Do You Need Money To Start A Writing Business?



It depends.

How’s that for helpful?

I see this argument made all the time on self-publishing forums: You’re running a small business now, you have to expect to pay money to get it off the ground.

And I think, yeah, that makes sense.

But then I remember all the times that people have launched successful businesses without needing to spend a ton of money.  Or any money at all.

True story: When I started my consulting business, it went something like this: Old employer called and said they had work from old client.  Was I interested in working on it?  I said sure. (Because I’d been about two days from calling them to see if they had any work for me.)  They e-mailed me a contract, overnighted me a laptop, and I started working two days later.  No investment of any sort.  Profitable from day one.

Another true story: My dad once started a business that employed about twenty people with the $50 he had in his pocket.  (It was the successor to a previous company that had to shut down because of an undisclosed tax lien from the prior owners, so had existing clients and business relationships.)

Key here?  We had existing clients ready to buy our services.  Which means there were people out there who knew that we met the criteria Seth Godin says you need to meet to be a successful freelancer: You have expertise, knowledge, connections, reputation, tools, and/or handiness.

Now, you can also start a business with no money and no reputation and still succeed.

Pretty sure my dad started his accounting business with nothing but the intelligence to do taxes and people willing to let him do their taxes for them.  (These were the good old days before things like CPAs mattered so much.)

And when I was a stockbroker my floor boss told us how he got started in the industry.  He had nothing except a pregnant wife.  What did he do?  He worked those phones like his life depended on it (because it did) and he convinced people to give him a shot by never stopping and never giving up.

So, yeah, sometimes starting a business takes money, but it doesn’t have to.

One of the most valuable lessons I took away from business school was this: Fail fast and fail cheap.

If you’re trying out a new business idea (or writing a new series of books or in a new genre or are new to writing in general), find out as soon as  you possibly can whether your business has any legs.

Getting back to consulting, because it’s a comfortable example for me.  Did I start my business by renting office space for ten in a luxurious high-rise building in downtown New York City?  And buying linen business cards?  And thousand-dollar suits?  And taking prospective clients to fancy lunches to see if they might have a need for my services?


I worked from my brother’s basement in my pajamas.  I didn’t even have business cards.  The people who needed my services knew how to reach me.

So ask yourself: How can I find out as soon as possible and as cheaply as possible if this idea has any staying power?

Getting back to writing:

Do you need a $500 cover before you publish?


(My best-selling title that has sold five times as much as my next best-selling title uses a stock photo and Gimp.  Total cost?  $3.)

Do you need editing?  If so, how much?

Maybe not.  Depends on you and where you are with word usage and grammar.  If you don’t see that you confuse affect and effect or misspell visibility, then yes, get another set of eyes on your work.  Do you have to pay for that?  Not necessarily if you have strong beta readers.

(I self-edited that story.  Yet to have a complaint about the editing.  Some could argue that a developmental editor would improve it, but for a 8K word short story?  Nah.  It’s not that complex.  It either works or it doesn’t.)

Do you need advertising?  If so, how much?

Most stories do or don’t sell right out the gate.  Can you give them a boost?  Sure.  Enough to justify the expense?  Maybe.  Do you have to spend money to get a story going?  No.

(That story?  Took off on its own without any ads.  I ran a few $5 ads on it later, but, honestly, not sure they did much for it.  Others?  Ads drive some sales and usually pay for themselves, but I really don’t know that they do much more than that.  It comes back to the original product and whether it does or doesn’t appeal to readers.  Only so much you can do to drive people to buy something they don’t actually want.)

Here’s the thing.  Most of what will help you succeed as a writer is free.

Connecting with readers?  Generally can be done for free.

Writing an engaging story that hooks a reader?  Free.  (Once you know what you’re doing; I don’t claim to be there yet.)

Writing clean enough prose?  Free if you take the time to learn and are detail-oriented.

Creating a decent cover?  Cheap if you take the time to learn how to do it and read a few books on cover design.

Can you spend thousands on these things?


Will you do better in terms of absolute numbers than if you just bootstrapped it?

Quite possibly.

Will you do well enough for it to make sense to have spent that kind of money?

Eh, not so sure.  You just set the bar a lot higher by spending that kind of money.

And if you spend $5,000 launching a book and it doesn’t sell well, what will you blame?

Your storytelling?  Your ability to understand and hit the market?  (The likely causes.)

Or, the cover?  The blurb?  The title?

Will you just run around like a hamster in a cage, trying to fix things that really aren’t going to fix the underlying problem?

Or will you figure out that what you need is more practice and more time to develop your craft to the point that you’re giving readers what they want?

So the question becomes, while you’re getting to that point, do you want to bankrupt yourself financially or do you want to make a little pizza money along the way?

Not all of my titles have been wildly successful.  Okay, none have been.  Some more than others, though.

But, with the exception of three titles that I spent a lot of money advertising this month and a couple titles I pulled for no apparent reason, all of my titles have been profitable and almost immediately so.

I like to think the lessons I’ve learned on those titles will feed into my experience with the next ones so that I build on that profitability until we’re talking real numbers.

One final thought on this: When you start a business, it’s better to save your money so you can pay your personal bills while you’re getting up and running than to use that money to pay for fancy start-up costs you don’t really need.

(Or just keep your day job so you can spend to your heart’s content…)

About M. H. Lee

M.H. Lee is a speculative fiction writer currently residing in Colorado whose stories are sometimes dark, sometimes funny, sometimes darkly funny, but hopefully always thought-provoking and entertaining.
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