Updated: Jan 17
One of the most common questions I see pop up on discussion boards and social media related to writing is: would it be possible to make a living with writing? The obvious answer being, yeah, of course, tons of people profit from their fiction. Some people even get rich. I’m pretty sure R.L. Stein has a fleet of yachts and Stephen King probably hangs out at the same Illuminati club as Elon Musk.
Amazing, replies the Theoretical Writer, with giant cartoon dollar signs in their eyes.
Well, tap the breaks. Just because something is “possible” doesn’t mean it’s “easy” or even “likely.” It’s possible to get struck by lightning every day of the week for a year. It’s just not likely and there would almost certainly be some kind of ancient curse involved. Getting to a point where you can quit your day job just to write is a dream for a lot of people after they pick up a pen. It’s not terribly realistic but it’s a nice mark to aim for.
In the meantime, making some amount of income through writing is much easier than most people think. I’ve made a list based on conversations with other writers along with some tips for how to get started with each platform.
Right off the bat, I have to add an asterisk here and say all of my experience with this avenue is based around horror writing. Different genres come with different challenges and opportunities. An entire cottage industry has popped up around scary stories told online. Some narrators are getting hundreds of thousands if not millions of views. They are on a constant lookout for new material and will often pay relatively well for quality content.
You can reach out to YouTube and podcast narrators directly but if you’re posting fiction on Reddit, there’s a good chance one will contact you. If they are monetized (i.e. running ads on their channel) then here are some basics on how to approach getting paid for your work.
This is one of the most common transactions. A good rule of thumb is asking for $1 per 1k views on the video, usually capped at 30 days. It can be a pain to try to follow-up with some narrators, though, so I always suggest asking for payment upfront, even if it’s lower.
You can look at the last 10 videos that the channel posted, average the views together, and then ask for $1 per 1k based on that amount. Or $.50 per 1k or $2 per 1k. It all depends on the size of the channel and what they’re willing to spend.
No muss, no fuss, always worth considering. I tend to ask for between $40 and $100 per story, again based on how big the channel is. Don’t be afraid to open a little high and let them talk you down.
An industry classic. Set a rate that feels fair to you based on the story. I look for $.04 per word as a baseline but will negotiate up if it’s a large channel or down if they are smaller and/or offering additional work in the future.
A few Dos and Don’ts to remember-
Don’t be afraid to ask for payment. Exposure is nice but it doesn’t pay the bills. It also doesn’t translate well from YouTube to Reddit. I’ve had something like a dozen (permitted) narrations and rarely see more than a handful of new readers trickle in after each.
Don’t sign any contracts where you aren’t getting financial compensation. Just don’t. Trust me. If an organization wants you to sign off on something they should be paying for it.
Do be sure to clarify that you retain all rights to the story, that you’re only giving the narrator a limited license to narrate the work, and that it is non-exclusive.
Do consider allowing small channels that can’t afford to pay for content permission to read your story.
Don’t feel like that’s an obligation. If you have any questions or would like tips about specific narration deals, come on over to the WriteRight Discord.
One of the mainstays of all creative writing, especially genre fiction, self-publishing used to carry a bit of a stigma for not being “truly” published. Ignore that noise. Self-publishing is legitimate, respectable, and with a little work, potentially profitable. Some of the basics:
Amazon’s KDP program is the gold standard for self-publishing. Check out the link, there’s a handy write-up and video explaining how to get started. The elevator pitch is that you can self-publish digitally and paperback with about three or four clicks. You keep the rights to the story, a majority of the royalties, and you get to see your name in print.
Consider hiring an editor to go through the manuscript with you. Look at it as an investment into making the best book possible. Likewise, make sure that your cover art pops and catches the eye. Finally, since you are both writer and publisher, you’re going to be responsible for advertising your book. Create social media, a website, promote the book wherever you can for free, and think about taking out some basic ads on Facebook or Twitter or YouTube to encourage sales.
Remember you’re investing in the book and yourself.
The Classic. Like a cocktail that never goes out of fashion or a comfortable sweater that still looks nice at formal events, traditional publishing is the most common goal for many writers. What’s not to love? All of the editing, cover art, marketing, and logistics are taken care of at no cost to the author. You might even get a nice advance payment against royalties. All lovely.
However, traditional publishing has a massive barrier to entry. Shifting readership and how media is consumed in the digital age is also forcing publishers to adapt and adopt new strategies. Advances are shrinking while small- and micro-publishers are emerging, often focusing on niche genres and markets. That Golden Goose book deal with a six-figure advance is an endangered species these days (not that it was ever overly common). First-time authors will likely need to help market their own books and themselves. You’re not just a writer anymore; you’re also a brand. Being a reclusive artsy genius isn’t usually going to be practical.
If you’re aiming for traditional publishing, looking for an agent is a solid first step. Check out r/Pubtips on Reddit to learn the basics. Whether you land with a Big Five House or a micro-publisher, that’s still progress. But be wary of “Vanity Press” publishers. These are the sharks that will promise you the trade experience but require you to pay out-of-pocket for art, editing, promotion, or even to “buyback” your own copyright. It’s all of the downsides of self-publishing with an extra edge of predatory behavior. Pay attention for any red flags and read over contracts carefully, then give them to friends and family you trust for additional eyeballs.
While getting a solo book published can be daunting, keep an eye out for anthology submission opportunities for short stories.
The final platform we’re going to touch on today is general freelancing. This includes commissioned short stories from websites, articles for trade magazines, ad copy, ghostwriting, second-hand ransom notes, and Hallmark After Dark greeting cards. There are so many writing opportunities out there for short- and long-term projects that it’s hard to dive into all of the options. Instead, let’s end here with two outlets worth exploring:
Fiverr: “Have a way with words. Get copy, translation & editorial work from freelancers.”
Upwork: “Find quality freelancers and agencies for writing.”
I highly recommend checking out the Writing sections for both sites. If you like the options, it’s easy to create a profile and list your services, talents, and price. Then see if anyone comes knocking.
Worst case scenario, you could hyper-focus your writing on one niche topic and hope to crack into that market. I’d suggest a blog containing romantic thrillers about your favorite dessert. You can call the project, “OnlyFlans.”