Wasting Your Time Until You Sell a Book? (Aka. Making a Living at Your Writing isn’t all a Bed of Roses)

I’m paraphrasing here, but I recently saw someone (no one from this blog) say that they think they are wasting time writing a book until they sell it.  At first, I thought, “Who is going to write a book if they think writing-in itself-is a waste of time?” Didn’t we start writing because we had a story burning inside of us to get out onto paper?  Wasn’t it the love for the characters who took us on an adventure of their making that was our reward?

But then I remembered that some authors do get into writing and publishing with the plan to only sell books.  The plan to sell books isn’t a bad one.  But if that is the only reason you’re writing, then what’s the point?  The end goal shouldn’t just be sales.  The process of creating a book should be a reward, too.  How can you be passionate about your story and write the best story possible if your only motivation is money?  Any job where you’re only reward is money isn’t going to be a very fun job.  I worked at fast food, data entry, and daycare in the past, but I enjoyed elements of those jobs that made it worth going to work.  I worked at a job as a computer hardware support technician, and I hated every little thing about that job (except the money).  I got paid better at the computer job than the other jobs, but money wasn’t enough.  I used to cry when it was time to go to the computer job because I hated it that much.  So the notion that writing a book for the sole purpose of making money is such an empty pursuit.  You have to love what you’re writing if you want to be happy.

Money alone won’t make you happy.  It might seem like it when you start out.  Hey, I thought all I needed was the money from that computer job to be content.  It didn’t work.  Short-term, I managed fine, but in the end, it got harder and harder to do until I couldn’t even enjoy my days off work because all I kept thinking about was how awful it was go back there.  In the long run, what seems like a blessing (money) will become a curse (the pain of making that money).

Okay.  So maybe you write the book and make sales.  Maybe your dream comes true.  Maybe you have a good idea, write it down, and hit the charts.  But here’s the thing: sales don’t run that high forever.  Sooner or later, they fall.  There is a leveling off point where they’ll be more steady, but will the leveling point bring in enough money to make you happy?  I’m guessing not.  You’ll need to write the next book.  Why?  Because when you have made a certain amount of money, you want to keep making it.  And guess what?  The next book might not sell as well.  Then what?  You want the money to make writing the thing worth your time, right?  Otherwise, you think writing is a complete waste of time.  So you have to write another…and another…and another.  It doesn’t end.  If you want to reach this goal of making a living at writing fiction, you will need to keep writing books.  You need your current fans to buy more books.

Want another rude awakening?   Making a living off your writing offers unexpected stress.  How do I know?  Because I support a husband and four children off my writing.

  • I’m not a huge blockbuster seller, but you sell enough in mid-list, and you can make a living.  I started marketing in 2008, got into ebooks in 2009, and finally made a living in 2011.  By that time, I had over twenty romances out there and made a good number of mistakes.  I get reviews and emails from people who hate my books and aren’t shy about saying why.  You go through that and then try to sit down to write the next scene in your book.  It’s unbelievably hard to do.  Everything you write sounds wrong, and you have to work hard to get yourself back to where you are confident enough about what you’re writing to get those words on paper.
  • You watch your sales drop.  Or maybe you publish your next book and it doesn’t sell as well as the last one.  Then you wonder, “Is this it? Have I lost my ability to write books people want to buy?  Do I have to start looking at employment outside the home?”
  • You get feedback from a fan who says, “I loved your others books, but the last one you wrote…I have to say it wasn’t as good.” Then you wonder, “Have I lost my creative edge?”
  • You go through a stressful situation at home (moving, death of a loved one, divorce, etc) and try to write but you’re coming up blank.  You fear, “Will I ever be able to write anything again?”
  • You get emails asking for a certain book, but you know that book isn’t ready to be written (and maybe it’ll never be written because you aren’t interested), so you have to say you don’t know, and you wonder, “Have I just turned off that reader who has been very supportive of me in the past because I can’t deliver what they want?”
  • Someone (for whatever reason) doesn’t like your books, and since they’re unable to separate you from your books, they begin to harass you in some form.  Maybe they leave a trail of bad reviews on your books or criticize all of your positive reviewers and accuse them of being you or family members/friends.  Maybe they start stalking you, tracking your every move through the Internet.  Maybe they send threatening emails or comments.  Maybe they do a background check on you and let you know.  It’s easy to become a target when you’re a public figure, and as authors, we’re public figures.  We also have to watch everything we say or do because if we don’t, there could be unpleasant consequences.  The reader has all the rights to say whatever they want about you, but you have to be polite at all times (even if the reader is a bully).  I understand it’s a double standard, but unfortunately, it exists.   I’ve bitten my tongue and had to close my computer down and walk away so I wouldn’t respond to someone who was being a jerk on many occasions, so I understand how frustrating this is.
  • You have to pay taxes on your income, and each quarter when you write out the check to the federal (and maybe state) government, you think, “I feel so broke because this has taken out such a large chunk of my paycheck.  I guess I won’t be able to put as much into the emergency fund as I wanted to or I can’t pay off that credit card like I hoped.” You go into H&R Block and realize you paid too little in taxes last year and need to fork over more money and end up depleting your emergency fund and again think, “Where is the money I made?” (Hint: since you’re the provider, it went to the mortgage, bills, house repairs, car repairs, food, clothes, etc.  Except it feels like you somehow wasted the money you made even though you didn’t.)
  • You watch Amazon play with their algorithms and worry that you won’t be able to sustain your income when your rankings get worse.
  • You try to sit down and write, and since most people you know in real life don’t believe writing is actual work, they keep bothering you so you don’t get the time you need to write (and then these people wonder why can’t buy them X, Y, or Z).  You tell them, “When my next book comes out, if I sell as well as my other books, then I can afford to buy what you want.” And they look at you and say, “Then you should be done with your first draft in a week or so, right?” People who aren’t writers truly don’t understand that writing a book worth selling takes time and work.

