Last year, I was honored to be a speaker at the Children’s Book Mastery conference. I spoke to Karen, CEO of the Get Your Book Illustrations company all about how to make a living with your writing. This is a summary of the session. Welcome to Karen and my deepest thanks for allowing me to share the session with you guys. This is how to make a living with your writing.
My creative agency specializes in providing high quality, affordable illustration services for authors.
As a keynote speaker on my annual conference, Children’s Book Mastery, I interviewed Sacha Black about going full time as an author and making a living from your writing. Sacha gave practical, step-by-step insight and I wanted to share her excellent advice with her own audience too. In this article I share the highlights of our interview.
In this interview we covered:
- The mindset needed to become a successful full-time author
- Exact things you can start doing today to set yourself up to make it financially
- Free ways to build your audience
- The top things to prioritize to be able to make a living from writing
Make sure you don’t miss the end, where I asked Sacha what her top tip would be to help authors succeed.
Q1: How long did it take you to go full-time as a writer?
Karen: I’m sure for a lot of our audience, making a living from their writing seems like an impossible dream, but I know for you, you went from publishing your first book to going full time in quite a short timeframe. How long did it take you?
Sacha: Okay. So that is a multifaceted question, because there’s how long it took me from actual publication to quitting. And then how long it really took me. I will start from the beginning. So, from very first word onto the proverbial page, it was probably about 7 years, I would say.
Sacha: I would say for 5 years I had a very intentional plan. I was writing intentionally with the intent to quit my job and do this full time. So in my mind, it took 5 years from the first word to publishing, then from publishing to quitting my job, it was 2 years.
Sacha: That does seem very quick, but obviously, I had a plan. I executed that plan. And that’s why it seems so fast, I think, but yes, technically, 2 years from publication. But there was a whole raft of education, and learning how to write, and development, and building up a business that went into that before I actually got to say ‘bye-bye’.
Q2: What mindset do you need to go full-time and how do you get that mindset?
Karen: Yeah, and then I’m also sure that going full time comes with a very specific mindset. So, any advice on how to just get to that mindset in the first place?
Sacha: I always say that I have two traits that are perhaps controversial, but I’m very proud of them nonetheless. So my first trait is—and they kind of wrapped in one—but, I am obsessive as a person and I am also stubbornly determined. So I would say those two traits are really important for your mindset. And lots of people see being obsessive as a bad thing. I actually think it’s one of the most wonderful traits in the world, because you can go down into the nitty-gritty of whatever thing it is that you are passionate about, and having that obsessive nature leads to lots of the other things that I’m going to mention. But things like continuing to develop your craft, continuing to educate yourself on the business, on marketing and all those other things, and, you know, really pursuing it with stubbornness that, ‘There is no other solution’.
Sacha: I actually went into this having made the decision I was going to leave my job no matter what it took, and that was it! It was black and white. I was doing this, full stop. This is a very hard industry. There are lots of creative people in the world, and if you want to do this, you have to be absolutely 100% dedicated to it.
Sacha: Which leads me to my first point, so number one: Sacrifice. Nobody wants to hear me say this, but I’m sorry, I have to say it. You know, all of our days are busy. So if you want to add this into your life and you want to create a business, then you are going to have to sacrifice something.
Sacha: Nobody is saying you have to sacrifice everything, but if you want to build a business and you want to quit your job, you are going to have to find time from somewhere. So sacrifice is the number one.
Sacha: Number two, constant learning. I think all indie authors who are successful make a point of being life students. We do not take for granted that we know everything about the industry. Our industry is extremely changeable. You only have to look at the last ten years to see how radically Kindle has changed the reader’s interaction with books. Let alone, you know, then Kindle Unlimited, and how AI is now changing our industry.
Sacha: So, constantly learning. And some of the ways that I do that, particularly for keeping up to date with the industry are podcasts. There are some exceptional podcasts out there that bring you news industry. So things like The Creative Pen, The Sell More Books Show, The Career Author Podcasts, The Rebel Author Podcast and also The Self-Publishing Formula. So I highly recommend all of those. And also The Six Figure Author.
