Do Novelists Starve To Death?

By Jamie McSloy / May 11, 2017
general writing thoughts featured image

Does Writing Novels Make Sense, Moneywise?

Are you scared that if you write a novel, you’ll automatically slip into the “starving artist” stereotype, begging for noodle money whilst upsetting the guy who owns the basement you have to live in?

If so, you’re not alone. In a totally-bad but sadly still persistent habit I’ve built, I actually spend time reading comments on reddit. (I’m working on it, guys.)

Here’s a cool comment from today:

you can't make money writing novels, kid

you can’t make money writing novels, kid

Let’s dispel this myth with a little creative accounting figures.

How Not To Flunk Out Of Simple Mathematics

Let’s just play along with some mathematics for a second.

I’m going to assume a Starbucks barista gets the new minimum wage of $15, because I know how much everyone in America loves talking about minimum wages and all that.

(Time Out: If you’re enjoying this article, then you should probably sign up to my mailing list, where I give out ideas and business tricks that I don’t share publicly. Click here, fill out your details and get yourself on the list! You won’t leave this page.

Now Back To The Regular Programming Schedule…)

Let’s assume you work full-time as a barista at Starbucks.

You get 40 hours a week multiplied by $15 for a total of $2400 as your total wage.

That’s pretty good… maybe all writers should start working at Starbucks instead.

Now, let’s assume that you’re going to be a total down-the-middle novelist who sells a woeful 500 copies of your novel over the course of its lifetime.

Let’s also assume you self-publish so that you might actually see that money in the next five years.

That means that you’ll get a royalty of around $6 for a $9.99 novel should you sell it on Amazon’s kindle marketplace.

Let’s work out the figures…. $6*500 = $3000.

As you see, the novelist is barely ahead of the Starbucks barista by a measly twenty percent.

Let’s do some additional calculations, because you’re unlikely to sell all those copies in one month though, and it’s obviously not that easy.

Additional Calculations: How Hard Do You Work?

Let’s assume your novel is a standard 50,000 words.

If you work as many hours as the Starbucks barista, then you’ll be writing 300 words per hour for the month to get that one novel written.

I’m being tongue in cheek with this whole article obviously, but this next bit is deadly serious: If you are a professional writer who only writes 300 words an hour, then something is very wrong.

My Dad grew up before computers existed (he had a pet dinosaur and everything) and so he only ever learned to type with his two index fingers.

I’m 90% sure if I tied one hand behind his back, he’d still be able to type quicker than that.

So, let’s return to sanity here for a minute: You’re not going to write one novel a month if you work the same hours as a Starbucks person.

Let’s assume a rate of typing that’s still slow but not embarrassing at least. We’ll say 1000 words an hour.

150 hours for writing three novels and then 10 hours for putting them on Amazon and writing the blurbs or whatever is realistic. (Probably not for your first novel, but it gets easier.)

So in one month as a full time writer, you can produce three novels. Let’s go back to the math once more:

3 novels that sell 500 copies over the course of their lifetime will make $3000 each for a total of $9000 total.

$9000 total over the course of your lifetime is certainly a higher figure than the $2400 you’ll get from working in Starbucks.

It gets more intense than that though.

You Can Split Your Book Into Multiple Products

Let’s say you’ve got a beautiful 50,000 word script and it’s ready to be turned into your Kindle book and be on its way to earning $3000 over the course of its lifetime.

As regular readers know, when you sell books, you’re not a bookseller. You’re a publisher. The value of the things you sell isn’t in the mountains of dead trees you’re creating or the pixels on people’s tablets.

The value is in the intellectual property… and that extends far beyond your Kindle book.

For one thing, you can sell that book anywhere on any online store in its digital form.

Then, you can have a paperback copy created.

… But I guess that’s all the same product and it still comes under the “You’ll only sell 500 copies ever” rule.

What about the audiobook that you can get someone from Upwork to create?

How about the extended second edition you can put out in six months after you know it’s a seller?

Oh, and don’t forget the box set that you’ll release on Halloween/Valentine’s Day/Mother’s Day depending on your genre?

Maybe you could get on the real gravy train and you’ll get the Twilight treatment. If a terrible bit of erotic fan-fiction based on Twilight can become a billion dollar franchise, then so can you.

But this picture belies something else…

If You Are A Professional Author Then You Won’t Sell 500 Copies In A Lifetime

The whole, “The average writer makes $4k, lives in a waterlogged basement and only ever sells 500 copies” is an average.

It’s also an average of everyone who considers themselves a writer.

It’s not an average of people who write professionally, diligently and pump out novel after novel until they hit on winning formulas consistently.

Just writing more than one book can increase your sales dramatically because the back matter clickthrough rates are quite high… especially if you write in a series.

Most writers have one novel or a couple at most. If you consistently put out novel after novel, then you will gain traction and brand recognition which the “average” writer doesn’t have and which the statistics don’t take into account.

You’ll also have a wider readership which means that the more you write, the more snowball-effect stuff goes on.

The “500 copies” rule takes into account both ends of the bell curve – the million selling books and the zero selling books. Unfortunately, there are a lot more books closer to zero than they are to one million. But this isn’t a bad thing for you, assuming you aren’t going to be a one-and-done novelist.

Final Thoughts

I’m going to cut it short there because I’ve sufficiently demonstrated that writing novels is at least as profitable as working at Starbucks. I’d like to think I’ve annihilated the argument actually, but you know, make up your own mind and all that.

I didn’t even talk about stuff like:

  • Tax deductions
  • The fact you don’t have to deal with people angry that you gave them a Frappucino without the pumpkin flavouring
  • New formats that are forming for intellectual property all the time (you couldn’t even buy a digital book fifteen years ago)
  • The fact that Tweeting and Facebooking can improve your book’s income (but not your Starbuck’s income)
  • A ton of other things

If you’re thinking of quitting your Starbucks job to go it alone as a writer and you haven’t written anything then I’d obviously urge caution before taking this path.

On the other hand, if you’re concerned that you’ll be doomed to starve as a writer, dying unappreciated for your literary genius and earning two-thousand pounds over the course of your lifetime, then I can tell you that you’re worrying about nothing. There’s plenty of money to be made in writing novels, and there’s no reason why some of it can’t be yours.

  • […] lot of people think that you have to starve if you’re a writer. A lot of people assume that you have to either make it big, like Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, or […]

  • >