How To Make A Living With Your Writing: First Principles

If you want to make a living with your writing, you will need the right mindset, as well as the practical skills to write, publish and market your books.

In this excerpt from How to Make a Living with Your Writing Third Edition: Turn Your Words into Multiple Streams of Income, I go into the first principles you need to address before you take the next step.

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First Principles

“If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.” Debbie Millman, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design

There are some important first principles to consider before we get into the detail and some questions that will help you to frame the rest of the book.

What is your definition of success? What will you do to achieve it?

This book is about how to make a living with your writing, so financial success is a critical aspect. But before we get started, take a minute to step back and consider your true definition of success.

What do you really want for your writing? For the book you’re working on? For your author career? For your life?

If you don’t know what your definition of success is, how will you know if you achieve it and how will you know what direction to take to get there?

There are a lot of ideas in this book, but you can’t implement them all. You have to choose what will work for your creative path ahead, for your personality, and for your lifestyle.

Your definition of success will determine what you write, how you publish and market your books, and what kind of income streams you choose to create. For example, do you want to win a literary prize? Or do you want to make six figures in a single year from book sales? While a few rare authors can achieve these at the same time, most will have to choose between critical acclaim and significant commercial success.

You can do everything, but not at the same time, and your definition of success will inevitably change as you hit your goals.

When I started out in my writing career, my primary definition of success was to leave my job, then make six figures, then multi-six-figures, and now, 15 years after I started writing my first book, I’m interested in awards.

Consider what’s important to you and how you’re going to measure success.

You also need to think about what you’re willing to do to achieve your goal. Books don’t write themselves, and a thriving creative business takes years to establish. We’re all busy and there is never enough time — but time is what you need to give if you want to make a living with your writing.

If you’re struggling to find the time, then how much do you really want this?

How much money is a ‘living’?

When people think about making a living with their writing, they often assume it’s about writing one incredible book and getting a traditional publishing deal with a huge advance, a movie deal and all the trappings of success. That is the dream and, in many cases, the myth of publishing. We hear stories of outliers getting seven-figure book deals and of course, there are tales of amazing success, but that’s not the reality for most writers.

The top 1% of authors, the ones you know by name, are certainly making a lot of money, but most are not earning anywhere near that amount.

In 2018, the US Authors Guild reported that full-time traditionally published authors earned $12,400 on average. In May 2019, the UK Authors’ Earnings and Contracts Report noted that the average annual earnings were £16,096 (approximately $20,000).

That’s not what I call a living.

Self-published authors are no different. There are a few making multi-six and seven-figure incomes from their self-published books, a larger mid-list of writers who make at least five figures annually, and the vast majority who don’t make money at all, and in fact may end up out of pocket.

But you don’t have to be average.

You can take control of your author career, learn new skills, and apply them to your creative business.

Develop multiple streams of income

Back in 2008, I was working in a large IT department at a mining company in Brisbane, Australia. When the global financial crisis hit, they laid hundreds of us off in a single day and we all scrambled to find new work. At that point in my life, my job was my only source of income, and losing it so fast was shocking.

It was a wake-up call, and I decided never to rely on one company for all of my income again. I started developing multiple streams of income, which I continue to focus on as my primary business principle.

Nothing is stable, corporations least of all, and the global pandemic has only made that more clear as established business models disappeared overnight. The world is uncertain. You have to plan for change. Multiple streams of income can protect you because it’s unlikely that they will all fail at the same time.

If you’re reliant on a job or a single publisher, or you only use one self-publishing distributor, or you only have one client, one product, or one book, what risks might you face if the situation changes?

Making a living with your writing can be a long-term approach with money coming in every year for the rest of your creative life, and potentially up to 70 years after you die under copyright law. Multiple streams of income are the only way to ensure a resilient business for the long term.

Author, podcaster and speaker Sacha Black left her day job as a local government project manager two years ago. She says, “Multiple streams of income are the ultimate insurance policy for an author’s business. While having different book formats is a good start, it doesn’t guarantee a writer’s financial security.

