The best writing career advice I ever received wasn’t ‘‘write every day’’ (because I certainly don’t), but, ‘‘Don’t quit your day job.’’
Clearly, not all of us have a choice in this matter, as steady day jobs continue to be eradicated and the ‘‘gig economy’’ becomes the norm. I’ve been laid off from at least half a dozen jobs in my adult life, and I’m not even 40. Many of us are pushed into lives of freelancing and novel writing not by choice, but by chance and necessity.
But when weighing your options, consider that I can count the number of full-time novelists I know who make a living wage solely from their novels on one hand, sometimes two. What I have found in the decade plus that I’ve been running in writing circles is that the writing life is so uncertain that many rely more or less on freelancing gigs for corporations, speaking fees, health insurance and a steady paycheck provided by a spouse, or generous help from family, or savings from a prior career as a doctor, lawyer, or banker. There are very few making $40,000 or more a year writing novels alone. Fewer still making six figures, despite what TV shows like Castle and its ilk will have you believe.
Ask yourself how many debut novelists you heard about who got six-figure deals who are still writing full time five or ten years later. I’ve seen far more writers quit their day jobs after getting a big advance and go back to the job market three years later after the advance is spent and never earns out. Even if you live frugally on $20,000 a year with a roommate, no car, and no student loan payments, consider that your $100,000 advance, after taxes and your agent’s cut, looks more like $70,000. Worse, you don’t get paid that amount all at once. If you’re lucky, you get half up front, and the rest paid out as you turn in and publish manuscripts. Also note that publishers don’t always pay on time, and payments have to be first processed by your agency and then come to you. Writing is not a get-rich-quick scheme.
If you have been writing for any amount of time, you no doubt have been longing for the day when you can confidently turn in your notice or throw out your corporate gigs and write books full time. So let’s get into the weeds, here. When should you quit your day job?
While this is a personal decision that everyone is going to need to make on their own, here are some guidelines I’ve put together for myself in watching how other authors have managed this over the years. Consider quitting your day job:
1) When you have enough money in contracted books and savings to last you for the next five years. Five years is my minimum threshold here, but I can see how three or four years could also work, as that’s about the length of the typical day job these days. It’s rare, of course, to sign a contract for more than three books at a go at any one publisher these days unless you have a project that got caught up in a bidding war or you’re a big name. This would likely end up being two different contracts (preferably more) at two (or more) different houses.
2) When you have the financial ability to do so. Yes, this is a lot like the first one, but includes other things, like a spouse with a steady job who agrees to be breadwinner for a finite or infinite amount of time while you write, or a sudden financial windfall like the lottery or an inheritance. But, again, I’d note that the best thing you could do with windfall money is to pay off all your bills first and save it. The vast majority of writers don’t die rich. Far too many end up in poverty. If you get a windfall, I do encourage you to spend it wisely.
3) When your day job is killing you more than financial uncertainty would. There are hugely toxic work environments out there, and they are only getting worse as employers use the fact that steady jobs are hard to find to treat workers abysmally. In this case, lining up as many freelancing jobs as you can and going all-in trying to write for a living is going to be better for you than living in a toxic, abusive environment. If you’re making $20,000 at a crappy job you hate that steals your soul, swapping that out for $20,000 a year writing is an easy decision. Pay off as many bills as you can first with your dual writing/work income, and good luck.
4) When it becomes impossible to level up because you’re out of time. Our time is finite. We only have so much of it, and it’s never certain when we’ll be out of it. When you find that you are unable to level up your writing career because you are out of time to complete the projects that are vital to your career, it may be time to try for something part time or work out a more flexible arrangement with your employer.
5) When you have no other choice. Sometimes life quits your day job for you, and you have to make novel writing and freelancing gigs work for you. This is not a bad way to go. There’s hustle involved, but there’s hustle involved in keeping a day job, too. These days nothing is certain. On the one hand, Gene Wolfe and Isaac Asimov had day jobs throughout their careers. On the other hand, they were living in a completely different economy. Few have the luxury of deciding to keep their day job or not. Often, the decision is made for you, so do the best you can.
6) Whenever you feel like it because I’m not the boss of you. Throw caution to the wind! Be bold! Screw corporate America! Go all in! Luck and chance do occasionally pan out. I’m sure I’ll receive many e-mails about anecdotal stories of people quitting on signing their first book contract and making it as a full time novelist for 30 years without freelancing income. I can name a couple off the top of my head, but those are the exceptions, not the rule. Sometimes being bold works. All I’m saying is: not usually. But you do you.
If you decide to quit, or you’re forced to quit, my only advice is this: please be sure to diversify your income streams. Don’t rely on a single publisher, or a single platform like Patreon, to provide 100% of your income. Ideally, a mix of freelancing gigs, work with several publishers, a Patreon, and the occasional Kickstarter will round out how you make money to pay for things like health insurance and student loans.
Professional freelancers know that relying on a single big client can spell disaster if that client slashes their budget or decides to hire someone in house. Think of a publisher like a freelancing client: they could be sold, they could cancel your contracts, they could decide not to buy your next book. Publishers are running a business, and just like any business, personal relationships and spoken promises don’t count for much when a buyer swoops in and cleans house. Even having a contract with a publisher means nothing unless you have the ability to pay for the legal action necessary to enforce it. Trust me on this one.
We live in interesting times, and the sage advice from the writers before us isn’t always going to work. There are few jobs with security and pensions. More and more, writing for a living can be just as financially fraught and uncertain as working a regular corporate gig. There are no guarantees.
This is why I encourage writers to hold onto their regular gigs if they’re lucky enough to get them, and combine writing income and day job income for as long as possible. If you are in a position where you enjoy what you do and it doesn’t eat your soul, hold on. Pay down your bills. Enjoy this time while you can.