How to Write for a Living

When I first wrote a novel in 1991 I remember walking down the road and seeing a pretty girl and thinking, “She might like me now.”

I know that a lot of what I write seems to involve whether or not women like me.

But that’s what I think about. I want people to like me. And when I was younger, it was more important that women like me than that men like me.

I also wanted money. I didn’t want to work for a boss. That scary feeling of being called into the boss’s office after you know you did something that was “wrong.”

I put it in quotes because what does it matter now? What did it even matter then?

How could you, my sweet baby, ever do something wrong?

Note: the above sentence is what I would whisper to myself after being summoned to the boss’s office.

“Don’t you have any pride in your work?”

“Clean out your desk today”.

“Did you steal all of the paper?”

“Why did the office cleaning lady find 20 moldy sandwiches in your drawer?”

“Why didn’t you test the software before it went to the client.”

Whatever. It’s because I was busy and no I didn’t have pride in my work.

I was 22 years old and looking at women and trying to publish a novel on the side so I didn’t have to work anymore. And I have no comment about the sandwiches.

It took many years before I made any money as a writer. And what works then is different now. Right now it’s easier than ever.

But the rules changed every 3 or 4 years and they will change again. Just like they change with everything in life.

By the way, that first novel, and the four that came after it, and the 50 short stories that came after it, never got published.

I used to think I needed to publish something before I could feel good about myself, before I could call myself a “writer”, before I could have a girlfriend, before I could get a real job, before I could move to NYC.

What a pathetic weight on my shoulder to think I needed something controlled by just a handful of people. Those weights stayed on my back for years.

When you have weights on you, you can’t move. The weights are only mental. Go ahead. Move.



A) You are a writer.

If you sit down at a blank screen every day and simply do nothing then you are a writer. If you write one word, even better.

Some people will disagree. Maybe you will disagree. That’s fine.

We also can all disagree. Meanwhile, our DNA is telling us we are pretty much exactly the same. People argue and DNA laughs.


B) Read a ton of stuff.

I try to read pieces or chapters in 3-4 books a day or more. I read at least from one non-fiction, one or two quality fiction, and one inspirational.

I try to read at the level I want to write. I do this in the morning before I start writing. If you email me, you can see in the auto response some of the latest things I’ve been reading.

At night I relax and read things that are a little more like “junk food” – fun things that I want to read but don’t necessarily inspire my writing. If you don’t like reading, you won’t like writing.

Before I wrote this morning, I read parts of books from Teju Cole, Bukowski, Eckhart Tolle, and the blog Hyperbole and a Half.

Someone wrote in a comment to someone else’s post a few weeks ago: What if James Altucher had to take care of two kids in the morning?

Yes, it’s true. Kids suck. But sometimes I do have to do that. Plus I have other responsibilities. So I wake up at 4 a.m. and begin reading and writing. Or earlier. Whatever it takes.


C) Get rid of prejudice. 

Agents, publishers, editors, at the traditional companies are mostly bullshit.

They have no clue what they are doing. For the most part they pick sucky writers whose books flash for a week or so and then disappear forever.

And they take a year to publish your book after they accept your book. This is not 100% true. But try to gauge the entrepreneurship of the people you are dealing with. You need people as creative as you. It needs to be a team and not a machine.

You can traditionally publish, but make sure you are doing it with creative entrepreneurs (cc Patricia Gift ) and not people stuck in the machine.

If you think you need a mainstream publisher for reasons of ego or prejudice then you are guaranteed to publish a worst-seller instead of a bestseller.

The second you start to think something, anything, is important, then your ego will suffer and your work will suffer.

If you are an artist, get your art in the hands of people. That’s your only job. Destroy every gatekeeper.


D) Self-publishing is not e-books. 

If you self-publish, you can make an e-book, you can also make a print-on-demand book through Createspace, you can make an Audio book through Audible, you can make a hardcover, you can even make a t-shirt with your book on it.

I have over 20 t-shirts with the entire 67,000 words of “Choose Yourself!” printed on it. My kids have several shirts. Claudia does. Nobody is allowed to walk into this house without wearing that t-shirt.

Do what you want. Self-publishing simply means you write a book and you figure out how to get it into the hands of other people. It might just be you sell it on your email list. Congrats! You’re then a published author.

In my post, “How to Self Publish a Bestseller” I write about the details and the numbers.


E) Bookstores are evil. 

