How much work goes into writing a novel?

Did you ever wonder how much work goes into writing a novel? When I was much younger (and much more naïve), I thought that all I needed to get these stories out of my head and onto paper was a pen and, well, paper. And while that is true, there’s so much more to it.

First, and foremost, there is the sheer volume of time it takes to get those words out to the paper. Let’s take the average novel length — about 75,000 words. Let’s say it takes an average of one second just to type that word. That comes out to twenty hours of constant, non-stop, fingers pressing keys.

But we don’t just get to sit and type. We have to take time to create our world and characters and to truly know them. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I type at least 10,000 words for each major character to describe their back story, current life and plot progression through the story, and it takes me four or five times as long because I have a lot of pauses between each sentence. If a given book has 5 big characters, then that’s another 50, 000 words at over forty-eight hours of nothing-but-typing. And that doesn’t count the minor characters.

So far, that’s a full three, constant, non-stop, no-bathroom-breaks, no-meals, no-television, no-facebook, nothing-but-typing days. I’m exhausted at the thought already.

Now, how much time do we spend agonizing over word choices? Immeasurable, but let’s try to throw a number at it. Let’s say that for every 100 words, we might spend an extra five minutes just fretting no, tweaking no, adjusting no, tormenting ourselves to make simple words on a page weave that special magic in your brain. (And that’s being conservative.) So, that’s :

((75,000 / 100) * 5) / 60 = 62.5 hours

An extra sixty-two hours just typing, erasing, typing, erasing, typing, erasing.

That’s a full, non-stop five-and-a-half days just mashing keys at the keyboard. To put that in perspective, that’s over three weeks at a full-time job. Then, how much more time and effort do we put into plot creation? Research? Editing? Critique groups? Beta reads and beta edits? That adds weeks and months!

And that doesn’t even count all the time spent blogging, connecting with fans, working out technical download details, back cover blurb, marketing, promotion, formatting, layout, proofing, cover art creation/selection/design, press releases … whew.

If I add up all the time I spent on any one of my novels, I would put the sheer volume of time around 2000 hours each (easily). That’s a single person at almost an entire year of full-time employment. (One man-year is 2080 hours.) And remember, I still (at this time) have a day job, as do most of the independent authors I know.

And that doesn’t account for the emotional toll it takes. When I get buried in a work, I can get really depressed if I’m not very careful. I have to disconnect from the real world so much to put my pretend world together that sometimes I lose focus on things around me. I can’t even begin to tell you how much it means to me to hear someone say “Wow! That was awesome. Thank you for writing that.” One or two of those goes a long way to keeping me motivated to produce the next one, and there is no way to quantify the monetary cost for that.

All I can say is, my wife is a saint. Seriously.

You can see that producing a novel is not trivial. It is costly. And yet, some people insist that we sell our ebooks for $0.99 simply because we are independent.

Really? Would you work your full-time job, or even part-time job for 16 cents per hour?

Let’s say I sell 1000 copies that year (I don’t, usually). At $0.99 I get a whopping $0.35 per copy (Places like Amazon get the rest!). So, $350 for that year. For full-time work. That could otherwise be stated as … you guessed it, 16 cents per hour.

I had someone tell me, “Yes, but you have three novels, and you still get money for those.”

Okay… Yes. I have three novels, the top one gets me less than 16 cents as we’ve seen above, if I’m very fortunate. But heat on the previous novel has waned, and I make — let’s say — only 10 cents per hour on it. And the one before that has all but stopped, and I make the equivalent of 3 cents per hour.  So… 29 cents per hour for (much more than) three years worth of work. And that’s if all goes well in terms of sales.

“But what if you sell more? You’ll make more, right?”

True, if I sell millions of copies at thirty-five cents, I can make more, but I haven’t sold millions. I don’t know of many indie authors that have. I can think of two exceptions, and I am in contact with many different authors from varying genres. On a personal level, I’m overjoyed to sell fifty copies per month at this point. That’s roughly 500/year, half of the one-thousand in the above examples. That will pay the bills for keeping my website operational and paying for professional services like cover art and editing. Then, poof! It’s gone.

Do I hope to raise that number with some strategic marketing? Yes. But that takes even more time and effort, so add that to the pot, and balance the ROI on that effort, time and money. Quality marketing is not free.

So the next time you read a book from your favorite author, take a moment to realize that they probably poured an entire year of their life (or more) into that work to entertain you for a day or so.

And also keep in mind that this blog post isn’t a complaint. It is a request! If you find someone who tells a story that you enjoy, please let them know.

Here are a few things you can do to give back to them:

  • Leave a review (really… it helps more than you will ever know!!). Not just a single review on one of their works, but a review on each book you’ve read, and why you loved it. This helps other potential fans become actual fans and encourages the author to know what you like so they can write more of that.
  • Send your author some unsolicited encouragement on Facebook or other social media outlets. It keeps the coals burning deep down inside. Really, it does. I’m serious.
  • Be willing to pay a decent price. Writing is a ton of work!
  • Suggest that author to your friends and family. Spread the love. Be vocal about their work and what you like about it.

Whatever you do, when you find an author that you like, make a big deal about it… because it is a big deal.

Thank you to my fans that have kept encouraging me, have kept in touch with me, and really prompted me to come back to the keyboard.

You are why I do this.


Cover Image by Shella Sund

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