion models, actors, or NFL players.  Just like the millions of failed rappers giving away their old demo tapes, you may be super talented, far more talented than the other snowflakes, but unless you get your product in front of an audience who will give you money for it, your talent will not be appreciated, and you don’t get paid.

Someone you think is far less talented than you may achieve a great deal of success. Irrelevant. Quit crying about it. Yes, we all know you think your book is better than Twilight, but she sleeps in a house made of gold bars and you don’t. She found her market and satisfied her fans. Quit crying about it and go find your fans. The market does not give a crap about what some snob somewhere thinks is good. The market will decide what it wants. Just because you wrote something does not entitle you to someone else’s money.

You need to understand basic econ. There is supply and demand. No amount of wishful thinking will ever change that. You are trying to compete in an industry where the supply side curve has shifted dramatically in recent years.

Indy publishing and eBooks have increased consumers’ options. The market is flooded. Where they used to choose between a handful of traditional publishers in any genre, they now choose from a handful of traditional publishers and hundreds of thousands of indy published works. So there is a whole lot of supply available. Aspiring authors who used to just get rejected and never publish, now self-publish on their own. (that’s how I got started). In a normal market this drives down costs, which is why we have millions of 99 cent eBooks, so if your book costs more, it needs to have something that makes that additional cost worth it prospective purchasers. Not sucking is the biggest.

On the demand side, this is what the BBC said: The creative industries are thriving, generating £76bn per annum, yet professional writers have seen a near 30% reduction in earnings in recent years

So overall consumers are spending a ton on entertainment, but less on books. The numbers I’ve seen from Publisher’s Weekly say the same thing, it varies from genre to genre, but overall most of them are getting smaller.

That is because we are entertainers. Writers produce one form of entertainment. Consumers can also be entertained by their Xbox or their TV. You aren’t just competing against John Grisham, you’re competing against Christ Pratt, Beyonce, and Call of Duty. The good news is that there is still a huge demand for entertainment.  You just need to get a piece of that big enough to live off of.

Side note, this is one reason I really got torqued at that one whiner telling JK Rowling to hang it up so she could have her chance. Rowling got millions of young people reading, who grew up to be consumers who branched out into other authors and genres. You shouldn’t yell at her. You should thank her.

There is a paradox for an author in 2015. It is harder than ever to make money from writing. And yet there are more people writing and publishing books than ever before. The market is reasonably stable but it can’t begin to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of new books flooding it every year.

You don’t have to be a maths scholar to work out the financial ramifications. Nor the consumer response. Readers, with little spare time are overwhelmed by the choice and end up sticking to what the authors they already know and trust.

Hence the big brand authors trade even better in an overcrowded market. 


Know and trust are huge. It is the same reason Coke and McDonalds and Dean Koontz sell more than some new competitor nobody has heard of.  Of course the BBC looks at this information and then draws a totally wrong conclusion.

Which is why literary prizes are so important. They provide a platform for new writing and an endorsed product on which time- poor punters can take a risk.

Sorry. The mass market doesn’t give a crap about literary prizes. The chunk of that multi-billion dollar entertainment market that pays attention to literary prizes is tiny. Award winning doesn’t translate into much, if any, extra sales. To many of the people who just want to be entertained, award winning doesn’t mean good. It means boring and preachy. That’s a whole different fight that I’ve been having for the last three years and don’t feel like having again right now, but basically, winning awards doesn’t translate into getting paid more. If you look at the list of authors who have won prestigious awards and you compare it to the list of authors making lots of money, there is a little bit of overlap, but most of the authors getting paid aren’t on that award winning list.

While a typical full-time writer earned £11,000 a year in 2013, the top 5% each earned at least £100,100, the research showed.


To put that into American dollars, the average is $17k and the top 5% is $157k. I’ve seen different numbers kicked around before, with the average being $30k and the top being $100k. I’m guessing that is all about how they pick their numbers, where they are cutting off “authors” and what market they are looking at, but either way, you get the general idea. Most authors aren’t making much money. Very few of us are making a lot. (As much as I get trashed by the snooty crowd, I’m making double those top end numbers, and that’s got to annoy them to no end)

So what do monetarily successful authors have in common?

They treat it like their career. They are professionals. They work and they produce. They don’t dink around. They realize they are entertainers and this is their job, so they treat it like a job. They make books people want to read and get them out the door.

The report said: “Thus, it appears that writing is a profession where only a handful of successful authors make a very good living while most do not.”

This is absolutely true. I’m betting the ratios are different, but it is true in traditional publishing and it is true in indy publishing. Because there is zero barrier to entry, there are hundreds of thousands of self-published eBooks out there which only ever sell a handful of copies to the author’s friends and families, but then there are self-published authors like Chris Nuttal, Marko Kloos, and Andy Weir who blow up huge.

Why? Because they are good enough people want their stuff, and they got in front of the people who want it somehow. The hardest part of self-publishing is finding something to differentiate yourself from the vast herd of suck around you.

Say you got picked up by a big publishing house though. In traditional publishing most authors still don’t quit their day job until after their fourth or fifth book is out and they’ve got arrangements for more.

Some authors come along, write one book, and it is a super mega hit for some reason. That’s great for them. They are anomalies. You can’t count on being an anomaly.

Around one in six writers did not earn any money from their writing in 2013, it said – despite 98% saying their work had been published or used in other ways.

I am very suspicious of this one, and depending on how they calculated it will explain a lot of the skew. If you earned zero money from your job, you aren’t a professional, you are an amateur.  You are a hobbyist. There is no shame in that, we all started there, but you aren’t a professional yet. That 98% who said their work was published or used in other ways… I’m sorry, blogging doesn’t make you a professional author. Working for free doesn’t make something your job.

And if people are using your stuff, why aren’t you getting paid? What’s wrong with you? Stop it. I’ve known way too many authors who’ve given away work for free getting paid in “exposure”. I’ve seen the same thing with musicians, photographers, and artists. If you are going to give away something for free, make sure there is a damned good reason for it, like a marketing plan that makes sense. I did free online fiction before I put out my first self-published work, because I used it to convince a group of consumers I could write well enough that they should give me money for my other stuff. That makes business sense. Working for free and not getting anything out of it is stupid.
That is one problem with being an author. Anybody can claim they are an author. There is no barrier to entry. Self-publish some crappy short fiction that nobody buys and you can claim to be an author (but they’ll hire you to work as a columnist at the Guardian).  So a lot of times when you see some terrifying statistics like these, keep in mind that there are a lot of hobbyists who are skewing the stats.

Not that the stats still don’t suck. This job is still really hard.

And 11.5% of authors now earn a living solely from their writing – down from 40% a decade ago.


That 11.5% makes perfect sense, and is about in line with what I would have guessed. When I go to any convention or writing conference, there is going to be a wide success range of authors. Let’s say you’ve got a room full of authors listening to a panel, and you ask “how many of you have quit your day jobs to just be writers?” about 10%-20% of the room will raise their hands. In most cases that includes the panelists. The 40% I have no idea because ten years ago I was selling machineguns, but it makes sense. There were far fewer total authors then competing in a bigger market.

Now for some numbers about the reality of making a living in this business. Let’s say you get a book deal with a major publisher. Because you are an unknown nobody they give you a $10,000 advance (which I believe is actually above average now) and the book will come out in mass market paperback. The cover price is $8.  The author gets 8% of the cover price on that mass market paperback. That is a whopping 64 cents the author clears per unit. To recover that advance and start getting paid royalties you’ll need to sell 15,625 books. Sadly, the last I heard the average midlist book (meaning a normal average paperback from a normal average author, that will probably be reordered when it sells out) only sells about 15k. Not per year. Total.

