116 Comments

Great article putting into reality the rarity of being able to make a living by writing. My perspective though, is this can be extrapolated to many different industries. Less than 1% of college athletes make it to the pros. The vast majority of podcasts make no money. Very few restaurants survive long term and become sustainable. Most endeavors tend to fail.

But the ones that become successful are the ones that stay with it consistently for a very long time. I’d imagine most writers that don’t make money are those that haven’t spent 10+ years writing. I know I saw a statistic that the majority of podcasts never make it past 20 episodes.

I find it hard to believe that if you stick with something consistently over many years, you can’t become at least sustainably successful. The hardest part overcoming the mental challenge of delayed gratification.

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Creative success is a war of attrition.

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Gary Vaynerchuk famously says, "eat crap for a decade, before measuring your success."

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I agree with this and it's also been my perspective (14+ years writing). I think consistency has to win the day in the end.

Also, if you just keep going, people will drop out until only you're left! :).

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Great point. After 14 years, I’m sure you have picked up a few very easily applied skills that make you a great writer. Even without working that hard, 14 years of consistent work will force you to learn something of benefit making you way ahead of everyone else with less time in. Not saying that directed at you as I’m sure you’ve worked hard! :) I’m just making a broad point that even if you didn’t work very hard, after a decade or two you’re bound to get pretty good.

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I agree- I think that's a great point!

I had the privilege of ghostwriting professionally in those 14 years, and I ended up writing some bestsellers. I think that only came about through consistency. In those 14 years I chose to sacrifice "platform" so I could hone the skill. Some might have thought that was the wrong move. Even after such a long time writing, publishers are still not really interested in picking me up because I don't have the built-in platform. But yet I really believe it was the right move. Most of my most favorite writers were "late bloomers" when it comes to being published. In fact, I'd venture to say that most of the world's best writers only got published around 40+. I think this is one industry where it pays off to stick with it.

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You sound like Michael Malice, whom I look up to. He ghostwrote for a White Midwestern MMA fighter and a Black Southern Comedian, before going on to get big in selfpublishing and with a major publisher for his own work. He's blown up now. It helps to have been on Rogan multiple times, and other podcasts, most recently Andrew Schulz.

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Oh that’s great! I’m going to check him out.

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Probably one of those industries that takes that long to master. And even a layperson is able to spot bad writing so it’s an extremely harsh environment. Very few writers without much experience could impress many people.

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Well said Jacob, it's a general pattern.

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Agreed. I heard something similar about venture capitalists. They make 100 relatively small bets investing money in 100 different companies and only one will become Uber or Airbnb. But, the one bet that works out pays off the 99 bets that didn't return anything.

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Summary: books monetize existing cultural status. If you have little, you earn little. BUT...the odds are better than ever of producing small side revenue streams of ever-growing profitability IF you publish on Kindle - 70% royalty rate and can do your own PR and push and push and generate 1000-5000 unit sales per year per title. It's not enough to live on without a backlist, but it's not trivial side income, and it was NOT possible to generate this side income as easily before KDP without striking a vein of gold like What Color is Your Parachute (one of the most successful self-published books ever written) did in the 1970s. As of 2022, KDP claims they have thousands of books making $50K+ in royalties and 2,000 making $100K... If you want to earn a living as a writer...you have to market your own book anyways, so why not earn 3-5X the royalties for a little admin work as the publisher? For the record, my KDP business book earns about $12K a year steadily. It may be the best I ever do; who knows? But 5 books at $10K in annual royalties is the new model...Once you fail to earn out the first advance, you'll likely never see that figure again. Self-publishing allows you to build momentum on small wins.

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Thanks for sharing this insight.

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Thanks for sharing this insight. I have been considering this route, and doing my own audiobook(s).

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Audiobooks generally make up 8-12% of total sales…so, look at your volume now and multiply by 1.08 or 1.12 to see if this lift is worth it. I have a powerpoint deck I did for another group on how to make your own ACX recording. Happy to send it to you (DM your e-mail). The approach I used cost me $2800 and requires you be willing to hire a podcast engineer to go through the raw chapter audio. It’s the second cheapest way, other than doing your own sound engineering (ACX is extremely picky).

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James, let's say you write something and then you package it either as KDP or a series of articles here on Substack. Which model do you think is more lucrative long-term?

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You'd have to run some formulas in Excel and play around...

