If part of your personal definition of writing success includes making a living from your writing, here’s the good news: you can build a successful career as an author in many ways.
To do so, you must think of your work as a business. Your books are your products, and your readers are your customers—and books don’t sell themselves. Are you willing to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit to make a living from your writing?
This question doesn’t just apply to indie authors, who must finance the production and marketing of their own books. The rise of independent publishing has eaten into the profits of traditional publishers, leading publishing houses to make major cuts in their marketing departments.
Though trade authors do benefit from their agents’ guidance and their publishers’ expertise, many must still take charge of spreading the word about their books.
How you go about marketing your work and building your readership will depend largely on the work you create. Though every author’s experience will be unique, most writers tend to build their careers around one of four business models that aligns with their writing niche and interests.
If you plan to publish for profit, choosing the business model that’s right for you and your work is an essential step in setting yourself up for a successful career.
The Four Elements of an Author Business Model
A business model is a plan for the successful operation of a business and is comprised of four major elements: products, income streams, customer base, and financing.
An author’s products are the books they write and any related products they sell and/or services they offer. Some products can have multiple income streams. For example, a single book can lead to income from print, e-book, audiobook, large-print, and workbook editions.
Other author income streams include foreign language and media rights, teaching and services, appearances and speaking gigs, and patronage.
An author’s customer base is, of course, their readership—especially their ideal reader—while their financing indicates how they’ll pay for book production and marketing expenses, career-related travel, and other business costs.
If you’ve read through the previous chapters in this book, you’ve already defined the types of stories you’re interested in writing and the readership you’d like to build.
You’ve also decided whether you or a publishing house will finance your production expenses. The remainder of this chapter will help you define how you’ll build income streams by breaking down the most common ways authors make their livings.
BUSINESS MODEL 1: HIGH-VOLUME PUBLISHING
With high-volume publishing, authors focus on building income via book sales by publishing frequently — often several times a year — in highly commercial markets.
For fiction, the most commercial works are novels that adhere to strict genre conventions. These books are often referred to as “genre fiction,” “commercial fiction,” or “pulp fiction.” High-volume fiction can still fall into niches within popular genres — such as paranormal romance, international thrillers, or sword-and-sorcery fantasy — but those niches should be well established and thriving.
The most commercial nonfiction works are short prescriptive or self-help books that guide readers in resolving pain points in their personal or professional lives. Popular topics include self-development, spirituality, technology, hobbies, finance, relationships, and health.
Authors who choose high-volume publishing are often able to support themselves on book sales alone after establishing their backlists, though ongoing marketing techniques are often essential to their continued success. Examples of authors who use this business model successfully include Nora Roberts, Adam Croft, H.M. Ward, Lisa Kleypas, and Rick Riordan.
This is the first and only author business model that features income streams based entirely on book sales. As I mentioned in the previous chapter, it’s rare that an author makes a living from book sales alone, especially in the early years of their careers. The three remaining business models in this chapter show how you can build a writing career even if your personal definition of writing success doesn’t see you relying on high-volume publishing.
BUSINESS MODEL 2: PUBLISHING AND TEACHING
Another way to build a writing career that’s popular among nonfiction authors is to supplement book sales with teaching. Typically, an author positions themselves as an authority on a topic and publishes books related to this topic while supplementing that income with speaking, consulting, and/or selling relevant products such as digital workbooks, video courses, and online workshops.
This is the business model I currently employ for my nonfiction work. As of publication time, I make the bulk of my income from digital products, which was the focus of my original creative business plan. I’m now transforming my business model to focus on publishing while continuing to use these products as supplemental income.
Many other models exist within the teaching umbrella that you can use as a basis for your creative business. Some nonfiction authors use book sales to supplement their speaking or consulting income rather than the other way around. Some publish a series of related books, while others use one book as the basis of their teaching empire. Others operate under an entirely different model.
Before creating your road map to writing success in chapter 25, research these and other business models to determine which one fits you best. This can be as simple as entering “nonfiction business model” into your search engine of choice and reading the results.