My kids are sad that Borders is dying and that Barnes & Noble is next. Keep your mouths shut, kids!

I get it. I love bookstores also. It’s like a work of art to see all of those covers, to thumb through the pages, to grab a pile of books and a coffee and start seeing what books you want to buy.

But don’t forget just 20 years ago everyone said Barnes & Noble was evil because they were killing the independent bookstore.

I have news for you: the indies were evil also. One guy picking out 500 of his favorite books and no others.

Now a B&N might have 10,000 books but Amazon has 20 million books. Why would you ever give someone the choice to limit you. I hope all bookstores die and that Amazon is the only one left standing. Because then every author has a chance and not just the ones the B&N gatekeeper decides on.

And I’ll tell you how I am doing my role: I pick out the books I might buy in a Barnes & Noble. I take them to the coffee shop in the store. I buy my coffee and start thumbing through the books.

Then I buy the books right there and then in the store.

On my Kindle.

Screw you, Barnes & Noble.


F) Platform is shit. 

I agree it’s important to have some Internet presence. You need to sell your first 1000 books once you publish and the Internet is a good way to do it.

But your free audience is not the way to do it. They read your blog for free. They don’t even want to fork over 99 cents to buy your book.

I will give you an example: on my last book, “Choose Yourself!” I obviously encouraged my readers to buy it. But another group, Stansberry Research, recommended it to their paying subscribers.

In two weeks through them I sold tens of thousands of books. It took my free audience, which was millions bigger, three months to catch up in sales to an audience that had never even heard of me before.

Now my book has sold over 100,000 copies and I’m getting ready to send out another email bundle to another list. This will be infinitely more valuable than any blog, podcast, marketing, whatever I use to promote my book on the Internet.

I love the audience for my blog and these posts. I feel it’s one of the few times I’ve seen a community of genuine good people trying to improve. I don’t write here to sell books but to build community and make friends.

Most of the Internet is “outrage porn” and I’m glad we’ve avoided that.

That said, I am not an expert on marketing. +Ryan Holiday, who is an expert on book marketing (and also told me the term “outrage porn” yesterday), helped me with my book and was an invaluable resource and to this day still is. Ryan and Tucker Max and Nils Parker are building a company which will revolutionize this industry.

One rule I have is I am loyal for life to anyone who helps me make money and Ryan definitely helped me.


G) Blog.

This seems opposite of what I said above. But blogging is not such a bad idea. How come? Because it makes you write every day. And it also is fun to build friends and community around your blog.

But if you want to blog, don’t just register a domain name and start blogging. You won’t get any traffic.

I encourage people to find online communities that they like and feel like participating in and start blogging there or guest posting there.

If you are unsure of where and how to blog, start by practicing on a site like Quora, which is a question and answer site that also hosts blogs.

Practice answering questions there. See what gets upvoted and what doesn’t. Improve your skills. See if you enjoy it. Then start taking some of your answers and making them into a blog. Then start guest posting on other sites.

You’re not trying to build an audience for your blog. You’re trying to build an audience for you, period. There’s no money in ads, blah.

You have to be more creative than ever how you build an audience. The best Internet marketing I did was when I did a reddit AMA (which Ryan, above, set up).

Look at someone like EL James, who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. I don’t even think she had a blog. She was posting on fan fiction sites for Twilight.

And millionaire teenage bestseller, Amanda Hocking, was posting in the comments section of JA Konrath’s site and building community that way.

There’s a thousand ways to build community and practice writing on the Internet. Blog is one of them but there are many others. My #1 suggestion: first practice on Quora (cc Marc Bodnick) If you go there, follow me and say “Hi!”.


H) Write every day.

I had a friend who wanted to be a painter. “When I move to Paris I’ll finally be able to paint,” she said. She never moved to Paris. Now she’s a programmer and hates her job.

I have another friend who has been working for 30 years on one novel. She keeps hating it and rewriting it. She can’t get a publisher interested. She only writes when she’s inspired. She needs writing groups to push her along.

I get it. I get writer’s block also. But writing is a muscle. I used to play in chess tournaments a lot. I was ranked a master. And then I got busy with other things. So my skill level has dropped. It would take me a good six months of studying three hours a day to just get back up to my old skill level.

If you don’t write every day, you won’t know what your potential skill level is. You will be producing sub-par work. And in a world where 15 million books will be published this year, your book will have little chance to shine.

