A Common Sense Approach to the Writing Business

Two of my kids are old enough to create and manage their own You Tube channels, and they expressed an interest in doing so. I figured it was a good idea because they’d learn social networking skills, how to create videos, edit those videos, etc. These are things they could potentially use for future employment. They, however, had stars in their eyes. They heard that people are making a good living off of videos via the ads on You Tube. When you get popular enough, your videos can start getting monetized. As they were talking about how many subscribers it would take to start earning money, I realized this is similar to what I hear from new authors.

When I hear most new authors talk, their focus is on how much money they’re going to make in X amount of time. This is why courses on how to make a six-figure income in a short amount of time are so popular. These courses feed into this “get rick quick” mindset. This is the same thing my kids were thinking when it came to You Tube. I had to sit down and explain to my kids how this stuff really works. Sure, there are always people who will make it big. For all the actors that run out to Hollywood, there is a small number that hit the big time. But this isn’t going to happen to most of them. And just because they post videos on You Tube, it doesn’t mean they’re going to be making a nice cushy living off their videos when they’re 18.

So today, I thought I’d make a blog post about what is a more realistic approach to the business side of being a creative person.

real world just ahead
ID 52087540 © Adonis1969 | Dreamstime.com

There are two main things you need to keep in mind when going into the business side of writing.

If you build it, they may not come.

I know this isn’t what new authors want to hear, but it’s true. Just because you publish books, it doesn’t mean you’ll make money. Just because you write in a certain genre with a certain plot, it doesn’t mean it’ll sell. Sometimes a book doesn’t resonate with readers, so they don’t buy them. It doesn’t mean the book is bad. (I’ve seen plenty of great books not selling well.) It just means the book didn’t “click” for some reason.

Even if you wrote something specifically to market, had tons of feedback on it from your target audience, got a professional cover, had a professional editor, and have the best website on the planet, you aren’t guaranteed sales. Also, you can run ads, do permafrees on the first in a series, or do other promotional stuff all day long, and you still might not reach the level of income you were hoping for. I’ve seen authors do all of the right things and still not make a living at this. The sad reality is that sometimes it just doesn’t happen.

Sales fluctuate.

If you do make money, don’t think your troubles will be over. Even if you’re not exclusive to Amazon, you will find sales going up and down. Things don’t always go up and up and up and… You get the idea.

I’ve been publishing through Amazon and Smashwords since 2009, and I’ve found this whole business to be a rollercoaster. Over the past three years, I’ve been carefully tracking my sales data, and I noticed that my sales went up and down across all retailers. I’ve always been wide. I’ve never been exclusive to Amazon. So I’ve had plenty of time to build an audience on the wide channels. And I have found that regardless of the retailer, sales go up and down. Yes, having a new book out often means sales go up, but it doesn’t mean it goes up to the same level it did with previous book, and it doesn’t mean it’ll succeed the same way at all retailers.

If you do manage to make money at this, I urge you to do three very important things I never did. 

One: Save half of the income for taxes.

Disclaimer: This is specifically for the United States authors. (I don’t know how tax payments work in other countries.)

Maybe you won’t need to pay taxes on how much you make, but if you have to, at least the money is there. I had to sell stuff to pay my taxes because I hadn’t even thought to save a portion of my income back then. Believe me, you don’t want to be in a situation where you’re scrambling around to come up with the tax money you owe the government based off of last year’s income.

Now, you can set up a payment plan with the government. Some people do that. But since you’re considered a small business owner, you will be making quarterly tax payments (if the government thinks you’re making enough). So four times a year, you’ll have to pay taxes based off of last year’s income. If you miss the deadline for a quarter, you will have to pay a penalty. The quarterly tax payments are due mid-April, mid-July, mid-September, and mid-January. Usually, it’s the 15, but if the 15th is on a holiday or weekend, the date can get pushed back to the 16 or 17. Either way, you will be required to send in these tax payments.

You will save yourself a lot of stress and heartache if you save half of your money into the tax fund while you’re making it. Whatever you don’t end up having to pay can be tucked away into savings.

Which brings me to my next piece of advice…

Two: Put as much as you can into savings.

I didn’t do this, and I am currently living to regret it. The day might come when you aren’t making as much as you used to. This is what happened to me. This year, I’m projected to lose income for a third time. When I was making good money, I failed to save anything. After taxes were paid, I spent money like my income was going to stay consistent. I currently have $40 in my savings account. I have no investments. I have nothing tucked away in a retirement account, either. I’m 43. I made bad financial decisions. A lot of bad financial decisions. I’m not proud to admit it, but if you can be better off in the future because you’re going learn from my experience, then it’ll be worth going public with this. Every time I mention losing money, I get criticized. This isn’t a popular thing to talk about in the writing community, but I don’t want anyone to end up in my shoes. So please, learn from my mistakes. You don’t want to end up where I am.

