Can anyone write novels?
There are no educational or social requirements to becoming a novelist. Education helps you develop writing skills and get involved in the community of writing, but it is not a requirement for success. The main requirement is that you write a novel. The better written and more marketable your novel is, the better your chances. In the end, the elements that lead to the successful marketing of a novel have little to do with educational or social background.
What types of novels sell well?
Genre novels tend to be the easiest to market. There is a built-in audience for genres such as romance, horror, children, mystery, science fiction, fantasy, and thriller. A new genre, chick-lit, in which the protagonist is a modern single woman experiencing relationship and career issues, is currently popular. Novels that fall outside of these genres aren’t necessarily doomed, but they are harder to market, and most major publishing houses are looking to publish novels that they are confident they can sell in great numbers.
How do I find a publisher?
There are many small and mid-sized publishers who are open to new writers. The problem with smaller publishers is that they don’t have the money and clout of a major publisher. Typically they will publish a print run of about 5000 books and try to sell those before they print more copies. Your chances of getting published with a smaller publisher are better (though you are still competing against many other novelists) but few of them can bring you the royalties required to make a living. Major publishers are the ones that can bring you big sales. It is harder to get a major publisher to notice you, but it isn’t impossible.
Typically a writer is represented by a literary agent. An agent is someone who has read your book and believes that the book is marketable enough for them to sell it to a publisher. They take advantage of whatever connections they have in the publishing industry to get your book read by acquiring editors, who decide what books their publishing company should publish. The acquiring editor then makes a proposal to their board of editors (or whoever else has final authority) and if all goes well you get your book published.
How many novels do I have to sell to make money?
Here is where you run into trouble. While there are many, many variables involved in how much a writer makes when his or her novel is published, a good rule of thumb for estimating your profits is a dollar a book. That means that you would have to sell 50,000 books a year in order to earn a solid living. While there are some people who publish multiple books a year, the typical novelist manages to produce a single book a year, so you would have to sell 50,000 copies of each book you publish, assuming that you find a publisher for your books.
While the Stephen Kings and J.K. Rowlings of this world have no trouble selling millions of books, the typical novel sells about 5000 to 10,000 copies. Less than ten percent of published novelists manage to sell 50,000 copies or more of their book, and selling 50,000 copies of a book in no way guarantees that you will find a publisher for your next book. Major publishers are looking for big wins. They want to sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and they are going to stick with the writers they think will deliver them those numbers. Keep in mind as well, that the delay between having a book accepted for publication and getting that book published is generally about two years and often longer. That is a long time to wait to see profits from a book.
Are there other ways for novelists to make money?
Many novelists hold full-time jobs in publishing or education. These jobs provide their main income. Novelists can make some money by giving readings or getting paid to attend writer’s conferences. A novel can also get sold to a movie studio. Whether the novel gets made into a movie or not, the novelist gets paid a certain amount. If the novel becomes a successful movie, the novelist is usually in a much better position to get their next novel published.
Can I self-publish?
Self-publishing is an option for people who want to get their novel read, but the option seldom leads to substantial profits. The upside of self-publishing is that you can make much more per book than if someone else publishes your work. The downside is that all of the risks and all of the expenses are on your shoulders. That means that you have to find a way to sell enough copies of your book to make back your initial investment and then to make a profit. This is possible, but it is a lot of hard work. Keep in mind that the time you spend trying to publish and sell your novel must be subtracted from the amount of time you have available to write your next novel.
I’m sad now, can you cheer me up?
While the prospects of making a living as a novelist aren’t good, there are some people out there who manage to do it. A few people even manage to get quite wealthy. I recommend that you write novels if it is something you enjoy doing and if you want to produce something you can be proud of. Those are excellent reasons to write novels. By all means, once you produce a novel you are proud of, send it out into the world and try to find a publisher. Maybe you’ll strike it rich and maybe you won’t. At a minimum, you’ll have written a novel, and that is something to feel good about.