Making a Living as a Writer in the 21st Century

Last Thursday I spoke at an event in Belfast organized by LitNetNI, Making a Living as a Writer in the 21st Century, along with Eoin Purcell of Irish Publishing News and author Carlo Gébler. (If you are one of the lovely people I met that day, well hello there! Remember to drink coffee while simultaneously reading this blog for maximum effect.)

My presentation was called ‘A Year in the Life of Catherine, Caffeinated’ because I wanted to show how in the space of a year, I’ve gone from making nothing as a writer to making a (very modest!) living as one, and have done it using free resources available to everyone. You can download the full presentation here, but this is basically what I said.

In February 2010 my income from writing was nothing.

(Strictly speaking it was actually a little bit less than that because I have a stationery shopping problem and need no excuse for stockpiling Post-Its, clicky pens and all the other items I imagine I need for writing.)

What could I do to change this? Excluding any money-making schemes I didn’t have total control over (such as waiting by the phone for a publisher to call), I could:

  • Start a blog
  • Use the blog and social media to build an audience
  • If nothing else, an established “author platform” would at least improve my chances of getting traditionally published
  • Self-publish Mousetrapped, the non-fiction book I’d tried to get published.

So the first thing I did was start a blog. (Or rather, start a proper blog. I’d previously been blogging here, but not very well.)

I came here to Word Press, took a free blog, a free theme and paid $17 to upgrade to a customized URL (catherineryanhoward.com).

It’s very important to give your blog a name other than your own, unless your name is Stephen King or JK Rowling. A lot of people – myself included – find new blogs to read by perusing other people’s blog rolls, and we don’t have the time or inclination to click through each one to see what it’s about or if it’s something interesting. This is where naming your blog becomes important, because I am far more likely to click on, say, High Heels and Book Deals, than Jane Doe’s Blog.

As for content, I posted about:

  • Self-printing. I chronicled the entire story of my self-publishing adventures, warts and all, here on my blog
  • Novely. Posts about writing. Things like ‘How To Make a Novel Bible’, helpful How To  books and NaNoWriMo
  • Book Reviews. Um, the clue is in the title.
  • Miscellaneous. Personal blog posts, funny writing-related videos, coffee and news.

Then I needed to send people to that blog. A website is not a shop window that even if you do nothing someone will eventually stroll past. If you tell no one it’s there, you could potentially have a website that is never visited by anyone at all. You need to send people to it.

  • Twitter. Fun, supportive and useful. What more could you want? Put your blog URL in your Twitter bio, set up your blog so links to your new posts are tweeted automatically and make Twitter friends who are sometimes, against their better judgement, interested in reading something you have to say in a format longer than 140 characters. My Twitter page is here.

  • Facebook fan page. This is entirely different to a Facebook profile, where people ‘friend’ you. People will – hopefully! – ‘like’ your fan page. Setting one of these up is worthwhile because it captures the attention of people already using the platform and can target specific groups, e.g. Disney fans for Mousetrapped. Post links to relevant blog posts on your page’s wall. My Facebook fan page is here.
  • Contests and giveaways, like my coffee contest.
  • Other blogs. Blogging is a community. You’ll get out of it as much as you put in. Read other blogs, leave comments, get to know other bloggers and make blogging friends. Make things easier for yourself by using Google Reader which delivers all new posts from the blogs you’ve chosen to follow to one place each day. Add your favorite blogs to your blog roll (see bottom right sidebar for mine). Eventually when you get to know other bloggers you can do guest posts on their blogs and they can do guest posts on yours, thus building your blog readership.

So now I had a blog and people were reading it. Now I needed to let them know that I had a book for sale.

In a nice way. I cannot stress the ‘nice’ bit enough; the quickest way to fail at this is to be a shameless self-promoter. You know the way you feel when you accidentally answer the phone to a cold caller trying to sell you something you don’t need or want? Well, why would anyone read your blog or follow your Twitter account if that’s all they felt while they were there? Rule number 1 is always be nice.

On my blog:

  • Self-printing posts, as above.
  • Mousetrapped Mondays. Whereas the self-printing posts were not directly promoting my book, I did do things like post videos and pictures, and other more obvious advertising. So as not to leave a bitter taste in my blog readers’ collective nose, I confined these posts to Mondays which then became ‘Mousetrapped Mondays’. This went on for a few weeks, and then I released Mousetrapped on a Monday to complete the cycle.