So that sucks. You need to do better than that If you want to get paid.

eBooks are nice because you are keeping a higher percentage, like 25%.  However eBooks also vary wildly in price, and the big publishers are going to be selling theirs for $5, $8, or some of them even price them something ridiculous like it is a hardback. This is where some of the self-published guys are rocking it They’re selling for a dollar or $2.99, but they’re keeping 75%, so they don’t need to move as many copies to get the same amount of money. Their problem is that most of them are selling tiny numbers of copies because they are competing in a saturated market and have nothing to differentiate them from their competitors.

Because most traditional publishers are having to tighten their belts, that hypothetical book deal above can’t count on a traditional publisher spending much marketing money or effort on it either. I’ve seen way too many new authors, and even older established authors who are no longer The Hotness get passed over and ignored by their publishing houses. Odds are most of your marketing efforts are going to come from you.

There are plenty of authors who produce a few books, maybe earn out their advance, maybe not. Then they give up and stick with their reliable day job. People who want to make a living at writing keep writing. They continue to produce books. Self-published or traditional, this applies to both.  They keep writing.

Then, for whatever reason, whether it happens on book #1 or book #100 one of those books sticks. The market likes it. There is no silver bullet. There is no certain way to pull this off. But one of those books clicks. It sells well. People tell their friends. Maybe somebody really well known raves about it. Maybe it is Oprah’s Book Club, hell if I know, but something clicks. Congratulations. You now have a fan base.

All of a sudden all those other books you wrote that didn’t do well, or only did okay? That’s sellable backlist. People will now go and purchase that stuff too. You are now getting paid for work that you did years ago. This is when it starts to get good. The more fans you get, the better your career does. That is your audience. Your job is to make them happy. You work for them. They do not work for you. Never forget that.

When I say a book sticks, I’m not even talking bestseller lists. I’m talking just good enough that a few thousand people love it enough that they will reliably give you money for your stuff. So you keep giving them stuff. They keep telling their friends. You’re still selling books to everybody else, but if you’ve got those reliable fans, things are looking up. The more of those you get, the better off you are.

So that last release you sold 15k copies? Let’s say you now have 5,000 fans who really like your work because of it, so now the next book comes out, and in that first, super vital release week, those 5k loyal fans buy it. That’s good velocity. That means the book stores reorder it. That means it shows up higher in the Amazon search ratings. Maybe some B&N employees pick your book as their Club 100 book they’re going to hand sell to customers. All of those things give your book momentum. And this one sells 30k copies.

Still not huge. Still not enough to quit your day job. But interestingly enough, that first book that only sold 15K? Some of your new readers have gone back and purchased it too. The advance is earned out, and now every six months you start getting a little bit of money for that old book.

As time goes on, you produce more books, you have more fans. As long as you keep producing, and you keep making them happy, it gets better and better. And your royalty statement keeps growing.

Here is the truly beautiful part. For each new work you produce, it has the potential to reach a whole new group of fans. A portion of each new group you find has the potential to go back and purchase your other works. It keeps building and building. To put this in perspective, my 13th novel (1st book of my 4th series) is coming out in October, but all my earlier novels are still being purchased by people who just found my work through something else.  On my last royalty check for the 6 month period ending in December 2014, my first novel, which has been sitting out there since 2009, still earned enough to pay my mortgage for the entire year.

That same royalty statement had 9 other items where I was still getting paid for work I’d done years before, so it is pretty sweet. You can’t reach that unless you keep producing books. Years ago Kevin J. Anderson—who has never won any prestigious literary awards—gave me the single best piece of professional writing advice I’ve ever heard. BE PROLIFIC. I’ve tried my best to do so. I’m on 13, that’s why I live in a nice house and my neighbors are doctors. He’s on 125. That’s why he lives in a castle and his neighbors are all Denver Broncos.  You see where I’m going with this?

The more you write, the more likely you are to create something that resonates with fans. I’ve had wannabes tell me that quality is never synonymous with quantity. On the contrary, the more you work, the more you write, the more likely you are to create something truly wonderful. Or in the context of this post, the more likely you are to produce something that pleases a whole bunch of fans.

What if you’ve done this, and you’ve written a ton of books but none of them are gaining traction? Then you need to take a real hard look at your business. What are you doing wrong? The biggest problems I’ve seen are that the writer simply isn’t that good, but sometimes they are, and they just aren’t finding the right audience. In that case, why? Are you writing in the wrong genre? Do your covers suck? Does your marketing plan suck? It could be a million things, but just like any other failing business, you need to be honest in your assessment.

It doesn’t matter how you accomplish all this, all that matters is that you are getting enough reliable income to live off of it. On that note, if you’re a struggling writer, and you could live anywhere with an internet connection, why are you living someplace with a super high cost of living? Don’t be stupid. You can’t afford “atmosphere” yet.

Once you quit your day job, now you can write more, which speeds up the whole process. When to quit your day job is all about opportunity cost. When you are at the point where the hours spent working your day job are not as lucrative as the hours spent writing, that’s when you should think seriously about quitting.

I loved my last day job. I was senior management at a company that did good work, with good people, and I got paid a lot of money. I hung onto my day job longer than I needed to because I had found an accountant’s dream job. But one day I got a royalty check large enough that I realized I was actually losing money by having a normal job. At that point, I warned my boss, and I started training my replacement (who a few years later is now a published author himself, so the circle of life continues).

Everyone’s circumstances are different. If you are a grown up and you have dependents, you need to be smart about building a writing career. Don’t be stupid. Some careers will develop faster than others. You may end up with an unexpected hit or a movie deal, but even then, be smart. Your next book may be a total flop. There are plenty of authors who are a flash in the pan, have a hit, and are then never heard from again. Normally that’s because they got lucky before they’d really learned how to be reliably good.

I know a lot of “professional” authors who don’t sell jack, don’t make any money, and have zero fan base. They don’t make a living off of writing, but rather they are usually trust fund babies, still mooching off their rich parents, or their spouse supports their hobby. They are dilettantes. Unfortunately these people also tend to be the loudest about any given writing topic, and just full of helpful rules to impose on new authors. Ignore them.

The best writing advice ever is from the song Rock Superstar by Cyprus Hill. I kid you not. Listen to it. Learn it. Live it. Save your money, man.

Early Review of Son of the Black Sword
An Opinion on Gun Control, repost

159 thoughts on “How Authors Get Paid, part 2”

    1. Clarkson struck a producer. This was the second time he had physically attacked a BBC employee during a snit fit, and he was already on warning.

      They really couldn’t do anything else with him. Maybe he needs a contract specifying any one he strikes gets half his pay?

      1. The Beeb: Engage in child molestation and de facto rape and have a protected job for decades.
        Punch a couple of producers and you’re out on your ass.

      2. It’s true that Clarkson struck a producer. But based on what I’ve read, the incident appears to have been minor enough that the producer in question didn’t even report it. What I’ve read is that the only report on the incident to the BBC was from Clarkson himself. It seems much more likely that the BBC was looking for an excuse to get rid of Clarkson.

      3. Wasn’t the first time when he clocked Piers Morgan in the face? That shouldn’t count… I mean, there are people who fantasized about being Jeremy Clarkson for that.

  1. You’re a good man and a good writer, Larry. Thanks for all you’re doing, for your books, for fighting the SJW pigs, and for being a standup guy. I’ll continue buying your books! Good stuff! Keep it coming!

  2. I also wanted to make a connection that this is a case where you (Correia) and Whatever (Scalzi) agree on something. I think you two are more alike then a lot of people want to make you out to be.

    1. I’ve said many times that both sides in the puppies/antipuppies debate agree on a lot more than they disagree on, but everyone focuses on the differences.

      1. Yeah, but then they wouldn’t be able to call us racist, homophobic, sexist, neo-nazi, wife beating, rape apologists. 🙂

        1. Hah. Yeah, of course all of that is merely in their fantasies about what their opposition is, rather than the reality. If they stopped to pay attention to the whole thing rather than focusing on their “dogwhistles”, it’d break their entire world view, and they don’t have time for that.

