Don’t Quit your Day Job!

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[Forgive this being overlong. I’m compensating for the fact that my travel plans will limit how much I can respond to comments today, and that I’ll be off the grid for all of next week too.]

The core bloggers on this site lead quite different lives and I’m hoping that my post today will generate some competing ideas based on their backgrounds and experience. My subject is the age old problem of whether or not fiction writers should drop everything to make their dream real, and my title suggests where I fall on the issue.

            As some of you know from previous posts, it took me a LONG time to get published (er… 2 decades), and that wasn’t for want of trying. Now that I’ve had some success I find myself wondering if I could have gotten to where I am faster if I had dropped out of grad school and pursued nothing but writing. My completely unsubstantiated instinct is that I could, if only because I would have generated material more quickly, but whether I would have made it to that point is another question entirely.

Say that in this alternate past, without a dissertation to write or classes to teach, it took me half as long to get published as it did in the past I actually experienced. That’s still 10 years mooching off my wife, ten years of being a financial burden and generally feeling useless. But maybe writing full time wouldn’t have shaved 10 years off my path to publication. Maybe it would have been more (let’s ignore the possibility, for now, that it might have been less). Maybe I would have found a publisher in only 2 or 3 years. Surely I could have reached that point without too much soul-searching? And then the money would start to roll in and I’d be soaring up the best seller lists and still (just) in my twenties!

            Cue the knowing snickering from the published authors out there.

            Because the problem with this sketch of my alternative past is that it makes the mistake that I often made before I was published. It assumes that once you are published, once you’ve got your foot in the door of that big New York publishing house, the streets are paved with gold and they all go right to the top. The hard truth is that most writers don’t make that much money and that a surprisingly small number (names we could probably generate between us in about ten minutes) make the really big bucks. Many authors consider themselves lucky if they generate thirty thousand dollars for a book, and a lot make considerably less. A few years ago I read that the AVERAGE advance for a book was a little over $5,000. That number has gone up some, I’m sure (most major NY presses cite about $30,000 as an average advance), but publishing remains, as they say, no way to make a living.

[I won’t bore you with the math, but you might consider just how impressive the bigger advances really are as well. $100,000 for a book sounds great, but then you have to deduct 15% for your agent along with any other expenses the book entailed (research travel, for instance, but also your computer, your workspace etc.) and any peripherals you would get from a regular job (like health insurance!), before factoring in how long it really took to produce the book and figuring out what you are actually making per year. Less impressive now, huh?]

            Of course, you will be the exception. Your book will be the one whose hook, whose style, whose sheer freshness and insight will launch you to the top of the New York Times bestseller list right out of the gate and bring in the million dollar advances.

            Because that is what everyone secretly hopes, right?

But here’s the thing. The last numbers I saw (and these are all open to debate) suggest that 62,000 novels are published each year in the United States alone. That’s novels, not books in general (total numbers of books are close to 300,000 with traditional presses, and neither number includes the approximately 750,000 self-published titles now released annually). Of those 62,000 only a few hundred will make the bestseller lists, and if you look around your average book store you’ll get a sense of how dominated the market place is by a handful of high-visibility titles at any given time. (The mechanics of how books attain that high visibility is material for a different but similarly disheartening post).

What this all adds up to, needless to say, is that the odds that you’ll make a pile of money off your book are very long. Most successful publications struggle to earn out the initial advance paid to their authors (70% don’t, according to the NY Times[1]), and shelf life is limited. Bookstores are constantly having to make room for new inventory which means that your book may have only a few WEEKS to make a splash before being shunted into some dusty corner or returned to the publisher. And it gets worse. According to one book publicist, most titles only stay in print for eighteen months.

            If these past couple of years have taught me anything, it’s that in publishing you are only as good as your last book, and by “good” I’m not referring to the quality of your prose. I’m talking about the only thing the industry finally cares about: sales. If the economy tanks, or your book gets slammed by a high profile reviewer, or any other factors combine to make for poor sales it’s not just the author’s chance of making a pot of money off this book that takes a hit; it’s the chance of making much of anything off the next book too since poor sales of one book may make the next book tough to sell at all. Publishers scrutinize previous sales very closely and any hint of a downward trend can make you a liability: hit a bad patch (even one fairly obviously tied to a collapsing economy) and suddenly you have an albatross round your neck. “I loved this story,” says the editor you have just submitted to. “Great characters, wonderful plot. I laughed I cried. Let me just look over the sales figures for your last one… Ah. I notice you have an albatross round your neck…”

            Suddenly your New Shiny “doesn’t fit our list” or “doesn’t make economic sense to our accountants.” Not good.

