Chip MacGregor

July 18, 2016

Ask the Agent: What is the formula for making a living at writing?


A few years ago, I created a talk about how an author can make a living with his or her writing. I called it The MacGregor Theory (with apologies to the MacGregor who came up with all the Theory X and Theory Y stuff back in the 90’s), and over the years it’s been picked up and discussed by all sorts of writers and editors in the blogosphere. I’ve revised and tweaked it a few time, but now, with the recent changes we’ve seen in the world of publishing, it’s time I go back and revise my theory of making a living at writing. So if you’re interested…

I have five rules for authors who want to make a full time living at writing:

1. You need to have four-to-six books earning you a royalty. In other words, you’ve done some traditionally published books in the past, you’ve had some earn out, and you currently have some books that are making you a passive income.

2. You need to have 18 months to 2 years of contracts. This is much harder to do in today’s publishing economy, but if you’re going to do this full time, you probably need to know clearly what you’re going to be writing for the next year or two. If you have your calendar filled up for the next 18 months with projects that are contracted, so that you know you’re going to be generating some income, you’re at least afforded the clarity that comes from knowing what you’ll be working on.

3. You need to be self-publishing. These days, most successful authors are generating income by regularly posting new projects, earning some sort of income by self-publishing books, novels, novellas, articles, and/or short stories. With fiction, it’s clear an author needs to have a number of titles gong (having one or two books isn’t going to cut it — a series of books will cross-sell each other). This is a revised piece of the theory from a few years ago, but essential if you’re going to make enough money to live on. The days of surviving on book advances are basically over for all but the A-list authors who are getting mega deals. In today’s market you need to discover the various pieces that will add to your income, and that means at least seeking an online audience for your out-print-books and your short-form writing, as well as exploring ways to bring new readers and income into your world.

4. You need to be actively involved in the marketing of yourself and your work. The days of allowing the publisher to be your primary source of publicity are over. The web allows authors access to readers worldwide, and the writers who are making a living are investing a portion of their work week marketing themselves and their work.

5. You need to have a plan in place. That plan will include a budget, a writing calendar, a writing space, adequate equipment, a clear list of project goals, probably an accountability partner or writing support group, and most likely a therapist, since you’re probably delusional to consider the idea anyway.

Let’s look at reality for a minute — let’s say you just got a decent two-book deal. The publisher is paying you, say, $15,000 per book on an advance, so the total deal is for $30,000, payable in thirds on each book. You get a third of the whole deal on signing — $10,000. You need to be able to live on that for the next few months while you write your book. If you can write it in three months (relatively fast for most novelists), you’ve had to live on $3333 per month. Thin, but doable. If it takes you six months to do a novel, you’re having to make do on about sixteen hundred bucks a month. You see where I’m going with this? That’s below the poverty line.

Once the publisher approves your manuscript (which can sometimes take a few months), they’ll send you your completion check for that book — another $5000, payable thirty days after they request the check. You’ve now made a whopping $15k, you’re months into the process, and you just used up all your good ideas on your first book. The next $5000 check will come when that book is published. So it’s on to book two…

Many novelists take eight or nine months to write a book. But at that rate, even a healthy advance (say $30k, which is pretty good for any novelist these days) means you’re getting by on a couple thousand per month. AND if you take that part-time job teaching writing at the community college or doing freelance editing for someone to make ends meet, you now find you have LESS time to work on your novel, so it takes you a year to complete. You don’t want to hurry it up, since you want to be sure and create a great novel, and writing a lousy book is sure to kill your career.

Are you seeing the issue? Making a living by selling your words can be a slow way of earning an income, which is why having some self-published books may help you by generating some cash. (Though it’s no guarantee — there are plenty of authors out there who are putting books up on Amazon and earning very little.) This is why I’m always reminding authors how tough it is to make a living at writing. You need to have books that are already out there earning you money, so that you know you’ve got some income from projects you are no longer working on. Without that, you’re simply trading your time for income. You also need to have contracts in hand that you know will earn you MORE money — and that money is easy to track, since you know when and how much you’ll be paid. You need to be working to self-publish some of your own works to be increasing your cash-flow. That means you need to be spending some time marketing, so that readers know you’re out there, writing and selling books. AND you need a plan for how you’re going to move forward.

