Surviving the pandemic: Side hustle ideas for authors

21 December 2020 Surviving

Last month at the SoA @ Home Festival, Candy Gourlay chaired a discussion on how authors can diversify income streams during the pandemic with author-illustrators Steve Antony and Shoo Rayner. Here, Candy offers further advice on making money with a 'side hustle'. A video of the panel is available here

When I told an author friend that I was chairing an SoA panel on side hustles for authors, she said, ‘Has it occurred to you that the authoring itself might be our side hustle?’

She was right. Like many authors, speaking at schools and festivals is how I earn my living because my royalties unfortunately don’t add up to a proper income.

Making a living has always been the author’s struggle – a 2019 report from the Royal Society of Literature (RSL) found that 62% of writers who earned money from their writing in 2018, earned between £100 and £10,000. 

A side hustle – in case you have not heard – is an additional source of income, like a side gig – something extra you do to supplement your earnings. Authors are not strangers to the side hustle – but the pandemic presented us with new challenges, as we discovered in our panel discussion that ranged from wondering when will we have time to write or illustrate to how to replace a vocational mindset with an entrepreneurial one.

The explosion of free online content (especially in peak lockdown) has also directly impacted author livelihoods. The relentless flow of free stuff online somehow made meeting authors redundant. One librarian, asked if she would continue to organise author visits despite the pandemic, said she saw no reason to when she had a long playlist of author videos available for free online.

So, what to do? Here are six side hustle tips and ideas to get you started.

1. It won’t be instant

The first thing to remember is that it won’t be instant. When I give workshops on online marketing, the most common response I encounter is disappointment. Marketing is time consuming and the results are rarely instant. Sadly, the same is true with side hustles. It will take time and effort – but maybe, just maybe, there’s a side hustle out there that appeals to you. Something that gives you joy will always be worth your while. And it might just make you some money.

2. Free is alluring

Should we stop giving things away online for free? It depends. Even before the pandemic, we were already participating in an explosion of free. Perhaps all your posts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter helped build your brand – they were also content that you were giving away for free. Free can be like so many empty calories if you don’t know what you want to achieve (like doing a book giveaway without a clear goal). Free can also be powerful if done strategically. For example:

  • A free story if you sign up for my newsletter
  • A free lesson plan if you allow me to email you
  • Five free emails on the story behind my book if you join my mailing list
  • A free drawing lesson that might tempt you to sign up to my Patreon for bonus lessons.

3. What have you already got? Repurpose / monetise

Authors create content – it’s what we do. A lot of that content may be worth something. For instance, this might be a good time to self-publish (some genres are more successful than others):

  • That manuscript you’ve hidden under your bed that you thought wasn’t good enough, would you have the skills to make it good enough now?
  • Could you put your short stories together in a collection?
  • Do you have material for a short book? Short stories and short books are another form of publishing taking off on Amazon
  • Do you have a blog on a theme that could be turned into a book?

Perhaps you can convert your blog / children’s books / stories / picture books / nonfiction into other media, including:

4. Selling stuff

It might seem obvious, especially to those who already make things worth selling (yay, illustrators) but selling stuff is always worthy of attention through our side hustle lens.


Some of your fans might want to wear a quote from your book on their t-shirts or mugs – use print-on-demand custom merchandise websites like inkthreadable.

Books launched in the UK in November, supporting independent booksellers and allowing authors to create their own shops. You can build your own page and even earn money from it; 10% from any direct sales from your page. Not to be sniffed at! Instructions here.

