Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, contests and more!
Start Your Free Trial

How to (realistically) make six figures as a writer

How one author brings home six figures each year without a day job – and how you can, too.

How one author brings home six figures each year without a day job – and how you can, too.
Advertisement

Money in writing is a direly secretive business, cloaked in mystery and whispers.

Even when book deals are reported in Publishers Marketplace, the exact advance amounts are coded. A “very nice deal” is an advance between $50,000 and $99,999. A “good deal” is anything between $100,000 and $250,000. (Honestly, a good deal to me is a Taco Bell burrito for $1.29.) Yes, some people do make very good money by writing. They make six figures and more. I personally make that much, and I want to tell you about it, but the idea of doing so makes me nervous at the same time.

Many writers feel shame about what they’re earning. They’re ashamed that it’s too little, or – more rarely – that it’s too much to confess, so they clam up, leaving everyone else guessing. Transparency among writers about their finances is something I couldn’t find when I was starting out in 2006. I thought writers either starved in garrets, or they had a hard time deciding which vacation home to buy next. 

So now, as a full-time author with 26 books under two pen names, I don’t look to the side and shuffle away when other people speculate on current marketplace advances or whether self-publishing will reap more financial rewards than traditional deals. Even now, 13 years after I started, most writers still stay as quiet as if The Great Editor in the Sky will hear them reveal trade secrets and punish them with writer’s block and soda-covered keyboards. 

We hear a lot about how writers don’t make much money. We’re told not to quit our day jobs (nor should we, I think, till our debt is paid off and our savings are built up – more on that later). The incredibly depressing 2018 Author Income Survey taken by the Author’s Guild showed that the median income for published authors for all writing-related activities was $6,080.

But these are average numbers, illustrating average writers, and we – you and I – are not average. We are serious, and we are willing to work as hard as possible to make the writing life pay.

In the spirit of transparency, every January since I left my day job almost four years ago, I share my income publicly. Last year, in 2018, I broke six figures from my writing income. Before I share with you the secrets to making six figures as a writer the easy way, I’ll share with you how I made six figures a few times the hard way.

Hard Way #1: Work way too much at a day job while you write on the side

I got an MFA in writing in 1999. I wanted a job that actually paid the bills in the expensive Bay Area instead of a teaching job, which wouldn’t come close to doing so, so I accepted a position as a 911 dispatcher. I also thought answering 911 might give me great story ideas. (I was right. At least four of my novels have been loosely based on calls I took.) I worked 911 for 17 years, writing professionally part time for 10 of those years.

Advertisement

I quit my day job in early 2016 to write full time. In 2015, the year before I quit, I earned $108,000 answering 911. I made $30 an hour, four dollars an hour lower than the average hourly wage for any job in this area. I had to work a ton of mandatory overtime. My minimum week was 56 hours, my maximum was 120 hours (five full days without leaving the firehouse, grabbing naps when it was quiet), and my annual average was 70 hours a week under the headset.

I was also writing at least 20 hours a week on top of that, often more. I managed to write 17 books before I could afford to quit 911. For the first few of those years when I worked both jobs, I made very little from writing. The last three years I worked both jobs, I pulled in an average of $43,000 a year from writing on top of the day-job salary (which was how I made the jump).

I was always exhausted and battling chronic migraines, but I was bringing home six figures as a professional, working writer (though not from my writing).

Advertisement