If all our income comes from book sales, what happens if Amazon or any other distributor collapses or changes the rules? Jeff Bezos himself acknowledges that something will disrupt Amazon eventually.

Many authors get nervous when they hear ‘multiple streams of income’ because they think it will take time away from writing.

It doesn’t have to be like that.

You have the power to design your income streams to suit your life and needs. Some of mine take up time, but others don’t. That’s how I like it. For example, you could invest in stocks or property, you could sell courses, or digital journals, do editing, create a Patreon platform, or even consult back into your old industry.

The possibilities are endless.”

You will also change the emphasis on different aspects of income over time as your creative journey continues.

Science fiction and fantasy author Ariele Sieling has income from self-publishing, Patreon, speaking, online courses, and merchandise.

She says, “The percentage each of these things has contributed to my overall income has changed significantly over the years. I’ve found it helpful to experiment with making money from a lot of different streams, but lately I’ve been shifting my focus toward the ones that are more reliable and fit in with my personality and process better, and leaning away from the ones that I either don’t like doing or are less profitable (though I tend not to abandon anything completely in case I want to move back to it in the future).”

Do you believe you can make a living with your writing?

Your attitude to money is an important part of the mindset needed to be successful.

If you don’t believe that you can make money with your writing, then that will be true for you. If you think authors who make six and seven-figure incomes are ‘selling out,’ then you’re never going to make that amount, because it doesn’t align with your values.

If you don’t think you’re good with money, then educate yourself. If you have a negative attitude toward wealth, then work on changing your mindset.

Start with my recommended books at

Balance money for time with scalable income

In most jobs, you work for a certain number of hours and you are paid for your time. If you don’t work, you don’t get paid, or you are sacked at some point for not adhering to your contract.

You’re paid once for the hours that you work and you never get that time again. You have to keep exchanging time for money.

With scalable income, you spend your time once to create something of value, like a book, and then sell it over and over again. The time you spend upfront can bring in money month after month, year after year.

Let’s say you spend a year of evenings and weekends writing your book, then editing and publishing it. That time is spent once, and that book might only sell a few copies.

But it could sell a thousand, ten thousand, even a million copies.

It could earn money for your lifetime plus 70 years after your death, if your estate is managed well.

This can feel like a risk if you’re used to immediate money for time, but it is a fundamental mindset shift if you want to make a good living from your writing for the long term.

Most of us need a balance at the beginning, for example, keeping a day job or providing services like freelance writing or teaching to bring in immediate cash flow to pay the bills. But if you set aside a little time each week to build creative assets, you can change the balance over time.

In 2008, 100% of my income was time-based through my consulting day job. I was paid for the hours I worked and nothing more. Over the years, I have slowly created books and other assets and as I write this, over 80% of my income is scalable, earning money even if I’m not working.

How could you shift some of your income streams from time-based to scalable means?

Making a living from your writing is not just about writing

Many authors just want to write and have no interest in marketing or the business aspects of making money. They just want someone to handle all that for them.

But that’s not the reality of being an author or making a living from your writing these days.

All authors have to market their books somehow, however they choose to publish. That might involve interviews and blog tours if you traditionally publish, or email marketing and paid ads if you go the indie route, but every author needs a platform these days.

Developing your writing craft and putting in the hours to create your books is only one half of making a living this way. You also need to embrace the other aspects if you want to increase your income.

I split my days into two. I create in the mornings, and I manage publishing, business and marketing tasks in the afternoon.

Back when I had a day job, I would write between 5 am and 6 am, then go to work, and in the evenings, I’d spend an hour or so after dinner podcasting, connecting with authors, dealing with email and social media, reading books and taking courses to learn new skills.

These days, I’m a full-time creative, so I spend more time in each segment, but the principle remains the same. You need to set aside time to be creative, but also to learn new skills and market your work.

Embrace the growth mindset

Dr Carol Dweck coined the terms ‘fixed and growth mindset’ in her book, Mindset: Changing the Way You Think to Fulfil Your Potential.

The fixed mindset assumes that you are born with particular talents and intelligence, and you can’t change that in any significant way. For example, writers are gifted and we can never achieve success because we weren’t born with that kind of talent.

