Writers eventually start to wonder how to make money writing fiction. It’s absolutely valid to want to earn money off of your craft. You’ve worked hard to hone your skills and spent countless hours drafting, editing, and rewriting.
What are your options for making money writing fiction? Check out these ideas to see what’s right for you.
1. Enter Writing Contests
There are so many writing contests happening all the time. You have almost endless contests to consider, so it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.
First, take a deep breath. Let’s start with a few basics.
You can always check out some of the leading publications to try your hand at everything from expert-level contests to beginner-friendly competitions:
- Reedsy Prompts Contests
- Writer’s Digest Annual Writing Competition
- Reed Magazine’s John Steinbeck Award for Fiction
There are also broader lists of contests if you search by the current year. For example, 2023 contests appear on blog posts like these:
- The Novelry’s Writing Competitions for 2023
- Reedy’s Best Writing Contests of 2023
- Paper True’s Exclusive List of Writing Contests in 2023
While you’re browsing current contests, double-check that any existing stories you have in mind qualify for required word count limits, genres, themes, and any other details outlined in the contest submission requirements lists. Submitting something without the requirements will result in immediate disqualification.
2. Sell Stories to Magazines and Journals
You can also find places to sell short stories by keeping a running list of your preferred literary magazines and journals. They open for submissions all the time and even pay writers to get featured in their publications. No contests required!
The same rules apply: check the requirements list for each submission page before sending your work.
Once your story matches what the publication is looking for, you can make money writing fiction by sending your work to places like:
- The Atlantic
- The Georgia Review
- One Story
- The Threepenny Review
- Daily Science Fiction
- Virginia Quarterly
- Flash Fiction Online
Not interested in researching publications one by one? I have a great resource for you.
I love using Chill Subs. It’s an extensive database of literary magazines and journals that’s constantly updating.
Here’s what their homepage looks like at the current date of this post’s publication:
Literally makes me breathe a deep breath of relief. Streamlining the publishing process is so helpful, especially if you’re new to the process.
After making a free account, you can set filters to the existing story you want to publish or the topics you’re interested in writing. There are also filters for things like no submission fees and simultaneous submissions.
When you select a magazine or journal, the Chill Sub’s profile will show you everything you need to know. You’ll see which genres the publication prefers, what they look for in submissions, what they don’t publish, and examples of their recently published stories. You’ll
Get an instant look into their world to decide if it’s the right place for your writing.
3. Self-Publish Your Books
Many people who want to make money writing fiction decide to self-publish their work. Whether you write a collection of short stories, a novel, a series of novels, or graphic novels, you can list them for sale on sites like Amazon. Amazon specifically has its Kindle Direct Publishing program to walk writers through the steps and make the experience less daunting.
I personally used the old version of KDP to self-publish my first book. It was super easy and I even got physical copies by ordering them through the program.
Self-publishing is a legitimate way to become a published author. You can even build your readership through this step and eventually work with a traditional publisher if that’s your goal. They love writers with built-in audiences and proven publishing histories.
A few things to note if this is something that interests you:
- You may want to hire an editor to help you proofread your manuscript before publishing anything. Traditional publishers connect you with editors, but you’ll be on your own in this process. You can find editors through trusted sources like referrals, the Editorial Freelancers Association, and the ACES: The Society for Editing.
- You’ll need to create your interior and cover designs during the creation process. KDP has steps and a simple interface for doing this, but you can also design your cover on Canva if you don’t want to work with Amazon (and don’t have Adobe Photoshop).
- Adobe InDesign is what most major publishers use to design the interior layout of books. I trained in that program when I was preparing to go into the book industry—it may seem intimidating at first, but it has nearly endless options for personalization. Don’t forget to add details like margins, a title page, and your acknowledgments section.
- It may also benefit you to compare self-publishing companies. Amazon isn’t your only option! Places like iBooks and Kobo also help writers get their stories into the world. As you learn how to make money writing fiction, you should compare all of your options to make an informed decision.
- Self-published authors also have to do their own marketing. You’ll need to take steps to identify your audience, create marketing campaigns, and potentially pay for advertising to reach new readers.
