“Oh, I’ll never make any money as a writer.”
It’s a prevailing myth throughout the writing community that if you want to be a published author, you’ll still never be able to quit your full-time job or gig waiting tables. Or that it can happen, but only for Great Authors.
It’s time to bust that myth. You can be a full-time writer—and while it may not look like a fairytale or Hollywood rom-com, it’s more than possible to pursue writing full-time. Authors like Liz Lawson and Jen A. Miller do what writers always do: They get creative.
Jen A. Miller jumped into freelance writing sixteen years ago and hasn’t looked back, publishing three different nonfiction books: Two travel guides to the Jersey Shore and RUNNING: A LOVE STORY, her first memoir from Hachette. “I started freelance writing my senior year of college and I've been doing it full time for more than 16 years,” she says. “I love it. I would never do anything else as long as it's possible.”
But creating a full-time writing career isn’t just for journalists. Author Liz Lawson published her debut YA novel, THE LUCKY ONES, with Penguin Random House. Says Lawson, “At the time I sold that book, I was working as a music supervisor in L.A., but now I’m writing full-time and I feel so lucky to be able to do that.”
For both writers, books are only one aspect of their full-time writing careers. If you want to make money as an author, here are five ways to do it (besides selling books):
5 ways to make money besides selling books
There are a thousand ways you can use your writing and editing skills to make money outside of book-length projects. For Miller, books are just one (small) piece of the pie. Here’s an inside look at her income breakdown for 2020:
Miller mixes custom projects, books, and freelance journalism with content marketing projects for B2B clients, consulting and teaching, and writing for niche publications like those at universities, hospitals, and associations.
You can diversify your income as an author, too. Here’s how:
#1: Niche down…then do it again, for a different niche
“Write what you know” is a timeless piece of advice for good reason.
In the course of writing a novel or longer book project, you’ve likely gone headfirst down a rabbit hole of a given topic. Maybe it’s a historical novel centered around 1920’s Paris, or an in-depth guide to flyfishing.
Whatever you’ve written about, chances are you know more about it than someone else. You have more to say—so keep writing in your niche. Blogging, freelance journalism, and technical writing are all ways to drill down further into whatever you’re most interested in and to share your knowledge with your audience.
But it’s OK to choose a meta-niche like writing or editing, and to dive deep. Lawson sold two YA books and is working on a third. When she’s not working on novels, she helps writers work on queries and navigate the publishing process.
“Now I’m writing full-time and I feel so lucky to be able to do that.”
— Liz Lawson
That’s what she blogs about, too, which helps her get new clients and speaking opportunities. When it comes to blogging, revenue isn’t just about ads, though it’s an option. Your blog also gives you a platform to sell other writing, positioning you as an expert in that topic.
The same strategy worked for Miller.
“What ended up happening was the book didn’t pay a lot, but because I became known as an expert in that area, I got the second book, and more articles and opportunities,” says Miller, who has since moved on from blogging. “It was a cycle that kept working into each other, especially since there were things that I couldn’t fit into the book that I put in the blog. I ended up making way more money from subsequent articles than I ever did off the book itself.”
As a nonfiction writer, Miller proves you can have more than one niche. Her diverse list of clients reflects her interests: science, running, and technology. As she dives into one niche, she can often find connections between them, selling multiple articles around the same general idea or topic. “Twist your niche,” she says. “I wrote a story about hackers getting access to CT scan machines. That sounds like a medical story, but that’s also a technology story.”
Miller uses those niches for two very different types of writing: freelance journalism and technical writing. But both require the same set of storytelling, interviewing, and pitching skills.
What stories do you want to tell? If you’re getting started with different types of writing, focus again on your niche. What do you want to write about? What topics interest you?
From there, think about the publications you love to read. Chances are, they have freelancers that write for them already—and plentiful opportunities for budding contributors. “I've been writing about New Jersey for the New York Times since 2006,” says Miller. “My name got passed around as I was writing these national features and started writing for new clients, too.”
Miller stresses that you don’t need to write for the New York Times to be a successful freelance writer. If you look at her income breakdown, the majority comes from technical writing instead—working with brands, universities, and hospitals to explain complicated concepts, write website copy, and help them grow their business. Just like consumer publications, businesses are constantly looking for help on articles, whitepapers, ebooks, website copy, email copy, and more.