The growth mindset assumes that you can learn and develop new skills and that overcoming challenges will lead to progress. You can learn the art of writing and develop skills in marketing, business, and anything else you put your mind to.

If you want to make a living with your writing, you need to embrace the growth mindset. The world changes every day and we have to adapt. You can learn new writing skills, and you can also empower yourself with the knowledge you need to be successful.

I don’t have a degree in creative writing, publishing, internet business or marketing, but I learned the skills I needed along the way. I found successful people to model and read their books, took courses, and attended conferences to learn everything I could. I put those lessons into practice for my own career, and I share what I learn with my audience along the way.

You can make a living with your writing.

You just have to learn the skills and put them into action.

Urban fantasy author Angeline Trevena says, “Always be open to learning and trying new things, especially if it scares you. It’s too easy to get stuck in a comfort rut, or to say that something doesn’t work without really trying it. All of my biggest successes have been from pushing myself to do something that scared me!”

This book focuses on the practical side of making a living, but for more mindset tips, check out The Successful Author Mindset.

Model others who make a living from their writing

Back when I was in my miserable day job, I listened to podcast interviews on my commute to work every morning. I discovered Yaro Starak, an introvert, blogger and podcaster, who made enough money from his online business to buy a house and a car and invest. More importantly, he had the freedom to work when he liked, travel, and spend time with his family.

I knew I could achieve the same freedom because Yaro showed me it was possible. I downloaded his free Blog Profits Blueprint and did his course and started my website. I even wrote my own Author Blueprint to grow my email list by modeling his journey.

Yaro is still my mentor from afar, and I’ve interviewed him several times on my podcast over the years. But he is not an author, so I found others to model for that side of my writing business.

My author mentors include Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Dean Wesley Smith, and Orna Ross, writers with many decades of experience in the publishing industry and a deep knowledge of creativity and business skills.

None of these people have ever been ‘official’ mentors. I learn from their books, interviews, courses, and live events when available. That’s the beauty of the writing life: We can learn from our mentors through their books!

It’s important to find models who make money in the way that you want to, and whose career is still possible for you. For example, I am a huge Stephen King fan. I love his books and for a while, I thought he would be a good model for me. But although his writing influences my fiction, his career is not possible to emulate because he started back when publishing was a very different industry.

My personality is also different, and I am not content to focus my entire business on fiction. I am a multi-passionate creator, hence the multiple streams of income approach!

Find your different models based on the income streams you want to build, and these people may change over time as your focus shifts. Read blogs and books, listen to podcasts and audiobooks, attend events online or in person when possible, take courses, and listen to those whose voice and experience you trust — and who make money in the way you want to.

If it’s possible for them, it’s possible for you.

Think long term

There are easier ways to make a living than with your writing and it’s certainly not a get-rich-quick scheme. You want to create a body of work that you’re proud of and that creates an income for the long term. It takes time to learn your craft and put the principles of creative business into practice.

But you’re a writer. You love writing. So what else do you want to spend your life doing?

Take it word by word, step by step, year by year, and you will achieve your goals.

Angie Scarr, non-fiction author and botanical miniaturist, says, “Writing is like investing in a pension plan. You have to be prepared for delayed gratification. Keep on stacking up those books.”

Let’s get into the details.


  • What is your definition of success?
  • What will you do to achieve it?
  • How much money is a ‘living’ for you? How much money do you want to make per year from your writing?
  • Why are multiple streams of income important over the long term?
  • Do you believe you can make a living with your writing? Do you need to work on your money mindset?
  • How much of your income is money for time? How much is scalable? How could you shift this split?
  • Writing is only one aspect of making a living with your writing. What are some other things you might need to learn?
  • How will you embrace the growth mindset?
  • Who are your models? How do they make money? Are those methods possible for you?
  • If you don’t have models in mind yet, how could you find them?
  • Why is it important to think long term about making a living with your writing?

How To Make A Living with your writing Audiobook

The post How To Make A Living With Your Writing: First Principles first appeared on The Creative Penn.

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Author: Joanna Penn

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  • April 21, 2021