Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Michael Bourret suggests that you "keep your day job."

It’s most authors’ dream, isn’t it, writing for a living? Being able to leave the grueling, monotonous nine-to-five grind for the glamorous world of publishing; sitting at home in a bathrobe, warm cup of coffee in hand, ever expanding manuscript at foot; calls about sequels and movie options; big packets about promotion and publicity arriving daily. It’s a nice dream, even if it doesn’t reflect the reality of most stay-at-home authors, many of whom will tell you that it’s often lonely, nerve-wracking, and just as soul-crushing (if not more so) as a “normal” job. (For a cheerier take on this subject, see Michael Prescott’s blog entry.) But let’s ignore the plight of those who write for a living for a moment, and focus on the other 95% of authors.

Very, very few novelists get to stay home writing all day. The truth is, many people get one book published, and then find that if the first book doesn’t work, the second becomes very difficult to sell. And, with advances for first books seemingly getting smaller every day, one book sale isn’t enough to live off of for a year, much less retire on. I know my view of things is colored by the rather high cost of living in New York, but even authors in the smallest towns can’t survive on $5,000 a year.

So what’s a first-time author to do? My advice is to keep the day job--the benefits are more than financial. Let’s go back to the writer sitting at home. Publishing is not glamorous; it’s hard work. The full-time writers I know work harder and longer than their peers. They spend much more than eight hours a day writing, thinking about their writing, wondering what their agent is thinking, pondering the loss of yet another editor, desperately trying to refrain from e-mailing their publicist again about that review in the Sioux City Herald, talking with other writers (about their agent, editor, and publicist), blogging, and generally praying that they won’t have a coronary before the end of the day. Authors who have day jobs are often able to put things in perspective: there’s more to life than their book(s). They get to leave a large part of the worrying to us agents (it’s part of what we’re paid to do – see Jane’s latest blog here), and that’s as it should be.

My take on this aside, I decided that I would speak to somebody who actually did leave work to write rather than just commenting from up here on my perch. Sara Zarr, the author of the forthcoming Story of a Girl, quit her job as an administrative assistant a few months after we sold her book. She had a lot to say. "If you get a book deal and are thinking about quitting your day job, there are a lot of factors to consider. Of course, it depends on what your day job is. If it's a career job, if you've invested years of time and energy into it and it fulfills some part of you that writing can't, keep it. If it's a minor job that you don't care too much about (or you hate), and you're reasonably hirable in the current job climate, quit and try the full-time writing thing. You can always go back into the job market if you need to or if you find you don't do well sitting home all day. Quitting does free you up to travel and promote your book if you need to, which is nice, but not mandatory." Her last piece of advice struck me as particularly important. "It's not necessarily all or nothing. My employer let me scale back my hours while I was working on revisions. You might be able to arrange something more flexible at your current job or find part time work."

I know it’s tough to write and work at the same time while also keeping up with family and social commitments. I understand that working full-time as a writer seems glamorous, but writing for a living is something that only a handful of people are able to do, both for financial and psychological reasons.

When that final offer comes in from the publisher of your dreams and your excitement is tempered by the fact that you can’t quit counting beans, don’t panic. Your book is going to be published, and you’ll get to keep your sanity. It’s the best of both worlds.

I really welcome comments from authors about this one.


  1. I should add that I have a working spouse and get medical benefits through him. Were that not the case, none of the quitting stuff would be possible (unless we moved into a trailer on the edge of town).

  2. I am an aspiring author with a day job that I enjoy. My hubby and I have discussed what benchmarks I need to reach in my writing career for me to actually leave said day job. They are HIGH benchmarks, which means even if I get that first book deal, I won't be quitting the day job anytime soon. Still, I have a goal and that's always something to shoot for.

  3. I've published many books and still keep my 'day' job. Actually, I'm a freelance artist as well - taking on illustrating jobs. I also teach English, and worked as a substitute in a bi-lingual school. Now I mostly tutor, but I tutor six days a week in addition to writing and being a 'mom' to 3 kids, a housewife & cook.
    There are not enough hours in the day!
    I have to add that I live in France, so medical insurance isn't an issue.

