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.

 

How to earn six figures a year the easy way as a writer

Create as many multiple streams of income from writing as you can, and work hard at the job you love best.

Yes, of course you have to work a lot. I know you didn’t expect me to tell you the secret to easily writing a book Oprah loves. (If I knew that, I’d be too busy refurnishing my 15th-century Venetian pied-à-terre to write this article.) 

It’s writing. It’s what you love to do. It’s better than any other job in the whole world except perhaps hand-raising baby sloths, and for me, it’s easier than any other job (while being constantly challenging). It’s what I love, so it’s easy to want to do. 

A bit of background before I give you my numbers: my first book came out in 2010. I’ve written 26 books. I’m traditionally published in thriller, mainstream fiction, romance, and memoir. I now self-publish romance and nonfiction about writing (for that 70% royalty). I believe both in writing a terrible book quickly and in taking the time to craft it into something beautiful and meaningful after the first draft is done.

 

My income streams from 2018

$29,900 – Retreats: I lead one or two writers retreats a year, usually to Italy. I make a lot, yes, but more than two-thirds of this income goes back to lodging and activities, so I only actually took home about nine grand from retreats, not 30. I am in no way complaining. Free trip for me! (I arrange my retreats so I get a week’s writing time alone before the week of teaching.)

 

$21,100 – Traditionally published books: In 2018, I sold one book (a thriller to Penguin), so this money includes half of the advance plus royalties from my 12 traditionally published back titles. Is this shockingly low for royalties from a dozen books? Oh, my friend. You haven’t lived till you’ve gotten a royalty check that can’t cover a tall coffee from Starbucks. 

 

$21,000 – Self-published books: It’s just a coincidence that this amount is so similar to the trad-pubbed books amount. Some years I make triple in trad-pub what I do in self. Other years, that reverses. This year, it was nice and even. My self-pubbed books are available in wide distribution, which means they’re for sale on all digital platforms. Audio is available for most of them. Print versions of all my books are available everywhere, including libraries and independent bookstores. I spent nothing on marketing last year because I couldn’t afford to, so these are organic sales, which pleases me.

 

$19,000 – Patreon: I love Patreon for writers! It’s a crowdfunded platforms built for artists, and your patrons support you in the old-fashioned sense of the word “patronage.” Take a look at mine for an example (Patreon.com/Rachael) – I have it set in tiers. The focus of my Patreon campaign is an essay every month about creativity. This has paid me to write two full essay collections so far. It’s like I’m giving myself my own advance. Other perks I offer to patrons include signed books, encouraging texts, and, at the top tier, personalized coaching.

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$8,600 – Coaching: One of my superpowers is helping even the most doubting of newbie writers cross their personal finish lines. I don’t have that much time, though, especially with my own deadlines and Patreon clients, so I don’t do as much of this as I used to. 

 

$8,000 – Teaching: Teaching was exactly what I didn’t want to do with my MFA back in the ’90s, but that all changed about five years ago. Now teaching novel and memoir structure and revision is something that feeds my soul as a writer as nothing else does. I teach in the extension programs at both UC Berkeley and Stanford, and I also run my own online 90-day intensive masterclasses.

 

$2,000 – Speaking: I do a bit of speaking in public, never enough to break five figures, but four figures are very welcome, indeed.

 

$1,750 – Magazine articles: Articles break up the bigger things I do and are nice palate-cleansers between books and the Patreon essays.

 

$1,700 – Self-published audiobooks: I haven’t come close to recouping the money I’ve put into these (all told, I’ve spent $15,000 over the years on narrators), but as audio consumption grows each year, it’s important to me to have my whole backlist in audiobook format.

 

$700 – Query letter fix: I have a tiny side-hustle of fixing query letters. Query letters are like cheese-flavored chips to me. I love rejiggering a query letter, and I can’t stop messing with it until all the chips are gone and I’m sitting there with stained orange fingers and a vague sense of missing time.

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Total – $113,750: Am I proud of this? Heck, yes, I am! I worked my tail off for this! 

 

Of course, this is gross. After taxes and expenses, I took home about $44,000, exactly what I needed to bring home to keep the household running. (And not much more.)

 

So where does this leave you?

First of all, never allow yourself to get frustrated. Of course your next book probably won’t make enough money to buy yourself a private island. That’s always been true. Making millions of dollars from writing has always been as easy and as predictable as winning the Powerball lottery, and the gold rush of the early self-publishing days is completely over. We’re back to having to write good books to make money. (This is great news, honestly.)

Knowing that it’s hard never stops real writers from writing. You’re a real writer. You got to the end of this article with more hope than ever bunched up in your sweaty, anxious fists. Keep going.