Contrary to everything I believed before I was published, the first time author actually has a better shot at the big time than the established writer whose previous sales have been only middling. Success might breed success, but limited success can actually scar your future possibilities very badly. The shop window displays vanish. The advances fall to nothing. And before you know it, your agent wants to “re-evaluate our relationship.” I’ve had glimmers of such moments in my own career and know plenty of other writers who have had versions which have effectively ended theirs.

            So. Would dropping your day job to write full time get you published faster? Perhaps. But is it the only way to prove your seriousness as a writer?: is it making the break from hobby to career?: is it practical?: is it smart? For most writers, I would say, simply, ‘no.’ Not if you aren’t independently wealthy (or at least fiscally stable), not if you haven’t already built a track-record of publishing success, not if you think that writing full time is either a.) romantic or b.) a short route to a pot of gold. Think long and hard before you make this subjective and capricious business the bedrock of a family, and always have a back up plan. No matter how well you seem to be doing, it can stop in a heart beat.

            And let’s not forget that there are upsides to a day job. I’m not sure I could stand being in the house alone every day. I need people around me, even if they sometimes drive me nuts. I am, moreover, fortunate enough to have a job that feeds my writing, in my case by keeping me thinking about art and literature, though writers draw on all kinds of occupations for inspiration. There’s also something to be said for maintaining that sense of “hobby writing” even when you are doing it professionally, that you’re doing it because you want to, because it’s fun and not simply to pay the electric bill. For me, knowing I’m not absolutely dependent on the success of my next book gives me some creative license, frees me from the panic that I won’t be able to make the mortgage payment if my next ‘product’ isn’t sufficiently commercial. Without a job I might find myself desperately pursuing trends, or copying other people’s success instead of writing what I want to.

And let’s not forget the old mantra that work expands to fill the time allotted to it. If I had more time at home, time devoted to writing instead of having to jimmy it in among all the other stuff I have to do, would I crank out four novels instead of one in a year, or would that one novel just bloat to absorb all my waking time without actually getting any better? I’m not sure, but until I start making so much money from my books that it doesn’t matter if I never sell another, I probably won’t try too hard to find out.

            To end on a fractionally more positive note, let me say that money isn’t a great incentive for a writer and it shouldn’t be what pushes you to finish your manuscript. Writers write because they have to, because they have something to say, to share, because they love story and character, conflict and resolution, because they think the world will be a little better with their book in it. These are the things that should drive you. The rest, if it happens, is just profit.


[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2009/04/12/books/review/Meyer-t.html

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24 comments to Don’t Quit your Day Job!

  • Thought-provoking post, AJ!

    I started writing seriously in about 1990, had my first novel published in 2000, and I quit my day job in 2008 to write full time. Even with that 18-year ramp-up, I never could have quit if I didn’t have a partner to support me. I ride on my husband’s health insurance, and we rely on his steady salary to keep our sanity through the (often very lean) times. If I’d been going it alone, I would have gone into savings about half the time that I’ve been writing full time, and that’s not a safe fiscal path.

    On the other hand, my published and publishable writing output has nearly tripled.

    ::shrug:: It’s a scary world out there for day-job-less writers!

  • Great post, AJ. This resonates since I’m a full-time prepublished author.

    When I moved to the US with my spouse in September ’07 and couldn’t find employment, I started writing for publication. I learned then that my skills were a long way off. Joining online critique groups and email lists told me that it would take many years to improve my craft.

    I’ve been working hard at it since then, pushing the learning curve as vertical as possible. During that time, my sweetie has been immensely patient and supportive, both emotionally and financially.

    I’ve certainly progressed quicker than I would have if I’d been writing in the evenings and on weekends, how much I cannot say.

    Three and a half years later, I still haven’t sold a story or found an agent for my novels. I may end up back at work in the near future to fulfill some intrinsic need to get paid and to take some of the dependence burden from her.

