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Don’t Quit Your Day Job!

Reading these three royalty statements by published authors is so depressing it makes me want to pursue a different career. Okay, maybe not quite that depressing, but man! When people say they got a $4000 advance, or that they got a $15,000 advance but have only earned half of that after a year of book sales, how is that sustainable? I cringe to think of the thousands and thousands of dollars I’ve invested in my writing career:

MFA: $25,000? (I forget exactly. I went five semesters, but I also had a lot of scholarships and an assistantship)
Writing conferences: $1400?
Various editors, plot consultants and professional coaches: $3000+
Office rent: $2000/year
Commuting to office: $15/week
Nanny: $300-$400/week

I don’t want to add it all up, but if I had to guestimate, I would say I’ve invested at least $50,000, NOT INCLUDING the opportunity cost of not having worked a lucrative full-time job all these years. In 2002 I quit my not-so-lucrative reporting job to substitute teach for a year so I’d have more time to write. Add up the money lost by working as a journalist for three years to gain writing experience, plus the year substitute teaching, plus the years freelancing to buy myself flexibility, and I’ve invested a lot more than $50,000 in my writing. If I didn’t have a husband to support me, I wouldn’t have a house, and I wouldn’t be able to afford kids. I’d be doing what I did before I met him—renting a room in a house with three other people, racking up credit card debt, and living month to month.

And sure, there are plenty of writers who make more money than those who shared their income statements. But they tend to be nonfiction writers. All of the fiction writers I know either teach or have a spouses who support them. I don’t know one fiction writer who lives off his/her fiction writing alone. And I know few nonfiction writers who do. One writer, in a comment on one of the blogs above, says that she left the book industry years ago after publishing several books that did quite well and that she’s much happier, and feels more appreciated, working a 9-to-5 job. I’m not trying to depress you. But I can’t help but wonder: Will I be one of those writers, who, 10 years from now, hangs it all up for a 9-to-5 job? Will I look back and wish I’d gone to med school instead? Or will I quit the industry figuring I gave that dream a chance, sold a couple of books, and now I’m ready to move on? Who knows. The publishing industry is changing so rapidly, we can hardly predict what next year will be like let along ten years from now.

Meanwhile, I’m not going to quit. And I’m not going to get discouraged. I’m going to keep reading inspiring posts like this one and realistic posts like this one. But I am going to keep in mind the realities of pursuing a career as a writer. Until you’ve made enough money to live on for several years in a row, don’t quit your day job! Because that first advance, however big, may need to least you for a long time.

What about you? How much time and money have you invested in your writing career? How much are you willing to invest?

11 comments to Don’t Quit Your Day Job!

  • Well–I had a 9 to 5 job for many years, and still managed to write. I lost my 9 to 5 job because of the economy and layoffs and so I don't have one anymore, but I still write (and completed the first draft of my novel) while juggling 2, part-time jobs. The 9 to 5 job is not going to stop you from writing, if you want to write. (It makes it more difficult, sure, but it's not a dealbreaker).

  • Good for you for managing both! I found it difficult, but I also had a job that I got home from at 8 p.m. every night, and after writing all day (as a reporter), I didn't have much energy to write at night. I wonder what the ideal 9-to-5 jobs for writers is.

  • I agree 100%: don't quit your day job, but don't quit writing, either. Write on the train. Write after dinner. Write when the kids go to bed. Just write! The illusion that it has to become our career is what holds so many people back. Write for the sheer love and joy of it and forget about making money off of it. (My blog post on this topic is way overdue.)

  • Thanks for the timely post and links. I think Jacquelyn is right–you just write until something good happens.

  • I did quit my day job… but I was really just trading it for a different one. Because I was working 8 to 5, then 8 to 6, then 9 to 6, then 9 to 7, then sometimes 9 to 8 or 9 to 9… You can see the problem. So I made what was for me an incredibly difficult decision and asked for a demotion, essentially. I am now a receptionist, and it's a fantastic setup. I have set hours (8:30 to 4:30) and am not too tired when I get home to read and write. Furthermore, I am allowed to write at work (as long as it doesn't delay or interfere with my other office responsibilities). And I make enough money to live (well, barely, haha).

    The only downside is that I get interrupted a LOT, so even though I technically have lots of time to write during the day, I can never really get into a rhythm. Still, that's something I think *I* have to work through, more than I think it's really a fault with my job.

    I look forward to the day that writing IS my day job, but for now, I know I've got a great situation and feel very fortunate for it.

  • Oh, and yes, some people can do both (full time career AND find time to write) and it disappointed me that I wasn't one of those people. At the same time, it wasn't doing me any good to pretend that I was. So I had to make the right decision for me. But if someone can do both, then I certainly applaud them!

  • I tried to squeeze some illustrations in while I had a full time job – the few published illustrations I have are from that time – however, I quit my job to focus on my illustration & art projects (besides, other reasons that i won't get into and U already know of.) I have not published anything since then – well i designed some tees that sell once in a while – even tho I have done zero promo) – ok – I quit because after a full day (typically more than 8 hrs) of engineering and data analysis – I had absutely no mental space to be creative – my brain was fried by the time I got home – and not only that – I was unable to stop thinking about how to solve the problem I was working on at my job – I wanted to get beyond the occassional sketch, w/end class, etc and do something i felt proud of. I have to say quitting my job has helped me develop a style and technique – write outlines and drafts for five picture books (all unfinished) , but I know I have set the steps up towards finishing some day, and gave me the time to research artists and illustrators through books and attending art shows. In theory I cd have done this with a full time engineering/design job – but I cdn't. I have a friend who has a similar job but has more finished art projects than I – even tho I quit and she didn't – she is impulsive with her art and that's not me nor my style – I need to think/write a story before I can draw or paint – so that the final image can tell that story – she works more like Jackson pollock – impulsive abstract action painting with lots of squirts and dribbles of paints – she can finish one in a weekend – but even tho I like her work – I personally can't work like that – I rely in story and draftsmanship – I am not spontaneous like that – quitting my job has been the best thing for shifting gears – I do plan in getting back to a full time job – but I think I will settle for something that had a huge hands-on component – and doesn't fry my brain as much and for most part sticks to a fixed schedule – what exactly it's gonna be -I don't know yet – if my husband weren't supporting me right now – I may have never quit or worked a bar -so I hear you. You gotta do what works best for you to produce your best work & and be there for your kids – that is top priority – don't think of list wages if u return to a 9-5 at some point – becos you are doing what feels right and works for you right now – thinking about lost wages every month that I didn't work drove me nuts and made me feel like a com

    plete loser for a while – I m kinda okay with it for the time being – so there! Forgive the typos etc. I have been working off of my iPhone for everything lately and haven't quite mastered the Keyboard yet –

  • Jackie, you are the best example I know if someone who manages to write a TON while working a full-time job!

    Kristan – it sounds tough to write with all those distractions, but good for you for switching to a job that gives you so much time to write! Now you need some zen training to block everything out 🙂

    Aditi – did you type that whole comment on your iPhone? That would take me a week. And I hear you about being too tired to work creatively after a full day of work. I used to work on my book (a previous book I had started) on the weekends, and my bf at the time wasn't too thrilled about that. I was ALWAYS working. (Much like now except that my husband does the same!)

  • I wish I was brave enough to quite my day job. Guess I'm just a wussy! Maybe one day, though. Yeah, definitely someday *she says shaking her head while pretending to believe what she just said.* : )

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