        2. Maybe Scalzi has fantasies about being the beaten wife of a homphobic neo-nazi? Perhaps he is just in love?

      2. You mean they’re both full-time SF&F writers who make a good living from it? It seems to me that’s where the similarities end.

        I’m not surprised that Scalzi is all about getting paid: I noticed long ago that leftists who own their own business tend to be far more ruthless about it than their rhetoric would lead you to expect.

  3. I wonder if book revenues by authors follow the 80/20 rule, like so many other things? 20% of authors earning 80% of the total book revenue. It doesn’t seem to be perfectly fractal at the very least, because if it were then 4% of authors would be getting 64% of the revenue rather than 5% getting 42%.

    1. There are always the alternative operational model. Hugh Howey is the poster-boy for the self publishing. He recently finally signed on to have his novels published in format other than eBooks. But he retains eBooks and many of the other rights, since he likes publishing books his way. Hey, whatever works.

      1. That wasn’t exactly recent, it was more like 2 or 3 years ago. And he’s since stated that he would not take such a deal again.

  4. WRT Quality vs. Quantity, I really like the Pottery Parable (Google “quality vs. quantity pottery” for more discussion on it). Quantity is the only reliable way to get Quality.

    1. Amen and amen. Mastery (and maintenance of said mastery) of any skill requires hundreds to thousands of hours of applied practice (i.e. quantity). Of course those hours go by a little easier if you’re enjoying what you’re doing.

  5. Clarkson slugged a coworker. That’ll get you fired from pretty much any job. And even then the BBC didn’t actually fire him, they wimped out and just let his contract lapse, avoiding pesky disciplinary action that could make it tricky to hire him again in the future. Apparently, at least one BBC executive recently sounded him out about coming back.

    1. It really is hard to blame them after he punched a guy. The funny part was when they said that he wasn’t coming back to Top Gear, that they were willing to have him do other shows for the BBC, and they needed hosts for Top Gear. If they were willing to have him do other shows what is the difference. It is also charming how the BBC takes a hard line on punches to noses, but seems less concerned about Jimmy Saville

      1. To be fair to the BBC, if they’d fired every one of their celebrities who was a monstrous pedophile, they would have had nothing to show on their channels between 1970 and 1990.

  6. Well, later this year, I’ll be getting my first royalty check for a story I have appearing in an upcoming anthology. I’ve only been paid for writing once before, and that was a check for winning a short story contest a few years back. I have no illusions that my royalties will be huge, but it is damn satisfying to know I’m getting something at last.

  7. It seems to me that your advice is good for anyone who wants his writing to be profitable, even if they never aspire to become full-time.

    Sarah Hoyt sometimes asserts that the declining size of print-runs are evidence that the traditional publishing world is in trouble. I have my doubts. Not counting indies, there are way more traditionally published titles being printed these days, why wouldn’t you expect each individual print run to decline. I remember in the ’90s, there was one SF bookstore owner who still had one customer who bought every SF novel that came out that month, though he would have to be one-hell of a speed reader to read it all. The store is gone now, but I bet that customer has give up his quest.

  8. Now that I look back on the Alphabetical List of Author Success, I can now say I’m O to N-list. Moving up! 😀

  9. “That is your audience. Your job is to make them happy. You work for them. They do not work for you. Never forget that.”

    It’s probably no coincidence that every writer whose books are on my automatic must-read list has made this statement.

    Thanks for this post, Larry–not only because your expertise is invaluable to writers like me who are trying to make a career of it, but because you’re taking time out from much more profitable work to do so 🙂

    On a related note, have you had time to check your email lately?

  10. Thanks for this, Larry. I needed it.

    That’s all that needs saying, I think. Anything else sounds ridiculously emo in my head, so thanks for the steel to strap to my proverbial spine.

  11. Dead on the ‘money’ Larry… And you’re right about building a base. My third book just went live, and I’ve sold more in 4 days than I did of the first book in a month!

  12. Larry, what do you thing about the theory that I always see repeated by authors that one should cut t heir teeth writing short stories and try to get those published. While that seems like a sound idea on the surface I don’t exactly see how that can be profitable.

    For one the short fiction market is filled with magazines that really cater to a specific type of lit fiction. I have tried reading lightspeed, clarkesworld, etc. and they are so magical realism SJW that I can’t ever see them publish any kind of action fantasy/sf.

    Second is it worth it money wise? Is the time spent on a short story worth the 400ish dollars when you factor in the 3+ month wait times.

    What do you think, is it worth it for a new writer to attempt the short story market?

    1. I’ve also wondered about this point. I can see pros and cons.

      The pros that I see would be that you would get a lot of practice writing stories–not just the “start a novel, realize it’s crap, and give up on it,” but multiple complete beginning-to-end narratives. That would presumably make you a better writer (see the pottery analogy Beolach posted above). Plus, I could imagine that an agent/publisher might be more likely to look at your novel if your cover letter mentions, “My work has appeared in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Sad Puppies Monthly.”

      The cons would be that I don’t know how easily writing skills translate from the short story to the novel length, and that I’m totally making up how agents/publishers see the fact that you’ve got short stories published; they may not care. Plus the fact that, as you mentioned, I can’t imagine that merely publishing short stories is a rout to anything above N-list money-wise.

      I’d love the opinion of someone who actually knows what he’s talking about here.

      1. Sad Puppies Monthly? I’d submit to that. It could be more hated among the SJW crowd than Baen in no time.

        1. I would subscribe to a badass monthly magazine with stories selected by Larry. I would pay 20 bucks a month for something like that.

        2. I echo this. I’d totally submit to something like that. Or subscribe. At least I’d get stories I’d wanna read.

          (Wonder if Baen would be interested in running a magazine…)

          1. They already do for Flint’s Ring of Fire series. The monthly magazine is mostly an anthology of 1632 forum submissions that Flint felt were good enough to make it into series canon.

        3. Amazingly, my comment about Sad Puppies Monthly got quoted at File 770. Guess they’re getting hard-up for Puppy commentary.

      2. I’d subscribe. Frankly, I’d love a monthly SSF magazine that was concerned with providing entertainment. I wouldn’t care if there was a message in the story as long as it was needed in the story and not put in to check off a diversity box.

        I’d even pay extra for a printed copy since I’m from the generation that prefers to hold something physical while I’m reading.

      3. In “How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy, ” Orson Scott Card said this:

        “If you’re writing fantasy or horror, you probably have to start with novels — the short fiction market is too small. And even if you’re writing science fiction, you can’t live on short stories alone; at some time you’ll almost certainly switch to novels.”

        This was written in 1990 so Card didn’t have the Internet and ebooks to deal with. But with traditional publishers charging mass market paperback prices for ebook novels and self-publishers charging downwards of a buck for the same sized works, my sense is the short story market hasn’t grown at the same pace as that of long fiction. You might be able to make a living at it, but you’re going to have to sell to a LOT of magazines every month. (Quick example: $32k per year at $400 per story is 80 stories a year, or 6 to 7 per month. I don’t know many magazines that are content to print a story from the same author every month. Maybe they would using pseudonyms, but the author would have to be really good. Someone that good could probably make better money selling novels.)

        1. Of course, one thing that you can do with short stories is to write a bunch in the same framework/setting, for practice as well as for working out the kinks in your setting, and eventually evolving some of them into a the basis of longer form fiction (consider the number of classic SF novels that started out as short stories, novelettes, novellas or serials that got expanded – And some came together as anthologies, Like many of Heinlein’s Future History books).
          Once you write novels in the setting and get them published, you can use the short stories not yet assimilated into larger works as bonuses for your readers, either appended to novels, or (for example) the short stories on that tie into existing series.