There are some stressors I’m  missing, but the list is long enough as it is.

As an author who makes a living at writing (at least I am at this point in time), I can honestly say if I didn’t love writing, if I didn’t love the characters and the adventures they take me on, if I didn’t get enjoyment out of watching the story unfold in unexpected ways, I would drop this job and pick up another one–fast.  I would never write for the sole purpose of making money.  It comes with way too many unknown factors and stress.  The only thing that makes all the stress worthwhile is that I love writing.  So don’t write to just sell a book.  Write because it’s your passion.

16 Comments

  1. I can relate to this soooo much. 🙂

    I’m in kind of a similar situation to you. I’ve never actually been a bestseller, but I’m supporting my partner and our five kids (for now), and always wondering if this month is the last time I can do it. Some days it’s absolutely terrifying. If I didn’t love writing, if it hadn’t been something I’ve always been passionate about, then I could never do this. I would end up hating my life with all of the stress. When you start this, you never even imagine half of the things you’ll stress yourself over and most of it ends up being things you have no control over anyway.

    Luckily, I love what I do, and if I have to go through stuff I don’t like to be able to do what I love then so be it. I honestly don’t know how I could write a book if I wasn’t excited to find out what happened to the characters, and to do this solely for the possibility (because there are no guarantees) of earning money would be soul-destroying to me.

    1. I agree. it is terrifying. It’s why I can’t take a look at my sales until the end of the month. If I can reach a certain amount (the “this will pay all of our bills and enable us to buy food” amount), I breathe a huge sigh of relief.

      I know what you mean about getting through the stuff you don’t like so you can do what you love. It’s the only thing that gets me through those rough patches.

      Good luck on maintaining a living. 😀

      1. Same here. I don’t worry about fame or a fortune, just that certain amount that will keep us going for another month. 🙂

        Same to you!

  2. I’ve yet to make enough money to support anyone. But I’ve made enough to be able to buy a lot of nice things we couldn’t have had otherwise. Now that sales are dropping, I’m not making enough to even do that. So then I start thinking I need to find something else to do. I love writing…if I didn’t, I would have already found something else to do. But sometimes, when the going is tough, I get discouraged. I know I could do better if I didn’t have to work around a full time job. So this is kind of a balancing act between loving what you do and being realistic about the money you are making. Right now, I don’t have plans to give it up. 🙂 I’m hoping that with all the hard work involved with putting out a good book, the writers who aren’t serious about this will be weeded out. I think the sheer numbers of books published is causing sales to go down for a lot of people. If we can just hang in there….