Three: Learn to say no.

Over the past couple of months, I have had to start saying “no” to people I sincerely care about when they asked for money. I hate saying no. The fact that I had trouble saying no in the past is part of what led me to a situation where I only have $40 in savings. It feels good to give. But if you don’t position yourself on a firm foundation, how can you really help out someone else? Sometimes you have to think of yourself before you can think of another person. I know this one is hard. For those of you who are like me and will often sacrifice what we have to the point where we’re at the end of your own financial rope, saying no is a crucial lesson to learn.

At the end of the day, you have to be able to take care of yourself before you’re in a good position to help someone else. I don’t have a rule book on this, but in my opinion, you should have at least six months of living expenses tucked away before you can afford to help another person. A man I was watching in a You Tube video recommended one year’s worth of savings. With sales being so unpredictable, I’m inclined to say that you should aim to save between 6-12 months of living expenses (including tax payments). Of course, you need to keep saving beyond that. You’ll probably want to look into investments for your future, too, but I would get the savings built up first. You want something you can get to right away if you run into an emergency.

I do think there’s value in giving, but it needs to be balanced with savings. Only you can figure out the right ratio that works for your household. But I strongly advise you to say no to others until you have taken care of your own situation. You can’t get someone else out of a sinking boat until you plug up the holes in your own boat first.

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So those are my tips for new authors. Does anyone have any tips they’d like to share?

29 thoughts on “A Common Sense Approach to the Writing Business

  1. Jacquie Biggar August 10, 2018 / 1:28 pm

    Valuable advice. I would add, save all of your receipts. Not sure how it works country to country, but here in Canada small business owners can deduct a fair amount of expenses from their income, thereby avoiding the tax crunch.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 10, 2018 / 3:28 pm

      Excellent point! Yes, it’s important to save all of the receipts! That’s something I didn’t do early on (sadly). I think I made just about every mistake that’s possible to make in the writing world. 🙂

      • Jacquie Biggar August 10, 2018 / 5:22 pm

        We learn as we go 😊 Informative blogs like this help a lot!

  2. pameladbeverly August 10, 2018 / 2:15 pm

    And it’s very costly just to self-published a book in the first place. A lot of outlay with no promise of recouping any of that money. I’m lucky that I do work a full-time job.

    Thanks for the advice, Ruth Ann and the best of luck to you.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 10, 2018 / 3:29 pm

      It does get expensive to self-publish a book. That’s one of the reasons I get upset when people complain about the cost of a book. We pay way more into it than we charge!

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 14, 2018 / 3:50 pm

      Thank you! If only I was wise enough to have done it! 😉

  3. Juli Hoffman August 10, 2018 / 4:44 pm

    You’re very brave to share your personal experiences with us! Thank you!!!

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 14, 2018 / 3:50 pm

      You’re welcome! I hope it helps someone out there who won’t make the same mistakes I did.

  4. rami ungar the writer August 10, 2018 / 6:23 pm

    Your kids have a loooong road ahead of them if they hope to be the next Markiplier or Thomas Sanders or whatever. Not to mention those guys spend most of their waking hours writing,, recording editing, and uploading. It’s not easy. It’s a full-time job, and with not a lot of income for even the biggest channels. Heck, some of the people behind my favorite channels still have to get days jobs just so they can do YouTube (and all of these channels have over a hundred-thousand followers). You should have them check out SocialBlade.com. It lists a lot of statistics for YouTubers, including income from the platform. It may be eye-opening for them.

    Yeah, while money has been on my mind a lot while I’ve writing, it hasn’t been a focus for a number of years. These days, I’m more concerned with just getting out good stories. If they lead to getting paid, yay! If not, I hope people enjoy reading them anyway.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 14, 2018 / 5:35 pm

      I know! They have no idea what they’re in for. It’s a lot like writing. People assume all you need to do is publish a couple of books and the money will roll in. They don’t see the sales they were hoping for in the first 3-6 months and go into full panic mode. Most authors aren’t going to be bringing in $20-$50K a month. Yes, it’s possible, but it’s not what MOST authors can expect, and the problem is some people will lead authors (esp. new ones) to believe they can make this within the first year of publishing books. It’s just sad to watch new authors publish a few books then say they’re ready to quit writing because they’re not earning enough to quit their day job. I see this stuff a lot in Facebook groups, which is why I decided to make this post. I think it’s good to shoot for the goal of earning a living off of one’s writing, but I don’t want to see someone give up what they love if it doesn’t happen.