          1. Or you can publish your short stories yourself, and make money on Amazon with short stories and short story collections. Or you can use short stories as a temporary “freebie” or “cheapie” to lead people to your novels, something to post on your blog, etc.

    2. I have actually talked about this on here before somewhere. Short fiction is fun, and it is good practice. I encourage people starting out to try short fiction, because it can teach you a lot about how not to lollygag, and get right down to the business of the story. Some people are more comfortable with novels, and some with shorts, run with what works.

      HOWEVER, and this is a big however, you can’t make a living at short stories. Period. There just aren’t enough markets out there, and they don’t pay good. If you want to make a living, it is novels.

      1. … you can’t make a living at short stories.

        Part of why that is is because of readers like me, who can gulp down a short story in minutes. So even if it the story was priced at 99 cents, I only got a fraction of an hour’s entertainment out of it, and so the dollars-per-entertainment-hour cost of that story is high for me. (If I paid $1 and read it in 5 minutes, one-twelfth of an hour, then I paid $12 per hour of entertainment.)

        On the other hand, if I pay $4.99 for a novel and it takes me two hours to finish, then I paid $2.50 per hour of entertainment — a much better deal for me as a reader.

        Add to that that I just plain enjoy novels more, and I pretty much never buy short stories. If many other readers are like me, then that would go a long way towards explaining the lower market for short stories.

        Larry, I’m not trying to imply that you don’t already know all this. *grin* But for anyone else who comes across this thread and wonders why short stories don’t sell well, my buying patterns might be informative to them.

        1. The new “paid by the page” model at KDP is supposed to encourage more novels to go there. But I can see that it may also be a good thing for short stories – for your subscription, you could actually read two or three Analogs worth every month… (Of course, we’d need some way to filter out the dreck.)

          As to $12 an hour for entertainment – that’s why I stopped going to movies. $9 for a first run, OK, that’s between $3 and $4.50 an hour – but I’m the kind of person that it’s just NOT real without the super bucket of popcorn and something to wash it down with… (Probably because my Dad was good friends with the local theater owner – free junk food, except the candy, and watch the movie from the projection booth…)

        2. Look at Eric James Stone for example. He’s one of the most successful short fiction authors alive. He’s everywhere. He’s won the fancy awards. He’s published in every magazine, every anthology, and has sold more short fiction than anyone else I can think of. He’ll tell you the same thing. If you want to make a living, you need to write novels.

      2. All true.

        That said, short fiction has a couple more advantages. At most writers’ level of income, shorts are more profitable in terms of $ per hour than novels are. But then we run into the dearth of pro paying markets that Larry mentioned (which makes me super grateful to have been accepted by Sci Phi Journal) and the wide margin by which novels outsell shorts on Amazon.

        For my money, the best use of short fiction is as advertising for your other work. It keeps your name out there, provides a potential source of new readers, and not only don’t you have to pay for it–you Get Paid for it.

      3. I’ve always liked short stories, especially the old school ones. I still think R.E. Howard crammed the most action possible in the fewest pages 🙂

      4. When trying out a new author, I generally go with a couple of their short stories first. Or, sometimes I’ll pick up an anthology of various authors and note down the ones who were any good. Partly that’s because it’s less of an investment in time and money, and partly because it tells me which authors have skill and discipline. It’s not a format friendly to writers overfond of the sound of their own voices or given to dumping in a lot of extraneous characters, pointless digressions, endless angsting, or multi-page hobbyhorse monologues. It’s not foolproof method — some authors go from lean, taut storytelling to flabby prose as soon as the page limit isn’t there, and some perfectly competent novelists can’t write short stories to save their lives — but I’ve found it to be a useful guide.

  13. I am a supporter of GamerGate and a prolific SFF reader, but I’d never heard of you until the Puppies thing. Seeing how much the SJW crowd hate you folks, you must be doing something right! When your first MHI book was free, I got the Kindle version. Now I’m hooked and bought all the rest! This reinforces two of your points – sometimes, free can be good with the right marketing; and having a backlog can make you a lot of money! My only complaint is that I want moar MHI!!!! I guess I’ll have to branch out into the rest of your catalog…

    1. Definitely try the Hard Magic series. I think I liked them even better than MHI, and that’s saying a lot!

    2. Yeah, free is only good when you have a plan. I gave away thousands of MHIs, but then I sell thousands more of the rest of the series to all new fans.

      And don’t worry, there are more MH stories coming.

      1. Yeah, free is only good when you have a plan.

        i.e., “The first one’s free….” 😉

        And don’t worry, there are more MH stories coming.

        “Shut up and take my money!!!” 😀

  14. It also never hurts to explore different retail venues and be aware of the different margins available for different types of products. I write role-playing games, and I sell exclusively through OneBookshelf’s sites, the janus-faced DriveThruRPG and RPGNow front ends. Most people who aren’t RPG fans have probably never heard of them, but the terms they give publishers are excellent at 65% of the cover on non-exclusive PDFs, and 65% of the after-production profit of print-on-demand books, which they can offer seamlessly on whatever you put up.

    For RPGs, the margin is enormous. A 96-page game supplement can reasonably move for $9.99 in PDF and $19.99 in print. Assuming a black and white interior, that POD softcover will cost about $4 tops to print, so you’re netting about $6.50 per PDF sold and a comparatively whopping $10 on every print product. If you’ve got a full-fledged 200-page game to sell, you can comfortably price it at $39.99 in hardcover, five bucks less for softcover and net $20 profit on every paper book sold, or $13.50 on the PDF.

    Of course, production costs are also much higher on RPGs, and that 200-page game will run you about $3,500-$4,000 in production costs if you do your own writing and layout, the latter of which is very non-trivial in effort compared to conventional trade paperback fiction. But RPGs are also beautifully suited to Kickstarting in a way that novels are not, so you can dip in that well if you know how to do it properly.

    The result has been astonishingly remunerative for me. I only started four and a half years ago, and I’m already comfortably in the G tier of the Official Alphabetical List. And yet I’ve hardly sold 2 or 3 thousand copies of my most popular game. The margin on each sale is so great that just by producing three or four products a year, I can snowball my income dramatically as each new offering catches a few new eyes and my back catalog gets picked up by the new player. Thanks to OBS’ integral mailing list, once I finally get around to sticking up a novel on DriveThruFiction I’ll have about 40K people willing to take my emails announcing it, and when they buy it from DTFic, I’ll be getting 65% of the cover. At that rate, you don’t even have to sell midlist numbers to make it very worth your while.

    1. And yet, some RPG publishers charge as much on DrivethruRPG as they did for the print versions fifteen plus years ago, and wonder why people aren’t buying a $30 PDF version of their rules…

      The irksome part of that is, of course, that the publishers for RPG stuff aren’t usually paying anything to the artists and writers after their initial payment, as it handled as work-for-hire with no back end.

      1. An artist who accepts royalties on a small-press RPG product in lieu of payment up front is either touchingly naive, being taken for a ride, or both. A publisher with no real fanbase who just sticks something up on an OBS site can pull maybe 50 sales in the short term. It’s possible to make a hundred or two in net profit on that if you handle your production costs correctly, but publishers in that sales range should not be buying commissioned art in the first place. Any plausible royalty share of that income is going to pay out beneath the typical floor for commissioned art.

        For those publishers who can expect to pull multi-hundred sales numbers, they’ve got no need to offer royalty arrangements. It’s cheaper and easier for them to just buy work for hire rather than trying to guess the over-under for potential sales percentages as compared to market rates for the art.