It doesn’t matter if you write good stuff or bad stuff every day. Yesterday, for fun, I wrote about how much I enjoyed bowel movements. Will I publish that? I hope not! It was awful! But I wrote because that’s what I wrote yesterday. 1500 words about bowel movements. Mission accomplished.

Do the math, if you just write 1000 words a day that are publishable then you have a book every two months. 1000 words a day is not easy. But it’s not hard either. This post is 1800 words so far and I started 20 minutes ago. I’ll spend many more hours rewriting it than writing it but once you start exercising the writing muscle (start with 200 words a day, then 300, etc) you will get up to 1000.

There’s a blog about a woman who writes 10,000 words a day and she describes her method. She does detailed outlining first. That method works.

When Claudia Azula Altucher and I went away on a silent retreat to write “The Power of No,” which hasn’t come out yet, we were writing about 7,000 words a day.

Sometimes more words is not better. If I write a 1000 words, then by the time I’ve published I’ve usually rewritten and edited it down to 600 words.


I) Rewrite every day

See above. I feel better about the words I take out then the words I write.

First you have a block of stone, then you make a sculpture, then you chisel and fine tune until you have a work of art. Art is born from the rewrite, not from the typewrite.

With “Choose Yourself!” I kept rewriting obsessively.

One time the book was all finished and sent to editors, designers, etc. Then I did the audio version. KABLAMO!

Any paragraph that made me feel like, “Ugh, I’m too bored to read this out loud,” I noted. Then I went back home and rewrote the whole book again. And the audio version veered so much from the book it was completely unabridged. Everyone hated me. But I liked the final result much beter. Read your work out loud and cut out anything that makes you lag.


J) Can I make money writing articles?

No. You used to be able to make a living writing articles. Just a few years ago. In 2005 I made a good living writing about 3-4 articles a day for different publications while I was running my fund and before I started and sold Stockpickr.

But those days are over. People just don’t pay for content. And there are too many writers. It’s a supply and demand thing. If you expect to make a living from articles or blogs then figure out how to do one of three things:

  1. blog for free, but then lead people to a subscription information product. Like “stock picks” or “dating” or whatever you think you’re an expert at and nobody else is. (cc Ramit Sethi Lewis Howes Tim Sykes Derek Halpern Porter Stansberry etc)
  2. get speaking gigs. This is hard.
  3. do consulting or coaching. This is possible.

I’ve never been that great at any of the three above. Well, maybe #3 but only recently.

So this leaves us with only one thing. ONE THING works.


K) Write a lot of books.

If you can write one book and it’s a mega-bestseller like “50 Shades of Grey” then congratulations. There is exactly one of you and I know your name: EL James.

For everyone else, you have to write more than one book. And for most people, you have to write dozens of books.

I was at a dinner recently of a bunch of self-published Amazon authors who were making a living at it. Every single one of them had more than ten books written and published in the prior year or so.

+Theresa Ragan, as an example, has 13 or 14 books written (thriller and romance) in the past 2 or 3 years.

Hugh Howey, known for his Wool series, has written around 28 books in the past few years. I lost count while counting them. He never stops. I highly recommend his SAND series which just came out.

At the dinner there was one woman who had written over 100 books. If she averages $100 a book a month for the rest of her life it’s not so bad. “Choose Yourself!” was my 11th or 12th published book. I have four more books sitting here ready to go.

Throughout history the best books have often been written in a short amount of time. Bukowski’s “Post Office” and Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” were both written in three weeks. I can find 1000 more examples.

Sean Platt has a good book that just came out about writing many books. I recommend it. “Write. Publish. Repeat.” I think Sean has published over 50 books. I don’t know because he uses pseudonyms as well.

Always remember the key rule: an overnight success takes at least five years of solid work (as defined in my prior post “The Ultimate Cheat Sheet on Reinventing Yourself”).

I left out important things: how do you market books, how do you make art, how do you build discipline, what do you write about, and so on. There’s answers for all of those.

The most important thing for me: writing without fear. Writing without judgment. Writing without anger. Making writing fun. Writing right now.

Writing is about freedom and not money.

I want to write to you something fun and useful. And I want you to read it.

(p.s. Share with the people who have books hidden in their drawer.)

(p.p.s. don’t ever be afraid. Hit “publish.” Apologize later. )

Share This Post

Other posts you might be interested in: