How to Become a Bestselling Author

Want to know how to become a bestselling author? Let’s dig into to this question via a cheeky little bugger wrote into the blog:

So, is anyone ever able to quit their day job after selling their first MG or chapter book? I need a writing reality check.

how to become a bestselling author, writing reality check
Here’s your writing reality check: Becoming a bestselling author is more fantasy than reality.

How to Become a Bestselling Author: Keep Your Day Job

No. Not even close. Keep your day job. If your day job makes you miserable, get a better one. Here’s your writing reality check: Only 3-5% of published writers make a living on their published writing income (advances and royalties) alone*. Want to know how to become a bestselling author? You might have a better shot at winning the lottery.

Some YA writers can quit their day jobs after a major sale/auction (though I still don’t know if I would advise this) because, if it’s going to get big, YA money tends to be bigger than MG, chapter book, early reader or picture book money. But even with YA, it’s rare that an author can quit their day job after their first book sells. It’s even more rare that all this wonderful stuff happens with a debut creator.

You Can Build a Career with Writing, But…

That said, most writers do end up making a writer career and an income with their writing, just not by publishing books alone. They’re not wasting time figuring out how to become a bestselling author; they work hard at related writing pursuits. They teach workshops, they teach at a school or university, they freelance for newspapers and magazines, they write nonfiction, they copywrite, they edit, they tutor…there are lots of trades that use a writer’s skillset.

More often than not in today’s publishing world, I see people who have fingers in lots of different pies and who cobble together a cohesive livelihood from lots of separate but related income streams. And not just writers or illustrators do this. I know of agents who freelance edit and editors who teach classes on the side, too. I think this is smart, actually. With multiple income streams, you face less risk of your only cash flow drying up.

Not everyone has the temperament to freelance or to multitask like this, though. There are also a lot of writers who hold down full-time or part-time desk jobs and have a steady income (plus health insurance!) while they publish their work. When you’re considering how to become a novelist, this multi-stream approach is the way to go.

The Feasibility of Quitting Your Day Job for Writing

But in terms of locking down how to become a bestselling author and quitting your day job the next day…that kind of thinking needs a writing reality check. (Consider this: after your initial deal is struck, your editor and agent can sometimes spend months negotiating the finer points of your contract…then it might spend months getting drawn up by the contracts department…then it’ll go to accounting and it’ll take more months, in the worst case, to get your signing check. What’s a signing check? Sometimes it’ll be 50% of your advance (less your agent’s 15%, of course) but, these days, more often than not, your publisher has structured payouts so that you’ll only get a third or a quarter of your money upon signing the contract. On the other hand, the glacial pace at which publishing moves does mean you’ll have a lot of time to grovel your way back into your former-but-soon-to-be-again employer’s good graces after you impulsively quit!)

I’m always on the side of cautious optimism (hence this writing reality check), so I urge you all to have a stable source of income, even when you do end up selling your work. And, seriously, if you’re doing something that you hate for a salary, do something else. You never know how long you’ll need it.

* Updated 8/18/2011: From Stephen King’s On Writing, page 238. Thanks so much for finding this, Garbo!

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36 Replies to “How to Become a Bestselling Author”

  1. The writers I know are so dedicated to their art…working in the wee hours of the morning or night to get another chapter done while balancing the rest of life.

  2. Makes sense. And I’m a stay-at-home mom, so I, you know, CAN’T quit my day job:)

  3. Thanks for giving it to us straight. I’ll break the bad news to my husband.

    But seriously, I think the best part about earning a lot of money would be that it would give me more time to write.

  4. I agree we all hunger to be the next Steven King or Stephanie Myers but lets get real. I write as much as I can and as often as I can. Nursing is my other job. Sometimes it feels like I lead two different lives.

  5. A great reality check, and one that I think anyone who seriously wants to be a writer needs to accept.

    You do it cause it’s your passion and not for fame or fortune.

    I’ll still dream though lol.

  6. All — But like I said, a lot of people make a living with writing-related work. And the more you publish, the more income streams (each book) you’ll have. This guy was asking about the FIRST.

    I think working a second job while trying to publish is great training, actually. Like Marybk says, you fit your art in when you can, you get a great work ethic…and when you do have more income from writing and therefore more time to write, you’ll use that time wisely and productively.

  7. Great advice. If you’re doing something you hate – well life is too short to spend your days doing something you hate. Imo anyway.

  8. Even though I know this, my husband asks me all the time “So, how much will you make if you get published?” and I tell him “We’ll be filthy rich,” to which he replies “Carry on. . . ”

    Otherwise, he might tell me to focus more on my day job. Poo. Who wants to hear that?

  9. You must have been reading my mind today. Of course I knew it wasn’t realistic, but it is nice to think about, especially if it’s something your truly love to do. Too bad it’s rare to make a full-fledged career out of it…oh well…*sigh*…Have to keep working to make that day job interesting 🙂

  10. From memory, I think it was at least a year after Harry Potter’s publication that J.K. Rowling got even a hint of serious money heading her way, and then only with the sale of the film rights. That would have been two or three years after signing her contract, I guess.