Sacha: Blogs and keeping up to date with people who make a point to blog about industry, about rights licensing. So you can have a look at the Alliance of Independent Authors. They have a blog daily. Also, Christine Catherine Rush, she writes about more advanced things. So, on the business-side and licensing.
Sacha: And also conferences, in-person conferences and online conferences, like this wonderful conference. I make a point to go to things like the London Book Fair. There’s also the Frankfurt Book Fair. And actually there are book fairs in most countries, and in almost every country in the world, actually.
Sacha: Last few points about mindset, having a long term mindset. This is not an overnight get rich quick scheme, let me tell you that. This industry, if you have a passion that writing touches your soul and you want to do this for the rest of your life, then you have to think about this from the long term, which means making good strategic business decision. Which sometimes mean short term pain and perhaps earning less on the short term, but in the long term, taking a more strategic and long-term business mindset.
Sacha: Classic example of that is the decision of should you be exclusive to Amazon? So there’s a Kindle unlimited program. For people who don’t know, that’s where you are only allowed to have your books in Amazon, nowhere else. It’s a short term injection, and it also means you are not building up your platform on other stores and in other countries, because Amazon is actually only the largest bookstore in America and the UK. So, the more painful, strategic decision would be to be wide, so that you build up a platform and a readership everywhere. So it’s those kinds of decisions.
Sacha: The very last one, which I’ll talk more about later, is multiple streams of income. It is essential for any indie author to have multiple streams of income. Now, this one in particular, and particularly on mindset, I get a lot of resistance when I say this, because people turn around to me and say, ‘Well, I only want to write full time’. That’s fine. You can still write full time, my darlings, but you do need to have multiple financial income streams.
Sacha: So, lots of people think, when I say that, ‘Oh, you have to do editing,’ or ‘You have to provide author services’. No, that’s rubbish. You don’t. You could have rent from a second property. You could have an investment portfolio. The point is, you must have multiple streams of income, so that you are not reliant, wholly, on one source of income.
Karen: True for writers and for a lot of people, I think in life in general, that’s really good advice. And yeah, pretty much everything you said there was solid gold. I love it. I agree with you so much on being obsessive and stubborn. I mean, if you really want to get somewhere in life, I think there isn’t any other way to do that except pig-headed determination in the right direction.
Q3: How have you built your audience(s)?
Karen: So one quick question. You mentioned about one platform, like Amazon—if you’re on Amazon and people are buying your books, there are clever ways to build your email list, to build your community, but in general, someone will buy your book and you don’t have any further control. So, you did mention about building your community. Can you just add a little bit to that, on how you’ve done that?
Sacha: Yeah, so I have two distinct genres. So I have my nonfiction and my fiction, and so building those audiences is different for both of those. The best question I always ask myself in terms of how to build up my audience is, ‘Where are my readers finding their books?’ So, for example, I write young adult fantasy. Lots of young adults are actually not getting their book recommendations on Amazon anymore. They’re actually getting their book recommendations on Instagram. So being present on Instagram is a really good way of connecting with your readers.
Sacha: Some fundamental principles, have a website, have a reader magnet. So a ‘reader magnet’ is a small something or other that you give away to potential readers in exchange for their email address, which you then collect and have a mailing list so that you can email them when you have something interesting to say. Perhaps a cover reveal, perhaps an exclusive sneak peak of your writing, and, of course then, sales, when you have a new book for sale.
Sacha: Also, mailing list swaps. So once you have a mailing list, you can then recommend somebody else’s book, and they can then recommend your book. And if the book that you’re recommending is your reader magnet, then you can do like a sign-up mechanism through places like BookFunnel. So you can check out BookFunnel. So that is that. Does that answer?
Q4: What are the top things you need to prioritize to be able to make a living from your writing?