    Regardless of what happens, I’ll keep writing, and hoping that someday my stories reach more people than critique partners and beta readers.

    Cheers,
    Not-So-NewGuyDave

  • AJ — here’s wishing you a safe and wonderful trip across the waters. Have fun in London!

    As to quitting the old day job. Had Obama fulfilled his hope to provide a public option for health insurance, I’d have quit my day job in a heartbeat. But honestly, my writing output would have gone up only a bit and my career would not have sky rocketed (slow arced upward, if I am honest). All that is dependent on so many factors (many you have listed) and all I would have gained is a much less stressful life. Well, until the bills started pilling up because that regular cash would no longer be there. For me, I must have the day job. I need the benefits. I need the stability.

    A have a couple of bestseller friends and in both cases, their entire families depend on them and their success to make it. That is terrible stress, made worse by the the market’s unpredictability.

    Hugs, AJ! Be safe. The rest of us are on the way to StellarCon in High Point, NC. Whoot!

  • Very intense and honest post. Of course it’s a dream to be able to quit my day job, but I’d be a fool to do so. Sure, we could live off of my wife’s income, but it’d be very tight. I’m fortunate in that I have a day job that still offers a pension and medical benefits in retirement–so for me to quit would be insane (unless of course we’re talking guaranteed Stephen King like money for the rest of my life).

    What I do is treat writing like it’s another full time job–but one I really enjoy. I put in the hours every night when I get home from the day job. There aren’t enough hours in the day so I had to give up a few things, like watching tons of movies, T.V., video games, etc. But to be honest, I don’t miss them.

    Anyway, I only have to go another 11 years at the day job for the pension, so really there is no point in quitting now. I’m fortunate to have a job with so many benefits in a time when so many are struggling.

    Thanks again A.J. for the great post.

  • Mindy,
    interesting to hear that your output has increased so much (doubly so since Faith doubts hers would): I guess that’s one of those very personal variables. I suspect my output would increase too, but I’m not ready to make the leap just yet. Ask me again after the first couple of Darwen Arkwright books have come out… 🙂

    NGD,
    hope this wasn’t too much of a downer for you. Obviously you have to stick at it till it becomes untenable, but one of my great anxieties about the biz is that quality is often NOT rewarded with success. Many of the books that do very well are not clearly better than those which do poorly, so improving the quality of your work (certainly something we should all aspire to) doesn’t solve the problem. I amdire you for honing your craft and skills. It’s the right approach. But it may not finally pay off in teh way you want, and that’s tough. I assume you are also doing all the pre-professional writer things as well: critique groups, conferences/conventions where you can meet supportive writers and interested agents. These things are vital if you are bent on making it as a writer. But remember that having to cave in and get a job as well doesn’t mean that you have failed and doesn’t mean that you won’t make it as a writer. That’s how most writers do make it. You have to deal wioth a different kind of schedule, and things can get very tight, but it is possible.

    Faith,
    thanks. I will miss being with you all at the Con. And yes, stability and benefits are important to us all. Leave the notion of the starving artist burning himself out in a Parisian gutter for his muse to the pre WWI poets 🙂

  • Alistair,
    I’m with you completely. I treat writing as a send full time job, and that means some sacrifices in other areas, but sacrifices I amke willingly and with little sense of regret. I think I had seen one of the movies up for major awards on Oscar night, and I’d only seen that because it was already out on Netflix. But that’s OK. I can live with being a step behind in some conversations if I can lead in others 🙂

  • Fantastic post, AJ. I think that short of winning the lottery, I’m not quitting my day job. And I love what I do enough that at least I’m not sitting in a corner with my head between my knees, rocking back and forth and muttering “Soon … soooooon …”

    Honestly, I feel too blessed and grateful for what I have: a unionized job with benefits and rougly flexible start/end times. I make a point of not abusing it; since my husband and I carpool, I read these posts in the car on the way to work and don’t clock in until I’ve made my reply. Any follow-up comments are for my coffee and lunch breaks.

    Having a job limits my writing and social time, and I often have to choose between the two. Thankfully I get vacation time. I’m planning on taking a week in the next month or two to say home and get stuff done. And my NaNo Other 11 Months group meets at least once a week (though there are currently four regular gatherings and at the moment, I’m making two of them).