        I’ve omitted mentioning writers in this, because the generic RPG writer is worth almost nothing. It’s an unfortunate truth that there’s such an enormous glut of moderately-talented RPG writers that they can’t even expect to find steady freelance work at a penny a word. There are some names that are worth real money to a publisher, but those are few and far between. You can hire a rank-and-file writer for the change in your couch cushions, let alone a royalty slice on a product that has a semi-confident future. If a writer wants to make a decent go at things, they need to learn how to publish their own work and build a following that values them more highly than the usual run of scribes.

        As for the $30 PDFs, I’d agree that that’s not an optimal pricing strategy, but it’s not a prima facie stupid one. The big-ticket PDF costs are usually attached to legacy IP that aren’t available in print elsewhere. They’ve got no concern over aging out of shelf space, no inventory to support, and no licensing sunsets to worry about. They can sit there for years until somebody finally decides that it’s easier to pay them $30 than try to find the PDF on the torrent sites. $15 now is better than $15 next year, but is it better than $30 next year? Of course, you lose buyers who’ll never touch it at that price, but you’ve got a lot of time to identify those buyers.

        1. “Any plausible royalty share of that income is going to pay out beneath the typical floor for commissioned art.”

          Like Dean Wesley Smith says, never offer a percentage to anyone you’re not willing to make your partner. Learn to do as much as you can yourself. Handle the rest on a one-time cost basis.

  15. On the nose again Larry,
    Only an academic with an axe to grind would think that a reader would enter a genre that way.
    “Hmmm…I think I’ll give this Science Fiction thing a whirl. Let me research who won the most Hugo awards as my starting point”. Epic Fail.
    More like;
    “Hmmm…I think I’ll give this Science Fiction thing a whirl”. Looks at alot of book covers. “Hey, thats a badass looking dude in body armor with a shot gun.” “Hot chick looks awesome in the matching body armor behind him”. “Title of the book is something about hunting monsters…evidently with guns!”. Reads blurb. “Hot damn! Regular joes like me hunting monsters, with guns and they GET PAID!?!”. Plunks down cold hard cash.
    Even more likely;
    “Hey my best buddy. I’m thinking of trying something besides mysteries/westerns/romance books. Got anything to recommend for… I don’t know, Science Fiction maybe?”. “Larry who?”. “Shoots monsters and GETS PAID you say?”. “Sounds right up my alley for some fun summer reading”. Borrows first book, buys rest of series two days later.

    1. Most likely way: “Hey, (insert reader name here)! You read this stuff! What’s good?”

      1. The best way to find good books at B&N is to ask one of their hipster wannabe employees what they like and hate. Ignore the former and buy the latter.

  16. Oh, Totally off topic but…
    The preview show for Shark Week was on the other night, and it had a bunch of clips. You know, amateur footage of people encountering sharks? Well, this one clip had a blonde girl paddling in the water completely losing her….well. There was a “dark menacing” shape in the water slowly getting closer to her and she went into panic shrieking hysterics as it slowly got closer and closer, and then….
    It was a manatee. I thought of Wendell and a typical SJW and I laughed so hard I was crying.
    Somebody more talented than I at all this new fangled interwebs ought to post it here for Wendell lovers.

      1. It came with no sound? (Could be my system – it does weird stuff during the monsoon.)

        Wendell looked like he was having fun, anyway…

  17. Correia, this is one of those pieces of shoddy journalism and poor fact checking. Get your information straight: my next door neighbor was a retired Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker, not from the Denver Broncos.

  18. This post makes an interesting contrast to what Ursula K. LeGuin recently wrote about essentially the same topic…

    Not really sure what tags are allowed/disallowed in the new format but the following is a quote:

    If you want to sell cheap and fast, as Amazon does, you have to sell big. Books written to be best sellers can be written fast, sold cheap, dumped fast: the perfect commodity for growth capitalism.

    The readability of many best sellers is much like the edibility of junk food. Agribusiness and the food packagers sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we come to think that’s what food is. Amazon uses the BS Machine to sell us sweetened fat to live on, so we begin to think that’s what literature is.

    Meh. Given the choice of living as a starving artist in garret somewhere and living next door to doctors, I think I know which choice I’d make. Besides, quite a few famous novels were written at lightning speed. Fahrenheit 451. A Clockwork Orange.

    1. Ms. LeGuin’s success as an author must be respected, but she’s full of it here. Leaving aside her rather judgmental attitude about what is and is not literature, her attack on Amazon is entirely misguided. As many of the commenters on her original article pointed out, Amazon is what allows books to avoid the “best seller” process she’s complaining about: recommendations that genuinely bring people to related material rather than just the latest hot thing, letting people search for older books in used book stores, allowing eBooks to stay “in print” essentially forever if that’s what it takes to find an audience, etc.

    2. Yeah, I totally disagree with what she said there. She says capitalism like it is a bad thing.

      “Agribusiness” also made it so that I can go to a grocery store and choose between literally hundreds of thousands of different food products, all for different tastes. A handful of big Manhattan publishing houses gate keeping makes for fewer, homogenous choices. So if you want sweetened McFat, tough luck. Now me personally, sweetened McFat pays all my bills and you guys seem to like it. 🙂

    3. It sounds to me like LeGuin is saying the same thing as Larry Correira is saying, only in a more judgmental tone of voice.

      1. Okay, I reread my reply, and I heard the…impoliteness of it. What I *should* have said was that I disagreed, and that I felt/feel that Larry *doesn’t* agree with LeGuin, and LeGuin wasn’t just being judgmental, but also insulting, patronizing, and…donkey-like. *ahem* Maybe a distinction sans difference, but I’m a touch picky about word choice, and “judgmental” didn’t/doesn’t have the same connotations of explicit nastiness that insulting etc have, in my opinion. Sorry about my initial reply. God bless. 🙂

      2. Nope. I love capitalism. I think competition makes everything better. I think Amazon making indy publishing easy has been fantastic. I don’t like gatekeepers. I don’t like a handful of editors and gate keepers controlling the market. I don’t pine for the past. I’m excited for the future.

    4. LeGuin’s Amazon sales are low because most of her sf books aren’t marked “science fiction,” and a fair number of her fantasy books aren’t marked “fantasy.” Her recent covers from certain publishers are generic in the extreme, such that you can’t tell that they are science fiction or fantasy, and many of them don’t possess plot blurbs on Amazon, either. This is all her publishers’ laziness, since nothing prevents them from improving LeGuin’s discoverability and adding blurbs and keywords; they could even put better covers on her ebooks if they were actually interested in sales.

    1. Justified.

      And isn’t Luther the ‘cop’ who just kinda conveniently forgot that homicidal psycho bitch murdered her parents? Much as I love Idris Elba, ‘Luther’ didn’t exactly impress.

      1. Hey, Alice is complicated. 🙂
        I don’t like Luther because he’s a good cop, I like the show because he’s screwed up and imperfect.
        I like Justified the best because it is American Shakespeare. Every line on that show is perfect.
        Right now, I’d probably put Longmire 3rd, just because of the atmosphere. As a westerner, I appreciate when they get it 90% right, and it just kills me when they screw up the rest. He was killed with a 45-70. Well, let’s just check the Wyoming gun registration and see who owns one of those! But besides the gun mistakes in a few and the fracking catches water on fire episode, I enjoyed it.

        1. “Wyoming gun registration”


          I can concealed carry without the hassle of a permit, tyvm. Gun Registration, ha!

          1. Yeah, I groaned when that came up. But thankfully it was in the pilot, and they got a lot better after that. I’m assuming somebody pointed out to the writers that is complete crap.

      1. If not in the letter of the law, certainly in the spirit. Raylan may not be a cop, but he is certainly law enforcement.

    2. The Andy Griffith Show – Deputy Fife was so good, he never had to carry more than one bullet at a time.

  19. Larry,

    Thank you for this. Looks like very good advice – especially the part about being prolific.

    I think a lot of people like to talk about writing a novel more than they like writing a novel. And end up like Brian the dog from Family Guy.

