Writing My Novel: Midlist or Bust

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?)

Money Toilet Paper 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.

Amazon Kindle 2 Book 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.

By B.J. Keeton

B.J. KEETON is a writer, teacher, and runner. When he isn't trying to think of a way to trick Fox into putting Firefly back on the air, he is either writing science fiction, watching an obscene amount of genre television, or looking for new ways to integrate fitness into his geektastic lifestyle. He is also the author of BIRTHRIGHT and co-author of NIMBUS. Both books are available for Amazon Kindle.


  1. Interesting…and goalful. Sounds as though you have your head set squarely on the world’s shoulders…whatever that means. My biggest challenge is getting in the HABIT of writing everyday; and to do that I need to start up again.

    1. It’s a goal, if nothing else. And it may never be realized. I’m going to try, though, and at worst, it could be partial income every now and again.

      The hardest part is setting time aside to do it. I found last year, though, that blogging really helped me get into the habit of writing daily. I try to at least jot something down, and that process has helped me immensely as I work on fiction. Being able to blog about 3 times a week for a year has really given me the discipline as well as the desire to better myself and my writing.

      You know you’ll have a reader for your book when you finish it, though, Kerbe.

  2. I’ve been noticing that blogging helps me get into the habit of writing every day as well. I haven’t tried my hand at fiction in a long time, but if I continue to enjoy writing on my blog as much as I have these last few months, I might try it out again.

    All the best to your attempts Beej. I’m cheering for you! (and I’ll be one of the 17,390)
    .-= Void´s last blog ..New Phase of StarCraft 2 Beta? =-.

    1. That’s how I got back into it. I had always heard people loved blogging, but I had no idea how much I would really get out of writing as a daily habit. Even if that writing just turns out to be comments on my RSS reader’s posts.

      If you get any fiction up, be sure to let me know. I’ll definitely give it a look. 🙂

      And thanks; I just need to find 17389 more just like you now, and we’ll be set.

  3. I used to joke around and tell people I wanted to be the next Stephen King. But I think you have the right idea, Beej. Like you, I just want to be able to make a decent living being a full-time writer. I’m sure we’ll both get there one of these days! 🙂
    .-= Stefanie´s last blog ..My first interview: 5 things I learned =-.

    1. I honestly don’t know if I’ve ever said I wanted to be the “next Stephen King.” My goal for years has been to have my books sit beside his on the shelf. And that’s not some fanboy delusion, either: “Keeton” would be pretty close if not directly adjacent to “King” in Barnes and Noble. That’s when I’ll know if I’ve made it.

  4. I’m always torn between being rational and being ambitious and not wanting to disappoint myself by being dreamy but then also thinking that one needs the drive and motivation that comes with ambition in order to succeed. It’s hard to get the balance write 🙂

    I think you’re absolutely right though in making the first goal being able to “live” off writing by any means necessary and just enjoy being able to do what you love every day.
    .-= We Fly Spitfires´s last blog ..What’s The Value Of Your Blog? =-.

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