top of page

Can I Make a Living as a Novelist or Short Story Writer? Probably Not.

Are you an author? Have you written and published a novel, a collection of short stories, a book of poems, or any other type of book? If so, congratulations! There’s nothing quite as cool as seeing your work in book form. You’ve busted your butt for months or years, edited, revised, rewritten, workshopped, thrown away whole chapters, perhaps entire manuscripts, and you’ve finally succeeded in getting your book published.

The entire time you were doing all this, somewhere in the back of your mind you probably thought, Hmm, I hope this baby of mine becomes a bestseller. I hope Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts plays the lead role in the movie they make based on my novel. I can’t wait to collect the millions of dollars in not only the advance but in the royalties that follow once my sales meet that magic number of recouping the advance for the publisher.

If that’s not you, at least a little bit, you’re lying to yourself. Most of us have that dream. For a very select few, it becomes reality. But here’s a truth we all (or most of us) must eventually face: It ain’t gonna happen. It’s just not.

"You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you."

--Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing

According to the Authors Guild’s “2018 Author Income Survey, the largest survey of writing-related earnings by American authors ever conducted finds incomes falling to historic lows to a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009.” There are many reasons for this, including Amazon getting into the self-publishing game (as well as other, similar offerings by smaller publishers), but the reality is that whether you’re self-published, indie-published, or traditionally published, chances are that you’re not going to be supporting yourself on book income alone.

Most writers I know teach either in MFA programs, at the college level, or in public and private schools from primary all the way up through high school. I worked in marketing and advertising for 17 years, and there were plenty of copywriters I worked with who weren’t thrilled to be doing what they were doing. Alas, the pay was better than other options available to them, and I did the same by being a project manager. While in the past the profession of writing may have been one of prestige and perhaps provide an income above the poverty level, those days seem long gone for most writers.

Who gets hit the worst? Writers of literary fiction. According to the same Author’s Guild study, “Literary writers experienced the biggest decline (down 27% in four years) in amount they earned from book-related income, followed by general nonfiction (down 8%).” Now, obviously traditional media has changed. It changes every year. There are less newspapers around the country. There are less magazines around the country. Or, rather, they’re more likely to be online now versus in print, and so while there are probably a lot more opportunities to get published, there aren’t as many opportunities to get paid for publishing as there used to be.

Here are some statistics from the Author’s Guild study that show how bleak it has become for writers:

  • Just 57% of full-time published authors derived 100% of their individual income from writing-related work in 2017” (and that’s not from book advances or royalties but rather from teaching, ghostwriting, and other writing-related activities

  • Only 21% of full-time published authors derived 100% of their individual income from book-related income

  • The number of full-time newspaper and magazine journalists has declined by more than 60% since 1990 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics

  • Authors on average spend 7.5 hours every week on marketing and promoting their books, an increase of 14% (genre writers up 39%) over the past five years; yet only 8% of all published authors realized a significant increase in book-related income

  • Increased competition: Bowker reports more than 1,000,000 books were published in the U.S. in 2017 (up from 300,000 in 2009); two-thirds of those books are self-published

  • Royalties are down for most authors by 11% compared to 2013 data. We hear many complaints from authors, even those with best-selling books, that they are receiving little to no royalties

  • The Authors Guild’s 2018 Author Income Survey, the largest survey of writing-related earnings by American authors ever conducted finds incomes falling to historic lows to a median of $6,080 in 2017, down 42 percent from 2009

  • Amazon controls approximately 85% of the self-published market and so most self-published authors have no options other than to accept Amazon’s non-negotiable terms

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster."

--Isaac Asimov

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? It does. I have to admit, when I was younger, growing up and wanting to be a writer, all I thought about was how influential the books I read (mostly novels) were on my life, and how writing those same types of books—books that would influence people and motivate them to do whatever—was all I wanted to do. I wanted to be Jack Kerouac. I wanted to be Norman Mailer. I wanted to be Dostoevsky and Capote and Hemingway and John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy. These were my heroes. These were writers I admired. That’s not to say I didn’t love female writers—I did. Writers like Flannery O’Connor and Toni Morrison, Joan Didion and Louise Erdrich and Alice Walker, I hold their books as prized possessions. Their words, their stories, they mean so much to me that they consume my every waking thought—when I’m not working, or rather, when I’m not “hustling.”

