Making a Living from Writing

I have been a subscriber to Randy Ingermanson’s Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine for several years now and in the most recent issue he has published an article based on sales figures for books.

In his article Randy points out (as I have discovered time and again over the past 20 odd years) most writers do not make a living from writing books. He also points out that the only way to make a living writing is to write books that you know you can market, and then to market them!
This is the fundamental problem I have with my novel Alexandra, it does not fit into any easily definable market segment. There is too much talking (and thinking in the case of Kevin) for it to be a erotic novel. And there are too many sex scenes in it for it to be a main stream novel. For those of you who think there may be another fundamental reason that my novel did not sell – I know the book is good because since I posted it in full on my web site I get a steady stream(trickle) of e-mails and comments on my blog from people who like it.
When I wrote Alexandra I had no concept of marketing books, it just came out the way it came out. But now I am trying to write books that are more marketable. I still want to say the things I want to say. I am just trying to say them in a format that more people want to read.
Having said that my one attempt at writing a commercial erotic novel (A Job in the Country) has come to a halt. However I did start it nearly 3 years ago and it has been over 2 years since I did any serious writing on it. I keep saying I must finish it some time(and I must finish it some time), but whenever I try I just can not get back into the story.

Another way to market books, or indeed any product, is to create your own market segment. So I am also trying to do that; to build up the brand of “Declan Stanley – Writer of Literary Erotica“; to create my own market segment. Of course the problem with this is that they tend to be very small market segments :-)
I am trying to use what I have leaned from The Blog Profits Blueprint to make my blog into a source of income, so that I can support myself through my writing. When even a successful, award winning author says that it is all up to the individual author to market and sell their own books, then I once again ask myself what exactly do I need a traditional publisher for?
Here is the full text of Randy’s article for those who don’t subscribe to his newsletter (the formatting is mine as it was a text Email):

Those Brutal Numbers

In the last few months, it seems like everybody has been quoting the same set of horrifying numbers, a group of sales figures for books in the year 2004.
Why 2004? Because that is the most recent year for which reasonably accurate statistics are available. Yes, really. The book industry is highly computerized, and you might think that current sales numbers should be readily available to anyone who asks for them.
Think again, Virginia. Getting accurate sales numbers from a publisher is harder than getting a reflection from a vampire. So that’s why nobody knows last year’s numbers, or even the year before last. What surprises me is that the numbers for 2004 are available.
Here are some of those brutal numbers:

  • In 2004, about 1.2 million books were in print.
  • 80% of those books sold fewer than 100 copies.
  • 98% sold fewer than 5000 copies.
  • Only a few hundred books sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • About 10 books sold over a million copies.

A little scary, no? Makes you want to go into some safe, surefire business, such as lion-taming or tornado-chasing.
The numbers aren’t quite as bad as they look.
One fact to remember is that a lot of those books were self-published by authors who couldn’t find a royalty-paying publisher. So they paid somebody to print up a bunch of copies that wound up in the garage where they will mold in peace for all eternity. Self-pubbed books account for many of those eighty-percenters that sold under 100 copies.
You should also remember that not all of those 1.2 million books were actually published in 2004. In recent years, the number of books published per year has been around 160,000 to 180,000.
Once a book gets published, it stays in print for several years. Towards the end of its life, a book that once sold well may be selling only a few dozen copies per year. That accounts for the rest of those books that sold under 100 copies.
Despite those two caveats, if you fiddle around with those numbers, you can see that only a bit more than 10% of the books published in any given year will sell over 5000 copies.
Feeling better now? I didn’t think so.
Any way you slice those numbers, they’re bad news. Horrible news, in fact. If you can figure out how to make a living by writing books that only sell 5000 copies apiece, then you need to get a life, a wife, a mortgage, a car, and a few other amenities such as shoes.
As a matter of fact, most writers don’t make a living writing books. An editor friend of mine recently told me another horrifying statistic. Walk into any bookstore, look around at all the books there, and imagine their authors are all crammed into the store. Now guess how many of those authors earn their living writing books.
Go ahead and think about that for a second before you read on. Make a guess. How many authors earn a living writing books?
The answer is about one percent. That’s not “one percent of all the authors who write a book.” That’s “one percent of authors who get published by royalty-paying publishers and have their books sold in regular stores.” A large percentage of all authors these days are actually self-published authors, who don’t get royalties and don’t get their books in regular stores. That means that substantially less than one percent of all authors make a living writing books.
A few authors, of course, do immensely well. But most authors don’t.
Those are the brutal numbers, and I don’t think they’ll change anytime soon.
What’s an author to do (other than go flush your head down the toilet)?
If those numbers demoralize you enough that you decide to quit writing, then you probably should. If you are writing for the money, then you’re like Humphrey Bogart, who claimed that he went to Casablanca “for the waters.” In a word, you’ve been misinformed.
But if writing is in your blood, then you can’t quit. If you’re one of those wretches who would write even if they didn’t pay you, then you’re in exactly the right field.
You may still be thinking that there’s got to be a way out. All you have to do is get published by one of the big players, right? Surely those big publishers are going to market your book effectively, won’t they?
Well, possibly — but probably not. Remember that big publishers are big because they publish a lot of books. The marketing and publicity folks at those publishers typically have far more on their plate than anybody could handle. (If you don’t believe me, talk to these people. They are way overworked and anything you can do to lighten their load will make you a hero.)
The truth is that even if your book gets published at the biggest of the big publishers, it likely won’t get the push it deserves because there isn’t enough money, enough time, or enough workers to do the job.
It’s the same story at mid-size publishers, at small publishers, and at tiny publishers. From what I can see, every publisher in the world overworks and underpays its employees. Vastly.
The problem really boils down to the following two facts:

  • A book will not succeed without good marketing.
  • Publishers put most all of their marketing efforts behind the successful books.

If you put those facts together, you’ll immediately see that your book will only succeed if it begins life with a successful marketing plan that you create and implement. As soon as your marketing plan starts to succeed, your publisher will start to put time, energy, and money behind it. Then your book has a chance to really take off.
So it’s back to that question: What’s an author to do?
An agent friend of mine recently reminded me of something I told her a few years ago. I barely remember saying it, but she is quite positive that I told her once at a writing conference: “I hate marketing. I’m no good at marketing. I don’t want to market my books.”
Guess what? I’ve changed my tune — so much so that I can hardly remember saying that. These days, the truth is that I like marketing. The fact is that I’m good at marketing. And I most definitely want to market my books. Matter of fact, the only books I would consider writing these days are ones that I know how to market effectively.
Attitude is everything. You can decide that you hate marketing and that you won’t do it and that you prefer to write books in the 99% that sell poorly. Or you can choose to like marketing and commit to learning all you can about it. It’s really up to you.
You can choose your attitude to marketing. You can change it if you’ve had the wrong attitude. You get to decide.
My challenge this month is very simple: I dare you to decide that you’re going to get good at marketing. I dare you. You don’t have to take any particular action yet. All I’m daring you to do is to commit yourself to a marketing mentality. Commit to only writing books that you intend to market the heck out of. Commit to success in your writing.
Or you can always go tame lions. It’s your choice.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 9000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.

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