    If you have any recommendations about how to find someone to create cover art, that would be awesome.

      1. Thanks Richard.

        I see some really cool stuff over there.

        I’d been looking on Google but nearly all the top hits come back with boring, generic looking stuff… stock photos with a bit of light photoshopping for the most part.

        The best covers I’ve seen lately were the Czech editions of the Monster Hunter International and Grimnoir books.

    1. I think a lot of people want to have written a novel. They don’t want to do the work, they just want the bragging rights.

  20. Speaking of L.E. Modesitt and cover art and machine guns…

    Okay. I realize that those things were not put in conjunction. But there’s one cover for his otherwise excellently-illustrated Corean Chronicles that has the worst example of a firearm use that I’ve ever seen. It’s as though the artist has never seen even so much as a Hollywood movie with firearms.

    And that’s coming from someone for whom “shooting” means “archery.” Sheesh.

    On a more topical note, a few years back I came across someone talking about the huge cabal of rich authors (this was before self-pub really became viable.) I responded with astonishment and he posted a link to the 100 highest-earning authors of the prior ten years. I then pointed out that the list was of aggregate earnings over the entire decade, so you had to divide by ten to get an average yearly amount, some of the authors were dead (Shakespeare, for example), and the last person on the list was making little more than 100K a year. Which meant everyone else was making less than that.

    Thankfully, he was not immune to math. I do realize that the numbers are GIGO-vulnerable, but I would hope that most people understand that being a writer is like any other creative job—you have to put in work to get paid, and it’s not going to propel you to rockstar status. (And given the music industry’s version of accounting, thank goodness. Rock stars are likely to end up in debt without even doing anything wrong other than signing the contract.)

    1. But there’s one cover for his otherwise excellently-illustrated Corean Chronicles that has the worst example of a firearm use that I’ve ever seen.

      Maybe there are invisible bayonets in the story? Yeah, I got nothin’.

        1. Note the flying cartridges. Wrists of steel and arms like iron, I’m telling you.

          (I get sore looking at that just from an abstract PHYSICS POV.)

          1. Maybe it’s a… um… a top break, side by side, and he just reloaded really fast so that the expended cartridges are still sort of out there flying but he hasn’t brought the gun up to his shoulder again yet.

            (That’s the absolute best I can do.)

    2. I remember seeing that list. It was completely asinine, and was mostly based on things authors said in public, that they found. So that assumed 1. They found them all. 2. Those authors were accurate. 3. That represented all the authors who didn’t talk about their finances in public. So it was really stupid.

  21. This is a very interesting topic to me because I’m a hobbyist author who doesn’t make any money, and I’m not sure what I want to do about that.

    I’ve written 4 books (each one sucked slightly less than the last!). I’ve put some of it out there for free. I got fans; a few hundred strangers who are happy to read my fiction, and say very nice things to me. I’ve made absolutely no money from any of it.

    I’ve thought a lot about changing that “no money” thing, but it’s tricky.

    > put GET PAID in their mission statement

    Well, it’s on the list. However, it’s not at the top. Right now I think about it more like playing the bingo than starting my own business.

    > If you are a grown up and you have dependents, you need to be smart about building a
    > writing career.

    This is the biggest problem, isn’t it? I make nearly as much money as you do. I do it programming computers. Even if that’s only D list, I’d have to be extraordinarily successful to make it worth quieting my job. If I made 30K off a book I’d say, “Oh that’s nice,” and then buy some stock. In truth, that’s my best plan for someday writing full time. Make small chunks of change like that and then retire in 10 years rather than 19.

    My biggest barrier to success is *other success*. I should have written more when I was young and poor.

    > It is a business.

    This is another reason I’m a little hesitant about turning writing into a career. Will I also turn it into a job?

    I like programming. I honestly do. I don’t like discussions about if “objectIds” is better than “objectIDs” or if the it’s better or worse to capture the results of a Boolean operation in a local variable before it’s passed to an if test.

    How much suck do I get when I stop playing around in my current tiny sandbox, and is it worth it?


    Hah, yeah I definitely see indy authors doing that. (Pros to, but it’s less dramatic.)

    PS Powers would be my example. That dude seems to put out another book every month. It changes the equation! Making 10 grand on a book starts looking like a good deal when that’s “May” rather than “2015”.

    Still, that’s one thing I could do pretty easily. I don’t need inspiration. I work my ideas out in an outlines then I truck on down it.

    > The more you write, the more likely you are to create something that resonates with
    > fans.

    “An audience” is another thing I think I’ve got.

    However, it’s an odd niche group. I’d like to know if it’s a big niche under-served in the world at large and I’ve captured a tiny chunk of it, or if it’s a tiny niche and I’ve gotten the followers I have because I’m writing fairly unique stuff.

    Attempting to sell it would help me learn! 🙂

    Anyhow, thanks for sharing your thoughts on all of this. It’s a fun topic.

  22. So that’s where I saw the name File 770 before.

    Had an inbound link from them a while back and had NO IDEA what it was. Guess I’ve made it as an annoying conservative author.

  23. This does echo a couple of pieces of advice I heard, one from a struggling writer, “Don’t give up the day job!” And from a professional writer, “I gave up my day job” (Customs & Excise VAT, which he described as, “Like working for the Gestapo, but without a snappy black leather trench coat.” but I digress) “When I was earning enough from my writing to live on.”

    An aside about writing as a job, one comment I recall from a professional writer, who is proud of the fact he writes to make a living, the one time he wrote a book with just the pay-cheque in mind, he regretted it.

    Oh and ‘Luther’ best cop show ever??!! Ah well, everyone’s taste is different. As to Mr Clarkson, well I ‘ve mixed feelings about him, but as a rule of thumb, punching out a colleague is the moment when your new best friend is the door marked ‘Exit.’

    1. If anything you could argue that the BBC actually treated him much more leniently then most employers would: If I punched a coworker, I doubt my bosses would be desperately trying to hire me back in a slightly different role almost immediately.

  24. I have a bit of a quandary I wonder if anyone can address. I write fiction, yes, but I also write nonfiction. I am currently paid for the nonfiction – not enough to quit my day job, but enough to make it worthwhile.

    This has the benefits of keeping me writing every day, even when I feel like it’s a monumental task (it’s a job, after all), easing my financial stress ever so slightly, keeping me writing every day, getting my name in front of 10s of 1000s, and finally, keeping me writing every day.

    The drawback is that getting my fiction done has gotten a lot harder – and fiction is already harder than nonfiction. Now I spit out 500-1000 words of “news” per day. That’s awesome for staying sharp, but I work full time and, on my days off from the day job, play the role of single dad to three.

    Any suggestions on how to balance this better to be able to write more fiction? Coherently, I mean lol. I suppose I could go for the “3 day energy drink binge” solution a couple times a month.

  25. The advice to only do something for free if it’s going to help get you paid down the road… I wonder how many people besides me started buying your books because of this blog? I wonder how many people realize this blog IS an advertisement for both you and your work?

  26. In terms of growing a fan base, how do you balance not alienating current fans with attracting new fans who passed on previous works? Eg, I never would have found Monster Hunter without chancing on Hard Magic.

    1. I wrote Hard Magic after MHV, specifically because I didn’t want to get pigeon holed as just the monster guy the rest of my career. I wanted to show my fans that I could do different things. It paid off long term.