What I mean is, to be a writer these days, you can’t put all your money on being the next J.K. Rowling or John Grisham, Dan Brown or Stephen King. Sure, there are going to be literary outliers out there that do make their authors enough money on just one book or books that they’ll never have to work again if they play their finances right. It happens. Colleen Hoover (It Ends with Us; Verity; Ugly Love, and other books) and Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing) are two that come to mind, at least in 2022. Hoover actually self-published until she got picked up by a publishing house. Delia Owens’s book has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 168 weeks and counting, and has sold over 15 million copies. Reese Witherspoon produced the film adaptation. So, these things happen. But like I said, they’re the anomaly. The rest of us have to hustle.

So, what do I mean when I say that you have to hustle to make a living as a writer? Well, like I mentioned above, it’s more likely than not that you’ll have to have another occupation to supplement whatever you’re making publishing your books, whether traditionally or by self-publishing. Chances are you’ll be a teacher or professor of creative writing or an adjunct professor, though being an adjunct professor is nearly impossible these days because of what’s happened to the way colleges and universities treat adjuncts. To make a living these days, adjuncts have to teach more classes than they should realistically be expected to teach. According to Inside Higher Ed, 1/3 of adjunct professors make less than $25,000 a year. That’s “below the federal poverty guideline for a family of four.” It’s a disgrace.

Besides teaching, writers have to hustle in other ways. For years, I was in marketing and advertising. I was publishing short stories, and had a novel published by an indie press, but I was working somewhere between 40-60 hours a week for my day job. I’d write at night and on the weekends. For a period of time, I would wake up at 3 a.m. and write until I had to get ready for work. It was exhausting. But I did it because I’m a writer. I can’t not write. It’s just not in my genes.

“Dreams do come true, if only we wish hard enough. You can have anything in life if you will sacrifice everything else for it.”

J.M. Barrie, Peter Pan

I know writers that are copywriters. I know writers that are retired nurses and college deans. I know writers that hold a variety of corporate jobs, or that have writing-related gigs like editing, proofreading, teaching online courses, working in bookstores, and a dozen other things. We hustle. We do what we have to do in order to continue writing, because that’s what we do. That’s who we are. After 17 years working in corporate America, I’m jumping into it full-throttle. Do I think I’m going to be the next James Patterson? The next Daniel Silva or Dennis Lehane? Nope. I don’t. Not even close. But it doesn’t matter. I’m going to do what I have to do to continue pursuing my dream, which is this: to write.

To write the best fiction I can, and hope that I get another book published, and then another one after that, and on and on. That’s it. It’d be nice to make enough money to not have to do anything else, but the chances of that happening are pretty slim, and I know it. It’s just the way it is.

If it’s any consolation to you, dear writer with lofty dreams of success, financial, critical, or otherwise, consider this:

  • H.P. Lovecraft was broke all his life

  • Franz Kafka was an insurance clerk who never knew his work would become famous

  • Edgar Allen Poe died poor, and was an extreme alcoholic

  • Herman Melville had success early on, but the author of Moby Dick died relatively poor, and with his books out of print

  • Zora Neale Hurston died of heart disease in the St. Lucie County Welfare Home

  • It’s said Cormac McCarthy was so poor early on in his career that he couldn’t afford toothpaste

If you’re a writer, you understand how easy it is to struggle. You get that the thing you love to do is probably considered a “hobby” by a high percentage of your inner circle. You know that even when you do get published, the high lasts for a relatively short period of time. But that’s okay. Writing is a passion. It’s a craft that must be learned. It’s what we love to do, and dammit if we’re going to stop doing it just because we’re not one of the lucky ones. Because you can look at it another way as well. We are lucky. We get to do what we want, which is to write. And that, my fellow writer, is what we should cherish—the process. Everything else is just gravy.

Buy my Novel:


Rated 0 out of 5 stars.
No ratings yet

Add a rating
bottom of page