Can it happen? Oh, sure of course it can. It can happen in any profession or none at all. You can stumble out the door, pick up a lottery ticket the wind blows at your feet, and the next day find out it’s a winning ticket. You CAN. Will you? I would not advise you to bank your entire career and future on it.
It’s more likely you’ll graduate from whatever your professional school is, serve an apprenticeship in obscurity, and have a medium-paying career that pays your bills and puts your own kids through college.
In the same way, there are rich – very rich – writers, but you shouldn’t finish your first novel and start shopping for a house on the beach in a tropical island.
Oh, we all do this to an extent – usually with our first novel. Because it’s the best thing we’ve ever written, we’re blinded by our own incredible coolness in writing this. So we expect the world to be as well, and start planning how to spend J. K. Rowling-sized fortunes.
To say this doesn’t materialize for most of us is to say a mouthful. For most of us even “makes a living and puts kids through college” fails to materialize. (I’m working on it, but it’s a year at a time.)
It’s likely this will change somewhat, with the possibility of indie publishing, simply because there is the potential for reaching a much larger and more varied number of readers – a pool of readers so vast that among them there will be readers for almost every kind of writing – but you still have to a) achieve a certain level of competency, and b) achieve a certain visibility.
These are not likely to be immediate or automatic – even if some people win that lottery – any more than they are likely to be such in any profession.
This is, btw, my answer to the “tsunami of cr*p” complaint, i.e. people who say that indie will unleash a storm of unreadable books upon the world. What will stop that storm is the fact that very few first, shoddily written novels will make a million bucks. And most beginning writers will be so disappointed by their failure to achieve millionaire status that most of them will give up on writing, just as most of them give up on writing after the first novel gets rejected in traditional publishing. The ones who stay will start reading, studying what they did wrong, studying the authors that make it and working to make their stuff better. Same as it ever was.
The difference between indie and traditional career paths is merely a matter of eliminating one of the arbitrary sources of rejection: “We’re rejecting you because our small circle who all went to the same schools and all live in NYC don’t like this sort of stuff.” This was often political, but not always. There are certain types of books that were simply considered uncool by NYC and while they might have viewed military science fiction as uncool on ideological grounds, this is unlikely to have applied to – say – cozy mysteries. Except insofar as young editors seeking to make their mark with ‘significant’ books didn’t want to waste their time editing books that people in flyover country liked, but which never got any special mentions or prizes.