Income distribution is another reason why authors choose to self-publish when they consider how to make money writing fiction. Traditional publishers need you to earn your advance back before you can make money off of sales (more on that below). Then your portion of the sales gets split into pieces to pay your agent and other team members.
KDP gives authors 70% of their sales right away because there’s no advance to earn back. Other self-publishing companies follow suit with similar percentages. Look into the details of their payment systems before publishing with one!
It’s also helpful to build a community around yourself when you want to self-publish. There are numerous Facebook writing groups to help authors self-publish, but you can also follow individual writers online and make connections organically if you’re looking to cultivate a network individually.
4. Publish Your Books Traditionally
Traditional publishing is a great way to make money writing fiction. Many writers dream about walking this path after a lifetime of falling in love with books from major publishers.
You can absolutely pursue this dream and earn an income. It’s just going to take more time than you might expect.
These are the typical steps writers take to publish books traditionally. The process can take a year or longer, depending on your situation.
Step 1: Finish That Manuscript
You may have heard that you can start contacting literary agents or publishers after you have a decent chunk of your manuscript done. While there are a few here and there that could be fine with that, it’s best to always finish your manuscript before querying begins.
How do you know when it’s finished? Follow this basic checklist:
- Edit your story for flow, character development, and pacing. This may involve storyboarding again or even talking through your book with a friend.
- Edit your work for line edits (spelling, punctuation, etc.)
- Give your work to a beta reader! That could be your partner, best friend, family member, etc. They’ll have a fresh pair of eyes for things like plot holes, confusing arcs, unfinished storylines, and tension that never resolves.
- Double-check that your themes get resolved.
Step 2: Draft Your Query Letter
I already made a post showing how to draft a query letter and the answers to common query questions, but here’s a summary: you need a good query letter for your finished manuscript. They’re the first impression an agent gets of you and your work.
Query letters always include:
- An introduction to your work (the title, the genre, the word count, a one-sentence summary)
- An explanation of the plot (don’t hold back—it should include your beginning, middle, and end, plus any tropes and themes)
- Comparative titles (novels in the same genre as your work that were published in the last ~2 years or less)
- The reason why you wrote your novel (what makes you the best person to write about that theme/plot/character growth, etc)
Step 3: Find Your Agents
There are a few ways to find agents and you can try different methods throughout your querying journey.
Use QueryTracker to find agents by genre, availability, location, etc. Then track your queries with the same website to find out who’s read your work, who’s rejected it and who wants to get in touch. (The free version does most of this, but there’s a paid version for people who want to hardcore dedicate themselves to querying).
Check out those comparative titles—authors almost always thank their agents in the Acknowledgements section. Start a running list and note their publishers.
Search Twitter for agents who are open to queries. It may seem strange, but most agents have Twitter accounts and announce when they’re open or closed to queries. You can always follow them on your personal or writing account, but you can also search for them by looking up hashtags like “open for queries” and “submissions are open.” If you want more details, check out this great resource for more hashtags and strategies. Note—you should never direct message an agent on Twitter. Always contact them through their preferred methods, usually located in their bio or pinned tweet (if they’re open to queries).
Step 4: Sign With an Agent
This step can take weeks, months, or years. Every writer’s querying journey is different. Sometimes the market isn’t right for a specific genre or storyline. Other times, you may need time to revise and polish your manuscript or shelve it entirely for a more developed idea.
Searching “amquerying” on Twitter is a great way to read other writers’ experiences. You’re not alone if you’re frustrated, exhausted, tired, or just plain sad. It’s hard to get rejections and try again when you’re likely the only person who currently believes in your specific manuscript.
Agents have to pick projects based on what they want to represent, but also what they can sell. If your story is too new or different, they may pass until it’s more culturally relevant or more popular with readers.
When an interested agent offers representation (likely after requesting a full manuscript), ask plenty of questions to get to know them. You don’t have to accept the first agent who comes along. They should align with your vision for your book and who you want to reach with it.
When you do sign with an agent, celebrate! It’s a big step that you should recognize! Lots of hard work and dedication went into getting an agent, and it’s only the start of your publishing journey.
Step 5: Look Forward to Your Book Deal
Your agent has a few roles. They’re supposed to look out for your best interests with publishers and all the legal aspects that come along with book deals.