      • rami ungar the writer August 14, 2018 / 5:41 pm

        And that’s why I’m not quitting my day job any time soon. While I think I’ll get some good sales from Rose, I highly doubt I’ll be making huge amounts on my quarterly reports from my publisher. Maybe enough to pay off a couple of bills, but nowhere near $20K! I’d consider that a best-case scenario.

        • Ruth Ann Nordin August 21, 2018 / 12:54 pm

          I think paying off bills is a very doable goal from writing income. It is easier to make money than it was when the big six traditional publishers held all the cards. I think authors should aim for income. Obviously, genre, exposure, etc, will have some effect on how much a writer is likely to make. If you sell in a small niche, you won’t have the advantage of a larger potential audience. All things being equal, we are still better off than we would have been a decade ago. At heart, I am an optimist. I just also like to be realistic. 🙂

  5. Angela Verdenius August 11, 2018 / 12:00 am

    Great article, Ruth and very timely. I especially like how you point out that no matter if you do everything correctly – cover/editing/promo/etc, it doesn’t always work. I think some authors think they’re failing somewhere by ineffective promo (and I was one of them), then I look at the huge amount of money I’ve spent on promo and other things, read heaps of blogs and advice, followed them all and still ended up with more outlay than incoming, and it’s true, you can do everything for little return, while others just put a book out and for some reason bam! instant best seller! I still scratch my head over that one (yeah, also done the whole “well, maybe they write better than i do!”)

    I still work a day job. It’s true, sales go up and down, and unless you’re earning huge money with a steady track record, I’d never give up that side job. Yep, I save receipts for tax time (I live in Australia and am currently wading through the paperwork now for our tax time). And I try to save a portion of royalties.

    I guess one important thing is to learn to love ourselves and not beat ourselves up over the rise and fall of sales. It’s going to happen, we need to learn to ride the waves and take time out for ourselves – we still have a life to lead away from the keyboard. We need to be kind to ourselves and know we’re doing the best we can. I got so stressed out and unhappy with the inconsistencies of book sales no matter what I did that I ended up losing the love of writing and trying to write was a chore. I almost hated it. Finally I took a stand and now try to run my life and writing by the K.I.S.S. Theory – Keep It Simple, Stupid. It’s helped me heaps!

    When I read blogs like yours, Ruth, and the comments of other authors, it is of such comfort to know I’m not the only one!

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 14, 2018 / 5:52 pm

      I know exactly where you’re coming from. I went through the stress and unhappiness for the past two years because I felt like no matter what I did, I couldn’t make things work out the way I was hoping they would. I had daydreams of pulling down all of my books and walking away from it all. I looked for jobs in the area. I even applied to a couple but didn’t get them. When I woke up in the morning, I thought, “How am I going to write today?” When I was writing, I’d think, “When will I finally hit my word count?” When someone asked about a book, I’d think, “Why should I write something that won’t sell that well?” I had no heart for it. It was definitely a chore, and it probably shows in my work during that time. Learning to let go of the expectation of “more money” helped to readjust my mindset. I had to learn to stop beating myself up for things that were beyond my control.

      I really get upset when other authors pick on an author who says they aren’t selling the way they’d hoped. Most of the time the poor author already changed the cover, updated the blurb, had another edit, changed keywords, updated their website/blog, paid for ads, took courses, and did everything else we’re all told to do in order to sell books. There are a few sympathetic authors out there (thankfully), but sometimes other authors will still blame the author. That isn’t fair to the author. It’s not right to say the author is doing something wrong when they aren’t.

      I don’t know about you, but I hate tax time. I’m always glad when it’s over and I can get back to my normal routine. In the United States, our tax time is the beginning of the year. If you have a business like an LLC, then your stuff is due in March. If you’re filing personal income, then your stuff is due by April 15. I always submit my stuff in February to get it out of the way. I keep careful records now, so everything is ready before the end of January. I am happy to say I’ve gotten much more efficient after all of my blunders. 🙂

  6. Ron Fritsch August 11, 2018 / 11:47 pm

    Damned good advice, Ruth. I also agree with all of the previous comments. Writing has to be one of the greatest roller-coaster rides of them all. But always be tight with those dollars. Save as much as you can. And still hope for the very best somewhere down the road.