KDP example : $7 royalty open $8.99 Kindle or $19.95 paperback * # units per year (forecast)

Substack = # of paid subscriptions triggered per year to access the paywalled series...*45 (low-ball)

1 Substack subscription = 6-7 typical KDP units sold online and distributed by Amazon

If Substack paid subscriber % is 5% (normal), then 1,000 subscribers = 50 paid = 300 units

I sell about 2,000 units a year on Amazon -

To pull this off with a paid article or book behind the paywall, I would need to sell 500 paid subscriptions (every year). My list would have to GROW 10,000 subscribers a year to equal what I'm generating as a small-fry profitable KDP author.

There are very few topics on Substack that grow subscriber bases that fast (AI, writing on Substack, growing on Substack, tech, extreme political opinion).

My gut tells me that selling books on KDP is vastly more profitable long-term IF your backlist keeps selling (due to a Substack newsletter).

I've offered a 50% off coupon in my Kindle and printed book (the new book) and will see if ANY reverb can occur...

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Thank you! About to finish my book to help couples repair after an affair. (A pretty common, acute crisis that heals better with some intervention.) Breaking out the math here really helps. Thanks again.

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Thank you for doing all those calculations. I'm a newcomer to the writing world, I wrote technical stuff, but that's not the same. Lots of things for me to learn here.

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With enough smarts, hard work, and determination, you too can buy a cultural yacht, live in a cultural mansion, and date cultural supermodels.

This is the Better American Dream (TM)

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author

My cultural mansion has an ant problem

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Your cultural mansion hosts weekly ragers for all the coolest people on Substack.

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I just want to know when I can cash in all that "Experience" for bitcoin.

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I'm sure I've heard of some blockchain projects trying to make that happen.

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For how long have writers expected to “make a living by writing”? Just as early scientists were aristocrats or at least otherwise-employed, I suspect most poets and novelists were civil servants, magistrates, idly rich, performing odd jobs, etc. The explosion in unrealistic expectations (which must exist in order for numbers like these to surprise or dishearten anyone) is a symptom of the same trend toward professionalization you’ve touched on in your writings on becoming a successful scientist and the MFA-ification of literature. These are luxury pursuits! The fact that people can be scandalized by the precarity of a life in the arts is a sign that we live in very decadent times.

The enterprising young bard who really can’t stand the idea of doing anything else should probably seek patronage like rhapsodists and skalds of old.

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May 29Liked by Erik Hoel

Interesting insight (and numbers). Thank you for sharing this.

Two reactions:

1) I came to a similar realization, about physics. From when I was 11 or 12 until I was 18, I didn't know if I wanted to pursue physics or engineering. When I told people that I might want to become a physicist when I grew up, people reacted with excitement and encouragement (and books by Carl Sagan, Richard Feynman, Kip Thorne, John Gribbin...). I eventually chose engineering... and then I realized that I had dodged a bullet:

The number of physicists in research institutions in the US* is so small! (*let alone in other countries, most of which have even less physics research per capita). There are probably as many research physicists in the US as there are players in the NBA, almost certainly fewer than there are players in the NFL. If a kid says that they want to play basketball or football professionally when they grow up, most adults will discourage the idea: It's unrealistic, the job market is way too small and competitive, too much luck is required. But if a kid tells you that they want to become a physicist or any other kind of academic, they are encouraged! The job market in academia is just as small and competitive as professional sports! (I now know multiple people trying to make it as professors, and, man, it's tough). I wish someone had told me this when I was younger.

2) You said that you "wouldn’t want people to stop majoring in English Literature, Dance, or Fine Arts...". I feel conflicted about this. As an engineer who got a minor in dance... You pretty much only have one shot at a Bachelor's. I know multiple people who later got a second one, but they will be the first to say that this is borderline impractical and that they wish they had "got it right" the first time. Yes, it may not be realistic to expect 18-year-olds to make a good decision about what career they want. However, if you only have one shot at a Bachelor's, I would think that you'd want one that sets you up for a good career. So I have to admit that a major in dance (unless it's a double-major along with something else) feels to me like a little bit of a wasted opportunity.

I don't mean to devalue the humanities: Although I'm an engineer, my photography has been published in National Geographic, I have self-published two books for fun, which I also illustrated (They will never make much money but I got a lot of meaningful satisfaction from writing them, and I'm already working on the next one), I've taken courses in creative writing and drawing, I read books about philosophy and economics and politics and history (and physics, and the occasional novel), I go to a lot of concerts, I love dance... In high school and college, I took more arts and humanities classes than were required for those respective degrees. And these are all things that I hope to continue developing for the rest of my life.

But a major... If you only get one... And they're not cheap...

(Or maybe I'm just too risk-averse. But the hours that I've spent flying aerobatics arguably indicate otherwise).

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Really like your take that ... They will never make much money but I got a lot of meaningful satisfaction from writing them...