But first, they have to land a deal. That means they write pitch letters or decks and send them to publishers they think will be the best fit for your manuscript. Letters are more common, but pitch decks are necessary for children’s books and graphic novel writers who have pictures integrated into their work.
This process can take a while. You won’t make money writing fiction overnight by following the traditional publishing route, so don’t put that expectation on yourself. A book deal may not happen overnight or even in the first month. As long as your agent keeps up communication with you about the process, you’ll know you’re in good hands.
Things That Will Be in Your Book Deal
Contracts include all the information related to your deal. Your agent will use it to potentially negotiate for more money, better control over your film rights or foreign publication rights, and basically all the little details that go along with those things.
When writers sign a book deal, they get a check. That check is called your advance. The advance is a sum of money that the publishing house or imprint gives you for the right to publish that book. It could vary from $1,000 to six figures, but new authors (and especially women and people of color) typically get around $5,000 for their first book.
Smaller amounts will arrive in a single check. Larger amounts are split into multiple checks spanning the time from your signing date to publication.
Every time your book sells a copy, you’ll earn royalties on that sale. However, writers don’t see royalty earnings until those royalties out-earn their advance.
If you got the average $5k advance, you’ll have to sell enough books to earn $5k in royalties before you see routine checks in the mail for royalties after that point. Your agent will negotiate your royalty percentage during…well, negotiations.
Step 6: Figure Out the Pre-Production Details
You’ve signed your book deal—throw a party! Then it’s time to get to work.
Your agent will connect you with an editor, who then sends you an editorial letter after reading your manuscript. It will contain everything they think could improve plus their marked-up copy. You’ll dive into structural changes if necessary, but mostly line edits.
You don’t have to agree with everything your editor suggests. It’s still your book. However, they know the industry the best and will want your work to succeed as much as you do. Talk things out and come to a compromise, but stay true to your book’s intended purpose throughout editing.
Your publisher’s legal team will go over your edited copy when it’s close to perfect to ensure there are no issues. They typically find things like the use of song lyrics that you haven’t bought the rights to and mentions of real persons or brands that may result in lawsuits.
Next, your design team will work with you on potential cover designs. interior layouts, jacket versus hardcover designs, and blurb placement. They have most of the say over your final cover, but your agent can go to bat for you if you really think the options are hideous.
Next, you’ll come up with a marketing plan. Imprints and publishing houses typically have marketing teams and publicity experts that work with authors. You’ll talk about which stores will sell your book and which websites will get ads based on your target reader audience’s known shopping habits/website preferences. Ads on social media and your involvement with posting about your book will also come up.
Proofreaders and beta readers are also part of this stage. They’re the fresh sets of eyes every writer needs to know if their readers will understand how they wrapped up their themes, character development paths, and plot. They’ll point out when things don’t make sense, need more expansion, or could be cut as they read through your Advanced Readers Copies (ARCs).
Step 7: Marketing and Blurbs
A bit more about the marketing stage—your agent has a hand in this too. Based on their previous or current authors, they may have personal connections with influencers and big names in the book world. They’ll send those people ARCs and ask those people for blurbs if they think those famous people have audiences who would be interested in your manuscript.
You can also talk with your agent about getting blurbs from similar debut authors in your genre or only authors from marginalized communities, depending on your priorities. The only time they might say no to this idea would be if your preferred people hardly have audiences or if their audiences have shown interest (via book sales) in other genres.
Your team will decide other things like:
- Who gets your ARCs
- If you’ll send some ARCs through contests
- Which retail stores will stock your book
- If you’ll pitch your book to get sponsored by big book clubs
- If you’ll pitch for your book to be included in book subscription services
- Where you’ll post digital ads and for how long
- How you’ll create marketing campaigns with sites like Goodreads and other book sites popular with readers
Most writers also have to market their books on their personal Facebook, Instagram, and/or Twitter accounts. You’ll likely only get out of this step if you’re already an established author who can sell books without blinking (think: James Patterson or Nora Roberts).
