It is not easy to build an online business that runs mostly on passive income, that sells mostly online courses and products in the non-fiction, “here’s a solution to your problem,” self-help space.
But at times, it feels infinitely harder to build an online business in fiction. At least with non-fiction, you can sell a solution. With fiction, you’re selling your ideas, your characters, your story—and hell, there are a lot of other people selling that too! It isn’t easy to gain traction. And books, like many other services, suffer from the network effect—they are more valuable the more people are experiencing them.
This year, I finally just kind of abandoned the idea of doing fiction full-time any time soon, and it made me a lot happier almost immediately! Here’s why:
- I suddenly felt like I could experiment again – I didn’t have to “follow the trend” or write novels because they sell better or write in genre X because it sells better. I got to choose projects that were fun and fulfilling instead of projects that made the most sense strategically.
- I was able to see new solutions for cash flow – Once I stopped looking at how to make the fiction numbers “work,” I was able to see a lot of other opportunities for cash flow that were (quite frankly) a lot easier to pursue, execute, and reap the benefits from. These projects are all still creative and fulfilling, but get me to point B much faster than fiction will. That gives me time to enjoy fiction and let the process unfold at its own pace.
- I got to ease up on the pressure to be an “author” or “writer” and could instead focus on the looser term of “creator” – fiction and storytelling is not a writing business. There are dozens of formats through which you can tell a story, and writing is just one of them. I always knew that I wanted to someday work in television, but this simple idea had me considering less traditional storytelling mediums, like digital, canvas, education, and more.
I don’t know what the future of books looks like, but I do know this—the book industry cannot keep growing forever and ever. Some authors are going to continue to earn big, some are going to settle into mid-list, and many, even those who do everything right, are going to remain niche, continuously searching for their core of True Fans, making a modest, part-time living that pays a couple of the bills each month. Most others will give up or write as a hobby.
I don’t think it’s realistic for most fiction writers to expect to be able to go full-time in a year or two. Most (especially those starting part-time) should look at closer to 10 years, given that they are already decent writers, that they are willing to dive deep into craft, that they want to learn how to package and market their books, that they are going to sit down every day and actually create, and that they can somehow manage their money and energy until they have a solid backlist and solid base of fans willing to buy that backlist.
So why put pressure on yourself to make this fiction thing happen right now? Here are a few observations for why I don’t think it’s healthy:
It Takes About 10,000 True Fans To Make a Consistent, Full-Time Living Writing Fiction
It’s simple math.
Even if you could put out 2 new novels a year (extremely hard),
And even if you had a decent backlist of titles (extremely time consuming),
And even if you had killer covers, world-class marketing, and a strong understanding of email list-building (extremely unlikely),
You would still need 10,000 True Fans (as defined by Kevin Kelly) who buy every single novel you write at $3.99 per novel with ~$2.70 in royalties per book to make a modest middle-class income of $54,000 every single year. This is before sales of your backlist, yes, and before any potential word-of-mouth or new audience, yes, but it’s also before:
- business expenses like advertising, marketing, software, website hosting, book design, and more
- churn on your list of True Fans (because even True Fans don’t last forever)
- industry changes, market trend changes, format changes, Amazon KDP changes, and so on
You can slice the pie any way and do some weird voodoo Amazon algorithm magic on it, but if we’re talking long-term, 20 years into the future, “I’m going to be a career author” money, there’s no way around the 10,000 True Fans rule that I see. Books are cheap and always will be, and media in ALL forms is getting cheaper to both produce and acquire every single day. To weather the next five years in the marketplace, to feel secure, you need 10,000 true fans. In five years, that number might double or triple, even—we really have no clue!
10,000 True Fans is incredibly hard to find and nurture. Hell, it’s hard enough to get 10,000 people on an email list—and that is not a true count of your True Fans. You could spend a lifetime finding those 10,000 True Fans—what do you want to do to make up that money gap in the meantime?
Most Successful Fiction Authors Without 10,000 True Fans Have Either a Successful Spouse, a Successful Past Career, or a Successful Side Hustle
I know there are people who will point out the one single mom with five kids who is pulling 7-figures as an indie author, so let me just state up front that this is a generalization—but one that’s true for about 99% of indie authors.
Most indie authors need to build up a base of fans and backlist before making any real money at fiction. This requires someone or something else to bankroll them for a time.
Many of the authors doing this have a spouse who works full-time, who can provide a more stable income for the family while he or she experiments on the side. That’s not to say this type of indie author doesn’t earn money—maybe even tons of money—it just means that there is a safety net + initial family investment that helps the author get started… and a way to weather a storm should the market shift or should the author’s books suddenly plummet off the bestseller list.
Another portion of indie authors have a successful past career that has given them both money and time to play with so they can pursue writing. Writing and packaging books may even come easily to them—often, these people are serial entrepreneurs who already have a successful venture or two under their belts.
The rest have a side hustle, which can really be anything. It could be an actual job at a company that requires them to show up a few days a week, or it could be a secondary skill they’ve developed and can use as a freelancer. Often, it’s a skill that is related to writing, like editing, copywriting, marketing, design, web, video, audio, teaching, or something else. It doesn’t have to be though. I know some writers who double as artists or musicians or entrepreneurs. And it’s perfectly fine to earn some of your money that way.
I’m going to admit that I have experienced all three of these states. When I started writing fiction “full-time,” I had just left a cushy six-figure job. I had about $80,000 in savings and credit that I could live off of as I struggled along with writing. Before that, while I was still working full-time, I was already dabbling as an indie author and publishing a first novel, which I poured nearly $22,000 into (stupid, I know). The point is, the money was flowing bountifully and allowed me to make several costly mistakes without really even batting an eye—all entirely because I had “done well” in a previous lifetime.
Eventually, of course, that gravy boat ended. I had to start freelancing. I tried tons of different things, mostly involving copywriting, even taking full-time contract positions for three months at a time in addition to hourly freelance work. My work ebbed and flowed—sometimes I was working on fiction for months, sometimes I was more distracted by freelance stuff and paying the bills. This lifestyle is fine too, though probably my least favorite of the three for the obvious reasons!
Now, I’ve been able to ease up on freelancing, but only because I recently got engaged. My fiance has a good job and is able and willing to pay a lot of our bills while I continue to build my backlist, since he sees so much progress on my end. We don’t have children yet, and we don’t have any major expenses, so we’ll carry on like this for a bit, I imagine. I’ll admit that this is just dumb luck that put me in this position—then again, most of my former career success was dumb luck too! It all serves as a reminder to me that our circumstances can change, both for the better and for the worse, in an instant.
At times, my life has been a blend of all three states. Right now, for example, I’m still technically in a blend of two—my spouse and my side hustle. My recently published book, Write Better, Faster, is a great example of a side hustle. This blog post is part of my side hustle. Working at Sterling and Stone as a copywriter is part of my side hustle. Yes, it’s great to no longer have to freelance—but I still have a side hustle.
I do have a growing fiction income and backlist that does help pay the bills too—but it’s not full-time and won’t be for awhile still! And I’m okay with that.
I’m also developing yet another potential side hustle skill—drawing and painting. I only recently decided to do this, and I know it’s not going to pay off for several years.
And there are more skills that I’ve built over the years: basic web design, basic video creation and editing, basic podcast recording, and more. It can all be part of your side hustle while you’re building an audience for your fiction. Even James Patterson had a day job until his books started selling.
Most Books Sell 500 Copies Or Fewer… And Aren’t Going To Magically Start Selling More
There simply isn’t a huge audience for most books on the market today. This could have to do with a number of things: the author’s ability to express ideas, the author’s level of craft, the author’s ability to package their product well, the trends of the market going up and down on various sub-genres, and the changing industry tides, with books going digital or (now) going audio, with the resurgence of quality, subscription-based television, with the introduction of subscription-based book services, with apps, with changing technology, and so much more.
But mostly, it’s because those books are “bad.” “Bad” can basically encompass any of the above, because in order to be “good” you kind of need to have the whole shebang—great story, great packaging, great marketing, great business strategy, great timing. And if you don’t have all of those things, your book has a limited audience based on how many you do have and the levels at which you have each.
Spoiler alert: it is not easy to have all these things, much less to have them at high levels. Most authors are missing the mark on several. Each takes years and years to learn, experiment with, and tweak… and the standards keep going up, as publishing gets easier. No one is exempt, and everyone could use improvement! (How’s that for painful truth?)
