My goal in life is to make a living by writing. I don’t aspire to be a breakout New York Times Bestseller. I’d love it, don’t get me wrong. But I’m not setting out for that. I’m no James Joyce with pretentions of being the next big literary author, either. I don’t even want to be Darren Rowse or Seth Godin.
No, what I want is much simpler.
I want, more than anything, to be able to write and make enough of a living to qualify as part of my two-income household. I want to make a career as a midlist author.
When discussing this with my wife, she asked me a simple question: “what’s a midlist author?” I replied “someone who writes well enough to make a living from it, but doesn’t make it to the New York Times Bestseller level.”
If I can make, say $40k a year off my writing (before taxes), I will gladly pack up shop as a teacher and just write for a living.
Okay, that’s not true. I love teaching. Even if there were the possibility of making a living with writing, I couldn’t give up teaching totally. At worst, I would end up adjuncting a couple of classes, while my writing brings home the biggest chunk of my income.
That’s my dream: to get by. Is that sad?
Recently, I’ve found that I love reading Joe Konrath’s blog, “A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing” because he tends to present the author’s life that I would be happy with. The life of a midlister is not glamorous or artsy; it’s full of tons of self-promotion and constant proliferation.
And that just sounds so freaking nice to me.
I’ve heard my whole life that in order to make it big, you have to dream big. The cliché of “shoot for the moon; even if you miss, you’ll still land in stars” comes to mind. Well, I’m a dreamer, but I also like to think I have a realistic side.
I don’t think that by finishing this manuscript, I will suddenly be able to quit my job and enjoy financial freedom. I know that going into writing my novel, the odds are stacked against me. They’re against me that I even finish the book, that I find an agent to represent me, much less a publisher wanting to give me a fat cash advance.
But I also know that I can tip the odds in my favor, slightly. I can finish the book (I hit 20k words milestone recently!), then I can edit it and shop agents while I work on a new novel (or collection of short stories). Eventually, someone will either want it, or I’ll take all the feedback I gain and self-publish it on Kindle/Smashwords and see what kind of money I can make there. Then, I can repeat that vicious cycle every year until I die or retire. (Again, can I say how great that sounds?)
Now, don’t get me wrong: I understand that even at the new Amazon Kindle royalty rate of 70/30 (in the author’s favor!), I still need to sell a lot of books to make living. $40,000/$2.99 (that’s the price where you get the 70/30 split) = 13,377 books each year. Now, add 30% to that to make up for Amazon’s take, and I would have to sell 17,390 books every year.
Really now. That’s a lot of books. Especially for a self-published author.
But, I think it’s doable. Maybe not with a single book and no publishing history, no. But with multiple books, a reputation for quality writing, and at varying price points, I think I could just do that.
If I could write and edit one novel a year (hello, summer vacation!), then I could average all of them into that total. Two books on Amazon would only need 8,695 each to bring me to this hypothetical threshold. Three would lower it even further to 5,796. Within five years of starting, I could only need to sell 3,478 copies of every ebook I potentially have online in order to make a living each year. Add in the pay from continuing to teach part-time, and I think that within 5 years, I could really make a go at this.
According to Konrath, the best way an author can get Kindle sales to start racking up is to have at least one $0.99 book that whets an audience’s appetite for his or her writing and all but forces them to buy other books the author has written.
Honestly, this makes a lot of sense. It’s the same rationale behind MMO microtransactions. Charge very little for something people like, and they’ll buy it almost every single time. The cheaper something is, the more people will buy it, and with books, that price range for unknown and newbie authors is typically between $0.99 and $2.99.
Konrath makes these numbers. Sometimes, he makes in a month, what I would need to sell in a year (at the five year mark, at that). He says that he worked his “butt off for seven years” to make it happen. Given how much this blog has grown in the last year, (and how much fun I’ve had along the way), I think I can certainly do that.
Now would I rather a publishing house offer me a contract and a nice check, physically print my books, and send me off across the country on book signing tours? Well, yes. I very much would.
But in lieu of that—if it never happens—it’s nice to know that there are ways of overcoming the self-publishing stigma, and that some people actually can make a living off of ebooks.
I just like to know that not every author out there has to be a Stephen King, Dan Brown, or Nora Roberts. And that not every author out there sets out to be that kind of chart-topper. There are midlisters out there who do okay, and and not all of them do so through traditional means.