Why I Didn't Make Any Money in 6 Years of Writing
Don't make the same mistakes as I did
I have been publishing my work online since 2014. I put together my first book in 2018; the second and the third came out in 2019. I have over 65,000 followers on all the platforms I am present on.
Do you know how much money I have earned from all these?
Zero. Zilch. Nought.
That's right. I used to write something daily, I poured my blood and sweat into my books, but I invested so much in publishing the first, that all the earnings from the second and the third failed to recover that money.
I was young and inexperienced. I fell into the trap of vanity publishing for my first book - a mistake I regret till this day. I was naive, and yes, you can blame me for that.
It was only in the first quarter of 2020, with the Covid19-imposed lockdown upon us all, that I started to seriously devote time in understanding the market and look up ways to hone my craft. I attended courses on book outlining, writing, editing, and marketing. I spent hours perfecting my skills and exploring different platforms.
I applied these learnings to my writing and made around $250 from my writing in May 2020. In June, these earnings doubled and crossed $500. I fell sick in July, and couldn't continue the momentum, but now that I am back on track, I am positive that August will be better.
In retrospect, I realised that the only things holding me back from becoming a successful author were my own limiting self-beliefs.
In this article, I am going to dissect all of them one-by-one and give you a framework you can apply to become a successful, well-paid writer.
1. I can follow my gut instinct
No, you cannot.
If you follow your gut instinct, you are writing for yourself. To be a successful writer, you need to write for the reader.
This is applicable to fiction as well as non-fiction. Your story has to either educate the reader about how they can get rid of what is presently troubling them, inspire them to move on, or provide an escape from reality and entertain them.
The importance of outlining
The following is specifically valid for novel writing, but it can be applied to articles and non-fiction treatises as well.
I know you must have heard that there are two types of writers, the plotters and the pantsers. Or the architects and the gardeners, as George R R Martin calls them, as can be explained better by his quote-
"The architects plan everything ahead of time, like an architect building a house. They know how many rooms are going to be in the house, what kind of roof they're going to have, where the wires are going to run, what kind of plumbing there's going to be. They have the whole thing designed and blueprinted out before they even nail the first board up.
The gardeners dig a hole, drop in a seed and water it. They kind of know what seed it is, they know if planted a fantasy seed or mystery seed or whatever. But as the plant comes up and they water it, they don't know how many branches it's going to have, they find out as it grows.
And I'm much more a gardener than an architect."
Sure, there might be several examples of successful gardeners. Stephen King is one of them, as he famously quoted-
"Outlines are the last resource of bad fiction writers who wish to God they were writing masters' theses."
But, if you are a beginner with no experience of writing a novel, don't fall into the trap of gardening or pantsing.
I was well into the second draft of my new novel when I realised that it was one big mess. All I had done was follow my heart and write one scene after another, not knowing it will come back one day to punch me in the face.
There was no order, no clear setup or climax, and definitely no escalating tension. If I published it in the form that it was, no reader would be able to read past the first few chapters.
To pull myself out of this pit, I read two great books on outlining and drafting a manuscript. Both of these helped me out of the shambles my WIP was in, and these are-
1. Save the Cat! Writes a Novel by Jessica Brody
2. Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker
Both of these are brilliant books and each deserves a separate article on the lessons learned.
But, even if you don't read any book and are adamant about following your gut instinct, please make an outline first. You don't want to be in the place I was - 87,000+ words written and with no clue where the novel was headed.
2. I will make money from book sales alone
Unless you are a New York Times bestselling author, book sales are probably going to earn you the least chunk of your income.
As an author, it is crucial to have multiple sources of income. I learned this lesson too late, and have, of late, started to maximise my digital footprint. I started writing seriously on Medium, creating content on Instagram and making videos on YouTube.
These platforms don't make me much money yet as I am still in the starting phase, but with time, the effort will pay off.
Building a mailing list
No matter however many sources of income you build, if one of the platforms is taken down or suddenly decides to stop paying its content creators, your monthly money goals will come crashing down.
If you have an email list, these are the people who have voluntarily signed up to receive regular updates from you. Even if all the platforms on this planet disappear, you will still have your tribe of people who will read most of everything you write.
I am a novice at building a mailing list (you can see from my lacklustre CTA at the end of this article). But, it is never too late to learn, and I have already enrolled in some courses to improve this skill. Hopefully, I will get there soon.
3. I need to sell my work
The people who read your work are not doing it because they are interested in what you have written. They are interested because it is written by you.
To be a successful writer, you need to sell yourself.
You have to learn to promote your voice to your target audience and find a group of loyal readers.
Whichever marketing strategy you choose, you have to understand that the people who follow you do it because they love your voice and the way you present stories and facts. Leverage this and market yourself in the direction you are planning to write your next book or series of articles.
4. If I have talent, the money will come
You may write the best stories in the world, but how would people know about you if you don't reach out to them?
Marketing is the crux in your career as a writer. It is the only thing that has the power to make or break your book.
Sticking to rules
What if you are struggling to make money off a particular content creation platform like Medium or YouTube?
In that case, you need to study the rules of the platform and apply it to your work. Just creating quality content is not sufficient if it does not adhere to the policies and format of the content favoured in that platform.
To understand the rules, you need to spend some time and energy studying the viral content on that platform and try dissecting them to understand what made them work. Most probably, it was the presentation, the way the creator put forward their thoughts.
You can start incorporating these lessons in your own writing and see the difference.
5. All I need to do is write
Isn't it ironical that we call ourselves "writers", and yet, we have to wear several hats? Based on my experiences, and as I had written in a previous article, here are four skills essential to being an author (apart from writing):
Shameless self-promotion skills to ask for money for writing assignments, get event invites to literary festivals and pitch your books to reviewers.
Public speaking skills to convert a hall of listeners to potential readers and the confidence to speak fluently without fumbling for words.
The confidence to appear natural in front of the camera and basic video editing skills to join video snippets together and remove background noise.
Social media skills (with a focus on Instagram) which include posting consistently and engaging with your readers.
"Success" has different definitions to different people. To me, a successful writer is one who is able to earn respect, fame, and money in equal measure, without compromising on either. To do that, you need to produce quality content written for the reader and market yourself well.
I am not a successful writer.
But I have learned from all the ways I failed. And based on my learnings and research, here are the five things you need to remember to be a successful writer-
You cannot write whatever you want. You have to keep in mind the tastes and sensibilities of your target audience and present your thoughts accordingly. It always helps to outline your stories first.
To earn a living from writing, you need to build multiple sources of income, rather than depending on book sales alone. This can be writing coaching, podcasts, blogging, paid workshops, etc.
Rather than marketing your work, you need to market yourself. In other words, give the audience a reason to want to spend money on your writing.
More than the talent, what makes a book work is the effort and strategies that go into its marketing.
You cannot only write. You need to learn to have a presence among the reading community, both in person and over social media. You also need to learn to be comfortable in front of the camera and have some basic video editing skills.
Most importantly, you have to let go of all shame you might have associated with talking about yourself and your work.
After all, if you don't market yourself, who will?