      1. I’ll say it paid off! And now you’re putting out another line of highly addictive narcotic literary products? You, sir, are a bad, bad man. ;-P Oh, on an entirely unrelated note…are we going to see any new Hard Magic books within the next couple years? I’m starting to scare people, with all the withdrawal tremors I’m suffering from. 😀 :'(

        God bless you and yours! 😉

  27. Larry, two things to think about in the stats here: (1) what are the raw numbers of authors today vs twenty years ago? I would not be surprised if the number of authors, including self-published, has increased by a factor of 5x – 10x in that time due to the technology, in which case the 20% vs 5% figure is misleading since there could be an equal or higher total of people making money writing now. (2) As for the distribution of wealth, are you familiar with the term “Power Law Distribution?” It applies to many things, including for example the market capitalization of companies. Not really surprising that it would apply to authors. But of course neither of those fit the current zeitgeist as does a “rich getting richer” narrative.

  28. I have a few friends who have tried to write, didn’t become JK at the first time at bat, and gave up. Similar to those who are “artists” but never realized it is a job.

    It is a job. I write a bit on the side, but for me it is a hobby. It is a hobby, and something that part of me “needs” to do. The thing I see at classes around here is a lot of people want to write, but not really write. They want to get paid to do nothing. It isn’t a job, it isn’t a hobby, it is a prestige thing.

  29. Hmm … seems to me that if you want to write literary fiction (high quality work that doesn’t appeal to the common folk), you ought to subsidize it with something else — perhaps a career as a writing teacher, a freelance commercial writer, or even writing popular fiction.

  30. Personally, I’m not a writer, so maybe my opinion doesn’t exactly matter. Still, as a reader, I am kind of undecided about this.

    On the one hand, I’ve read the first two MHI books, and I liked them a lot. I’ve also read a bunch of space-opera MilSF, and again, it was fun. But on the other hand, nothing that I’ve read in these books really stuck with me; I don’t feel the urge to go back and re-read them. By contrast, I find myself re-reading other books, such as Soon, I will be Invincible, Constellation Games, The Black Company series, Anathem, and pretty much anything by Gaiman and Pratchett. It’s true, I enjoyed the fast-paced action SF, but I didn’t love it the way I love all these other books.

    I can’t speak for everyone else, of course, but I feel like my personal world would be a little poorer if SF writers only wrote stuff that was explicitly designed to sell as quickly as possible. I think there’s room in the world for writers who write because they actually have something to say.

    I agree that, sometimes, the stuff that these writers have to say is utterly boring (hi, Neal Stephenson !). At other times, the writers have an interesting idea, but simply aren’t any good at writing. But, at other times, it works out brilliantly, and you end up with a story that affects you deeply (oddly enough, Neal Stephenson can actually do this too, sometimes).

    I guess what I’m saying is… Larry Correira’s advice is good, it makes sense, but if people like Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett (and Neal Stephenson, on his good days) followed that advice, we the readers would all be screwed. I don’t really know how to reconcile these two statements.

    1. Well, the authors you reference do (did) make a living from their writing, so I’m going to dismiss them here.

      You can make a living by not going to the mass market – but you must be the absolute best at what you write. (Which only comes after long practice, which is what everyone is telling you.) You have to fill a VERY big slice of your niche. (There are buggy whip makers who probably make more than Larry does – maybe as many as three.)

      There is room out there in the writing field for almost anything, but some things are just plain going to have more customers. There is a market for homosexual dinosaur revenge fantasy – maybe even enough to make a living off of it. (The main problems with the one we pick on all the time is that it wasn’t well-written homosexual dinosaur revenge fantasy – and didn’t belong to THIS genre.)

    2. I suspect you’re misreading LC’s advice. (Could be wrong) There’s nothing in his advice, at least in this section, that suggests avoiding saying something. He does advise writing something that people enjoy reading. Now, there’s a real trade-off there – in that writing something entertaining is hard enough – so sometimes I see authors who are perfectly capable of writing something entertaining go off into the weeds and write something I just can’t finish when they try to make a statement.

      Still, most of my favorite stories do both. My perspective is that a story that says something I won’t read is worthless, a story that entertains me is nice, and a story that does both is awesome. The problem is that doing both is really hard. Banks and Pratchett could do that reliably [Well, almost, Feersum Endjin annoyed me]. Stross and Scalzi – not as much. And I really like Stross’s writing. Just not all of it. There’s sometimes an emphasis on realism that forecloses the possibility of awe-inspiring stuff. I tend to not finish those stories.

      I’d reconcile those statements (if I had the discipline, time, and talent, and sheer-pig-headedness to be a writer) by focusing on writing entertaining stuff. And by writing a lot of it. And trying out new things. And junking stuff that didn’t work, rapidly. Once I could write, somewhat reliably, something people liked reading, I’d hopefully have enough income to focus on writing full-time. [Which allows for a lot more time] Then, I’d pad the income cushion a bit and then start making entertaining statements. Which is, basically, what Pratchett did.

      I suspect that LC’s irritation is towards people advising new authors to do something ‘significant’ instead of something that’ll help them make a living writing. I think that trying for significance before you can do something entertaining is a mistake because you will, at best, reach 3 readers, most of them related to you.

      1. @Erwin:
        Yeah, I agree with pretty much everything you said. However, I interpreted (perhaps, misinterpreted) LC’s advice as saying, “You know that one story that burns in your mind like white-hot fire ? The story that you have been yearning to set down on paper ? Well, no one wants to read it, so don’t waste your time, and write some more laser gun action scenes, instead. You’ll make bank, trust me”.

        The thing is, that advice is actually totally compatible with what you said. Not everyone can be a Pratchett or a Gaiman or a Grossman (either one). Most people who try, will fail. But I feel that if we start discouraging people from even trying, then there’s a chance there won’t be another Pratchett for a very long time.

        There’s sometimes an emphasis on realism that forecloses the possibility of awe-inspiring stuff.

        I disagree, depending on what you mean by “awe-inspiring”. For example, C.J.Cherryh’s Alliance-Union books are quite realistic (yes, they have FTL, but it’s realistic FTL), and yet absolutely awe-inspiring; Cyteeen in particular is downright frightening, because of what it does to your mind. Peter Watts’s stuff, especially Blindsight, is likewise frightening, albeit for a totally different reason. Michael Flynn’s Firestar is realistic by explicit design (though, as it becomes clear in later books, he knows very little about how computers work), and yet awe-inspiring in an uplifting, hopeful way.

        All of these books inspire awe because of how personal they are. They get inside your head, and either drag you down into the abyss, or raise you up to the stars (if you forgive my waxing poetic for a moment), as you stand in awe watching the characters overcome impossible challenges (or, sometimes, succumb to them). But, if by “awe-inspiring” you mean something like, “they get to blow up suns !”, then yeah, space opera stuff is definitely more spectacular. My problem with it is that books are not movies, blowing up suns is cheap…

        1. I should add that IMO Scalzi isn’t all bad (*), I liked the first two Old Man’s War books. Scalzi apparently phoned in the third book, but hey, they can’t all be winners…

          (*) I’m referring strictly to his fiction, and not to his political opinions — which are, indeed, all bad.

          1. I don’t care about scalzi”s opinions. Just, ergh, Redshirts. Really not my cuppa tea.

            Nah. I am thinking of Stross’s merchant princes stuff. Well realized world. Perfectly realistic heroine with ability to shift worlds. Gritty feudal system. Perfectly realistic grubby, nasty, inbred feudals. Depressing combat. Couldn’t finish series, even pre Amazon.

            Watts is a good example of tradeoffs. Blindsight was awesome. Echopraxia much less so.

        2. I disagree, depending on what you mean by “awe-inspiring”.

          I think different people have different views of what’s ‘awe-inspiring.’ As an example, I’m not really all that into heavy-duty milSF/F. My reaction to battle scenes that go on for more than a couple of pages is often an eyeroll accompanied by “yes yes yes, they fight, got it,” then skimming to the end to see who wins and if anyone important dies. I’m probably an outlier here in that, but out in the rest of the world, not so much, as there’s clearly a market for F/SF that doesn’t have long (however well-crafted) battle scenes.