Examples of authors who use this business model successfully include Julia Cameron, Mark Dawson, Joanna Penn, Mel Robbins, and SARK.
BUSINESS MODEL 3: PUBLISHING AND PATRONAGE
Many less prolific authors, especially those writing literary or upmarket fiction, turn to patronage to supplement their publishing income. Patronage can come in the form of grants and fellowships, residencies, or direct-from-reader support via sites such as Patreon.
In recent years, the award money earned from winning literary prizes has also proven a patronage of sorts for some authors.
Examples of authors who use this business model successfully include George Saunders, N. K. Jemisin, Seanan McGuire, and Saladin Ahmed.
BUSINESS MODEL 4: SUPPORTED PUBLISHING
One of the surest ways to build a writing career is to publish while supporting your career with a standard day job until your backlist and author platform are strong enough to support themselves. This is a different business model than high-volume publishing.
Though your focus remains solely on book sales, you don’t have to publish at a high volume to build your career. You can, over many years, build a strong backlist and use smart marketing techniques to forge a stable writing career that will one day prove lucrative enough to replace your day job.
This slow-and-steady approach is frequently favored by fiction writers who don’t want to pursue high-volume publishing and who don’t write in niches that allow for teaching or traditional patronage. This business model is also the most common approach writers take to building their careers.
Many authors, even best-sellers, still hold day jobs as they build their backlists and publishing income. There’s no shame in this. A stable day job is a fantastic investment in your writing career. The steady income allows you to focus on writing rather than whether your book sales will cover your bills. In turn, you’ll build your best writing life more quickly.
Some writers escape their corporate day jobs by building creative businesses in addition to their writing careers or by pursuing freelance writing, all while slowly building their backlists. This is a form of supported publishing as well, since that income is entirely separate from book publishing and requires its own business model.
Examples of authors who use this business model successfully include Anne Rice (former insurance claims examiner), Diana Gabaldon (former university professor), Haruki Murakami (former jazz club manager), and John Green (former publishing assistant and production editor).
Which Business Model Is Right for You?
This depends on your personal definition of writing success. For example, if you want to publish a large backlist of books within your favorite fiction or nonfiction genre, consider a high-volume business model. If you want to build a creative business as an authority in your field, then pursue a model that allows you to publish and teach.
Supplementing your publishing income with patronage might be a great option if you’d prefer to write literary or upmarket books. Last but not least, you can always support your publishing dreams with a full- or part-time job if you’d rather slowly but surely build your writing career.
Note that the lines between these business models can blur. Many writers support their high-volume publishing with a day job until they’ve established their backlist. Some nonfiction authors and teachers use patronage to build a community with their readers and students. Other writers pursue separate brands and business models as they write in two or more different niches.
Hopefully, in reviewing the four business models outlined in this chapter, you’ll find one that clearly aligns with your niche and interests. However, you can also blend elements of several business models into one that works best for you and your creative mission.
ACTIVITY: DEFINE YOUR AUTHORIAL BUSINESS MODEL
Consider what writing success means to you, as well as which publishing path and business model (or blend of elements from several business models) is right for you and your work. With these items in mind, answer the following questions:
- What products will I produce as an author?
- Which authorial income streams will I pursue?
- Who is my intended market?
- How will I finance my business operations?
Answer these questions in as much detail as you can. The more specific you are about your business model, the clearer your road map to writing success will be.
Remember that building a writing career is a marathon endeavor. Most writing careers take years — even decades — to build, and that can be a tough pill to swallow.
It might be tempting to pursue a high-volume business model simply because it’s the fastest route to an income based solely on book sales, but if you aren’t passionate about writing within a highly commercial genre, you’re going to burn out fast. And because you aren’t writing from a place of passion, any books you do publish likely won’t hold the same appeal as those written by authors who love their work.
No matter what, don’t let the lengthy business timeline of publishing frighten you away from pursuing your writing dreams. If making a living with your writing is an essential element in your personal definition of writing success, then it’s worth pursuing.
You certainly won’t become the writer you want to be without getting started, so choose the author business model that’s right for you, then get to work. You’ve got a career to build, writer.