Before I say anything more, I want to be very clear about my level of success, or lack thereof. My three books have, combined, sold around 2000 copies in the 21 months since I first published. I've made about $7000 from writing. Something like $5500 of that was from my first book, A Rational Arrangement, mostly in the first four months after publication. ARA's sales qualified me for membership in SFWA (which I joined) and the Author's Guild (which I did not). If I had to re-qualify on a different book (neither organization makes you do so), I could not do so.
Those sales are much, much higher than the $0.00 I made in the previous 20 or so years where I was earnestly writing stories that I hoped to sell and have readers for. It is "real money", in the sense of "I just paid off my mortgage a year early because of this."
It is not "real money" in the sense of "I could live on this". My current writing income is around $80 a month, which is enough to pay my Internet bill. It would not pay for groceries, much less all my other expenses. It does not amount to minimum wage for the many hours I've put into writing, editing, and publishing, or for the many hours my friends have donated to beta-reading, proofing, and typesetting my books. I am pleased with my level of success, but I am not making a living wage by any American standard.
There are a lot of people more qualified to give advice than me. Really, you should be reading them. But if you're still here:
There is no path to a career in writing that has a high chance of success. There is no equivalent to the standard career path of "get good grades in school, get a degree in X, and you have a 80-95% chance of making a reasonable annual salary doing something in the general field of Y." Most people who want to make a living as a full-time writer do not.
Most people who want to be writers give up, at one stage or another. Before they finish writing their first book. Before they finish editing it. Before they finish a book they are happy enough with to try to publish. While trying to find an agent. While trying to find a publisher. After publishing their first book. After publishing their fifth book. That writer who wrote this one trilogy you loved and then you never heard from them again? Probably one of the ones who gave up.
Why do they give up? Because they're not inspired any more. Because they decided the odds of finding an audience were too slim. Because they're not making a living wage and they'd rather use their free time to play video games, or run RPGs for their friends, or garden, or whatever. Because publishing is too much work for too little reward, even if they're still writing. (Yes, I know of at least one author who kept writing after they quit publishing. The publishing side is a lot of work and mental energy.)
So those are some of the ways you can fail. There are many other ways to fail. Most people fail. My guess is, that of the people who have earnestly labored at writing for hundreds of hours, most will never produce a polished manuscript. Of those who do, most will never publish, not even self-publish. Most of those who publish will earn less than $1000 in writing. Most of those who make over $1000 will not earn enough to support themselves independent of a day job.
I don't know what those fractions are. No one really surveys for this stuff. Jim Hines did a "novelist income survey", and in theory the people who made $10 self-pubbed on Amazon last year could fill it out, but I strongly believe they self-select out of it. "I'm not a real author, this survey is for real authors." And that survey still puts the median income at under $20,000 a year.
I do not write this to discourage writers. This is actually my weird, roundabout way of encouraging you. Because if you feel like "no one will read my work!" then you need to know that this is a problem for 99.9% of writers. You are not doing something horribly wrong and everyone else can do this so why not you, what are you missing, why is this so hard? It is so hard for you because it is so hard for virtually every writer. Writers who fall into a career in writing are one in a million. (*waves to Ursula Vernon!* Who, it must be noted, worked incredibly hard to fall into her career in writing.)
These are the things which are necessary, but not sufficient, to making a living as a writer:
- Write in an engaging, compelling manner. If you're writing fiction: tell a good story. In many forms of nonfiction, telling a good story will also help. Humans like narratives.
- Finish what you write.
- Make your work available to readers in some fashion (submit to publishers, or self-publish in some fashion)
Everything else is neither necessary nor sufficient, although it might help. If you're self-published:
- Cover: This is your main advertisement for your book. Make sure it is attractive, suitable for the genre of your book, and looks interesting at thumbnail size. If you are going to invest money in any part of the publishing process, investing it in the cover is probably the best place.
- Social Media: If you don't like using social media for its own sake, it is a waste of time and resources. Don't. I use LJ and Twitter because I like using LJ and Twitter. My social media presence for the last 15 years or so did help in promoting my books, but, y'know, that's $7000 for 15 years of activity. If I'd been doing it for the money, so not worth it. But if you like social media, being active on it and engaging with new people in a friendly manner can help you expand your audience. Using social media primarily to say "Buy my book", however, is worse than useless.
- Paid Advertising: If you have a body of published work (at least 3-4 books in one series), Bookbub is easily the best value in the business. You need to discount your book in order to submit to Bookbub, and Bookbub generally only takes books that are already at least modestly successful. There are a number of other advertising outlets, most of which do not offer a great return on investment (if any), but they might be enough to get your book into the "modest success" range needed to get on Bookbub. YMMV. I have not tried paid advertising anywhere, myself, entirely due to laziness on my part.
My Personal Favorite Advice
This comes from Kristine Kathryn Rusch: The best use of a writer's time is to write what you love, get it out there, and repeat, as fast as possible.
Does this work reliably? No. But neither does anything else, and at least this way you're spending most of your time and energy writing, which is why you decided to do this thing in the first place. Right?