    It’s fun to dream about what will happen “when I get published”, but I like posts like these. They’re ego-killers, in a very good way. I know it’s tough and that it’s not a quick path to fortune and fame. I still want to do it.

  • Thanks Laura, I’m glad you take this in the spirit it was meant and not simply as a buzzkill (which really wasn’t my intent)! Sounds like you have a smart and level-headed approach to the situation. I’m hoping that at some point we’ll hear more from writers like Mindy for whom being a full time author has proved healthy, feasible and productive.

  • Great post AJ. We discussed the grad school thing at Dragon last year, and as I said then, several years ago I was faced with the decision of continuing on for my PhD or putting off school to work at a job I knew I didn’t want to do long term while I pursued my writing dreams. I’m fortunate enough not to be the main provider in my house, so I was able to eventually start writing full time. That said, I waited until I had nine books under contract before I left my day job. I don’t regret the decision not to pursue a higher degree or to take the plunge into full time writing, but sometimes it is something I fret about, especially with the economy in the state it is and while I wait to hear if my NY publisher will be picking up more books in my series.

  • Kalayna,
    I had no idea you had that many books under contract! That’s fantastic, and a huge step towards the kind of security I’m talking about. I hope they sell massively!

  • asheyna

    Great post! As much as I love writing I’ve always tried to keep my expectations realistic. I doubt I’ll ever have the chance to quit my jobs and write full time until I’m retired. But I don’t regret that. My work, the people I meet and the things that happen, fuel my writing. Even if the story is fantasy or set in a different time the characters are still holding onto some form of realism.

    Plus, like you, I couldn’t stay home all day. And the pressures of /having/ to produce would get to me. I’d write what I think would sell rather than what I dream of.

  • Unicorn

    Hey, but I won’t have to worry about this, ’cause I’ll have several books under contract before I’m old enough to be a breadwinner and I’ll be a New York Times Bestseller by the time I’m twenty-three!
    Cue the snickering.
    I am luckily in a very happy situation. Being a teenager I don’t, as such, have an actual job but the job I’ve been apprenticed and practicing for – horsemanship – is not something I’d ever give up, I think. So I’m perfectly happy to juggle both.
    Though… it would be nice to have nine books under contract… Go Kalayna!!
    Unicorn

  • asheyna,
    thanks! Totally agree that constant interaction with people gives you fodder for writing no matter what world/genre you are working in. It’s one of the things that worries me about returement. I was watching a guy in the faculty dining room the other day, the curiously mechanical way in which he ate his soup and sawed at his food, and knew both that I’d use this in my writing one day and that I would never have dreamed him up by myself!

    Unicorn,
    oh to be a teenager, with the world spread out ahead of you like a new dress! Not for me, of course, because I’m old and don’t wear dresses. Anything you hear to the contrary is a viscious rumor 🙂 Enjoy it. You don’t have to worry about things like mortgages for a long time, I hope, and can be making headway on your writing in the meantime.

  • AJ> Great post! I don’t think I’d ever fully quit my day job–I do enjoy what I do–but it would be nice to not have a 4-4. 🙂

    The thing I notice about most of the people here who have “quit their day jobs” is that they have spouses or someone who will financially support them. That’s awesome, and I mean that, but that is no way a reality for me. I’m single (at least not married) and my SO makes less than I do, so there is no way we could, even if we lived together, make ends meet on his salary. So, for some of us, it isn’t even a possibility. And I’m okay with that, honestly. Even if I could quit my day job, at this point I wouldn’t.

  • GREAT post, AJ. I wish I knew half the things about this industry back when I got started, but there was no Magical Words back then (just Wilbur and Orville, trying to get this crazy ‘aeroplane’ thing of theirs to fly) The advice I got in subsequent years that i think makes the most sense is that you can quit your day job when you can get by financially on your royalties alone. Take the advances out of the equation and look at just your royalties. Not enough to live on? Not time to quit your day job yet.

