If you’ve ever wondered how to make money as a writer, Seanan McGuire is one of the best authors to ask. After all, she’s published 43 books in addition to authoring numerous poems and short stories. In addition, she has 2,300 patrons who support her to the tune of over $10,000 per short story published (more on how she does it all in a bit).
You might think she’s been publishing books from the cradle given how prolific she is, but her first book was published less than ten years ago in 2009. Before that, she authored fan fiction (a genre still dear to her heart, even though she doesn’t have time to write it herself anymore).
Seanan is a traditionally published author, meaning she works with an agent and a publisher as opposed to self-publishing all her work. She’s also a huge hit on Patreon—her campaign funds short stories and other works that aren’t “lucrative in a traditional sense” while simultaneously helping her handle the unexpected expenses that life throws her way.
Recently, Seanan began offering an ‘Ask an Author’ reward to any patrons who contribute $3 per story or more. While she’s the first to admit that she thinks “most writing advice is bullshit,” she and her patrons enjoy conversations about things like how to keep writing when you know you’re not good enough to be published (yet) and how to prioritize projects.
In our conversation, she detailed the best path to take if you want to make money as a traditionally published writer. As a bonus, she explained just what made her Patreon campaign so successful—along with practical advice for setting up your own campaign.
Note: Want to earn recurring, predictable support from your biggest fans? Try Patreon.
Seanan’s advice can be summed up in eight more-or-less consecutive steps. Follow them, and you’ll be ahead of the curve when it comes to getting published.
First of all, know that the odds are decidedly not in your favor. “For every 100 people who say, ‘I'm going to write a book,’ one of them actually finishes it. And for every 100 people who finish writing a book, one of them actually manages to get it published through traditional channels,” she said.
Does this mean you should quit writing before you even have a draft? Heck no! But it does mean that there are an awful lot of would-be authors who never even finish the first draft.
“You can't just sit around saying, ‘Oh, when I write my book, it's going to be a masterpiece.’ It doesn't matter if it's a masterpiece, it has to exist for it to be a masterpiece,” she added.
To that end, she has three universal pieces of writing advice:
- Read, because you can’t write in a vacuum.
- Write regularly (doesn’t have to be every day, but stick to your schedule).
- Don’t argue with book reviewers.
If you do those three things, you’re likely to have a finished book at the end of it all.
Here’s a guaranteed path to failure: Spam as many agents as you can find with copies of your manuscript, regardless of their specialties and instructions.
If you’ve written a book and want to make a serious attempt to get it published, start by researching which publishing agents could be a good fit.
“Look at what you've written. Try to figure out what it is similar to. No one is looking at you and going, ‘Oh, you should be writing The Hunger Games Take 20,’ but if you're writing a dystopian thriller where one girl is chosen to save the world, then maybe The Hunger Games is a comparable title for you,” she explained.
“If you're writing a book about fairies hiding in the modern world, then maybe you want to be comparing it to my books and the books of Holly Black and the books of Sarah Louise Pratt. Find some titles that you feel are in the same emotional or textual space as your book,” she added.
Once you’ve identified those books, look up the agent of record for each one. Most of that information is online. Once you have a list of agents who could be a good fit, figure out which ones are accepting submissions. They’re the ones you’ll target.
“At this stage, the agent has a hundred percent of the power and you have none. One of the things they are watching for is whether or not you can take instructions,” Seanan explained. “So if they say, ‘I want all submissions to be formatted in Courier New 10pt type,’ format your submission in Courier New 10pt type.
“I know it's petty and it's stupid and part of you is probably dying a little inside,” she continued, “but what the agent is trying to do is check and see if you'll actually listen when given instructions or asked to do something. And that's because agents, while they also desperately want to make money at this stage in the game, don't have anything on you. You don't know them, they don't know you. You are one more stranger coming and banging on their door saying, ‘I have a brilliant idea!’ Well, they need to know: Is this brilliant idea going to make you a diva? Can they work with you? Or, are you one of those people who thinks that they are already too good and their work is too genius to be touched by the petty concerns of the market?”
The submission stage is the time to put aside your pride, demonstrate that you can work well with other people, and make an honest attempt to connect with potential agents.
If you’re lucky, one agent will accept your book. If you’re really lucky, you might get a positive response from more than one. In either case, you need to decide if this agent really is the person you want in charge of publishing and marketing your book.
You also have to decide if you really want to go through with traditional publication—after all, if an agent is interested in your book, there might be something to it. At this stage, it’s not too late to decide you’re going indie. While she recommends going the traditional route, since you’re at least guaranteed the advance and it’s a much smaller headache, you should crunch the numbers for yourself.
If you’re still going with traditional publishing, keep communicating with the agent, and don’t make a decision overnight.
Seanan describes it as an audition process: You and the agent need to make sure that your interests align. “The red flags are going to be different for everyone. I'm a queer woman. I came out of fan fiction. I write very, very quickly. So what I needed to know when I was trying out agents was, is this agent queer-friendly? Is this agent okay with the fact that I'm going to need them to place two to five books a year for me?” she recalled.
“Does the agent represent the genre in which you work?” she continued. “I write science fiction and fantasy primarily. Some agents don't rep that. Now, presumably, if the agent does not rep your genre, they will not have responded positively in the first place. But false positives do happen. It's entirely possible that you might have said something that made the agent think you were writing non-genre, coming-of-age stories when what you meant to say was Blob Monster Eats Iowa.”
Finally, make sure they know everything they could possibly need to know about you. “If you have children, make sure you point out that you have children. If you have some kind of illness, make sure you point out that you have some kind of illness. You're looking for someone who is going to represent your best interests and they needed to know everything going in. An agent is not going to care if you use a wheelchair or have chronic fatigue or any of those things. They're going to care if you lie to them about it because if you've lied to them, they can't protect you,” she emphasized.
If you’ve secured an agent for your first book, start writing your second.
“There's no crying in baseball and there's no pausing in publishing,” Seanan quipped. “Your first couple of years especially are going to be an endless, uphill fight. You are going to be working, and when you're not working, you're going to be working. Stephen King once joked about going on a talk show and being asked if he really wrote every day. He went, ‘Hahaha, except for Christmas and birthdays,’ but the lie there was that he wrote on Christmas and birthdays.”
Some writers manage just fine without the breakneck pace that Seanan describes, but usually they have some other form of financial support. The reason she was so aggressive about publishing was that she knew she had to keep working her day job until she had enough books published to live off the royalties.
In the meantime, she was working as a tech support agent for a major nonprofit organization. Her day began at 5:00 AM to commute into San Francisco. She would take lunch at the end of the workday (not something she recommends at all), then write from the time she got home until bedtime at 9:00 pm.
“I was burning the candle at both ends and in the middle,” she recalled. “My friends were actively concerned that I was just going to die. I made some very calculated choices that if I had not gotten phenomenally lucky in my field, would have turned from marginally bad choices into extremely bad choices in the very near future.”
That may sound a lot like your life, or it may sound more extreme than you can handle. Her final takeaway was this: Expect to work a lot, know how quickly you work, and make sure that your agent is on the same page.
This one’s short, but important: When your book is published, you’ll be expected to travel. You’ll need to go on a book tour, so get your life in order before that happens.
And if you have a website, make sure it’s up to date and able to handle increased traffic. If you don’t have a website, get one. You’re going to need it.
Being nasty to a writer whose fan base overlaps with yours is a great way to lose readers. Instead, realize that reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum: Whenever you find a book you love, you want to read more, not less.
“Writers are very kind people for the most part. We want to see people succeed because there are very few readers who only read one book a year. There is no way to acquire all of another author's readers. It doesn't work that way, or we would all just be mugging John Green in the streets and that would become very unpleasant, very quickly,” she laughed.
Instead, she recommends doing the following:
- Don’t only talk with famous authors you think can help you (yes, she’s seen that happen enough times to mention). Instead, realize that authors can have a helpful, symbiotic relationship.
- Be yourself and be friendly. Readers and authors prefer to get to know who you are, not some concocted persona.
- Be honest with yourself about what you can handle. That means it’s time to set up private and public social media pages.
When her first book was published, Seanan got a $40,000 advance check. Because she grew up below the poverty line, that check seemed enormous. But her advance was taxed at a flat 30% rate. And if you don’t hold down a day job, it has to cover things like health insurance, too.
She’s a firm believer in waiting until your royalties are enough to live from before quitting your day job, if you can wait that long. Thinking you can live off of advance checks as a new writer could be disastrous.
“As a writer, you probably can't afford all those tricky little tax havens and loopholes that rich people are using. So you're going to be paying one third of that check in taxes. I actually like paying taxes. I grew up on welfare. I feel like I'm making it possible for kids like me to survive, and that's a magic feeling.
“But it doesn't make that $40,000 stretch any further, you know? And you wind up feeling bad talking about money when you're talking to your sister who still works a minimum wage job and going, ‘Oh yeah, that $40,000 I got didn't go very far.’ We don't have the cultural settings for that conversation.
“You're going to get handed ridiculous quantities of money that are really so much smaller than you think they are. And then you're going to blink and your cat is going to need chemotherapy or your water heater's going to need to be replaced or something. And that's where Patreon is a lifesaver. Patreon is a way to brace yourself against those events.”
But Seanan cautions against starting a Patreon account as a writer before you’ve built an audience. Instead, she has a convenient rule of thumb for timing it right.
First, build a relationship with your readers. Get your audience growing. “Just wait for the day when you hear someone say, ‘Gosh, I wish we could know more,’” she said.
“As a reader, I say this with love and kindness and full self-awareness: readers are greedy,” she laughed. “We want everything. We want to know what your main character had for breakfast. We want so much information. You cannot fit it inside the books and we want it now and we want it forever.”
And as soon as someone says that out loud, you have a pathway to a successful Patreon campaign. “I do think you are more likely to be successful on Patreon if you don't put the cart in front of the horse,” she added. “Get some stuff out there for people to read before you start saying, ‘Hey, pay me extra for that breakfast menu.’ But once you do, you'll find that the audience is there, that people are hungry for it because we're readers.
“We like to read things. We like to read things that are not necessarily lucrative in a traditional publishing sense. There’s a sort of transgressive feeling to getting to read those things. The, ‘Oh, look at me, I'm finding out secrets. I chunk in my dollar a month or whatever and I get to learn things no one else knows,’” she explained.
That’s not to say you can’t try to grow both your audience and your Patreon at the same time. But it’s harder to justify to readers early on.
Despite her advice on when it’s ideal to start a Patreon, it’s worth noting that Seanan started her own Patreon page earlier than she intended.
A few years ago, her roommate greeted her at the door with the announcement that he was done living with her. They had split the mortgage for the same house since 1998, and she was in a bind: she hadn’t been living off her royalties very long, and she didn’t have the savings in place to manage moving and buying a home.
So, she created her Patreon campaign: “The Toaster Project,” as she calls it, because the purpose of the campaign was to fund her move and furniture and home repairs. In exchange, readers get a continuous flow of bonus stories and extra world-building for their favorite series.
It’s been three years now, and the funds kept her afloat during difficult times.
“Last year one of my cats got cancer. We were not able to save her, we were never going to be able to save her. But thanks to the Patreon, we were able to make sure that there was never a point where I, mazed with grief and not really thinking very clearly, had to choose between paying my mortgage and paying for the chemotherapy. I will be forever grateful to Patreon as a service and to my patrons in general for making that possible, because I don't know what would've happened if they hadn't been there and if that hadn't been an option, you know? She was my heart,” she said.
That said, Seanan maintains a healthy realism about all the options she has available. “Having a successful Patreon should not be your end-all, be-all goal. Your goal is to have a successful career in whatever shape that takes right now. And right now, Patreon is a really helpful way to move toward that,” she explained.
If you want to use that tool well, she has a few more pieces of advice.
When it comes to giving access to short fiction and other supplemental stories, Seanan recommends setting up a $1 tier. “To be brutally mercenary for a moment, if you make it a dollar, that is going to make you look the most generous, because you are taking into account the needs of your readers with less income. There's nothing wrong with being calculating about these things as long as you are continuing to take into account the needs of your fans with less income,” she explained.
It’s a structure that makes a lot of sense for writers: You end up with a large audience of people connected by their shared love of your world-building talent. Setting a low barrier to entry (in Seanan’s case, $1 per short story written) makes it likely for those fans to join in the fun.
And from there, you can consider an upsell—higher tiers with extra goodies for your more dedicated and/or more financially blessed followers.
Physical products are extra work to create. They’re exhausting. And if she continues the Toaster Project after paying off housing-related costs, she’s going to eliminate the reward tier that promises a chapbook per quarter.
That said, she believes physical items are the way to go if you’re in crisis mode and need to hit a certain dollar figure per month to make ends meet. Plus, there are less labor-intensive items than a hand-bound chapbook to create. Some writers may find their audience responds well to stickers, keychains, or other merch.
“Say no one's signing up for the $8 reward. Do they just not like it? What could I do to get people signing up for the $8 reward? Do I need people signing up for the $8 reward or is it just time to get rid of it?” she said.
That constant re-examination will help you optimize for what people do enjoy and keep things on your Patreon page looking fresh. A good Patreon campaign isn’t something you set once and leave: It’s going to need adjustments over time.
Seanan keeps her patrons up to date on where their money goes. One month, it might be repairing a crumbling retaining wall. Another, it might be surgery for one of her cats. But regardless, they know where it’s going. And she understands that they’re free to withdraw support whenever they see fit to do so.
But by keeping them in the loop, they feel invested in her life in addition to getting all the bonuses they expect and enjoy. She believes her transparency is a big reason for her campaign’s success.
Seanan’s fans love getting pictures of her cats. Her Twitter is full of them. But whether you’re a pet owner or not, the principle behind this piece of advice holds constant: Fans want to feel like they’re a part of your life. They also love sneak peeks into your daily existence. So if you can find a small but compelling way to do that (like endless photos of adorable cats), and you’re comfortable doing it, go for it! Your fans will thank you.
Seanan had one final piece of advice for aspiring writers at the end of her interview:
One of the big misconceptions about writing (or any creative field, really) is this idea that if you do everything right, if you follow the pattern, if you get with the program, you're going to succeed. And unfortunately that is not always true. Some of the most talented writers I have ever known did not have the success that they deserved because luck is also a factor.
Don't get angry. Don't get resentful. Don't decide that because you didn't get the lucky break this time, you're never going to get the lucky break. Don't give up. It's so easy to give up, especially when we see these people who we know are not as good as we are, or who are not as good as our friends are, suddenly have the lucky break.
It's not fair, but the world is not fair. The only thing that makes up even a little bit for luck is hard work. I launched my first book in 2009 in the height of the urban fantasy boom, right when people were starting to say the genre was played out and there was never going to be another urban fantasy success story. That's always wrong. Anyone who tells you there's no room for you in a genre is selling something.
Although in this case, they were partially right, because I am the only person still standing from my year group. I am the only urban fantasy author who launched in my year who has actually managed to hold on to their career. That doesn't mean I am somehow the best writer that launched in 2009. I'm not going to say I'm not. I haven't read every single thing in my genre. But I am not so far head-and-shoulders above every single other member of my year group that I should be the one here talking to you about how to succeed.
There was a lot of luck. There was a lot of timing and things that were entirely outside of my control. So, focus on the things that are inside of your control, and don't get bitter when it doesn't work out for you. Just step back, take a breath, and try again.
Note: Want to put Seanan’s advice into action? Try Patreon.