Swimming Lessons for House Slaves: You can’t make a living swimming

One of the myths being purveyed by the seriously entrenched House Slaves—the career House Slaves if you will—is this: “You can’t make a living epublishing.” They’ll cite all sorts of numbers, proving that their income from ebooks is but a paltry fraction of what they make through traditional publishing. To abandon traditional publishing and jumping straight into epublishing would mean a devastation of their personal economy. For them, it is not doable, therefore it is not doable for anyone.

I’ve been around long enough to have heard this myth spouted since well before ebooks came around. In its early form it was, “No one can make a living writing,” or “No one ever makes royalties from writing.” If I had a nickel for every time I heard a mediocre midlist writer—or writers with pretensions of being mediocre midlist writers—say this, I wouldn’t have to work for a living. I hear it all the time on convention panels and it pisses me off. Generally I look down the table and say, “Hey, just because you can’t do it, doesn’t mean no one can.” The time I recall where it really got my blood boiling was during a signing with another author at a bookstore three miles from my house in Scottsdale (one of the pricier Phoenix suburbs). He upped and came out with the “no one can make a living writing” crap. I immediately said, “Excuse me, I make a very good living at it, and I live here.” (I also did something else after that, which was a bit spiteful, though did no harm, but pretty much convinced him of his error. A story for another time.)

This a priori dismissal of the economic potential of epublishing also reminds me of an experience most all writers have at one point or another. You tell someone you’re a writer, and they ask sweetly, “No, but what do you do to make a living?” Or, as my mom used to wonder in my early days of working as a game designer, they ask, “But when are you going to get a real job?” It’s not hard to see why a lot of folks don’t think you can make money as a writer: after all, the business is hard to understand, they’ve likely never met an author before, and have zero frame of reference for knowing if it’s possible to make a living as a writer. (Career House Slaves, on the other hand, should know better.)

But let’s break down the career House Slave argument. It fails down on two points:

1) The idea that no one can make a living epublishing clearly founders on the stories of Amanda Hocking and Joe Konrath. Both of them make enough from epublishing to make a better living that most writers who are traditionally published. Of course, not all traditionally published writers count on their writing income as their main source of income, so they’re not actually making a living through it. When you look at the writers who are making their living publishing, all of them have ebook income, and many are self-publishing backlist or previously unpublished work.

2) The House Slave argument creates a straw man: that the goal of epublishing is to replace all writing income. It’s not. Epublishing is about “income plus” not “income replacement.” It isn’t an either/or choice, it’s a both situation. I think it’s great that a lot of writers are striking out on their own with new work; and I think any writer who has a backlist and isn’t putting it up for sale is foolishly leaving money on the table. Participating in epublishing is no more harmful to a traditionally published author than accepting an option for a movie deal, or writing copy for a local magazine, or any of the dozens of other things we do to supplement our incomes. This is income enhancement, pure and simple.

The House Slave who declines to do any epublishing is the person who won’t bend over to pick up a $5 because it’s not a $50. And, heck, if you’re one of the darlings of traditional publishing and they’re paying you a fortune, maybe that $5 isn’t worth the effort. But then the ebook revolution and the entrepreneurial publishing movement isn’t about you. It’s about people who believe enough in their work that they want to provide a professional level product and sell it direct to their audience. If a traditionally published author doesn’t feel that’s right for him, so be it; but his personal choice does not invalidate the choices made by well-informed, talented writers who are willing to expand their sources of income.

Don’t mistake what I’m saying above as an endorsement of willy-nilly publication of whatever’s been scribbled down. Self-publishers owe it to themselves, their careers and the readers to make sure their stories are the best they can possibly be. If you need an editor, beg, barter or pay for someone to edit your work. If you need covers, use a professional graphics designer and professionally produced art to get a great looking cover. The idea that “someone will buy it” isn’t good enough. You want your work to stand out, to be the choice, not a choice from a bunch of lackluster offerings. All writers must constantly remember that any offering will be some readers first exposure to their work. If you’re not taking your best shot, you’re just telling new readers that they should look elsewhere in the future.

Ultimately, the question of whether or not a writer can make a living off epublishing has been decided: of course they can. We have examples of folks who do. We have J. K. Rowling and the Ian Fleming estate deciding that self-publishing of ebooks is worth their time. I’m good with that endorsement. I’m very happy with the ebook money I’m making. It’s not carrying me back to what I was making at the height of my career, but it is sufficient to underwrite the work I’m doing in both the digital original realm and the traditional publishing field. (I’m willing to work both sides of the street because I am able to; and some properties that I like to play with—Conan, for example—require traditional deals as part of getting access.)

The key questions are as follows: can you make money selling ebooks? Absolutely. Is having more money today than you had yesterday worth it? Yes. Will creating more inventory increase your income? Yes. Will selling backlist items (old novels, collections of short stories) turn them into earners again? Yes.

For all the protestations of the career House Slaves, I have never, in over thirty years of being involved in publishing, heard a writer say they had too much money. With that being the case, and epublishing being the low-hanging fruit on the publishing tree, anyone not involved in the harvest is just being silly.

So, even if you accept the idea that you can’t make a living epublishing, rest assured that you can make your life better through epublishing. And that makes the effort more than worth it.


Writing up this series of blog posts is cutting into my fiction writing time. If you’re finding these posts useful, and haven’t yet snagged books of mine, please consider making a purchase now. Nice thing about the new age of publishing is that you become a Patron of the Arts, letting writers know what you’d like to see more of simply by voting with a credit card. (Authors charge less when they sell direct, so you save, we make more, and that frees us to write more.)

My latest paper novel, At The Queen’s Command, is available at book retailers everywhere.

Crime Tech is a five-pack of short stories, leading off with Kid Binary and the Two-bit Gang and concluding with the short story, Tip-off, both of which are among my all time favorite short stories. Also included are a humorous tale which involves a psychic detective in a world that includes androids, a nasty little Christmas story of a suicidal detective being given a very odd holiday job, and quick and fun little story which gives you the inside scoop on how mankind evolved, called Intelligent Design. I also tossed in a bonus essay talking about each story and how it came to be written. It’s available for the Kindle, and for sale directly off my website for any epub compliant ereaders.

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