Sometimes talented people who don't make it in academia despite initial attempts and then pursue a different career provide some of the most interesting creative content.

Sabine Hossenfelder (physics) comes to mind, who switched to become a YouTuber on serious topics.

Or Grant Sanderson a ka "3Brown1Blue" (mathematics), whose visual animated videos are among the best explainers of complex, abstract topics out there.

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This research lines up with my own. I'll add to this that in non-fiction, what you don't see behind those advances is that the author is still expected to pay a large chunk for promotion. Corporate publishers give you 1. Credibility, 2. Editing, 3. Marginal promotion.

I've been approached by several companies who help with promotion and found out that for $100,000 almost anyone can get on the NYT or WSJ best seller lists as well as best sellers on Amazon, B&N and others. They offer ghost writing even.

In one conversation the person asked me why I had a co-author. I explained that we were writing the book together. Her response was "Oh, normally it's to share expenses." Because the goal of non-fiction isn't to make money... It's to be a best selling author that you, in turn, monetize with speaking gigs, invitations, consulting, being a board member, and dozens of other potential revenue streams.

The book isn't the product. The book is the advertisement for a portfolio of products whether real or reputational.

Same goes for fiction. I can be a best selling author. The question is how much do I want to invest to get there.

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Comes the psychedelic revolution, comradski.

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May 28Liked by Erik Hoel

Have you considered base rates? I imagine there are many more people trying to make a lot of money than there are people trying to be a professional author. So conditional on attempting to achieve the thing, perhaps the odds for being an author aren't so bad.

Overall this is a really interesting approach. It would be great to see it routinely applied by careers advisors for a range of careers: tenured professors, lawyers, physicians, actors, screenwriters, etc

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author

I'm definitely interested in whether this is a broader phenomenon. The numbers are so close I was wondering if there is some sort of deep structural complexity phenomenon that keeps pools like this (across various fields) at less than a thousand.

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I think it's called "the profit motive."

This is why I stick to fan fic. I'll never write a book that sells, and the fact is you get more reads posting for free on a fan fic board than you do self-publishing on Amazon and having no money or knowhow to promote. Plus the money you make is exactly the same!!!

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As a longtime professional (union) actor and coach, I have definitely seen the curve turn sharply upwards after the first wave of tidal-reality years sweep through, and those who, as you say, 'try to make a lot of money' decide the reward is just not worth the effort. In my actors' union an average of 98% of membership are NOT working at any particular time -- which probably fits into the aforementioned paradigm. And it has struck me silly over the last, oh, 15-20 years how much more emotionally unprepared (I was going to say delusional) are those who've been brought up through social media and its promise of so many gently floating boats...

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Living the dream of working a chill-enough day job that wards off money worries but still leaves me enough time and energy to write.

Now I just have to find a fashionably foreign-sounding term for this so I can seem more glamorous when I introduce myself at parties.

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I recommend checking out Nassim Taleb's book Antifragile if you haven't already. The book touches heaily on risk-taking, and there is a chapter in which he introduces something he calls the "barbell strategy". The strategy is what you mentioned: taking career risks "on the side" while you have a stable job. (He also applies it to investing... holding most of your money in cash while reserving a small percentage for extreme risks.) He points out that many renowned authors and thinkers did this (e.g. Kakfa worked in insurance and Spinoza was a lens maker). Taleb himself made his fortune as an options trader before retiring in his 40s to write his books (which have all sold very well). The beauty of the strategy is that you retain all of the upside (in theory) while limiting your downside.

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Yes! I think he recommends taxi driving (or some other field that doesn't mentally tax you by day).

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Yes, but to some, the downside to that path is that they won't achieve their dreams at peak youth, which for some, is the only time that truly matters.

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Substitute Teaching doesn't pay that well but it's enough to survive on if you can can a job to supplement during the summer months. Ofc you still have to worry about health insurance

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I've done subbing for years. Great company which includes Lin Manuel Miranda and (albeit he did it just to write a book about it) Human Smoke author Nicholson Baker.

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This is depressing but it tracks: I know an author of fantasy novels successful enough to get deals for multiple trilogies, but she's not making enough off it to support herself.

The caveat: your title should specify "making a living by writing *books*". Print journalists (including magazine writers) also make a living by writing, as do the more famous Substackers. I'd be interested to see the numbers on those too, but I have to imagine that even now there are still more than 600 people making a living as print journalists in the United States.

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I read this while procrastinating on my book deadline.

Worst. Decision. Ever.

