How to Make a Living as a Writer


by Gary Smailes


So you want to make a living as a writer? Well despite what some writers will have you believe traditional publishing still offers writers a realistic chance of making a living as a writer. However, it’s not easy and it takes some planning, but it can be done. So here’s how to make a living as a writer…


The Tools Needed to Make a Living as a [Traditionally Published] Writer



To build any kind of meaningful discussion, I am going to need to work with generalisations. Forgive me for this, I know there are exceptions to these rules, but I have tried to stick to ‘real life’ as far as possible.

The first generalisation is that most books deals begin with an advance.This is a sum of money, paid by the publishers, to the writer prior to a book’s publication. This advance is exactly that, an advanced payment of royalties the book will (or should) earn. It is possible to negotiate a deal without an advance, but if an agent is involved then an advance will almost certainly be paid.

This brings us to our second generalisation, the size of the advance. Once again these vary greatly and depend on the book’s potential market, the writer’s potential selling power and the agent’s ability to negotiate. However, as a general rule of thumb, an advance for a debut novel will be anywhere between £500 and £10,000 (or more). Advances tend to be paid in two instalments. The first is on signature of the contract, the second is on delivery of the manuscript. Since we are generalising, I am going to use a figure of £5000 per book. In the US it is pretty safe to work with a figure of $10,000 per book.



A royalty is the amount of money that a writer receives for each book that is sold. This sounds simple in theory but is painfully complex in practice. The writer will receive a percentage of… something. It may be the cover price or the price at which the book is sold to the trade, or something else determined by the publisher. Add to this, differing rates for different vendors, varying digital models and promotions and you can quickly see a complex mess of confusion arising from the gloom.

I know this will be controversial, but I would not build royalty payments, beyond your advance, into your immediate calculations. Many books never sell enough copies to earn back the money that a writer has been paid as an advance, and those that do often don’t start paying out until after a full year of sales (if not more). In short royalties are important, but when starting out it is dangerous to rely on royalty cheques to pay the bills.



Rights, be them foreign or film, are potentially a rich source of income for writers. The problem is that they are unpredictable and often beyond the control of writers. Agents and publishers will wrangle over the rights when a contract is negotiated, and then proceed to try and sell them through their own departments or third party companies. Whether a writer is luckily enough to sell additional rights is largely in the lap of the gods. However, a general rule of thumb (more generalisations, sorry) is that the better a book sells in the home territory (UK, US etc.), the easier the rights will be to sell.

Foreign rights are often the key for many writers to making a full time living. Foreign rights are the rights for a book to be published and sold in another country. What normally happens is a foreign publishing house will pay an upfront, a one off fee for the rights to publish the book. In addition, the writer will also receive a percentage of future sales, in essence a second royalty stream. In terms of figures, we are once again into the realm of generalisations, but you are probably talking £5,000, rather than £50,000. However, three or four foreign rights sales and the writer’s income suddenly starts to become attractive.

Film rights are another potential source of income. What tends to happen here is that a film maker will option a writer’s book. This means a lump of cash is paid for an exclusive period of time in which the book can be turned into a film. If the period lapses, and no film has been made, the rights revert back to the writer (but they keep the cash). So how much can a writer expect to get for an option? The answer is – it varies. The better the book sells in the real world, the higher the option price. You hear stores of hundreds of thousands being paid, but in general terms, for a first time writer, it is more likely to be in the tens of thousands.


How To Make a Living as a Writer

The blueprint for becoming a full time writer is complex and is based, largely, on luck. Chip MacGregor, a US agent, suggests the three rule system.

  • 1. You need to have four-to-six books earning you a royalty.
  • 2. You need to have 18 months to 2 years of book contracts.
  • 3. You need to have a plan in place.

Let’s take these rules one at a time:

Four to six books earning a royalty: If you are receiving about £5000 advance for each book you write, then you have two options. You either write quickly, or accept that you need to build a portfolio of books before you can give up your day job. Some genres lend themselves to writing lots of books in a small space of time. Many children’s writers earn a living doing just this, with a short books being written as quickly as one a month. Yet, this is not an option for other genres, such as adult Fiction. However, if you accept that you are in this for the long term, then you can turn your attention to building a portfolio books. This way you only need a few books, to each be earning a couple of grand in royalties each year for a full time writing career to become a realistic option.

Book contracts in the bag: If you are able to write one book every six to eight months, and are able to secure a contract for two or three books, you will suddenly have enough advance money in the bank to buy you time to write. This may seem a distant and unlikely dream, but if you are to become a full time writer, then writing needs to be your career. For this to happen you need book deals.

Have a plan: Here Chip is saying that you need to think like a full time writer. You need to see writing as your job. Capturing ideas, delivering manuscripts, networking, building a fan base, blogging, accounts, tax records, signings and events are all part of the process. You need to know this and plan accordingly. You need to set mile stones, you need real goals and targets. You need to take it seriously. If you want to be a full time writer, then you need to think and act like a full time writer.

So this brings me full circle and I am left with one niggling question, do full time writers really exist?

The answer, I suppose, is yes. Remove the bestsellers, Dan Brown, J.K. Rowling and the like, from the equation and you are left with a group of writers who can earn enough income from writing to give up their day job. Yet, the reality is that most writers write on a part time basis, and are happy to do so. Most professional writers write AND do something else.

This leaves me pondering that maybe we have become obsessed with the goal of writing full time. Is this dream just that – an obsession with a romantic dream? We think of Thomas Hardy or Roald Dahl, locked away, labouring for their art. Is this are vision of a writer? Have we painted ourselves an unrealistic picture of what being a professional writer really means?




Guest post contributed by Gary Smailes. Gary has a wide experience of the publishing industry and, over the years, has worked as a freelance writer, historian and researcher. He has more than twenty books in print and is represented by agent Andrew Lownie. He’s also the founder of BubbleCow.