There’s a very simple answer if you’re wondering how to become an author, and that’s to get something published. But how do you turn your writing into a sustainable self-employed career – rather than a fun hobby?
Technically authors and writers are very interchangeable terms, but the former tend to have originated the ideas and content, along with getting their work published. A desk drawer of stories makes you a writer, rather than a published author.
While you can be an author of an article or blog post, we’ve covered shorter written work in our guide on how to become a freelance writer (along with the related topics of becoming a freelance proofreader or editor). And hopefully the advice below will help you to build a successful side income or full-time career from books, whether it’s a collection of short stories, or a definitive work of nonfiction.
- Why become an author?
- What skills or qualifications do you need?
- How much can you earn as an author?
- Great books for aspiring authors
- More resources and support to become an author
Why become an author?
If you just want to write as a hobby, or possibly self-publish your work as a vanity project, then asking yourself why you want to become an author isn’t necessarily important. But if you’re considering it as a career choice, then it’s a vital first step.
Making a living as any kind of writer takes a large amount of determination and perseverance. And that’s even more true when you’re committing to something the length of a typical book or novel.
A relatively small number of professional authors make a good, sustainable living solely from their books. Many either write around a different day job, or split their time between other writing and editing work.
Reasons to become an author include;
- A compulsion to write
- Creating an acclaimed work of literature
- Making money and becoming famous
- Supporting an existing business, or establishing yourself as a ‘thought leader’
It’s easy for anyone to identify with the first two reasons. But it’s equally fine to become an author with the aim of becoming financially successful, or to use it as a way to build an existing career or business. The romantic ideal of a novelist sitting at a desk in a remote villa creating the next classic work of fiction might seem more appealing than someone self-publishing guides to filing your business taxes or using word processing software, but both are valid authors as long as the work is published, and people are buying and reading it.
Nonfiction authors will tend to write around areas of specialism, so their passion may be the subject matter itself, rather than writing. Situations like these often see an expert or celebrity team with a co-author who can provide literary skills, or might mean that they hire an uncredited ghostwriter.
What skills or qualifications do you need?
There are no formal requirements to become an author, and famous writers throughout history have come from a fairly wide range of backgrounds. A significant number have also started concentrating on writing later in life, including Maya Angelou, Truman Capote, and J.R.R Tolkien.
Academic training and qualifications can help you develop both a critical eye for literature and your own writing style. And may help you to find work as a freelance writer, journalist or in another related field to support yourself alongside your literary aspirations.
There are also a very wide range of courses available to aspiring authors, ranging from how to come up with ideas and outlines, to the publishing process. With any training, it’s important to look at what’s covered by it, who it’s being offered by, and what value you’re likely to get from it.
Important skills for any author start with research and observation. It’s understandable that nonfiction requires a good depth of knowledge in the subject, but even the most imaginative writing needs some understanding of sometimes bizarre topics or items to make it believable to the reader. If you want to know the future of technology, for example, you can usually find it in science fiction.
You’ll also need to develop your writing process and technique. Some authors prefer to plan in detail, while others let their characters and narrative guide them. But they all need to self-edit initial drafts, and to respond to feedback and constructive criticism, whether it’s from family members or an editor provided by a publishing house. So, you need to be open to suggestions for improvements, and why they have been made. Even if you don’t always agree.
With any creative freelancing or self-employment, the foundation of any success is delivering a final project. Developing a writing habit and routine is key to reaching the finishing line. Whether it’s a chapter, page or single line that needs to be done each day, having a timetable helps you to get into a writing mood, and also forces you to continue even if you’re suffering from a lack of inspiration.
How much can you earn as an author?
Your income as an author will mainly be based on the royalties from sales of your books. And the percentage you receive will depend on how your work is published. With a traditional publisher, you’ll generally be given an advance payment up front, and around 10-12% of the royalties on sales. But keep in mind that advance payment will need to be recouped by the publishing house, or in some cases you might end up owing them money.
Self-publishing allows you to keep much more of the profits, typically between 40-60% or more of a single book sale. And eBooks offer more, with Amazon paying 70% royalties on the net profit, for example.
The flipside is that the support of a mainstream or specialist publisher will give you access to their knowledge, staff, marketing and distribution channels.
A survey of 50,000 authors revealed that the top 10% of writers earned around 70% of the total earnings for the industry. And gave the average income of £10,497 in 2018, which had dropped substantially since 2006. But this varies by age, with full-time writers earning far more around 35-44, than those over 65, for example. And many supplemented royalties by also earning from grants and bursaries, awards and prizes, or by giving lectures and creative writing classes.
Ultimately, if you’re talented and fortunate enough to make it into the top percentage of writers, then you could earn millions from royalties, film rights and more. And if you’re unlucky enough to be near the bottom, you might be lucky to make any money at all. Which is why it’s so important to understand your motivation, especially when you’re more likely to make a sustainable income from your second, third, or fourth publication, rather than your debut.
It’s also important to make sure you understand the contracts and agreements you sign, whether that’s for publication or licensing. And that you continue to collect the payments due to you, which can be helped by signing up to the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (although they do charge a commission).
Great books for aspiring authors
There are a lot of great books for aspiring authors with advice from writers and editors on how you can hone your craft. Along with style and grammar bibles which are considered essentials (along with a good dictionary).
Some of the most commonly recommended include:
- On Writing – A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
- Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
- The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and E.B White
- The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
- The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
- Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer
- The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- Save The Cat! By Blake Snyder
- On Writing Well by William Zisner
But there are many more that tackle specific challenges, such as No Plot? No Problem! A low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days by Chris Baty, the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). You can find more recommendations for inspiration and general freelancing with our favourite books for the self-employed.
Don’t feel you have to buy every single recommendation on any ‘books for writers’ list before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Not only can you potentially save money by checking your local library (and potentially find a local writers meeting at the same time), but it’s importance to balance the insights of others with finding your own style. Many famous writers, for example E.E. Cummings, and the pioneers of the Beat Generation (Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg) purposefully deviated from convention.
More resources and support to become an author
- The National Centre for Writing
- The Authors Licensing and Collecting Society
- The Society of Authors
Researching other freelance careers? Why not check out our other guides:
- How to become a freelance photographer
- How to become a freelance web designer
- How to become a freelance writer
- How to become a freelance Virtual Assistant (VA)
- How to become a freelance SEO consultant
- How to become a freelance structural engineer
- How to become a freelance business analyst
- How to become a freelance event planner or organiser
- How to become a freelance coach
- How to become a freelance proofreader
- How to become a freelance bookkeeper
- How to become a freelance content creator
- How to become a freelance illustrator
- How to become a freelance hair stylist
- How to become a freelance recruiter
- How to become a freelance translator
- How to become a freelance editor
- How to become a freelance photojournalist
- How to become a freelance WordPress developer
And you can get support and help if you’re starting out with self-employment, or still in the early stages of building your career, with the IPSE Incubator. The 12-month programme is currently free with IPSE membership, and includes advice, events, webinars, networking and more, tailored to anyone just beginning their freelance business.