What are your goals for being a published author? Do you want to know how to make money as an author? Or a living? And if you do, how much do you really want it? Because the depth of your desire will determine your path and your success.

how to make money as an author

In our modern world, I believe it is possible to make a living as a novelist—if you go the indie route, maintaining control over your creative work and garnering a much larger chunk of the profits than you’ll get from signing contracts with most major publishing houses.

Things in the publishing industry have changed dramatically over the last decade or so. Once upon a time, in the days before I started writing, I imagined life as an author would consist of days spent in simple solitude, making up stories and sending off manuscripts to agents and publishers.

I’d start my next book while waiting in pleasant anticipation for someone to buy my previous work and take care of all the technical details involved in publishing it—editing, cover, marketing, book signings, and so on.

Let me tell you about the two pivotal events that radically shifted my perception.

Death of One Dream, Dawn of Another

Shortly before I started my writing career, I took a job with our regional library system and had the good fortune to meet Kristine Kathryn Rusch at a staff training conference.

I listened to Kris give a presentation about the changes in the publishing industry and it devastated me. Publishing—as the world had known it—was dying and nearly dead. It seemed my dream of being a published author was shattered before I even started.

It’s not that I didn’t believe her, it’s just that self-publishing seemed so complicated and beyond my skill set. I didn’t believe I could pull it off. I decided to go with a traditional publisher, no matter how stiff the odds.

And then it happened.

I clearly remember sitting at my kitchen table, listening to a three-part episode of the Story Grid podcast which explored and compared traditional publishing versus indie. When Shawn Coyne revealed that marketing the book is the fiction writer’s responsibility—regardless of the publishing route taken—I felt the earth move under my feet.

This came after he’d already explained the vast differences in maintaining creative control and profit margin. The marketing stuff is what I really didn’t want to worry about and if a publisher isn’t going to do that for me, yet take control of my content and most of the profits generated by my book, what good are they?

Indie publishing seemed like an impossible mountain to climb, but that day, sitting at that kitchen table, I vowed I’d learn how and make it happen.

Turns out, it’s far easier than I ever dreamed.

What You Will Learn in This Article

If you’re reading this and you’re set on following the traditional course, I wish you luck. However, this chapter won’t be your best source of information. I’m not going to cover anything about query letters, agents, or synopses.

I’m also not going into detail about the technical aspects of self-publishing—how to get your book up on a book platform like Amazon, Draft2Digital, etc. Throughout the self-publishing process, Google and YouTube are your friends and if you need more formal guidance, there are plenty of programs to choose from—like those offered on The Write Practice—to help you learn what to do.

While you won’t find the technical nitty gritty here, I am going to share some of what I’ve learned about setting yourself up for success as an indie publisher.

If that sounds good to you, read on.

Build a Solid Product

Once you’ve finished writing your book, you need to take off your writer’s hat and assume the role of editor and marketer. Your book is now a product to be packaged and promoted. If you’re in the indie author business, all of that is up to you.

Don’t worry—each part of the process is something you can do and can even be fun. Let’s take a look at the five important pieces.

1. Editing

Full disclosure—I won’t have a lot to say about the editing process. My mentor, Dean Wesley Smith, has always cautioned me stringently about allowing my work to be edited. He’s been with me since I began writing and he taught me to write a clean draft using a cycling process and to let my individual voice shine through.

When he gives me a writing assignment, he also gives me a very short deadline so that I won’t have time to fuss over it and rewrite. He says the creative voice in the back of a writer’s brain is the storyteller. Give it free rein and get out of its way. Rewriting involves the front brain critical voice which will often pull out what makes a writer’s words unique and interesting.

Since I plan my stories before I write them, I'm fairly confident all the necessary structural elements will be in place. I don’t engage in a lot of editing. I use ProWriting Aid to help point out grammar issues (commas always sneak in where they don’t belong) and at times I’ve hired a copy editor to check for simple errors.

