For mystery writers, it’s as much business as art

Mystery writing is a business as well as an art

Mystery writers have an image problem

There’s an image people have about writers—especially about writers of mystery novels. Everybody seems to think we’re up in the garret with ink-stained fingers, ala Jo March from Little Women.

Or perhaps the image is more modern, encompassing glittering cocktail parties, featuring icy martinis, designer clothes, and an awestruck group of fans marveling at your image on the billboard in Times Square.

Cocktails and mystery writers go together well

But the real “Writing Life” is different for most mystery authors

Most authors, regardless of their genre, earn surprisingly little money considering the time and effort they put into their novels. According to the US Government Bureau of Labor Statistics, the mean salary for writers and authors is $69,510 per year. But the bureau lumps information, professional, technical, and scientific writers into this group, and those professions typically earn much more than a mystery author.

So, many writers and authors work part time at creating their novels while they work full time at a job in another field to pay the bills. That means they get up early so they can squeeze in an hour of writing before work. Or they stay up late, or they write on their lunch hours. Most authors would consider themselves lucky to have a quiet, private place to write.

The myth of the advance for mystery writers

Most people also thing that authors earn huge advances for their novels, and they live off the advance while writing their next book. Again, some traditionally published writers earn large advances, but most earn in the neighborhood of $1,000 to $5,000 per book. That advance is paid out in three to four chunks when certain milestones are met. Those milestones may occur over two to three years, so again, this is not a living wage. And they don’t earn more money until their book has earned out, meaning they’ve sold enough books to pay back the publisher for the advance. And the author’s agent collects 15% of everything they earn, including the advance and all future royalties.

Self-published authors don’t get an advance at all, but they begin earning money as soon as the first copy of their book is sold. They also typically earn more per copy than traditionally published authors because they don’t have to share with the publisher, although they do pay for the cost of printing and distribution.

Bottom line, unless you have a megahit on your hands, nobody’s getting rich on writing mystery or thriller novels, or any other kind of books.

Mystery authors bear the cost of other expenses too

It used to be that traditional publishers paid for copyediting, proofreading, cover design, advertising, publicity, and distribution. Today, more and more traditional publishers are pushing many of those costs back onto their authors. All authors pay for their own education if they choose to take classes.

Amazon used to preclude traditionally published authors from advertising their books on the platform, but they recently opened that up to allow them to advertise without relying on their publishers. How long do you think it will be before publishers start pushing the cost of advertising back onto the author?

Self-published authors obviously pay those expenses out of pocket, so self-publishing can be expensive—although not as expensive as many people think.

When I say self-published, I’m not talking about vanity presses that prey on people who just want to see their books in print. I’m talking about legitimate self-publishing platforms like Amazon’s KDP, Barnes & Noble’s Press, Ingram Spark, Apple, KOBO, Google, and Draft2Digital. 

The point is that whether an author chooses to go the traditional route or the self-published route, it’s important to trat it as a business, not an art. Nobody wants to live the life of a starving artist, no matter how romantic it sounds in theory.

All authors, even those in mid-career, need to treat their writing like a business. We only have two resources to work with—time and money. Every investment or opportunity must be evaluated based on its cost of either of those resources. The mystery author may choose to invest in an opportunity hoping it will pay off later, and that’s perfectly fine. Or they may choose to forgo an opportunity because it doesn’t have a payoff in line with their goals. Also fine.

Every mystery author needs a strategic plan

And that’s exactly why all mystery writers need a strategic plan for our writing careers. It doesn’t have to be a complicated spreadsheet with arcane profit and loss algorithms, but it does need to outline the goals and objectives, the level of resources that will be brought to bear, and the strategy and tactics that the author will use to achieve those goals. My strategic plan is one page consisting of a two line heading that defines my objective, followed by a page of bullet points, broken down into three sections.

  • Goals
  • Strategies for reaching those goals
  • Tactics and budget to execute against the strategies

Maybe it’s my business background, but I can’t imagine launching a career without a strategic plan. It would be like embarking on a cross-country trip without a map or a GPS system.

Writers—do you have a strategic plan? Readers—were you surprised by some of the realities of the writing life?

Mystery Writer Sharon Ward

Sharon Ward is a successful freelance writer specializing in technology, manufacturing, and supply chain—even before the supply chain became the topic of the year. Before that, she worked at some of the most successful tech companies in the world, including Microsoft and Oracle. Her real love, though, is diving. As a PADI-certified divemaster, Sharon helped local dive shops with their training classes and has hundreds of dives under her weight belt. Wanting to share the joy and wonder of the underwater world, she wrote In Deep, her debut novel, released in August 2021. The second in the series, Sunken Death, was released on December 31, 2021. The third, Dark Tide, is available for preorder and will hit the shelves in the spring of 2022.


  1. My strategic plan is to finish the boom I’m writing and pitch it to agents. I want to be traditionally published, the odds of which seem less than getting struck by lightning. If that doesn’t happen with next book I’ll reconsider.

  2. Sharon,
    I agree a plan is important but I would add one more ingredient for success: persistence.
    Although plans can focus the author on where she wants to go and identify what is needed to get there, there will be missteps, rejections and failures along the way. Authors, with or without a plan, require grit and determination to succeed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *