Making a living as an author(s)?

Remember Franklin W. Dixon? What about Carolyn Keene? Both had productive and profitable writing careers. And neither of them ever existed.

What is the recipe for writing success? Steady and reliable releases. Look at the top authors across both indie and traditional methods and you’ll find a stream of books that keep themselves in the public consciousness while delivering what’s expected of them. One book a year is not enough to launch a career. I’ve seen indie authors hold back their books until they have enough stored up for monthly releases, just to give themselves a better chance. On the traditional side, you have heavyweights like James Patterson and Nora Roberts, who provide several books a year, each and every year. How can aspiring writers emulate this success? Teamwork.

The Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys books were the brainchild of Edward Stratemeyer, a publisher who employed many authors all ghostwriting under the same name. A group of indie authors could do the same thing and be paid much better than Stratemeyer’s writers. I have a good friend who writes under a pseudonym with her husband, and this teamwork means more releases, a second person promoting the works, and the energy that comes from having more than one person united under a common cause.

As far as I know, the Statemeyer model has not gone indie yet, but there isn’t any reason it couldn’t. Imagine six talented and unknown authors meeting on a forum or a local writing club. They share a love of a genre, perhaps spy thrillers with a hint of romance. With a name settled upon, and agreeing to a length of 40,000 to 50,000 for each story, they begin brainstorming characters and settings. They lay down a handful of plots, each seizing on their own or a favorite from the group. And then they begin writing.

In two months, you have a half dozen drafts, maybe more. Enough for monthly releases, and if they keep writing, perhaps a new release every two weeks or even weekly. The writers pool resources for editing and cover art, both of which add constancy to the material (a good editor would help blend styles. Even better if a member of the group had polishing duties, similar to how Patterson operates). Because of the steady releases, there’s a much better chance of discovery. There will always be one or two books in the Hot New Releases category. There will be six people to share blogging duties, to post on social media, to tap into friend/family networks, and so on.

Now, if anyone has ever worked in a group, they know how miserable the affair normally turns out. But I think a coalition of writers could work with the right, motivated members. The potential for success is so much higher than working alone. You would need solid contracts signed by all members, of course. I would model this contract on author-agent contracts, where a member can leave with written notice, and they would only receive future royalties on books already published. You would want to split up publishing duties, and there would be a lot of trust involved. But hey, being a writer isn’t easy no matter how you go about it. For all the downsides, there are some incredible upsides. Writing with others could help with output and combat against writers’ block or procrastination. It could make writing more social and fun. I certainly think it would help aspiring writers find an audience more quickly. And even with the six-way split, it would be profitable in far less time.

The worst case scenario is that each author writes a few books that go undiscovered. In which case: dissolve the partnership, leave with your own property, file off the serial numbers (change character and place names), and publish under your own names. Hey, you’ve written a few books. That’s a win in my view. You’ve got a lot of practice under your belt and you learned something from the group. But I think the chances are more likely that you’re cruising around like Nancy Drew at the end — in a blue Roadster with the top down, thinking about your latest mystery.

14 responses to “Making a living as an author(s)?”

  1. Hi Hugh,
    What do you think about short stories for steady and reliable releases? I have a series of short stories planned. The 1st is already out. My goal is to publish at least one a month in 2014, plus finish and publish my next novel. Of course this would just be me, no other writers.

  2. Hi Hugh! Last year, I put together a team of fantasy writers to do something similar to your suggestion. We created a new steampunk/fantasy world for a series called “The Drifting Isle Chronicles” and then we each wrote our own novel with interwoven characters and plots, and used a single cover artist. It was a ton of fun to work together, and we released three novels in the Spring of 2013 (with more on the way!):

    Black Mercury by Charlotte E. English
    The Kaiser Affair by Joseph Robert Lewis
    The Machine God by MeiLin Miranda

    So now we can all cross-promote each other’s work, and we have a standing invitation for new authors to join the DIC project.

  3. This is a really interesting idea, Hugh. My wife is also a writer, but our styles, and vision for stories are so different that I wonder if it could work for us. A good editor might be able to smooth out the styles, but would we still be happy with the result?

    As a reader, I also wonder how I would feel about this. I want the writer’s I love to be individual. Not an assimilated 1 of 6. Resistance is futile. :-)

    Do you think there is value in creating our own independent imprint, and then publishing all of our own work under that umbrella? That way we could possibly cross sell each other’s work (however, I guess we could do that even without the consistent publisher imprint).

  4. What would the PR/reader engagement model be? All of these people would be anonymous. Invisible. Who would go on speaking tours? Who would engage on the blog? Who would tweet? Who would do book signings?

    I think a lot of your success comes from the fact that you are a natural at marketing. A one-man media outlet. That would be harder to replicate without a face attached to the name.

  5. Cool idea. Some people are using this model for publishing — individual writers and books, shared publishing duties like formatting, proofing, cover design. I think it could work and be fun for writing a steady series. And to answer Steve’s concern, although you may use a single name as “author” for branding/discovery purposes, why not have the group be anything but invisible and anonymous? Group photo on the cover, “bio” that says “Susan Elizabeth Carolyn Jones lives in XYZ and has multiple personalities….” Well, I’ll leave the rest to the endlessly inventive Hugh Howey.

  6. Erin Hunter, is currently writing books today. I believe that there are 4 writers in this group and they have successfully gone on a book tour. They Choose one member to do the tour and she was very upfront about who she was and how many authors work with her. The kids loved her. Erin I believe writes at least six books a year.

  7. The writing process for a group like that might look like an HBO writers’ room.

  8. This is an awesome idea. I like it. Now if I can only find a few YA writers like myself to get involved as well. Something to ponder. Thank you.

  9. I pitched a similar idea to one of my friends a few years ago. Because of funds for printed books, it never took off. Of course, this was before the big Amazon Kindle boom. Perhaps now is the time. Now is always a good time.

  10. What a great idea! I’d love to get in with a group like that. I think it would be excellent experience for someone like me that is transitioning from a blogger to working on their first novel. First as in, I hope it’s only the first of many novels.

  11. Great idea, Hugh. I just had a similar conversation with a buddy late last week. He is an editor type, but could be persuaded to write just the same. We talked about collaborating on a number of stories, and publishing under a pseudonym. I LOVE the idea of including more than just a few authors. I think 4 would be a good number, and each of those 4 members could spit out a book every 4 months. I alone could knock out 3 books a year. With 3 additional partners, we could publish every month like clockwork.

    Off to find 2 more partners!

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  13. […] Howey: Making a living as an author(s)? “Remember Franklin W. Dixon? What about Carolyn Keene? Both had productive and profitable […]

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