Once I'm sure my story's structure is sound and the manuscript is free of grammatical errors, I read it aloud and listen for flow. Do the words fit together well and convey the tone I want readers to feel? Are there awkward sentence constructions I should fix? What about unnecessary adverbs or sticky words I can eliminate?

I pay special attention to chapter endings and openings. Have I written past a cliffhanger or forgotten to include one? Have I neglected the kinds of vital details in my openings that pull readers from the end of one chapter into the beginning of the next?

Have I used the tools in my writer's toolbox to create suspense throughout the story?

I know my book will be competing with a million other books and it needs to come up to a professional standard. The same will apply to you, whether you self-edit or decide to hire an editor.

2. Formatting

As I mentioned, you want your book to be on a par with the current bestsellers—the professionals—in mystery, thrillers, and suspense. That means you can use those bestselling books as examples. Examine them and imitate what works for your own book.

How can you do this? Open up a bestseller and notice the interior layout.

Observe important details like:

  • The size of the margins and font
  • The location of elements such as page number, author name, and chapter titles
  • The type of font
  • How the title page looks, the organization and formatting
  • The content included in the front matter of the book—and back matter

You can hire someone to design your layout, but I prefer to do it myself. That way, if I need to change anything in future, I don’t have to go back to the formatter. I like being in control over the parts of the process.

There are a number of methods for formatting. I used Scrivener to format most of my books. Many writers I know swear by Vellum, but it’s only available on Apple products and I run a PC.

Dave Chesson recently released a new tool called Atticus and I used it to format the last two books I published. It’s simple to use, puts out a professional-looking product, and has a lot of great features. That’s what I’ll be using for the foreseeable future.

However you choose to format, make it look good. Also, make it look like it should be placed along other comparable titles in your genre.

3. Cover

If your cover doesn’t grab a reader, nothing else will. It’s your book’s first impression and must appeal to your target audience—readers of mystery, thrillers, or whatever type of suspense you’re looking to publish. You want to draw readers in to read the blurb or your opening lines.

Again, study the book cover design of bestsellers in your genre. Imitate what’s working for them. When it comes to the front cover, make sure it looks professional and appeals to the emotions. Remember, readers are looking for an experience, not a list of plot points.

If you look at the bestselling mysteries and thrillers, you’ll notice that most of the front covers include some kind of punchy tagline or quick testimonial, usually near the author’s name.

They also make use of genre-related subtitles which help search engines find the book more easily on platforms like Amazon.

Don’t clutter the back cover. It should include the sales blurb with a tagline above or beneath, and maybe a short bio. Leave some white space.

Whether you create your own covers or hire a professional, you can learn more about how to ensure your book cover sells in this article.

4. Sales Description and Editorial Review

Remember, your book is now a product that you want to get into the hands of eager readers of suspense fiction. That’s why you need an effective sales description, or blurb.

Put some effort into this—you will use it over and over in getting your book up on the various sales platforms, on your back cover, on your website, in your advertising or promotions, and elsewhere.

Sales writing draws upon a different sort of skill set than you used in writing your book. You’ll need to toot your own horn a bit and use buzz words like “edge of your seat,” “nail-biting suspense,” “riveting,” “gripping,” “heart-stopping,” “action-packed,” etc.

Readers of suspense fiction want an experience. They want to feel excited and intrigued. They want to experience a brush with danger while staying safe at home. Address that desire and appeal to those emotions, rather than falling back on plot points.

Here’s a basic pattern for an effective sales description using the blurb from my novel Nocturne In Ashes as an example:

Slammed by disaster, playing for her life!

With the death of her husband and son, concert pianist Riley Forte’s life and career shattered. Her comeback performance bombs, her sponsor pulls out, and she faces the tattered ruins of a once-happy life.

When Mt. Rainier erupts, isolating her in a small community stalked by a serial killer, it seems like the end of everything, but it brings a new chance for Riley.

If she can evade the clutches of a dedicated killer.

In a riveting action story filled with breathtaking suspense, Riley fights to hang on to the one thing she has left—her life, and the one thing she needs to turn it around—redemption.