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This is a topic I've thought about occasionally over the years and have made guesses based on anecdote, gossip, and the sales numbers that I know for sure by certain authors. I always guessed there were less than 100 and maybe even less than 50 "literary" writers making a living solely by writing. And by "literary," I mean the genre of books that end up competing for National Book Awards, Pulitzers. PEN Faulkners, and such. The non-celebrity writers making a living are primarily writing mysteries, thrillers, sci fi, and non-fiction.

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author

That would be my read it on as well. I would not be shocked at less than 50.

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Would you a broke Bard or a mute Musk?

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How is this changing with Substack and the “influencer” version of writing?

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author

An interesting question. I wonder if it's a lot like the change in "self-made" billionaires since the 80s, a percentage that has increased significantly over time, probably as companies became easier to start by being tech or code-based. I would guess Substack is both expanding the pool of writers who make a living (including myself, thanks to paid subscribers) but also shifting it more toward "self-made" in the general sense of not coming from significant connections (e.g., many prominent authors have parents who just so happen to have their own wikipedia page, etc).

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The cultural billionaires thing also made me think of all the mediums attracting writers that aren't specifically books. Video games, movies, and series all have huge demand for talent, so the total population of people making a living as a writer may be much larger than ever in the past...just not in books, apparently.

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Agreed. My guess is that Substack / social media is still in the early days and can easily 10x this.

Writing means different things now. I could write about technical AI topics and make a living. Previously, I would probably need to be a teacher.

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In my hometown of Irkutsk, there is a place where artists send paintings. About 50% of those paintings just so happen to be of Shaman-Kamen, a rock on Lake Baikal. These are mostly souvenirs for tourists too classy for fridge magnets and T-shirts. Now, I wouldn't call painting the same view of the same rock (although admittedly a good view of a cool-looking rock) "making it in the artistic world", but authors still pay the bills by putting paint on canvases. At least in the narrow technical sense, they are making a living through art.

There are some people feeding themselves with literaly equivalent of these paintings. Endless isekai vampire romance novels or some such shit that isn't good enough for paper publishing. Again, not exactly the height of literary achievement, but it is still fiction. Apparently a particularly prolific (and not hopelessly untalented) author can make a living by selling directly to their readers via print-on-demand or Kindle store. In adjacent areas, someone needs to write the copy for third-rate mobile games or screenplays for cheap TV series. Even porn usually involves characters and plot elements and putting words in certain order, which I guess someone at some point had to write.

(I specifically exclude nonfiction - someone like Scott Alexander competes mostly with journalists, not book authors)

My point is, I guess, that "Making a living by writing institutionally respected highbrow prose is as difficult as becoming a billionaire, but making a living by writing anything that sells is about as difficult as becoming regular kind of rich".

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I'd say it's very hard to make a living writing "vampire novels" or whatever kind of writing you'd consider pandering to the masses. The reality is turning creative writing into cash is a hard business.

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My point is, I guess, that "Making a living by writing institutionally respected highbrow prose is as difficult as becoming a billionaire, but making a living by writing anything that sells is about as difficult as becoming regular kind of rich".

Very well said.

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Jun 29·edited Jun 29Liked by Erik Hoel

Thank you for this -- though perhaps I shouldn't, since it's depressing!

I know a few college writing programs had honesty about the long odds (my wife's small liberal arts college did). But most are silent, or waive their hands a little about it. But statistics alone don't convince young minds: they're all thinking "I'm the exception; I'm the one who will win the lottery." That seems especially true of (liberal) middle-class Millennials such as myself: we were all told (brainwashed) weekly, daily, hourly, in school and at home: do what you love; pursue your passion; follow your dreams. And then you're told that the most valuable important people in the world, with the most cultural capital, are writers and artists... what's the inevitable consequence, but a ton of very disappointed people.

I was told to do science instead, and did so, but the numbers there are only an order of magnitude better (maybe another article for you?). The chance of becoming tenure-track faculty at a prestigious school (and maybe writing books then...) are not what anyone told us either -- and it was probably 90% fore-ordained the moment we picked an undergrad school (you can only go down in prestige when you get a job).

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You might want to state that this is trad publishing only. There are a lot of self published authors making a living, and some making a considerable living.

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I'll add that it would have been helpful for him to state this at the very top of the article. I was so confused reading this at first because I have an MFA and I made a living on writing alone even before I expanded into courses. And, I know lots and lots of authors in the same boat (minus the courses).

But then I realized that he was excluding indies as if we didn't even exist--I'm assuming because we've chosen to forego the gatekeepers? But I don't love to assume.

Main point: this author would confuse a lot less non-traditional authors if he listed his huge list of exclusions at the top of this post.

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