On other blogs:

  • Guests posts. Some blogging friends invited me to write posts about self-publishing or other aspects of my experience.
  • Reviews and interviews. I made about 20 copies of my book available to book bloggers. Some of them not only posted reviews but also interviewed me or arranged a giveaway of a copy.

On Twitter:

  • I did the same on Twitter, confining promotional tweets to about 3-5 a week, and all on the same together. I used the hashtag ‘#mousetrappedmonday” to identify these.

On Facebook:

  • Cross-linked ‘Mousetrapped Monday’ blog posts
  • Gave family and friends an opportunity to help advertise (or have no excuse not to!) my book
  • I asked readers to send in pictures of themselves reading the book, and uploaded them in an album called ‘Look Who’s Reading Mousetrapped.’

I also made two video book trailers, which you can watch here, and signed up for an Amazon Author page (through Author Central) and a Goodreads profile.

When blogging, remember that most people who read your blog posts will NOT be reading them on your blog. They might browse them on a blog reading application like Google Reader (and so are only seeing plain text) or in ‘mobile view’ on their phone. Therefore it’s always vital to put something at the end of the post like, ‘if you want to read more about this topic…’ or ‘click here to read more about this book…’ so wherever the reader is, they still have an option to read more if they want. Also, you have no idea where your blog posts might end up, so always behave professionally.

Some other things I did:

There’s more detailed information about this area in the following blog posts:

So I had established all the main components of an online platform, but what if by some slim chance someone first heard about Mousetrapped from the book itself? It saves me a lot of trouble, yes, but don’t I still want to bring that person into my online existence? Yes, of course, because somewhere down the line there’ll be another book, and I’ll want to tell them about it. That means connecting the physical book to our online presence.

To do this I:

  • Did something very simple: printed the links to my blog, Twitter account and Facebook fan page in the back of the book. This works really well in e-books, as the links are live and can be clicked on instantly.
  • Created a dedicated book site, aimed at readers who had already finished the book and wanted to learn more
  • Gave readers an incentive to go online and look me up. I used Mail Chimp (another free service) to sign up readers to a mailing list who, from the end of the next month, will receive a new ‘More Mousetrapped’ story once a month for a year. These will be short episodes of things that didn’t make it into the book, or related things that have happened since.

This also feeds into my long-term plan. Yes, I’ve built a readership, but I’m connected to them through social media platforms which may or may not last. If Twitter disappeared tomorrow, how would I contact my 1,000+ followers? The short answer is I couldn’t. Therefore your goal should always be to collect e-mail addresses. I don’t mean this in an evil sense, where you collect emails and then sell them to a third party or spam them with offers with cheaper prescription drugs. I’m saying that if six months or a year down the line you have another book to sell, you want to let these people know you do. You can also offer added value to your readership by doing things like newsletters, new stories, etc.

NB: Never use email addresses without permission, and always give subscribers the option to unsubscribe. Nobody likes annoying and unwelcome emails, especially when they’re trying to sell you stuff you don’t want at the same time.

How much time does all this take? At the beginning, maybe 1-2 hours a day. At the moment, I stockpile 3-5 blog posts over a couple of hours at the weekend (while simultaneously watching TV) and spend maybe 30 minutes a day maintaining it, like replying to comments, messages, etc.

I started this blog on 1st February 2010 and Mousetrapped went on sale on 29th March 2010. What are the results?

Since 1st February 2010:

  • The blog has had 39,000+ visits
  • I have 1,100+ Twitter followers
  • I have 300+ Facebook followers
  • I’ve sold 3,100 books.

Remember my writing income in February 2010? It was absolutely nothing. Nada. Zero. But just a year later, in February 2011, it will be around €1,700. This comes from book sales (mainly), speaking engagements and feature writing.

A modest income, yes, but still an income. And not bad considering:

  • I don’t have a book contract, the support of a grant or bursary, or any other kind of regular income
  • The book I’m selling is self-published, only available online and mostly sells in an e-book edition priced $2.99
  • My book hasn’t been on sale for a year yet
  • I did it all by myself – and from my desk.

And money isn’t everything. In February 2010, I did nothing but write, blog, tweet, drink huge amounts of coffee and stared out the window. But this month, February 2011, has been very exciting. I have:

You can see all the exciting things I’ve got to do (and how they’ve been increasing in frequency) by looking at my News page.