Fans of Jeffery Deaver, Lisa Gardner, and Peter Robinson will be captivated by this page-turner. If you like a gripping, suspenseful tale, grab your copy of Nocturne in Ashes and prepare to burn the midnight oil.

TAGLINE

A tagline is a pithy or hard-hitting one-liner that encapsulates the reading experience.

Slammed by disaster, playing for her life!

FIRST PARAGRAPH

Share something engaging about the character or the story world in summary. No plot beyond first page events. No passive voice. Nail down genre, if possible, and keep it succinct.

With the death of her husband and son, concert pianist Riley Forte’s life and career shattered. Her comeback performance bombs, her sponsor pulls out, and she faces the tattered ruins of a once-happy life.

SECOND PARAGRAPH

If you introduced your character in the first paragraph, bring in the setting now, and vice versa. Hit something about the plot of the first chapter only, the hook to get your reader in the door and wanting more. Keep it short, two or three sentences at most. No passive voice.

When Mt. Rainier erupts, isolating her in a small community stalked by a serial killer, it seems like the end of everything, but it brings a new chance for Riley.

THIRD PARAGRAPH

This is the plot kicker line — da da da dum! Summarize the stakes, infuse intensity. This is usually a one-liner, a tag, a punch. More will weaken the potency.

If she can evade the clutches of a determined killer.

WRAP-UP PARAGRAPH

This is your enticing summary and call to action. This is where you tell your reader why they should buy your book. It’s fine to use three or four lines here.

In a riveting action story filled with breathtaking suspense, Riley fights to hang on to the one thing she has left—her life—and the one thing she needs to turn it around—redemption.

If you like a gripping, suspenseful tale, grab your copy of Nocturne in Ashes and prepare to burn the midnight oil!

On the Amazon platform, there’s also a space for Editorial Reviews on the sales page of your book. Don’t neglect it!

Readers are influenced by what they read in this section, so it’s important to make it look professional and enticing. As soon as you have positive feedback from reviewers, post it here.

For more information about how to write a great sales description, read this article.

5. Promoting

In my opinion, when you only have a few published books, your focus should be on producing more, rather than advertising what you’ve got. It’s not cost effective until you’ve got a decent backlist for readers to turn to when they want more of your work.

Imagine what would happen if you were a baker and you opened a bakery. It’s a lovely bakery, clean and shining with a cute little sign over the door and lots of well-lit shelves. But if a customer comes in and sees just one cake in the display case and nothing else for sale, they’re not going to feel confident about buying a slice of that cake.

At the beginning stages of your writing career, I don’t advocate spending your time and money on advertising or running a lot of promos. Focus on producing the next finished book. And then the next.

There is one thing that you should be doing, however, right from the start. And that’s building an email list. Make it a point to create engaging and regular content for the people who've entrusted you with their email address. They will stick with you as you grow and stand ready to buy your books when they come.

The real key to your long-term success is discoverability—getting your name out there—and probably the best way to do that is to fill your shelves with more titles for readers who like your books.

To learn more about discoverability, read this article or this book.

How to Achieve Long-Term Success

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing and publishing a few books as a hobby, to make a little extra income, or because you have just one or two stories you really want to write and that’s all. That might fit exactly with your idea of success.

There’s nothing wrong with writing part-time while working full-time to pay for living expenses. A great many well-known authors are doing it like this. That might be the kind of success you’re happy with, too.

If your concept of success means being a full-time writer and supporting yourself and your family on what you make from writing novels, your desire for it must run deep and you'll need to gear up for a long haul. I believe that kind of success is possible, but it may be a long time coming.

And there’s nothing wrong with that, either.

If earning a living with your novels is something you aspire to, here are some key points to consider:

1. Define what you mean by “making a living.”

Put some numbers on paper and break it down. For example, if you aim to make $70,000 a year from full-time writing, you’ll need to bring in about $5,833 per month in book sales.