If you need help putting together a posting plan, your marketing team and agent can help with that. Most publishers request that their writers develop online followings because it creates personal, instant connections with readers/allows for free advertising via posts/generates direct feedback.
Step 8: Negotiate Your Media Rights
Most writers negotiate their media rights after landing a publishing deal. The publisher needs to know that your work has a chance of being picked up as a movie or TV show. Debut authors have a lot to prove unless you’re one of the rare writers who snag a movie deal alongside a mega-advance because your work is once in a generation.
Your agent will negotiate this for you and possibly let you keep your media rights. If you keep them, you can sell them separately later on. When you or your publisher is ready to sell, production company scouts will see the announcement on book deal websites. They may contact your agent to negotiate with you before you start selling copies, but it may happen after your book has shown promise on the market for a while too.
Step 9: Sign Copies of Your Books
About a month before readers can buy your books, you’ll get copies to sign! Prepare your hand and wrist, because this step surprises most writers. If you have more than a handful of books to sign, you’ll need to pace yourself.
Still, this is an exciting step in your publishing journey. Take lots of selfies and enjoy the moment!
Potential Step 10: Start Your Book Tour
Big names in the book world get book tours set up by their publishers. Debut authors often don’t. If you want to do a book tour, talk with your agent early in the process. They can work with your publicist to schedule a few speaking engagements, but you’d mostly be in charge of contacting bookstores to reserve an hour or two for signing books and meeting with readers.
If your publisher does want you to do a book tour, regardless of whether you’ve been published or not, they might pay for your transportation and accommodations. It depends on your unique situation.
5. Write Commission Stories
People sometimes seek writers to draft specific stories they want to read. This can happen on personal accounts like Patreons or Etsys. Fanfiction sites like AO3 prohibit links to make money off their work. Always read the fine print on sites before selling commissions.
Let’s say someone wants to read a story where a retired couple experiences a tragedy that results in personal growth, inspired by Hamlet.
The person loves your writing, so they want to hear the story in your voice!
The good news is that Hamlet is a public domain work, so it’s most likely okay to make money off of fanfiction inspired by it in whichever countries it remains registered as a public domain.
However, if someone wanted to pay you to write about Jack Dawson surviving the Titanic, you couldn’t legally make money off of it because the Titanic movie isn’t public domain. Stories enter the public domain change each year as copyrights expire. You can check databases to find new public domain additions for inspiration.
If a source of fan fiction isn’t public domain, you’d have to ask the creators for permission to write fan fiction and profit from your work.
The key is building a readership before opening for commissions. Write fanfictions or short story prompt requests for free to create a following. Once you have regular readers, you can open for commissions based on genre and word count.
You’d set your own deadlines too, which might make a decent side income. Your readers would request your short stories for payments and you could create exclusive content by writing certain stories only for subscribers at a certain payment tier level.
6. Complete Freelance Story Contracts
If you don’t want to spend time building a readership, you can always sign up to make money writing fiction by completing freelance story contracts. People make listings on sites like Upwork for ghostwriters who can complete book outlines, pamphlets, and e-books.
These projects can turn into quick sources of stagnated income, but be careful about which projects you choose. Some people will request a full novel from a writer for a few bucks. The project could take weeks or months, which is difficult to do on a single $50 payment.
However, you might be a fast writer who can turn projects around in a matter of hours. See what’s available on sites like Upwork and Fiverr to make some pocket change and potentially start long-term relationships with legitimate clients.
7. Publish Stories on Medium
You’ve likely read articles on Medium before without realizing it. It’s a site that gives writers opportunities to self-publish while giving readers five free articles per month. After that, readers must pay a subscription to access the articles. That’s where your potential income could come from.
Medium members can “clap” on stories and articles they enjoy. Writers make money per clap. You wouldn’t even have to worry about marketing yourself because Medium gets global visitors constantly with its ongoing subscriber base.
As you gain readers and make money, you can use the funds to make your own blog and link to it in your Medium posts. The expansion possibilities for your freelance career are unlimited.
Learn How to Make Money Writing Fiction
There are numerous ways to make money writing fiction. Consider how much time you have and how much money you want to make from your work. You could even try multiple publishing avenues. You have a lifetime of writing ahead of you—so make your stories work for you.