5. Create an online course

Creative writing, how to write a novel, how to get published – there are an infinite number of courses one could probably spin out of the author experience. To create one will demand deep research – How can you make your course stand out? Is there a need for it?  You can run in-person Zoom workshops and mentoring programmes. Or you can create a course on the many platforms available (to make one on Udemy is free but takes 50% of your income; Thinkific lets you create three free courses before charging USD 39 a month, and Teachable starts from USD 29 a month). Passive income once you’ve got the hard work out of the way … but not for the marketing averse. You still have to sell them, after all. Examples:

6. Virtual school visits

Suddenly we are all Zoom savvy and despite its limitations, virtual visits are slowly taking off. We are all learning how to do it so I can only offer a few things I’ve learned:


People expect you to charge at least half of what you normally charge – but should you? See the SoA’s virtual visits guide for what authors are currently charging. In-person school visits can take a toll on your writing brain, and getting paid less made me wonder if it was worth it. But school visits are also about keeping your book in people’s minds.


My solution was to pre-record my presentation – this mitigates brain sap and makes me feel better about the lower fees. It also has the added advantage of giving the schools more flexibility. A pre-recorded video means a child isolating at home can watch it once their parents allow them on the phone or computer. Then, if the school wants, I will do a Q&A for an additional fee, in person or pre-recorded. 90% of my visits so far have requested pre-recorded Q&As. The questions are emailed to me after the children have read my book or watched my video – which means more meaningful questions! I film on my phone and trim out mistakes using the InShot app. For longer videos, I use Final Cut Pro X to edit.

Digital poverty

The pandemic is creating a terrible digital divide between broadband haves and have-nots. We can help by creating printable resources alongside our school visits that can be distributed to children who do not have access to the internet.

Learn how to use the platforms

Every school uses a different platform (Teams, Google Meet, Zoom). There are plenty of how-to’s on YouTube. Practice by yourself so that you are not reliant on the other party to sort things out.

Security and privacy

Both are an issue. Consider all the ways to protect your young audience as well as yourself.

Marketing and platforms

I’ve had many conversations with fellow authors about side hustles, and I saw the same responses during our panel event: ‘Surely I need to be well known?’, ‘Marketing is a full-time job’ and ‘How do you find the time?’.

Building platforms and marketing is time-consuming. It can also get in the way of your actual work. But we have to do it – and if you do it strategically, you will reap the benefits.

Here is a platform-building process I suggested during the panel:

  • You might already have a platform. Do an audit. Make a list. School parents. Friends. Family. Rugby club. Gardening club. Book club. Librarians and teachers you’ve met. List of schools you’ve visited. Conferences you’ve spoken at in the last five years. Who was your contact? Blog followers? Twitter followers? Just make sure you read up on GDPR rules.
  • Go through the list and identify true fans, true believers who love you and your books and will go the extra mile to help you.
  • Go through your list and identify the megaphones – these are people who are good at amplifying messages and who have strong platforms. Can you turn them into true believers?
  • Go through the list and identify the platforms you are already connected to – your publisher, for example. They don’t have to be big platforms. The best platforms are communities that actively interact with each other.
  • Ask for help. But do it in personal emails, not via BCC. Write like a human. Don’t sound like spam.
  • Nothing is instant. This is incremental work. It might require you to give before you can receive. Think of how you can do that.

Winners and losers

For the authors who are not at the top of the bestseller charts, the pandemic has been a disaster.  

Lockdown has pushed many authors over the edge. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), the Royal Literary Fund, English PEN with the T S Eliot Foundation, and Amazon UK joined forces with the Society of Authors to create a £330,000 emergency fund to support authors in hardship. You can find out more and apply here.

And yet, when publishers began reporting their sales figures during lockdown, lo and behold, there had been a sales boom! Indeed, Harry Potter publisher Bloomsbury reported its most profitable first half in more than a decade. At the recent Bookseller Conference, publishers talked about how they saw ‘long tail’ titles – books that were languishing in harder to sell spaces – rediscovered by readers during the lockdown.

Time will tell whether the increased book sales will also translate into good news for us beleaguered authors.

Illustration © настя иванова / Adobe Stock

Candy Gourlay was born in the Philippines, grew up under a dictatorship and met her husband during a revolution. Her latest novel Bone Talk was shortlisted for the 2019 Costa Prize and the CILIP Carnegie Medal. Candy worked as a web designer at the dawning of the internet and is fascinated by the power and failings of social media.