Some final thoughts:

  • Blogging, tweeting, etc. isn’t for everyone, but if you enjoy doing it it can be very easy to do it well.
  • It may not be for you but don’t fool yourself into thinking that it’s below you. It’s not. You may think that being a writer should be all about scribbling stream-of-consciousness with a pencil in a dark corner of a bohemian Parisian cafe called Pretension and that engaging in social media is selling your literary soul, and you’re entitled to think that. But while you’ve got your head up your arse, I’ll be selling books.
  • Numbers snowball. In the beginning, there may only be a handful of people reading your blog. Keep at it. The results are cumulative: what was five people last week will become ten this week, and twenty the next. And anyway, it’s quality, not quantity.
  • The biggest benefits are the ones you don’t expect. Your email account came become a very exciting place!
  • It won’t affect your writing time if you don’t let it. We’re all grown-ups. We can step away from Twitter, can’t we?
  • I think it’s the best thing I ever did for my writing career and that there’s no reason why it can’t be yours!

So that’s all, folks. If you’re starting out on the whole blogging/Twitter/Facebook thing, good luck!

After a very interesting and fun day at the LitNetNI workshop, Eoin and I made our way over to BBC Radio Ulster where we appeared on Arts Extra, talking about the same topic. You can listen to the show here. We’re on about the 15:15 mark.

Click here to read more of my self-printing posts.

Click here to find out more about Mousetrapped.

17 thoughts on “Making a Living as a Writer in the 21st Century

  1. Christopher Wills says:

    What an excellent post. This is exactly what I’ve been looking for as I am almost a year behind you. I love the idea of a form of diary so I’m going to keep a record of my year (2011) in case anybody wants to know how I got from £0 to ?. Hopefully you’re going to keep giving me tips this year so that I can turn the ? into a positive number.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks Christopher! The tips are already all here somewhere – if you have a few hours (!!) to spare, read through all the ‘Self-Printing’ posts as that pretty much details everything I’ve done over the last year. And best of luck with your adventure! 🙂

  2. Pam Robertson says:

    Great post Catherine! I bet your presentation was a blast too. I really enjoy your blog, and from one writer to another, anything we can do to increase our presence is really appreciated!
    Best wishes,
    Pam

  3. Bridget Whelan says:

    Thank you for another great post.
    I’ve featured it in my blog today because it’s easy to get dispirited and think that the world of publishing is a fortified citadel & there’s no way of breaking through… you’ve shown what can be achieved when the writing is over…

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Thanks so much Bridget and I really appreciate you spreading the word! Of course you know that I’m still pursuing traditional publication, but being able to make my own money off a different book while I do is so beneficial, both financially and mentally! 🙂

  4. Col says:

    Not sure what pounds are converted to Cdn dollars but you go, girl! I will look for your book on amazon.ca and indigo.ca

  5. Chris Riddell says:

    Thanks for this wonderful post! I’ve been thinking a lot lately about chasing my dream about becoming a writer, but I know how hard it really is to do that. I studied journalism and graduated in 2005 but gave up on it too easily, then went back to school in 2008 to study chemical engineering. What I now realize is that writing is really what I want to do with my life. Now I want to combine these two disciplines to be a science/health/environment writer. I also do poetry and fiction 🙂 Anyways, it’s good to see that finding success and making a living as a writer may not be so far fetched after all, especially in this information age of high technology we’re living in where anyone can start a blog. You’ve given me hope and inspiration Catherine.

    -Chris

  6. Stephen Paden says:

    This is an excellent post. My background goes back 15 years in the IT field. Recently, I graduated with an Associate’s Degree in Database Development. I was then accepted into Purdue to pursue that field, but switched to Creative Writing. I can’t see myself doing anything but writing for the rest of my life, and the constant battle in my head to think as a programmer, and then a writer, was too much. The writer won!

    I am inspired by this story, but had my mind made up already to make the change. Thank you for an excellent post. I think the first step I will take is to create a blog and then share some of my work.

    *Shameless self promotion*

    When I decided to pursue this path, I submitted a short story to my first literary magazine. It is being published soon. Follow your dreams, as long as you are willing to finance them.

  7. robertnathan says:

    Hi Catherine, this is a great post. I love the look of your blog, not to mention your enterprising attitude… You’ve given me new ideas for how to improve my own writing blog.

  8. Shane Smith poet says:

    Wow that was strange. I just wrote an really long comment but
    after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again.

    Anyway, just wanted to say wonderful blog!

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