In late 2011 I did something that I’d dreamed of all my life. Something that every fiction writer dreams of (even if they want to be self-published, I promise every fiction writer has dreamed about this at one time or the other.)
I signed with a literary agent.
She sold my work in early 2012 in a two-book deal to an imprint of Penguin. I was given a $15,000 advance for both books and for a few years, I was living the actual dream. My first book, Viral Nation, was published in summer of 2013 and my second, Rebel nation, was published in summer of 2014.
Take a look at those dates again.
My novels sold to Penguin in early 2012. They were published in mid-2013. That’s nearly eighteen months.
Here’s what I believed: that having an agent and a big publisher was all I needed. I thought that my book would sell just by virtue of being published and on bookstore shelves.
Here’s what really happened:
For various reasons (including being a young adult science fiction book published by a romance imprint), my books got good reviews but not great sales. Barnes and Nobel didn’t pick up my second book. The publisher, consequently, didn’t pick up my third book. My entire career came down to two thirds of a trilogy that ended on a cliffhanger and that no other publisher would ever pick up.
There were eighteen months between when my books sold and when the first one came out. What I should have done with those months is exactly what Jeff teaches in Tribe Writers. I should have focused on building an audience.
Fast forward to late 2015. My publisher dropped me. My agent didn’t like my next book or any other ideas I had for next books, so I fired her. I’d signed with a second agent, who liked my next book, but couldn’t sell it. Then she decided she wasn’t going to represent children’s book anymore and she fired me.
I hadn’t written a word of fiction, not a single word, in a full year.
I was working as a teacher’s assistant making less than my son earns at Wal-Mart, under a teacher who hated me and was (believe it or not) even more miserable in her job than I was in mine. Something had to give. My best idea for getting out of my situation was to write another book so that I could get another advance.
By now, I’d come to realize that building an audience was A) super important and B) my responsibility no matter how big my publisher was. So, I started there.
I’m going to fast forward to the punchline here: In 2016 I earned nearly $100,000. That’s more than four times my annual income from the Washoe County School District. It’s more than six times my advance from Penguin. Even after taxes and expenses, it is a good living.
And I did it writing.
Evaluate your choices and resources
I already had a blog. It’s now defunct, but I’d been writing a lifestyle blog for about eighteen months. It wasn’t making much money, but it had good, solid traffic.
I’d run a six-month series there about how to write a novel. Those posts were popular enough to make me think that starting a second blog might bring in a little more money.
I’m a hard worker and I was willing to put a lot of the one resource I did have into this: energy.
I had experience as a writer and a teacher.
I’m passionate about stories and I love helping other people tell their stories.
Build a community and an email list
My goal, from the start, was bigger than selling books.
I wanted to build a community and I wanted to find my own audience. That meant building an email list.
I found two resources that really helped me. One was Bryan Harris’s Rapid List Builder program. The other was Tribe Writers.
I started my new blog, What is a Plot, on February 1, 2015. My goal was to have 50 people on my list by March 1. I ended up with 800.
One thing I did to get there was figure out Facebook ads. I came up with a little system that let me run ads without being out of pocket by offering an inexpensive product for sale after someone joined my list.
Decide to teach what you know
I’d had an idea brewing for a long time about turning that six-month blog series about how to write a novel into a course. I opened an account at Gumroad, made a little sales page, and emailed it out to my list. Then I went to a movie with my husband.
I decided almost immediately that I was going to take it back. My whole enterprise was only six weeks old. I didn’t know what I was doing. When I got out of the movie, though, two people had bought my course.
By the time the doors closed on that first (very long) launch, I’d made $40,000 in sales and my whole life changed.
I quit my job when the school year finished in June.
I ran a very limited launch in June and made another $10,000 when it sold it. And I launched one more time I October. That launch, despite competing with Nanowrimo, earned another $40,000.
My Teachable school, which has free classes in story development and plotting, has 2775 students now. Every time I think of that, it just blows me away.
Start a membership site
It was very obvious from the beginning that the most valuable thing about Ninja Writers was the community. I also knew that I wanted to offer my course to writers who maybe couldn’t afford the upfront cost.
After my October launch, I decided to try something a little different. I started the Ninja Writers Club. For $25 a month, writers could have instant access to A Novel Idea, plus other courses I had available (including a course in how to plot a novel.) Club members gained access to a small, very active, private Facebook community.
The membership idea evolved. I started a Patreon page in January 2016. I added a second phase of membership, this one only costs $10 a month and is centered around the idea of an Alt MFA program.
I also put together my first print zine—a venue for Ninja Writers to not only submit their work for possible publishing, but also for community members to support each other. The contributors to the zine are paid based on the number of active patrons.
Begin writing on Medium
In March 2017, I decided to embark on an experiment. I’d blog everyday for 30 days on Medium.
The result was so startlingly positive that I’ve increased the experiment to 90 days.
I doubled my pageviews, from 18,000 a month on my blog to 36,000 on Medium in that first month. I was asked to write for a paying market. I increased my email list.
You can read more about the results of my experiment here.
Your art won't be responsible for supporting your life anymore
Pretty much every fiction writer’s dream is to be paid enough for their stories to support themselves.
What I’ve learned in the last year (and really, the last five years) is that it’s entirely possible to build a career around your art that encompasses it and supports it and makes the art possible.
I write a short story every week, as part of the 1000 Day MFA program that dozens of people pay $10 a month each to participate in.
I’m writing novels right alongside my students in the A Novel Idea program.
Teaching happens to be my thing. It’s not everyone’s.
I have a friend who writes young adult fiction. She’s also a pilot and has an idea for a business that will teach women how to course correct their lives the way she course-corrects an airplane.
I have a friend who writes women’s fiction. She’s also a former Ringling Brother’s circus clown and a theater mom. She’s working on building a business that will help other theater moms—and also build her audience for her novels.
I hear all the time about how the information out there for bloggers or non-fiction writers (like Tribe Writers or Rapid List Builder) isn’t a perfect fit for fiction writers. The truth is, we need to know this stuff. We need to think about our work like it’s a business. A start-up, even.
Discover the steps Shaunta Grimes took to build a career around her art with Tribe Writers. Learn how you can follow her example and make a living writing.
How would your life change if you were able to replace (or even double) your income through your writing? What questions are standing in your way? Share in the comments.