If you set your retail price at $5.99, that will yield about $4 a book. Divide $5,833 by $4 and see that you’ll need to sell 1,458 books a month.

If you have twenty books, that’s only seventy-three books per month, per title. With forty books, that drops down to about thirty-six books per title.

If you're in the book business, the more books you’ve published, the better off you'll be.

2. Twenty is the magic number

Many professional indie writers agree that once you reach twenty books on your list of published works, discoverability kicks in and sales start to pick up and move. That’s twenty novel-length books, which include collections, under the same pen name.

Patience and longevity are necessary ingredients. Get lost in the joy of writing and focus on telling stories and getting them into the hands of readers.

Twenty books is a reachable goal, but it will take time. Make the mental adjustment and don’t be in a hurry.

3. Write what you love

If you get caught up in writing mysteries, thrillers, and suspense novels—the kinds of books you love—you can maintain the passion for writing long-term and enjoy your life as a writer.

Thrillers and mysteries rank high on the list of popular genres, but you won’t be able to sustain the joy for the work if you’re solely writing to market. You’ll face burnout and worse—you risk losing the simple pleasure and satisfaction of telling a great story.

Stick with writing what you love.

4. Get good at business

You need to learn how to run a business, one detail at a time, during those years when you’re building up your inventory. Once you start making real money, you’re going to need to know how to manage it, how to shelter it from undue taxation. How to invest it.

Spend time educating yourself about the book business and intellectual property. Learn how to keep track of expenses and income, prepare for tax season, and how to structure your writing business to best serve your needs and maximize your earnings.

In addition, you’ll need to stay abreast of the changes in the publishing industry and adjust your business strategies accordingly.

I find Joanna Penn is a great source for help in staying on top of publishing industry changes and in looking to the future. Her podcast is fun, informative, and inspiring.

5. Continue to learn your craft

This is perhaps the most important aspect in your long-term success as a writer. There’s always more to learn, new skills to master.

Staying in a learning frame of mind helps sharpen the tools you already have in your writer’s toolbox, as well as opening vistas of opportunity for greater levels of skill.

And learning is exciting and motivating. When you learn a new technique, you want to use it, test it, develop it. Successful authors never stop learning, never stop discovering, and never stop reaching for ever higher levels of writing abilities.

The Write Practice is a superb place to continue your education as a writer.

Can You Earn a Living Writing Novels?

Yes! But as you can see, it won’t be quick or easy. If money is your primary objective, pick another avenue. Write for the love of writing, and the money will come.

Eventually.

We write in the suspense genres because those are the stories that stir our blood, pique our interest, and provide the satisfaction of a world put right and justice served by book’s end.

Consider that the job of a suspense writer is to read such stories and learn how to create something similarly stimulating and satisfactory. And to develop new skills and techniques for achieving this. And to sit down, put words on paper, and make it happen.

If that’s the job of a suspense writer (and it is!) the years spent in writing many books before seeing a financial return can pass in pleasure, excitement, and the joy of writing.

An effort well worth making.

How about you? What’s your definition of success as a writer? Tell us about it in the comments.

PRACTICE

Writing an effective sales description is an important part of the book business. Using the basic pattern outlined above, practice writing the sales copy for a book you’ve written or one you are in the process of writing.

If you don’t currently have a book project, write the blurb for a book you read recently, or even a movie you watched. The point is to practice looking at the story from a marketer’s perspective and writing a description that sells.

Take fifteen minutes to write your blurb. When you’re done, share your blurb in the comments below. Be sure to leave feedback for your fellow writers who want to be successful authors! Based on their blurbs alone, would you read the book?

Any day where she can send readers to the edge of their seats, prickling with suspense and chewing their fingernails to the nub, is a good day for Joslyn. Pick up her latest thriller, Steadman's Blind, an explosive read that will keep you turning pages to the end. No Rest: 14 Tales of Chilling Suspense, Joslyn's latest collection of short suspense, is available for free at joslynchase.com.

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