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This is a great and terrible question, and it’s one that freaks out many a writer because it’s so truly possible. I have a lot of things to say about this and am going to try and pare it down.
1) Writers rarely talk about money, but not having enough money is not good for creativity and productivity. I completely shut down when I have money issues. I don’t think I’m alone.
2) That means I have to be extra-careful to protect against potential money issues. I have no debt aside from a very small mortgage, very few recurring monthly payments, and I save a lot, and when I do spend money, I spend money on income streams (like audio versions of my books).And I didn’t quit my day job until that was basically true.
Money is important and anyone who tells you it isn’t and you should just go for your dreams needs to be sneered at.
There was a mostly great article that mentioned this here: http://beyondthemargins.com/2013/12/the-conversation-we-never-have/ —compare it with this piece by Patrick Rothfuss: http://blog.patrickrothfuss.com/2010/02/fanmail-q-advice-for-new-writers/
So to answer your question: I don’t know what I’ll do, but I’ve tried to give myself a big enough cushion so that I can see it coming and react accordingly without going into flat panic shut down mode.
I’m going to add something else. I think that “what sells” is a tricky question, and one that makes more sense in a brick-and-mortar view of bookselling.
In a brick and mortar store, you have to appeal to at least a sizable percentage of the country in order to be in the store at all, because they’re not going to carry a book that doesn’t meet a certain appeals threshold. If you don’t appeal to X% of the bookstore’s customers, it’s not worth their while to carry you any longer, and so there are no fine gradations of small percentages. If you do not appeal to 10% of the country, poof, your book now is no longer selling anywhere at all, career gone, done, good-bye.
That stops being true in digital. Your book is always available, so you don’t need to have 10% of the country buy your book to make it a success. There is no “what sells” threshold for availability any longer.
If you write a book that 0.01% of the country wants to read, you’ll sell 30,000 copies, and if you’re self-publishing it at an above $2.99 price point, that’s $60,000. Multiply it by the rest of the English-speaking world, and you don’t even need to get 0.01% of the people. Not a bad income.
The trick is not figuring out what sells—if you’re writing good books are of commercial quality (even if not of broad commercial appeal), there are enough readers out there who want to read your book to sustain a career.
The trick is making sure that the 0.01% of the country that wants to read a book like yours knows that it exists. It’s easier to start a career on a book that 90% of the country wants to read, but if you’re writing books that really speak to 0.01% of the country, you can get a self-sustaining career eventually today in a way that you couldn’t even five years ago. Starting it up may be difficult, but once they’ve found you, I think you can keep going for a lot longer than used to be true.
There are other thoughts I have about this—it’s not quite as simple as I’m presenting it—but that’s basically it. I’m not hugely worried that I literally will stop selling, and I have a looong way to go before the amount that I make on sales starts causing me to panic.
But more than that? I think that my insistence on sticking to the things that I want to write means that I’ve written things that are emotionally honest for me. And I think the people who have responded to that might not have responded if I’d tried writing what I thought people wanted.