    1. I agree about the number of books being published having an effect on sales. There are only so many people out there who like to read. If anything hurts the self-publishing image, it’s the authors who don’t take the time to polish up their books. I’ve seen enough authors taking shortcuts to know why it’s hard to convince some people that there are good indie books out there.

      My sales have dropped, too. From what i hear, it’s happening to a lot of authors. I believe this will weed out those whose hearts aren’t in this. That will hopefully make the quality of self-published books go up (in the perception of the critics) and make it easier to reach readers. Also, with any luck, the backlist will come in handy.

  3. I can also relate to a lot of the things expressed in this article. Writing my first novel was more an act of “Okay, I can do this!” than anything else. A fair number of good reviews, pitiful sales. I wrote a second, shorter book much more quickly and it has actually sold (relatively) well. I have a few other short stories and so forth available, but it’s my second novel that has really taken off, so having the belief that one must never reinforce failure and always exploit breakthroughs, I’m writing the sequel.

    I got a lot of good feedback from the first book in the series, and I’ve got a great cover artist, some good fans, and so forth, but I get struck by feelings of “was that just a fluke?”. I wonder if people will tell me I took the sequel in the wrong direction, they no longer like the characters, and so forth. It’s a little nerve-wracking, because I feel like if the sequel tanks, I’ll lack any motivation to push ahead and write a third book.

    At the end of the day, though, I make my living with my day job, and writing and selling my stories is more like an unexpected gift than a fiscal necessity. But when you’ve gotten to the point where you’re paying some bills every month with your royalties, the stresses of hoping you can continue in that same vein begin to crop up…

    1. Writing the sequel is a good strategy. The books in a series tend to sell better in the long run because when people get emotionally attached to characters, they love staying with them through another book. So I would go with that angle, too. Some books sell better overall than others. I have a book I published back in 2009 that still outsells a couple I’ve written since then. I have no idea why either. That second book might be your longterm good seller. If that’s the case, then trying to get a series from it is even better.

      That all being said, I understand your fears that the sequel will flop. I wrote a Regency that did very well. Then I wrote the second one, and it tanked. I wrote a third one (just published it), and put the first one at free to hopefully boost the sales for the second and third book. I’m not sure if it’ll work yet in the long run. But if your sequel doesn’t do as well as you hope, putting the first one at free when the third book is out might be a possible strategy to generate interest in books 2 and 3. Hopefully, you will be able to keep going with book 1 at the price you’re at right now because books 2 and 3 will sell well. I do have a couple other series that did well after book 1 came out. The Regency thing was the first time I’ve ever had book 2 tank if book 1 in a series did well.

      I think your chances are good. I like the short story idea. Writing short stories is a gift I don’t have. I’d write them if I could. They’re harder to write than they look.

      I hope the sequel sells well for you.

  4. Barb says:

    You’re a doll, Ruthie girl. Thanks so much for this sage advice. I love the self-doubts you’ve shared. I thought I was the only one lugging around a sack of “You’ve-Told-All-Your-Stories.” Thanks for the encouragement.

    1. Thanks, Barb. 😀 I go through a lot of self-doubts. Some authors make it seem so easy, as if they never have any worries. LOL I get encouraged from knowing I’m not alone.

  5. Really fab post Ruth, very honest and full of helpful advice too. Always greatly appreciated , cheers Dave

    1. Thanks you, Dave. 🙂

  6. Amen. You’ve said it so well. It’s bizarre how many people think all writers are rich. It’s like thinking everybody who swims is Michael Phelps. And this one had me shouting in agreement “most people you know in real life don’t believe writing is actual work,” Sigh. Great post!

    1. I remember when I published my first romance. My uncle asked me how much money I was making, and back then, I hadn’t made anything. It took me a few months to get my first $10 from Amazon. I made nothing on Smashwords. I started on Smashwords before they started distributing books. Anyway, my uncle was disappointed. I can laugh about this now, but it was a rude awakening when I realized my uncle expected me to be making a lot of money.

      I wish more people (esp. my husband) would realize when I’m at the computer, I am working. I can’t believe how many times he’ll come up to me and start a conversation. I’ll tell him I’m in the middle of writing a scene and need to focus on it, but he doesn’t get how hard it is to get back into the story once you’re jolted out of it. Sometimes I go to the library so I can be alone and finally work. 😀

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