Karen: Yeah, that is awesome. That’s nice and practical. So definitely gives people a few steps to do. Okay, so then, like with most creative pursuits, unfortunately writing a brilliant book isn’t any guarantee that you’re going to make money. So, what are the top things you need to prioritize to be able to make a living from your writing?
Sacha: Number one, and I will harp on about this this entire session, but multiple streams of income.
Sacha: Lots of writers don’t want to have to do freelance work, and that’s fine, but perhaps you retain two days a week in your old employment. Or perhaps you consult back into your old industry. I make sure that I have a balance of what I call active and passive income. Active income is short, sharp cash injections, you are exchanging your time for delivering a job or a product. I’m a developmental editor, so I will do developmental editing.
Sacha: Active income is a gift and a curse. It is a short, sharp injection of cash, usually quite a lot of cash. However, you are exchanging your time, which is a terrible thing to do, for money; because you are not creating assets or products that you can then resell and sell over again for the rest of your lifetime to earn money, which is essentially what a book is. You do the work once, but you get paid forever.
Sacha: And then obviously create passive income. So for me, it is my books.
Sacha: Number two, a huge catalog of books. I know nobody probably wants to hear me say that, because creating anything…like having 30 or 40 or 50 books takes a lifetime to do. But if you look at career authors, they are the authors who have produced more than 20 books.
Sacha: Those who are earning enough income to just write all the time have a lot of books. This is for a couple of reasons. The first one is because you have multiple books that you can promote. If you write a series, it is very hard to promote anything other than the first book in that series, because obviously it is a chronological story. Now, you want series, because you often discount the first book and then you earn royalties from the second, third, fourth, fifth, sixth, sixth, you know, seventh books in the series. And that’s how you earn your money, because you are drawing your readers along those series.
Sacha: However, if you only have one series, you only have one book to promote, which makes it very hard to earn a lot of money. Which is why a large backlog is very important, and also brings me onto my next point, which is: Build a back catalog and a readership in one genre before you move on. Now, I caveat that—only if you are a fast writer, fill your boots right across whatever genres you want.
Sacha: It’s important that you build a readership in one genre first so that you have sustainable sales, and you have an audience to launch new books to. If you’re constantly flitting across different genres, you are starting from scratch every single time, and building a readership takes time.
Karen: Okay, perfect. Yeah, exactly, it’s like I know the analogy, ‘If you want to cross the river, finish the one bridge, you know.’ Five half-built bridges still don’t get you across the river.
Q5: Can you give us a step by step breakdown of how you got to quitting your day job?
Karen: Okay, and then can you give us a step by step breakdown of how you went from not having a book to quitting your day job?
Sacha: Number one, know exactly how much you need to live off. So my biggest tip to you, and I know writers don’t like numbers, we certainly don’t like spreadsheets, but you need to do a spreadsheet, guys. Get down, pull off, say, three months of transactions from your bank.
Sacha: Note down every single outgoing, every single incoming, and look at what you’re spending and what is outgoing. Get rid of anything that you don’t vitally need, and this isn’t necessarily about saying, ‘Don’t buy the Starbucks’. This is about changing habits and behavior. Are you spending frivolously? That is the question.
Sacha: Number two, get rid of debt.
Sacha: I’ve already talked about multiple streams of income. Monitor your income. It’s really important. I know nobody likes numbers, but if you want to run a business and you want to leave your job and know that your bills are going to be paid, make sure you have some kind of spreadsheet that tracks your income and outgoings every single month.
Sacha: Next one, have a reliable amount of freelance income coming into you at a level of which you are confident it will continue, or even if it drops, it will not drop below your baseline for, say, 6 or 8 months, before you quit your job.
Sacha: You have seasonal sales. Particularly for writers, seasonal sales boom for traditional publishers in the summer. And it gets really, really expensive for indies to advertise in the summer, which often means we actually see a dip in income. So knowing and following those patterns for an amount of time will really help you.
Karen: Wow, okay, that is actually super helpful and practical. I think it’s very easy to get caught up in the dream and the passion and actually forget in the end, a lot of it comes down to the nitty-gritty, you know.
