How to make a living as a writer

By Amy Brown

Part 2 – continuing the discussion from Part 1: Making the Pitch

“No one but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”

That was author David Hagberg, quoting Samuel Johnson, at the Venice Book Fair and Writers’ Festival in Venice, Florida, making it clear he was a “commercial writer, an entertainer”. Hagberg is a best-selling author of thriller novels, with 70 books under his belt since his first novel, Twister, was published in 1975. He calls writing “a way of life, not a job.” Yet Hagberg was able to quit a string of day jobs (news reporter, school bus driver, bartender, concrete layer, garage builder) by 1981 to write full-time and support himself and his family; by then he was making $50,000 a year.

Hagberg hammers them out. These days, he says, he spends four hours a day writing, produces a novel or novella every eight months, or about 450 pages. Selling at $7.99 per book, minus percentages to his literary handlers, he says he does okay. A 150-page novella he can crack out in six weeks and make a profit of $5,000 to $10,000. E-books are good to him, too. Royalties that used to be $400 a year on his e-books are 10 to 15 times more. Sometimes he writes seven to eight books a year.

Do’s and don’ts of publishing

He has strong opinions on various aspects of publishing. Agents? Yes, they’ll get you a good deal, better than you could get on your own. Self-publishing? Fine, but do it under a pseudonym, so if it fails, or it’s not your best work, or you want to try a different genre, you haven’t sullied your reputation. Editors? Don’t hire them. “Most are charlatans. If you need an editor before you submit something, you’re not ready.”

Spent the advance…uh oh

He admitted he made some classic mistakes along the way. He spent the entire advance of his first novel ($3,500) before he had written a word. When his wife nudged him to get moving, he told her, “Truth is, I’m scared shitless. I don’t know how to write a novel.” So he taught himself: one tip he recommended was to type out an entire novel you admire, in a genre you want to write for, so you can feel the rhythm under your fingers, notice how the writer does all the things you need to learn. Meanwhile, write a couple of pages of your own novel. Later, sit down and read the admired writer’s pages, and quickly turn to your own. If you groan, keep working at it.

The second day of the festival Hagberg invited some fellow authors to share how “the hell to make a living as a writer.” Authors Ward Larsen, Don Bruns, and Susan Klaus, all Florida based writers, had this to say:

Got a great character? Put him in a series.

Larsen hasn’t given up his day job as an airline pilot (and former US Air Force pilot flying combat missions in Desert Storm) but after 10 years of writing, and several thrillers that have done well, he says he is thinking of retirement in a couple of years. He learned quickly that his publisher, Oceanview Publishing, liked series, “a known quantity, less risky,” and so he wrote series.

Be a conference hound

After 39 years in the advertising world, with his own agency, Don Bruns found his brand writing island-based novels with quirky characters set in places like Jamaica, St. Bart’s, Barbados. “Funk,” Hagberg called Bruns’ brand. “You kick back with a pina colada and enjoy.” Writing ad copy, he said, was a great way to learn to write fiction. Once it’s ready for the big time, get it out there and schmooze. Go to conferences, meet and pitch to agents. “I believe in conferences,” Bruns said. “It’s the only way to get known.”

Brand it

What all four writers had in common was creating a distinct brand; at least had succeeded by writing series. But they warned, there’s no way around the hard cold truth: you have to do the work. Butt to chair. “If you write a million words this year, and two million words next year, you’ll be that much better, “Hagberg said. And do it well—do it with care, Larsen advised. “Nothing will sell your next book more than your previous book.”

Wealth and fame? Buy a lottery ticket.

Klaus made no bones about her remake of a best seller when she called her book Secretariat Reborn. But she was less sanguine about writing as a lucrative calling. “If you want to make money, buy a lottery ticket. You’d have the same chance. Don’t write a book to be rich and famous. Do it because you love it. If you get the success, so much the better. But it can’t be the motivating factor. You have to love writing.”

It’s the ultimate love-hate relationship. As a dear friend once said, writing is like opening a vein. It can be excruciating and draining. But as hard as I try, I can’t resist its pull. So, until the next conference, I’ll keep on writing.

Stay tuned for Part 3 on Friday: How vital is social media to an author’s brand?

Amy Brown


5 thoughts on “How to make a living as a writer

  1. Thanks for this – it provides fascinating insights into the way different authors approach their writing – particularly the idea of typing out a whole novel written by a favoured author ‘so that you can feel the rhythm under your figures’ – that’s what I call serious dedication. I suppose there are as many different approaches as there are writers – which means that nothing is ‘right’ and nothing is ‘wrong’ – I like that idea!


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