Let’s be honest: the first rule of making a living at writing is probably “don’t quit your day job.” So I’ll suggest you need to stop thinking that writing full time is some sort of God-given right. It’s tough, but if you had chosen painting or sculpture or singing or dancing or any other art, you’d probably be facing even longer odds at making a living at your craft. The fact is, MOST artists struggle financially. That’s why most writers have some other source of income — either they work full time, or they work part time, or they have a job related to the industry (freelance editor, reporter, book salesperson, counterfeiter), or they are married to somebody who has a real job that pays the bills. Don’t lose sight of the fact that it takes most people years to get to the place where they are writing full time… IF they ever get there.

On the other hand, this is the best time ever to be a writer. We’re publishing and selling more books than ever before. There are more people who can read then ever before. And the web has given writers a huge potential platform to reach those readers. This is the Golden Age of Writing. So thank God you’re alive and working at your craft in today’s market.

It’s easy to hang out at a writing conference and assume that “everbody else in writing is making a living at this except me.” That’s just not true. Many of these folks are doing something to pay the bills. (For example, I’m a Speedo model.) I’m really not trying to dissuade you from making a living at writing — I’m just trying to help you gain a realistic picture of what it takes to make a living in this business.

Five things. That’s the MacGregor Theory for making a living at writing. Hope you find this helpful.

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  • Lorraine Ambers says:

    It’s a good job I have a job counterfeiting. Great post, setting realistic expectations. Thanks I’m sharing. 🙂

  • Jeaninne Stokes says:

    Chip, thanks so much for placing my feet back on the ground about my dream and desire to become a full-time writer and my odds of achieving this lofty goal. I just wished I had not given up my career and knew what I know now.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      But that’s life, and what happens to ALL of us, Jeaninne. We make decisions and live with them — for both good and bad.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Me too, Susan. I’m big on creating an overall career plan.

    • Writers need to approach writing as a business where we’re not only the artist but assembly line as well. I learned to build my plan years ago after working with a mentor–2004, 2005.

  • Jackie Layton says:

    Thanks for the math lesson on why I need to keep my day job. I think a lot of us who are not published don’t have a handle on how much an author earns on books. Thanks for a great post!

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Thanks, Jackie. I think we all know a lot of novelists today are people who are married to someone with a stable job and paycheck, or they are working a job and writing when they can. It’s a tough way to make a living… but, of course, art has always been a tough way to make a living. Appreciate you writing to say something.

  • David Allen says:

    Thank you for seeing the same thing I’m seeing as a writer, and reassuring me that I’m not crazy, especially about those last two paragraphs.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Let’s not get too hasty here, David… If you’re trying to make it as a writer, you might very well be crazy. :o)

  • Jim Gullo says:

    Wow, this is good, Chip. And clarifies for me how much this business has changed. About a dozen years ago I was sitting with my Seattle writers group when a member walked in, grinning from here to here, and announced that he’d just received a $125K advance for his debut novel. It was a home-run business, not a grind-it-out business. Them ships has sailed.

    • chipmacgregor says:

      I agree, Jim — things have changed. There are still $125k advances being handed out, but they’re harder to get, in my view, and VERY tough for a debut novelist unless he has his own TV show or she’s got a blog following in the hundreds of thousands. Publishing is an evolving business. Good comment, by the way. Thanks.

  • Alia_Joy says:

    Thank you. This was very helpful in considering options for various income sources. I was wondering, is it always advantageous to sign a two book deal if that’s offered? Is there any benefit to signing a one book deal as a first time author?

    • chipmacgregor says:

      Sure, there might very well be times when signing a one book deal is advantageous, Alia. I think it’s tough to say there is a rule about contracts or careers that “always” applies. Sometimes an author wants a two book deal to see the enthusiasm of a publisher will stay with them past the first book. Other times an author wants to try it out, work with the publisher, and see if it’s the right fit, so they’ll do a one book deal. Does that make sense?

  • Marianne Evans says:

    Straightforward, common sense and relevant information – great post, Chip. I’m waving to you from across the magazine page from my Victoria’s Secret layout….. NOT!!!! 😉 Sharing.

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