Short answer: Yes.
I had a lot of questions like this myself during my days trying to break in. Everyone told me it wasn’t possible to make a living as a writer–that, like an actor or a musician, I’d spend my life poor and obscure.
One of the big turning-points came when I met and talked to a professional writer who had had modest success. Not a huge name, but a person who had done what you hope to do. Publish a book every year, never be a household name, but well-known enough in-genre that a large portion of the readers had seen his books on the shelves, though many still had no idea who he was. (The author was David Farland, by the way.)
I wish I could give you that same experience, though it’s going to be harder while not face to face. The main tone of the meeting and his encouragement was this: IT IS POSSIBLE and YOU CAN DO IT!
Not everyone can make a living at writing. But it’s very within reach, and for the dedicated author willing to practice and learn, it’s not as difficult to make a living as many make it out to be.
I do make a living full time at this, and have for several years now. In the early years, it wasn’t what many would call a ‘good’ income, but it was enough for me. Now, it is an excellent income. Not “Fly to Europe every week” income, but certainly “Take your friends out to eat once in a while” income.
A standard royalty for an author would be to 10-15% on a hardcover, and around 8% on a paperback. Usually, the percentage gets better the more copies you sell.
Now, books don’t sell the huge numbers that people usually think they do. If you sell 2k hardcover copies in your first week, you can get on the NYT list. (Though it’s not certain–it depends on what week it is and what other books came out. 3k is a pretty sure bet, though.)
Elantris–an obscure, but successful, book–sold about 10k copies in hardcover and around 14k copies in its entire first year in paperback. I’ve actually sold increasing numbers each year in paperback, as I’ve become more well-known. But even if you pretend that I didn’t, and this is what I’d earn on every book, you can see that for the dedicated writer, this could be viable as an income. About $3 per book hardcover and about $.60 paperback gets us around 39k income off the book. Minus agent fees and self-employment tax, that starts to look rather small, Just under 30k, but you could live on that, if you had to. Remember you can live anywhere you want as a writer, so you can pick someplace cheap.
I’d consider 30k a year to do what I love an extremely good trade-off. Yes, your friends in computers will be making far more, but you get to be a writer.
The only caveat here is that I did indeed get very lucky with my placement at Tor. It’s the successful hardcover release that makes the above scenario work. If you only had the paperback, and everyone who bought the hardcover bought that instead, you’d have to be selling around 60k copies to make it work. That’s very possible, and I know a lot of midlist writers who do it.
Anyway, numbers shouldn’t be what gets you into this business. If you have to tell stories, tell them. To be a writer, I feel you need to have such a love of the process that you’d write those books even if you never sold one. It’s not about the money, and really shouldn’t be. Sorry to go on so long. I just feel it important to give aspiring writers the same kinds of help that I got.)