Sacha: Yeah, absolutely.
Q6: How do you balance the business and the creative side so that the pressure doesn’t affect your creativity?
Karen: So, having to sell books, obviously adds a lot of pressure to your writing. So how do you balance the business side with the creative side so you don’t end up just kind of freaking out and not being able to be creative?
Sacha: Yeah, it’s really hard, I don’t know if I’m just lucky or if I’ve just not suffered yet—but if anything, it’s made me more motivated. So, first of all, I would say to save, at the very minimum, three months of salary. If you can save six, or a year—six months, or 12 months—of your salary, so that you have something to fall back on for those months that are bad. I’ve said it once, I’ve said it twice, I’ll say it multiple times, have multiple streams of income.
Sacha: And then also, as I mentioned before, that active income, having the option at least to be able to do something that will give you a short sharp injection of cash.
Sacha: And the last piece advice, a great mentor of mine, Joanna Penn, said to me, ‘Hold tight, this is a rollercoaster, your first year’. So I would strongly advise you all to hold tight, because it really is a roller coaster. Yeah.
Q7: What would you do differently?
Karen: Okay, I’m sure, true. All right, so if you had to start over now, what would you do differently?
Sacha: This is a really hard question, because I kind of believe that everything I’ve done has got me to where I am, and I’m really happy where I am.
Sacha: Assessing how you spend your time and counting how many words you write, perhaps in the morning, or in the afternoon, in the evening; and working out what really works for you. Forget all the advice and all the tips and tricks everybody else is saying. Work out what works best for you to get your words on the page.
Sacha: And second, to that, I would say spend more time writing than marketing until you have a huge backlog of books. And that was probably my mistake. I grew my platform, and once you do that, you can’t really backtrack. So, definitely making sure you always, always prioritize the writing and not the business.
Sacha: And secondly, more experimentation. Experimenting is scary, because quite often you are throwing money at marketing tips or marketing advertising, and you don’t know if it’s going to work. And my favorite phrase, I always say this on my podcast, ‘Suck it up, princess’. I just need to suck it up sometimes. Experiment, test, iterate and have faith that it will produce results in the end.
Q8: What would be your top tip to help authors succeed?
Karen: That makes sense. I’ve heard you saying that on your podcast, but it’s actually good advice. Otherwise one can get stuck in stuff that’s really unimportant. Okay, so then what would be your top tip for children’s book writers to help them succeed?
Sacha: So I have a few, sorry.
Karen: It’s all good.
Sacha: Number one, have a plan. Okay, you do need a business plan. Have a plan that covers books, genres, craft, marketing, business, accounting. Have a structured business plan.
Sacha: Number 2, swallow the hard pill and accept that this is going to take you years. This is not fast. Be okay with that and enjoy the process. I think a lot of writers race after that final goal of either quitting their jobs or getting their book published and actually forget to enjoy the process along the way. For most of us creatives, the joy is actually in the creating, not in the end product. And once you have your book, it’s all over.
Sacha: Next, keep honing your craft. You cannot keep selling books unless you are a good writer, unfortunately. So, continue to learn. Continue to read craft books, like mine. Dissect books that you read. Listen to conferences or, you know, whatever. Just make sure you are actively honing your craft. And, then likewise, keep learning about the business. Try to stay up to date with the changes in the industry.
Sacha: Network. I haven’t really mentioned this, but my network is possibly my greatest asset, other than my books. Go and meet people, be kind to people, be helpful to people, and you will find that people will help you in spades and return that, because ‘karma’. Let’s be real.
Sacha: And just to focus on writing, writing, writing and get that backlog of books. If you have to drop something, let it be the marketing and so that you…because you cannot sell a book if it’s not published, at the end of the day.
Karen: Sasha, thank you so much. You actually said so many amazing things. I’m so happy to have had you on.
Sacha: Oh, thank you very much. It’s been an honor.
Karen: You’re very welcome.