  11. Golly, I sure wish someone would have mentioned this to me sooner. There goes my five year plan. I suppose I better cancel the start date for the mansion construction. 😉

    Seriously, if you want instant fame and fortune, writing isn’t the place to find it. Writing isn’t a get-rich-quick kind of thing. It’s not even a get-rich-slow kind of thing. It’s more of a get-a-bit-of-money-to-help-pay-the-bills-if-you’re-lucky-enough-to-get-a-contract kind of thing. 😉

    Thanks for the reality check even though it doesn’t pay as much as I’d like. =)

  12. Oh. Snap.

    I totally need to rethink that Vegas timeshare. And the gold plated iPad. And the pony stable.

    Sheesh. Next, you’ll be telling me a middle grade version of ULYSSES won’t sell.


    I’m walking into this biz with eyes wide open. I won’t be leaving my library gig anytime soon. 🙂

  13. jmartin- but if a lot of underpaid debut writers went in on the timeshare, they could maybe get A pony, right? I mean, a how much can a miniature one eat? : )

    Mary, thanks for the numbers. It’s interesting how few people realize that a contract does not equal instant fortune. I was actually surprised (in a good way) that the number of authors living off their books alone is as high as it is.

  14. Thanks for the reality check. We all need that once in a while! One can dream, though…

  15. Makes sense. I wouldn’t have quit my job anyway–it’s too much of a risk. But helpful post, as usual!

  16. Erica Olson says:

    Yeah, but what about us teachers? We love our jobs. But the income is replaceable by, like, a garage sale.

  17. Natalie Aguirre says:

    I’ve often thought about this realty check and have known I’d have to keep my career as an attorney as well as write. Like you say, there are too many uncertainties if you need to support a family. And health insurance is a big benefit of a job. I’m glad to see that agents understand this reality and will hopefully one day help me to juggle two demanding jobs.

  18. I’d love to know how many writers find their creativity is negatively affected when they have tonnes of time to write. I’ve had not much on work-wise for the last month and have not managed half as much, children’s-writing wise, as I do when I’m trying to squeeze it in between doing ‘real’ work.

  19. Great ideas on things authors can do to supplement their income.

    I think it’s funny how people kind of assume that once an author is published, they’re automatically rolling in money. I’m friends with enough authors to understand that the big, big deals are hard to come by, especially in the world of children’s writing, or small press publishing. But it never fails that whenever my family brings up my writing, they get starry eyed and act like I’m going to get millions right out of the gate.

    I suppose I should be grateful that they have so much faith in me. Either that, or they’re all hoping I’ll buy them new cars for Christmas. Or a vacation house in Hawaii. I hope they’ll survive with a copy of my book instead.

  20. Light-hearted but with a serious message. Thanks. Great article. Really enjoyed it. But, as I think someone has already said, it’s nice to dream.

  21. Great reality check and good overall advice. I’m not sure where people get the idea authors are living the good life, clearly someone’s done some good PR.

    Writing is a job. If you enjoy writing it’s a good job, but it’s still a job.

    I think people got the idea writing was something of a wealthy man’s profession in the days before computers made working from home a realistic possibility for many people. Writers were one of the few jobs you could, and usually did, away from the office or factory.

    But that doesn’t mean it’s easy money.

  22. Siddhartha — Your point is VERY astute. Writing IS a job. The schedule is flexible but all of the successful authors I know sit down at the keyboard and keep regular “business hours” when they do nothing but write and revise.

  23. Jenn Jones says:

    Oh, but I would love to do nothing but write and revise!

  24. For me Melissa Ethridge says it best:

    “I find some sanity on the written page. Where life is worth more than a living wage…”

  25. I’ve had four books published, and I won’t be quitting until I net enough to afford private healthcare insurance. And that? Well, it won’t be happening any time soon.

  26. Thanks for keeping us grounded. I hear this mantra fairly often, whether at conferences, Twitter, or in the blogosphere. Too many folks still think they can hit the mother lode but that just doesn’t exist. So much of this is dependent on your CONTINUED writing and producing quality writing people will buy. Writing isn’t for wimps!

  27. When I was an undergrad, I used to say that I wanted a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer (I was an English/Bio double major). Now, I just want health insurance and a book in the store with my name on the cover. 🙂 There will be some serious happy-dance going on if I work my way to that second goal, even if writing is always a “second job.”

  28. Greta Marlow says:

    Let’s assume I someday am fortunate enough to get this first book published. I know I won’t make enough to quit my teaching job (and let’s face it, I wouldn’t want to). The thing that scares me, though, is the expectations of how quickly I should be able to produce a second or third book. I know an agent needs a writer to get something else ready in a timely-enough manner that the agent can make some money too. But since the teaching job is the one that pays the bills, it has to take priority. How much time are agents generally willing to give someone to get a second manuscript ready?

  29. I retired from my marketing job at a telecom company to focus on my personal writing. A month later the economy turned and I took a job as a copywriter and editor for a web publishing company. But, I can now say I make my living as a writer, even though the salary is less than half of what I used to make. I supplement with freelance writing and workshops.

  30. All I want is a new mattress and a trip to Australia. I’ll give the rest of the advance to charity, I promise!

  31. Erin Edwards says:

    This is the best reality check I’ve seen. Because it is not only a reality check, it tells a writer how they *can* make a living while writing.

    *I saw that statistic somewhere recently too! I checked, but couldn’t find it.

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