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Can Writers Earn a Living Writing Just One Book a Year?

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

When I’m out speaking to groups or chatting with people about my writing career, I’ll often get asked if I earn enough on my books to make a living at being an author.

So far I’ve been able to respond with something like this: Since I’ve only had two books published in the past two years, I’m still fairly “young” in my writing career and in building a readership. While my books have earned out their advances and I’m making royalties on them, no, my husband can’t retire early or quit his job to take care of the kids so that I can write more.

The truth is, it’s difficult to make a living as an author these days, especially if we’re only publishing one book a year.

The one book-a-year release used to be a common schedule for most authors. But a recent article by the New York Times, entitled “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking” summarized how times are changing. Publishers and authors alike are realizing that one book a year, and nothing else, isn’t enough to keep in the public spotlight.

And for most authors, one book a year isn’t going to bring in enough revenue to pay the bills. Author Elizabeth Craig recently had a post in which she shared her thoughts about publishing multiple books a year. She said: “I just don’t think we can make a living off a book a year if we’re midlist authors. (Actually…I know we can’t. Unless your book deals are a whole lot better than mine are.)” Elizabeth is currently writing four books a year (under contract with Penguin).

The hard reality for most of us (excluding that one-in-a-million author who soars to immediate fame), is that it’s hard for writers to see success with just one book a year.

Either we’ll need to keep our day jobs and write our one-book-a-year on the side. Or if we hope to make a living at writing novels, we may have to consider other options.

Obviously there are numerous ways to earn money by using our writing talents. Some writers supplement their novel income by copywriting, writing non-fiction, or even providing editing services.

But what about those of us who don’t want to stray too far from the novel-writing nest? What can we do to increase our potential for income and success?

1. Write more than one book a year. 

For some of us who can’t write full time due to other obligations or who have lengthy novels (mine are around 100K), writing more than one book a year is challenging.

But I decided to give it a try.

Last year I completed two full-length novels. At times, the pace was brutal and it required incredible self-discipline. But I found that challenging myself to 7000 words a week allowed me to complete the work and still remain sane. I was able to finish the first draft in approximately five months (which included time for research and self-editing).

I’m on track to complete two 100K novels this year too, with even a little time leftover to consider the next two options:

2. Hook readers with e-published short stories or novellas before the publication of books.

The above NYT article said this about short stories and novellas: “Publishers say that a carefully released short story, timed six to eight weeks before a big hardcover comes out, can entice new readers who might be willing to pay 99 cents for a story but reluctant to spend $14 for a new e-book or $26 for a hardcover. That can translate into higher preorder sales for the novel and even a lift in sales of older books by the author, which are easily accessible as e-book impulse purchases for consumers with Nooks or Kindles.”

In some ways, the short stories or novellas are becoming a new marketing strategy that can build hype during the months leading up to a book’s release. For a lower cost, we can give readers a glimpse of our writing voice and get them interested in us as an author so that when our book releases they're already hooked.

3. Consider how Eshorts can keep reader's attention between novels.

The Writer’s Lens describes Eshorts as: “E-published short stories ranging from 12-150 pages, usually linked to a series . . . often told from a perspective other than the main character in a series or tell of a side event that is loosely linked to the overall story.”

I think Eshorts could work for non-series too. For example, I often have readers who wonder what happens next to the characters in my books. An Eshort could be a way to give a glimpse into the future life of the characters readers have come to love. This could be true of minor characters as well.

The point is that we look for ways to stay in the spotlight with our readers between our bigger books so that our readers don't have the chance to forget about us.

What do you think? Do you think it’s getting harder for novelists to earn a living writing just one book a year? How many books a year do you write? And have you ever considered supplementing your earnings by writing short stories or novellas?

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