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 14, 2018 / 5:57 pm

      Very good advice on being tight with the money that does come in! I’m finally doing that now, and it has made a huge difference in relieving my stress levels. That’s one of the reasons I do as much myself as I can. Plus, I think it’s good to know how to do things yourself in case you ever need to do it, such as making covers and formatting a book.

      And yes, I do think there’s always a reason to hope that things will take off. It’s possible. Sometimes books can sit online for a long time until they finally get noticed. As Dean Wesley Smith points out in Heinlein’s Rules, you keep the book up for sale until someone buys it.

      • Ron Fritsch August 14, 2018 / 9:46 pm

        I especially like the idea of keeping the book up for sale until somebody buys it. That’s what self-publishing in the electronic age is all about. Thank you for your posts, Ruth Ann Nordin!

        • Ruth Ann Nordin August 21, 2018 / 12:55 pm

          I agree! The age of ebooks have given us a huge advantage. We no longer have to deal with limited shelf life that killed a lot of great books when we relied on paperback sales.

  7. Lauralynn Elliott August 15, 2018 / 8:58 am

    This is such great advice. Things are so different than they used to be. When I first started self-publishing, I made enough that I could have quit my full-time job. Luckily, I knew this might not last. And when it got easier to publish, and the market was filled with books, it got harder to be found. I make almost nothing now. So if an author goes into this thinking they will make a good living, I’m afraid they’ll be very disappointed. Unless they get that lucky break that almost no one gets. We all hope for that, though, don’t we?

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 21, 2018 / 1:11 pm

      You were smart not to quit. I’ve heard of authors who did and have to go back to work. My goal is to pocket as much into savings as I can, and when the kids are all out of the house, I plan to get a job, at least something that is part-time. If I have to work sooner, I will. It all depends on how things play out. I’ve never liked having all of my eggs in one basket, which is why I never went exclusive with Amazon. The wider the net, the better.

      There are quite a few new authors who expect to make a full-time living at this. While it is possible, they seem to think it’s expected. That’s where they run into problems. You can’t EXPECT the money to roll in. If it does, great! But what if it doesn’t? What is the backup plan? How will they put food on the table? It’s easier if you have someone else to help with the bills, but if it’s just you, that makes things more difficult. I wish people who give advice to new authors also add in that the money might not come in. It’s best to be prepared for all scenarios. And if money does come in, save it because you don’t know if it’ll last. I’m sure that advice is good for a lot of other areas in life, too. 🙂

  8. lccooper August 16, 2018 / 8:23 am

    Thank you, Ruth, for sharing your poignant reality check. I crashed and burned two years ago, having given up on my dream of a financially stable writing career. Thanks to the new e-publishing landscape, there is a glut of material and a bunch of disillusioned writers out there.

    It’s all been said before— those who continue to write may end up somewhat modestly successful, while most of us will just fade away.

    Frankly, it’s less stressful to write for oneself as a hobby and publish for the novelty of it when the mood strikes. Determination and diligence, for me, proved to be a fruitless eight year investment of my time, money, and energy. So, changing gears for me means simply that writing returns to being a hobby – – one that I will enjoy again and no longer be a career to stress and fret over.

    I’d like to contribute an article about managing version control. I’ve started writing it several times, but keep falling asleep. I can only imagine how anyone reading it Will react. Trust me, it’s one of those ugly necessities that you better learn or be prepared to overwrite some of your most amazing prose with babble.

    God bless and good luck, everyone.
    Kindly,
    LC

    • Ruth Ann Nordin August 21, 2018 / 1:25 pm

      I’m interested in learning more about the article you mentioned on managing version control. Are you on Facebook? We could message about it. If not, I’ll figure out another way to talk to you about it. I hesitate to put my email in a comment since this blog gets spam in unbelievable numbers. It was so bad, we had to shut down the contact page, though I could put a contact page up temporarily for you.

      It is gut-wrenching when you put all of yourself into your writing career and not see it pay off. 😦 I’ve cried many times over the past couple of years. I am fortunate enough to have something I’m still making so I can start saving. (Better late than never.) It’s scary to realize you don’t have control over what happens with your books once they’re out there in the world.

      The way some marketing gurus talk, you’d swear this was an easy career. It is anything but easy. I have no idea where I’ll end up, but I’m going to plan as if I’m in the fading mode. With the way my income has been dropping, it looks like I will be going back to hobby mode within a couple of years. I’m already planning on what job I’ll take in the future. I just tell myself that I’ve learned some skills over these past nine years, and those skills have to worth something in the marketplace.

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