The Quest for Plot, Part 3: How to Make It as a Professional Author, By the Numbers

This article will discuss how much mid-list writers need to write and sell to publishing houses in order to leave their day job.

<b>”BUT I WANT TO BE A SUPERSTAR AUTHOR — WHY ARE WE TALKING ABOUT THE MID-LIST?”</b>

My dream is not to be a professional mid-list author, either — I want to be the next big, famous break out author — what writer doesn’t want to be Cormac McCarthy, JK Rowling, Steven King, Dan Brown, etc? — but I have to be realistic too.

Most of us, even the very talented poets and geniuses among us, will not make it to the top levels. That rarefied air, for a writer, is akin to winning the lottery. The odds are better than the lottery, of course, but they are still STEEP. For every superstar writer, there are tens of thousands (maybe hundreds of thousands) of one-book-wonders and solid midlisters.

So when I talk about being a professional author (especially from my island of ignorance, not being one), I am assuming that to make that jump from day-job-worker to author-with-a-relatively-reliable-stream-of-income will mean that you are mid-list, most likely upper-mid list. Most of us that end up “living the dream”, will be in the mid-list, and that’s great, it’s still the dream! We just need to know how much to produce to keep the bills paid!

<b>”ALRIGHT, HOW MUCH DO I NEED TO WRITE AND SELL TO MAKE A LIVING?”</b>

Now since every writer gets paid differently, and since most of them don’t share their income statements with the public on a regular basis (except John Scalzi and Jim C. Hines — both AWESOME), I don’t know how much people make on their books. Also, even if I did, I don’t know what your living expenses are. I am therefore basing most of my opinions off of hearsay and tabletop at conventions — and that is not a reliable source, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

According to a certain book publisher who was kind enough to express her opinions about “making a living at writing”, based on the few professional mid-listers she’s worked with. Here’s her opinions:

The real key is to put out 2 books per year, and to hit a critical mass of about 10 books. After 10 books are out (and assuming you still have enough readership that your books aren’t being cancelled), the royalties and advances start adding up to the point that it’s reasonable to think about quitting the day job, if you want to.

Simple Math: This is about 5 years of work, and in the sixth year you should be able to think about making the jump (barring all-too-common disasters, like health issues, or your series is cancelled due to poor sales). At one novel per year, it could be a much longer road.

<b>”SO WHY ARE YOU ALL FIRED UP ABOUT LEARNING TO PLOT THEN?”</b>

AT my current production rate, somewhere around 1 book every 1.5 to 2 years, I will not be able to hit the thresholds above. It’s just not going to work unless I’m a lottery winner. I’m just too darn slow.

The problem: I need to produce books faster by a factor of 4!

The issue here is that I do not want to write “crap”, either. Most writers say that it’s hard to crank out a book in a year and have it be good, much less two books in a year — but I do see some authors pulling it off.

Cat Valente does. Jeff Vandermeer does.

So there has to be a way.

My guess is that the solution is to plot in advance.

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