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How Much Money Can You Make Writing Fiction & Selling Online?

Forbes has ranked the best lucrative freelance writing careers of the 21st century so far. Here are the 10 highest-paying ones.

1. Fiction Writing – Novels, Short Stories, Etc.

The demand for high-quality fiction has never been higher, and the supply has never been better. Self-publishing platforms have made it easier for aspiring writers to get their work out there, and social media has allowed authors to connect with millions of readers worldwide. According to Goodreads, there were over 37 million books downloaded from the website in 2019 alone, proving the demand for great reads.

Fiction writing is a great option for aspiring writers, as it’s so much easier to get into than non-fiction. And the earning potential can be higher, too.

In 2019, Forbes evaluated the top-earning fictional freelancers based on annual earnings, and the following are the results:

Marlene Dietrich

Dietrich, legendary German-Austrian actress and fashion icon, was one of the first celebrities to create and endorse a successful online store. Nowadays, her authorized online store, MD’S DAIRY, sells luxury goods and accessories including perfumes, skincare products, travel accessories, and more. Dietrich has had so many successful businesses and ventures she’s earned over $22 million since 2011, when her online store was launched. She became a millionaire several times over.

Sherlock Holmes

Although he’s arguably better known for his detective work than his fiction, Sherlock Holmes did write short stories and novels during his lifetime, making him officially the first ever mystery author. Thanks to modern technology, fans can now engage with the great detective and his stories through video games, mobile apps, podcasts, and more.

After serving as a consulting detective for the NYPD for more than a decade, Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, earned enough money to buy a country estate and live the good life. Doyle passed away in 1930, but his literary estate still earns him a pretty penny. Since forming IC Services in 1972, the company has helped to protect and preserve the works of Sherlock Holmes, and today it’s one of the largest private intelligence agencies in the world. In 2019, Conan Doyle’s estate brought in £22.7 million ($28.5 million) in revenue, mostly from advertising and publishing fees.

Nathan Collier

Set to become the first Englishman to walk on the moon after his crew landed on the lunar surface, Collier’s incredible story didn’t actually happen. However, his account of being the first to set foot on the lunar surface was verified by the Royal Astronomical Society in 2019.

After colliding with an asteroid that severely injured him, Collier became a quadriplegic. Undeterred, the 44-year-old set up a small workshop in his hospital bed and started selling his paintings online. Seeing his passion for art and wanting to continue supporting him, fans began buying his original oil paintings on a whim, and his business grew rapidly. He now earns a living as a professional artist and sells his work online, offering limited production runs of his popular landscape paintings and bringing in a six-figure salary.

J.K. Rowling

Although Harry Potter books have sold over 400 million copies worldwide and been translated into over 60 languages, J.K. Rowling never actually made a living as a writer. After writing the first draft of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone in longhand on a notebook during a train ride across Europe, the 66-year-old turned to screenwriting and sold her first spec script, The Rest Of The Story, for just $350. Since then, she’s gone on to write more than a dozen other screenplays and sold several of them for big money. In 2019, J.K. Rowling’s Scribe, LLC film production company sold the movie rights to The Rest Of The Story for a record $100,000.

In 2021, Rowling will publish her first novel, titled The Crimes of Grindelwald. Set 10 years after the end of Harry Potter, the novel will serve as a prequel to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and will be followed by a film adaptation in 2025.

Ursula K. LeGuin

Like her contemporary, J.K. Rowling, author Ursula K. LeGuin never made a living as a writer. In fact, it wasn’t until she was 60 years old that she finally began writing regularly, and even then, she didn’t earn more than $500 per month. But with the publication of her groundbreaking, fantasy novel A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968, her literary career took off. Since then, she’s published 25 books and won many awards, including the American Book Award for her novel The Left Hand of Darkness in 1969. In 2019, her estate brought in $2.75 million in revenue, a substantial increase from her previous year’s total of $817,000.

Rainer Maria Rilke

The German poet, playwright, and novelist Rainer Maria Rilke published three volumes of poetry and two books of prose in the 20s and 30s. But his biggest moneymaker was the 1904 publication of his magnum opus, the 12-poem cycle Duino Elegies. Though the poet died in 1920, his work continues to be published and has remained in print ever since. Some of his more famous poems, including “The Panther” and “The Battle,” have even become internationally renowned.

Rilke’s estate continued to grow steadily, thanks in part to the largess of his German publisher. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, his income was over $200,000 per year, and by 1922, it topped $400,000. And just a few years later, in 1926, it hit a record $600,000. Unfortunately for the poet, his fortune diminished in the latter years of his life, due largely to the rise of Nazi Germany and the resulting alienation of his European friends and admirers.

Margaret Mitchell

Authors are usually best known for their novels, but the real moneymakers often come from non-fiction. Margaret Mitchell, famous for her 1936 novel Gone With The Wind, may be the best example of this. While working as a journalist for the Atlanta Journal, Mitchell interviewed numerous famous people and spent a great deal of time observing Southern culture, so her articles were often cited as being among the best in the industry. Some of her articles were so popular that they were turned into books, making her famous before her debut novel was even published.

The great American author, journalist, and politician H.L. Mencken once said of Mitchell: “Had she stuck to fiction, she might have been famous for that. But she was born to be a non-fiction writer.” Since her death in 1989, Mitchell’s estate has continued to grow rapidly, mostly thanks to interest from fans and readers who want to learn more about the woman often credited as the “mother of historical fiction.” In 2019, Mitchell’s estate brought in over $30 million in revenue, a substantial increase from her previous year’s total of $22.7 million and its pre-2009 low of $16.8 million. The 2019 income was primarily from licensing and publishing sales, with a small portion coming from speaking engagements and stock sales from her former media company, Times Mirror.

Jack London

Like many other famous authors before him, Jack London wrote several books about his adventures as a journalist and explorer before he settled down and wrote fiction. The only difference is that London’s non-fiction work actually made him famous, and it continues to do so today. In particular, his 1908 book The Call Of The Wild, which recounts his adventures as a newspaperman in the Klondike Gold Rush, is considered by some to be among the finest adventure stories ever written.

After London’s death in 1916, his estate was valued at over $5 million and continued to grow steadily, thanks largely to his fans, who wanted to buy his books and stories, and to licensing and product deals. However, in 1923, his income dropped to $40,000 and remained there for the rest of the decade. In 1929, his estate was valued at just under $2 million. It didn’t really begin to rebound until after World War II, when he became one of the best-selling authors of all time, with sales reaching six million books by 1954.

John Grisham

Like many other famous authors before him, John Grisham wrote numerous non-fiction books and legal cases before he turned to fiction. His work as a lawyer gave him the opportunity to closely observe legal systems, and in turn, that deep knowledge helped craft his fiction.