“I ended up making way more money from subsequent articles than I ever did off the book itself.”
— Jen A. Miller
“I like to diversify my income streams and not just like books versus articles, I do a lot of technical writing and science writing,” says Miller. “It pays really well, without a lot of the headaches and hassles. And I’ve learned more than I ever thought I would.”
#2: The best way to learn something is to write about it…so teach
You already know so much about what you write about.
In addition to spinning that niche into other types of writing, consider teaching and coaching. No matter what, there’s something you know about as an author that other people don’t know about—even if it’s just how you published your book or got that big byline.
Both Lawson and Miller help other writers in their respective areas of writing, whether that’s editing manuscripts and advice on publishing (Lawson) or offering workshops on running a better freelance business (Miller).
“I love helping other freelancers because of the myth that they can’t make any money…and that’s bull****,” says Miller. “I do one hour freelance consults where somebody buys an hour of my time, so I can diagnose their problems in their freelance business and help them through it.”
Of course, there’s always traditional teaching tracks like creating an online course, speaking at conferences, guest lecturing at universities, or headlining bookstore events. This is where an agent, if you have one, can be extremely helpful—though some authors also hire a separate speaking agent to book events like these. “I did a book conference, which was a great way to talk about your book in a longer format,” says Lawson. “It’s a lot more fun than trying to explain what my book is about in 280 characters on Twitter.”
You can also offer one-off services, like serving as a beta reader or sensitivity reader for newer authors, or as a general editor or mentor.
#3: Repackage your writing into other formats
The average word count for an adult novel is between 70,000 and 120,000 words, with plenty of variation by genre. The same applies for nonfiction books.
If you can write 120,000 words on a topic, then you already have plenty of material to work from. Why rebuild what you already have? If you’ve put in a year’s worth of work on a project, get the most out of that project.
Think of it like re-using dough once you’ve cut out all the cookies—you’re just pulling together all the little bits and pieces that wouldn’t fit into the main product to create something new.
- Turn chapters of your book into smaller blog posts, teasers, or guides
- Blog about topics or people that couldn’t make into the final product (see #1)
- Write articles with deeper exploration of the subject matter, or using quotes from interviews that are too good not to use
- Re-use your query and synopsis to create a talk track for a speaking gig
- Write about the process of creating the book and show how your drafts changed and evolved
- Add stand-alone novellas, prequels, or smaller deleted scenes for fans
Miller realized after doing so much writing about her freelance business in her newsletter that she had plenty of extra material to package up into a self-published ebook she sells for $10. “I’ve made more money on that ebook than on either of my published books,” she says. “It’s a niche product that pairs well with my newsletter, which is a niche topic, but that’s exactly the type of content that my newsletter audience is interested in.”
#4: Build a solid social media following
Once you know your niche(s) and how you want to keep writing, social media is the place to find your audience and deepen your relationship within your community.
For Lawson, TikTok has been a surprisingly lucrative addition to her marketing strategy. “I've told all my author friends they need to get on TikTok,” she says. “Chloe Gong was one of the first traditionally published authors to get on TikTok, and she has done amazing things for her book from being on there.”
@thechloegongyes,,, own voices violence #booktok #yabooks #yafantasy #mafiabooks #enemiestolovers #authorsoftiktok #reading #bookclub #bookstan #bookrecs #writing♬ orijinal ses – Larceny1
The key is to find a channel (or several) that resonates with you personally. And while the influencer route is definitely available, the best social media strategy is to be authentic about who you are and what you write about, not what you think the algorithm should like.
“I really don't like the Instagram aesthetic,” says Lawson. “Your whole feed has to look the same and it just seems so contrived to me, because that’s not what writing and publishing is. It’s messy. I don’t think authors should have to pretend like they’re these perfect people who one day get a book published without trying.”
Lawson uses different channels for different reasons. Her Twitter feed mainly jokes around about the writing process (or the inevitable writer’s block):
I JUST WROTE A SEVEN PAGE SYNOPSIS WITHOUT WRITING THE BOOK FIRST WHAT IS EVEN HAPPENING GOOD GOD I AM PROUD OF MYSELF
— Liz Lawson (@LzLwsn) May 26, 2021
While her TikTok is more reader-focused and leans into the funnier parts of writing life:
@lzlwsnEvery freaking time #booktok #yabooktok #bookworm #lzlwsn #writertok #yaauthor #authortok #writingabook #authorlife♬ Right Round – Flo Rida
“I’ve found the more I talk about my publishing journey and the more excited I am about writing, the more people respond. And once we start talking, they get interested in what the book is about for themselves,” says Lawson.
You never know who in your community may have an opportunity or a story idea. Engaging on social media also gives you the opportunity to find new clients and writing opportunities. Lawson’s latest book, for example, is a collaboration with mystery author Kathleen Glasgow, who she got to know online.
“I don’t think authors should have to pretend like they’re these perfect people who one day get a book published without trying.”
— Liz Lawson
For Miller, besides following editors and publications on Twitter to hear about calls for pitches, she finds more of her technical clients and B2B writing opportunities through her network.
“An editor of an IT systems publication followed me on Twitter for my writing, and he reached out to me after a while and said, ‘I think we should write about enterprise software.’ At the time, I didn’t even know what that was. But I gave it a shot and started writing for him,” she says.
— Jen A. Miller (@byJenAMiller) May 29, 2021
And when she needs work, she can market herself on social media to get it. “LinkedIn has actually been doing better for me,” says Miller. “I can post on there, ‘Hey, I'm looking for this kind of client, if you know someone looking for a writer,’ and I’ve landed several gigs that way.”
#5: Make your books the center of a flywheel
The best way to set yourself up for success as an author is to create a platform for yourself. Use your books as the springboard to your next writing project, whether it’s launching your next book, a blog, freelance journalism, corporate clients, or writing in a different genre.
Listen to your creativity and see where it takes you.
Miller never set out to write a memoir about running that would turn into a column for the New York Times. She wasn’t even a lifelong runner. “Once I started running, I decided to write about it, because I was so new. In 2010, I had my first big running injury called Dead Butt Syndrome and I knew right away that was a story,” says Miller. “I kept running and I started getting clips with that from Runner’s World and other running publications. I did a weekly running column for The Philadelphia Inquirer, my hometown newspaper, and they let me do whatever I wanted with it. That ended up being enough to sell the memoir about my running life.”
As a writer, you don’t have to be constrained by any one thing. Books can be the beginning like Lawson’s first novel—or like Miller, the culmination of years of work.
Connect these pieces together with an email newsletter on your website. Use it as the center of your writing and social media presence—a hub you own that allows you to promote your author platform in other ways.
Your email newsletter is just that: Yours. While social media can be a great way to get the word out for a new audience or a broader community, it’s the newsletter that reels people in and gets them to stick around.
If you’re not sure where to get started building an author platform, a newsletter run on a platform like ConvertKit is a great place to start.
You don’t have to have thousands of subscribers to make it worthwhile—it’s about building a 1:1 relationship with the right people. These are the people that will buy your books again and again (and read your blog, your ebooks, your articles, or whatever else you decide to do!)
Yes, you can make money as an author without just selling books
Writing takes balance. And it takes space to think and be creative. If you’re burned out on long-form projects, there are still plenty of ways to make a full-time writing career feasible.
You’ve already done the hard thing—written a book. “I wrote the majority of that book while I was pregnant and with a newborn,” says Lawson. “It ended up taking a year to revise and resubmit…it was challenging balancing it all.” For Lawson, that effort catapulted her into a full-time writing career she had always dreamed of, even if it looks a little different than she imagined.
Likewise, Miller’s made it her mission to educate other writers that writing can pay the bills. “I try to bill $8,000 a month. I usually go over that, but it’s an easy mark, and I don’t want to pressure myself to work all the time,” she says. “No one client makes up more than 25% of my income, because I’m diversified. You can absolutely do this.”
Building an author platform is an essential step to making money as an author without just selling books—and ConvertKit can help. ConvertKit’s features are designed with creators and authors in mind so you can focus on what matters: Writing.