So, sometimes, there is no more you can do to “find your audience.” Sometimes your book just wasn’t that good, or just isn’t very commercial. Most writers start and stay at the beginning of The Dip (a Seth Godin-ism) or quit before closing The Gap (an Ira Glass-ism). That is why most books just don’t have a huge audience.
Ira Glass on Storytelling from David Shiyang Liu on Vimeo.
And even if your book is a huge hit, eventually your sales will taper off (just look at the dropping sales of Twilight, 50 Shades, The Da Vinci Code, and more to see this in action). Every book eventually finds the majority of its audience, even if its audience is 100 million readers. That is the reality.
If that audience isn’t 100 million readers or (more realistically) all that large to begin with, then your best option is to write a new book that leverages the small audience you found on your last one, while also attracting a new audience (because this book is written better, or packaged better, or more commercially-viable, or better timed).
This process is called learning. It’s something that 99% of aspiring authors don’t really want to do. It’s something that a lot of authors who are (sort of) “making it” right now, at this very moment, think they are done with. Hah! Not even close. Because you can only get away with stagnating in any of these areas for just a little bit. It’s going to catch up with you. The floor will fall out from underneath you and you’ll have a wake up call.
I just recently had one of these, regarding my craft. It was decent before, and I was satisfied that I could write a good book. But I got lazy, and people noticed.
I pulled out my craft books again and set about on the learning path. It was like waking up from a deep stupor. There was so much I had missed that suddenly made sense, so many connections to make on reread, so much value just waiting to be scooped up by me and implemented in my work.
Even Kobe Bryant, with all his success, puts in thousands of hours of deliberate practice every year. If you hope to someday write a great book, you should too.
This All Begs The Question: What Do I Do in the Meantime?
There are a million things that most writers should do while working to go full-time as a fiction author, but here are the five highest leverage activities that I see:
- Give yourself 10 years to make it big – stop putting pressure on yourself or your family to build a fiction business quickly. Most overnight successes are 10 years in the making. You are trying to do something difficult but worthwhile—so give yourself some actual time to make it happen. Don’t be impatient. Don’t look at what others have accomplished in less time (they likely haven’t accomplished what they think they have—the last five years are littered with “successful” indie authors who have quit due to tanked sales). Most importantly, don’t give up. This is your one life, and this journey is something worth committing to long-term.
- Write, publish, learn from your mistakes, repeat – Don’t let your craft stagnate. Don’t let your brand stagnate. Don’t let your style stagnate. Learn something new from each project and quickly apply it to the next one. Write often and publish frequently. Don’t commit to any one genre. Be versatile. Write and read widely. Build multiple skill sets. Most importantly, don’t give up. This is your one life, and this journey is something worth committing to long-term.
- Build your True Fans – 10,000 is a large number, but it is also a finite number. You have time to build something worthy of that number. Spend time talking to your fans every day and learn more about them. Support them, nurture them, let them help you grow. Reveal yourself to them and deepen your relationships with them. Up your engagement with them. Get them on an email list. Contact them regularly. Make new stuff for them regularly. It is a huge undertaking, but not an impossible one. Most importantly, don’t give up. This is your one life, and this journey is something worth committing to long-term.
- Develop complimentary skill sets – Have a hobby. Create more art. Create the same idea in a different format. Learn, learn, learn. Your complimentary skill set is your cross-training activity for writing. Let it inspire you, refill you, teach you. Use your new skill sets to parlay into other fields, or to parlay into a new level of your writing career. It’s all going to add up, even if you can’t see how just yet. Most importantly, don’t give up. This is your one life, and this journey is something worth committing to long-term.
- Continue living your life – Earning a full-time living as a fiction author is not going to be the end of your journey. You’re going to find a new goal before you even hit this one. So don’t attempt to put the rest of your life on hold until you reach this dream. Don’t quit your job and throw yourself into financial turmoil. Don’t hold off on getting married, having kids, taking that vacation. Don’t become a workaholic. Don’t procrastinate on your health and well-being. Don’t procrastinate on your other interests. And most importantly, don’t give up. This is your one life, and this journey is something worth committing to long-term.
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