  • Pea
    yep. I’m sure that’s true for a lot of us here, and though my post is dotted with numbers and dollar signs I wanted to wrap up with a reminder that for most of us the money can’t and shouldn’t be why we write. Not only are the expectations of money bags falling out of the sky not realistic for most authors, too much attention on such dreams makes what we do no more than playing the stock market. There are surer ways to make a buck than being a novelist, so be one because you like the work, not because of a payoff which may well prove elusive.

  • Ed
    that’s a great way to look at it and something I hadn’t actually thought of in those terms. Living on royalties alone (though it’s a long shot for most folks) sounds like a much safer way of cutting the day job chord! Thanks.

  • Sarah

    So many great comments here, I don’t have much to add, except to second what Pea (Emily) said about being single adding a whole new dimension to the issue. And that I think one’s tolerance for stress and instability should also be a factor. I panic at the thought of dipping into my meager savings and I never, never want to go back to the days when I couldn’t count on a regular paycheck. Even if I wasn’t dependent on health insurance I would keep my day job for the human contact and the emotional cushion of knowing that someone is contractually obligated to pay me. I grew up on the poverty line and then spent more time there in grad school. It’s not a lifestyle I want to repeat or pass on to my (eventual) children. I’d have to be making some pretty fabulous moolah to feel comfortable quitting my day job.

  • mudepoz

    I have a job that pays very little. The fringe benefits are all the plants I want. The pay sucks, but my colleagues are awesome. The work sometimes sucks (I don’t know why I bothered getting an advanced degree in genetics just to clean the toilets at my alma mater), but mostly it’s very interesting. Weird. Even entertaining. I believe it has mused a person or two. I could write doggy articles full time, likely make as much as I do working, but it wouldn’t be as fun. Of course, I might very well have a pink slip in my mailbox Monday, along with all my colleagues. I guess there is always unemployment. *Opens up 1800’s research copy of Stonehenge ‘On the Dogs.’ *Sigh*

  • Razziecat

    My day job is my only income, so there’s no way I could quit. I do have a vested pension and healthcare insurance (for now), but I’m working in an industry that is teetering economically. I need to hang in there for as long as possible, so quitting to write full time never entered my head. I’d love to have the whole day to write, but can only do that on my vacations from work. Writing is like an antidote to the craziness at work!

  • I sold 12 stories and 2 poems between 1995 and 2000, all to “professional markets” (SFWA definition back then was minimum .03/word). I think I made, maybe, $1200 total. I did it while working full time and raising a family. In 2000 my son got sick and my writing got out-prioritized.

    I started writing again about six months ago. I have no illusions about my chances of success. I’m completely aware that the chance that I’ll sell even one of the three novels I’m writing is slim even though I know people ‘in the business.’ Sure, I might sell another dozen (or hundred) short stories and poems – but they don’t pay the bills.

    And I’m okay with all of that. I work the day job to live. Writing is a necessary part of my life.

    I’ve never expected fame or fortune. I’m in love with words. I’m enthralled with the process of putting words together and creating something new. I’ll keep on living to write, and working to live.

  • AJ said, “NGD, hope this wasn’t too much of a downer for you.”

    Not at all. There are many harsh realities in this industry, but they’ll only make the victories that much sweeter. In addition to reading, writing, and critiquing, I have been hitting cons early 2009 and met some great people like Joshua Palmatier and Patricia Bray, who have contributed to MW as guests. I’ve also met some great agents at the 2010 Backspace Agent-Author Seminar in 2010. I’m still hoping to participate in an extensive workshop like Odyssey and Viable Paradise (Clarion and Clarion West are a little far and expensive) this year. Though, I may have sounded despondent in my post, I feel like I’m getting close to publication. Time will tell.

    Thanks again for the timely post. Going back to a day-job isn’t going to kill me, in fact, it might just make me push harder with the time still available.
    Cheers,
    -NGD

  • Very, very late to the party. Hope you’re having a good time, A.J. We missed you this weekend. This is a great post, as others have said. I have a couple of reactions to it. One is that I think that $30,000 average advance sounds VERY high — I wonder if that’s for non-fiction as well as fiction. I would think that average novel advances would be closer to 15 or 20k. I also have to say that I quit my day job years ago, and have gotten by (with MUCH help from my spouse) on royalties, advances, and foreign money. But I really wouldn’t recommend that others follow my example…. Again, great post.

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