          No author or book is going to be a hit with everyone. Some people will say “wow, that was great” and some will say “meh, boring.” I think the point Larry is making is that you have to write what a big chunk of people find awe-inspiring (or even just enjoyable), not what you think they ought to see that way.

          As an example — romance novels. To me, they’re boring tripe, but they have a huge share of the book-buying market, so a lot of people disagree with me. Now, my brother thinks they’re boring tripe too, but for the past ten years or so he (and I hope to hell he’s not reading this) has been writing a ‘romance novel.’ I put the term in quotes because my mother and I periodically get regaled with descriptions of scenes from it and it’s really just his version of a romance novel. The characters aren’t really romance novel characters (they’re better, to his way of thinking), and the whole thing is jammed full of references to things that he finds interesting, but that the vast majority of his target audience is never going to have heard of. He’s writing for himself, not for his (theoretical) readers, much though he might prefer to think he’s trying to improve the genre.

          Basically, you can go ahead and write what you love, but if not enough readers love it too (or you can’t get it in front of their eyeballs for some reason), then you’re not going to GET PAID.

          1. I just have to reply to say that the way you read space battles is exactly the way I do–except that I usually miss few character deaths in my skimming, and then three sequels down the road find myself saying, “Wait a sec, he DIED??? When did that happen?”

          2. Well, first he should get it done. Then he can think about finetuning. But remember, if your brother were ever to be unable to stay interested long enough to finish his book, obviously it wouldn’t matter whether anybody else were interested. 🙂

            Also, there are a surprising number of romance readers who are interested in weird stuff. If he can market it to them and make it accessible enough to others, it can be awesome.

        3. I never said that. In fact, my often given advice is the exact opposite. Write what you are enthusiastic to write, because your enthusiasm is contagious. If you are having fun writing it, then that will come through the page, and the reader will have more fun.

          1. As a consumer only, I tend to agree. When the author is clearly writing the book out of a feeling of obligation as opposed to a desire to tell that story (whether the written contract with the publisher, or the tacit agreement with the fans to continue a series they really have lost interest in concluding and moved on to other things) it does seem to bleed through onto the page.

    3. Yeah, I don’t know what advice of mine you’re complaining about there. Because Gaiman, Pratchett, and Stephenson all worked their asses off and wrote lots of books. I never said write like me. There isn’t one way to entertain. I said find an audience for your stuff and give that audience what they want to read. Those authors all did that and sold tons and tons of books.

  31. Hey, Larry. I appreciate all the advice and insight you freely offer aspiring writers on your website. It’s inspiring without the dishonesty I see elsewhere of pretending that if you wish hard enough to have a successful writing career, it will come as your right. It’s not that simple!

    Anyway, I wanted to pick you up on your article about the decline on author earnings. I agree with your advice, but hopefully I can make the stats appear less bleak for your readers by pointing out their source.

    The report referred to by the BBC was carried out for the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, a UK trade body whose function is to hunt out hard-to-find secondary royalties that are due to copyright holders but aren’t being paid. The report describes its methodology as sending surveys to trade bodies such as the National Union of Journalists, Writers Guild of Great Britain as well as the Society of Authors. The report doesn’t give a breakdown of the industry sector of the respondents but looking at the list of bodies surveyed, the individuals filling in the survey seem to be primarily journalists and scriptwriters.

    Now, these are fine people, and the unions who represent them may well be doing a great job on their behalf, but the way the news media has phrased its coverage usually states the report is about authors, which most people will consider to mean writers of books. Going solely by the list of surveyed organizations, the proportion of respondents who are book writers is small, and I would guess that the proportion whose writing income has always been primarily through self-published novels is negligible.

    Seems to me this is an example of the established media parroting what the established publishing industry says without applying even rudimentary journalistic standards. The Guardian did exactly the same in their write up of this report.

    I don’t believe it, though. No one has solid numbers on the assertion I’m about to make, but having experienced the upper reaches of the Amazon science fiction bestseller charts firsthand recently, I am convinced that both average author earnings and unit sales for adult science fiction and fantasy are sharply up over the past few years. Dig into any report that tells you otherwise and you always find it is undercounting Baen Books, Black Library (which is very popular in the UK), self-published authors, and 47 North (Amazon’s own genre imprint). In other words, the reports that say sales are down are written by the publishers who are hemorrhaging readers and revenue to those they regard as the industry ‘outsiders’. As an outsider myself, every time I see one of these mournful insider reports, I have to smile, because all they do is boost my confidence in the amount I’m going to GET PAID.

    1. Well, that is good news. I sure hope your take is the right one. I’m an optimistic sort of guy. 🙂

      1. I’d guess that the total gross revenues for sf&f are decreasing – there is just too much supply.

        However, I’d also guess that the total revenues for authors are increasing.

        Publishers appear to be losing market share but making money.

        That is about what you’d expect from the efficiencies occasioned by going to electronic distribution. To put it another way, it sucks to be a distributor or bookstore.

        I kind of wonder about the current tipping points between traditional publishing and indie publishing. At what volume, for typical contract terms, and typical ebook/paper sales, does traditional publishing make more sense than indie?

        1. Also, in terms of getting paid, have you ever thought of just having a section at the top of your page listing the most recent 2-3 publications? It was actually kinda hard to figure out that your earc was already available using your website. Might be a mobile thing.

        2. “At what volume, for typical contract terms, and typical ebook/paper sales, does traditional publishing make more sense than indie?”

          We can actually take a stab at figuring this out.

          Consider Skin Game by League of Legends enthusiast and all-around cool customer Jim Butcher. The Kindle version is currently $8. Most tradipub contracts give authors 25% of net on ebook sales, which actually ends up being 12.5% after Amazon and the publisher take their cuts. This arrangement earns the author $1 on every sale (Jim may very well earn more, but for argument’s sake, let’s stick with the $1 figure).

          Indie authors can price their ebooks however they want, but Amazon’s data indicate that the sweet spot for most novel-length ebooks is $3-$8.

          Again, to keep things simple, let’s posit an indie ebook priced at $4. This price is within the realm of highest sales volume and qualifies for Amazon’s 70% royalty rate. The indie author earns roughly $3 on each sale.

          So the simple answer to ‘At what volume of ebook sales does traditional publishing make more sense than indie?’ is ‘Triple what you can sell on your own.’

          But the simple answer is deceptive. Things get more complex when you factor in paper sales. All else being equal, indie has an advantage in ebooks because ebooks sell more copies at lower prices. Tradpub has a major edge in paper distribution, but paper royalties are lower than ebook royalties.

          It would take up too much space to show my work, but to sum up, signing with a traditional publisher doesn’t start to make financial sense until you can reasonably expect 5.6x higher sales volume than you’d get on your own.

          That’s not to explicitly advocate for any one path. Only you can determine the best way for you. Examine your situation, figure out your goals, and do as much research as you can to make an informed decision.

    2. Bear with me here; this may seem tangential.

      There was a recent article on Cracked (which, despite being a humour site, is better at journalism than most journalists) where they spoke to an author who writes… well, basically women’s wank material.

      What struck me about the author’s points was how similar they are to what Larry advocates. Be prolific, have a long tail for back sales, find your target market and please them, market yourself. Work the Amazon ratings and keywords system. This guy isn’t earning in the same region as Larry, but he’s making a living and he states that he enjoys being able to write. He’s not likely to come up for a Hugo anytime soon, werewolves notwithstanding, but he’s *getting paid*. And he’s probably not showing up on any publishers’ figures.

      A link in case anyone wants to check out the article:
      (with preview, since it’s shortened and some people are paranoid)

  32. Good article. Because I enjoyed the article and liked the fact that your first book from back in 2009 is bringing in enough royalties to pay your mortgage, I just clicked your link and bought it from Amazon. Now you can put another beer in the fridge on me. 🙂

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