Can You Make a Living Writing Only Short Fiction?
Every year or so I look at this topic once again, do the math, see if anything has changed over the last couple of years.
And now, here in May 2016, things have changed some, but in my opinion it would still be possible to make a decent living writing only short fiction.
Why do I like this topic? Actually, because I love short fiction, meaning any story under around 10,000 words. I love reading it and I love writing it. And doing this exercise is fun for me, even though no one will ever follow this path.
Besides, I am a pulp writer at heart and a lot of pulp writers made a good living, if not great living, writing short fiction for the pulps.
So here we go once again. Caution, some math ahead. And some things you might not want to hear.
What is a Decent Living?
To figure out if it is possible, I suppose we need to set a number here as to a decent living. To make things easier, I’m just setting a number of $48,000 per year.
That’s $4,000 per month average over a year’s time. Decent living in many places, low for others. But for this exercise, let’s go with it.
(I personally hate it when my writing income gets under six figures, but that’s just my personal level.)
Also, I am not saying it would be possible to make a living with short fiction after only one year. But clearly it would after five or six years. And every year after that as well if you kept writing.
Income from a Single Short Story??
Almost impossible to give a set income for a single short story. So not really going to try. I have made over $10,000 each on a couple short stories and I am sure I have a couple recent short stories that have been lucky to make me $100 so far.
So I’m going to come at this from a different direction. And then talk in general numbers.
Now, those who have been around here for a time know that last July I wrote 32 short stories. About 110,000 words of short fiction.
Do I think anyone could do what Bradbury did for a time and write a story a day like I did in July? Sure, very possible. If I could do it, anyone could.
But would it be possible to do that for an entire year?
Not likely. Life issues, or life rolls as we like to call them, such as sickness, emergencies, family problems and so on would just not much allow that.
So if you did nothing with your life but get up in the morning and write short fiction, how many stories could you produce in a year?
Got to take into account you would also be indie publishing these titles at some point along the process, so there is time there to do covers and such. I’ll talk about the methods below.
And some stories are just going to run longer.
So I think it would be safe to say a full-time short story writer could easily do 15 short stories a month for a year. That’s not even half pulp speed.
In one year at that rate you would produce 180 short stories.
At the end of five years you would have produced about 900 short stories.
Keep those numbers in mind.
(And keep in mind that 900 short stories is far more than most writers will every write in their entire lifetimes.)
What Do You Need in Skills?
— A love, passionate love of short fiction and the form of short fiction in all genres.
— Ability to do your own covers.
— Ability to layout your own paper books.
— Ability to generate your own clean epub files.
— A couple good copyeditors who would charge reasonable rates.
— A stunningly good organizational system.
— An ability to keep learning craft.
— A simple but solid bookkeeping system for both tracking sales and tracking the money.
— The mindset to sell your work everywhere in the world in all sorts of forms.
— The ability to write clean first drafts without rewriting.
— The ability to write short fiction in many different genres. As well as create series in short fiction. (I have five or six different short story only series, plus 37 Poker Boy short stories.)
So, think you can do or learn how to do all of the above? If so, then to what you do with each story when finished.
The Path of a Single Short Story
First, send the story to a major market, meaning a market that does the following:
— Pays 5 cents per word and up.
— Only licenses from you what they need and nothing more for a short period of time.
— Reverts your story to you for your use within one year after publication. (And preferably, the place you sold it to keeps a non-exclusive right on your story and keeps it in print as advertising for your other work.)
Keep the story in the mail for one year or until you run out of high-paying markets. (I said this was going to five or six years remember?)
And yes, I know not all stories will be suitable for mailing. Romance and western markets are rare for short stories.
Once the story is either returned to you or you run out of markets or a year goes past without a sale, you do the following with the story.
— Indie publish it stand-alone electronic. Sale price is $2.99 electronic.
— Indie publish it stand-alone paper. Paper Price is $4.99
— Get the story combined in a theme collection of nine other stories. Price on those ten-story collections is usually $5.99 electronic and $12.99 paper.
Let’s say you have a fantastic sell-through to major markets and are learning your craft and getting better and better. So say you sell to a paying market one out of 20 stories the first year.
Stories sold average 5,000 words. You sales average 6 cents per word, so about $300 per story. You wrote 180 stories so you sold 9 of them, which gets you $2,700 for the year.
Year five: If you keep doing this, keep getting stories out there, you will be a major writer for numbers of publications and be selling far more than 9 of your stories per year. Safely you would selling upwards of 50 stories or more per year. That’s 50 x $300 = $15,000 per year in the 5th year just from sales to magazines.
Also, realize, if you are doing that, by the fifth year, the promotion and advertising for your indie books will have climbed, but not going to take that into account here. Going to keep sales on the bottom at average of one sale per story per month.
Now to the Indie side of things.
At the end of the second year, you have 180 stories up. Say each story sells 1 copy per month. AVERAGE. Some will sell more, some won’t sell at all.
So at about $2.00 profit (both paper and electronic) per sale, you get $360 per month.
Remember, this is from all sources, all outlets around the planet. Every tiny trickle of money does add up.
So that’s $4,300 with 180 stories up.
With 180 stories, you would have 18 collections. Each sale of a collection would make you about $4.00, and you might sell one copy of each collection somewhere in the world every month.
So that’s $4.00 x 18 = $72 per month or about $850 per year. (rounding)
Now, taking those numbers, move to the end of the fifth year or early into the sixth year.
You would be making about $4,200 on collections at a base rate. ($850 x 5)
You would be making about $21,500 per year on single sales. ($4,300 x 5)
You would be making about $15,000 per year from magazine sales.
Total would be $40,700 for the year.
So at the end of five years, writing 15 stories per month for that time, you would not quite be to what I figured was a decent living wage, but you would make the $48,000 by the end of the 6th year.
Keep in mind, with this kind of production, and sales, you would never be on any bestseller lists. Your author ranking would be very low on Amazon, and all that other silly crap we hear so much about. You would only be averaging one sale per story per month across thirty different online markets.
But a ton of extra money would be starting to pour in after the fifth year of this kind of production. Not only would you be getting constant requests for reprints, but constant overseas sales (no you do not need an agent… Get Douglas Smith’s book on how to sell short fiction to the thousands of overseas markets and follow his blog. You can find him at www.smithwriter.com)
You would also be getting a lot of invites into anthologies (because of the sales in the paying markets). And you would be getting interest and money from Hollywood because they would be finding your work.
And you would have a fantastic inventory to do all sorts of promotions and other activities.
Yes, it is possible to make a living writing short fiction. My gut sense is that my numbers, if you actually did maintain that production pace, are very, very conservative. Discovery comes from products that can be found.
If you could produce 900 short stories in five years, sell numbers of them to paying markets, and get every story up live online and in paper, you could do it.
Do I think anyone I know is capable of this? Sure. I could do it easily.
And I know numbers of writers who could as well.
Will anyone do this? Nope.
But it sure is fun for me to talk about once every few years.
Just think of it as a way to keep an open mind to all the millions of possibilities of this new world of publishing.