  4. Sara wrote: "...(unless we moved into a trailer on the edge of town)."

    Been there, done that. It was great for writing material. :-)

  5. I've been a painting contractor for years, fitting my writing around an ever more flexible schedule (I'm the boss now). With a New York agent and the real possibility of getting published at last, I wonder how I would manage as a stay-at-home. Years of manual labor have trained me to think while I paint; my best ideas are scrawled on scraps of sandpaper. If I was ever able to quit, it might be disastrous. I'm not sure I can think about plot points without a brush in my hand. The ultimate irony would be having to find a crew to work on, just so I could get some writing done.

  6. Michael this was FANTASTIC! I'm so glad you wrote this blog - because Hollyweird does a fabulous job of skewing the truth about how little the vast majority of us are paid and the "glamorous" life we live. (I am currently in sweat pants and a T-shirt and last night I fell asleep with scattered pages of my manuscript all over the bed...Sara Jessica would be mortified!)

    When I got the advance on my first book there was a lot of "Whoo-hooing"...but the dollar figure certainly wasn't enough to dazel the teller at the bank who deposited the check into my savings account.

    To put it into perspective, I've had five books published in 3 years with another three under contract....and after all that I'm still only looking to retire about 3 years earlier - forget about quitting the day job! :)

    In other words - I once calculated what I made per hour writing...it was a sad $12 an hour and the work wasn't consistant... trust me, with my shopping habits that is most definitely not enough to live on. :)

    So if you're looking to be a writer - do NOT do it for the pay...do it because it's in you to tell a good story, to sweat long hours and get paid very little; to give up a LOT of your social life, weekends and holidays simply for the satisfaction of having your story in print...and perhaps a new pair of shoes...but skip the Monolos...stick with those reliable and affordable 9 Wests instead. :)

  7. Michael - I enjoyed your blog entry. How much are you paying your writers to enter comments in reply? Because, of course, as you well know as my agent, I can't afford to work on spec.

  8. Then there is the sector of already-at-home writers -- namely, the at-home moms who don't view a full-time writing career as any more glamorous than a full-time diaper-changing, laundry-folding, boo-boo-kissing career has been.

    It's a blessing to not have the pressure of Breadwinner upon my head. I'm free from that particular stress. But my commitment to my children (I have 4, I homeschool, it isn't always pretty) is as full-time as it gets. My days are as scheduled as they can be (school in the morning, writing in the afternoon, laundry all day long, in between), and I'm fortunate to be as productive as I am with my writing, now that my children are old enough to wipe their own bottoms and vacuum their own rooms.

    So it's not just the 9-to-5ers who dream about writing at home fulltime. There are those of us who are already at home fulltime, who absolutely love it, and who are still waiting for the "big moment" when our publishing dreams are finally realized.

    Thank you for the post!

  9. Well, I'm not a writer for the money. I write because if I didn't, I believe I would become a soul-less zombie roaming through existence with dull, flat eyes staring upon the graceless stage that would be my dreary world.

    To quote myself: "If I didn't write, I couldn't breath."

    But money would be nice too.

  10. I don't think of quiting my job or not. I write because I can't not write. Publishing would be icing on the cake. It wouldn't stop me from working or writing. I think I'd have to be totally debt free (house paid off, money in the bank etc) to even consider giving up the day job. Besides I need to keep a roof over my head to keep my laptop dry! Common sense please!
    But published or not I still couldn't stop writing.

  11. I agree with Ty. I became a soulless zombie, commuting everyday to and from the hell that is Midtown Manhattan, only to learn that for a writer like me (not all writers, of course) supplemental incomes like freelance copywriting and babysitting will make me much happier than a cubicle. Though I may, in fact, work more hours as a "full-time freelancer" (and lose my health insurance), I at least get to live with the illusion that I have time to write (and I don't have to wear pants). A soul-sucking 9-5 doesn't exactly allow for such things if one's soul can be so easily sucked by the 4-train and crusty doormen in a cold, corporate highrise. But that's just me...

  12. Huzzah! I completely agree--if your book-work isn't bringing in enough money to fully support you, it's a wise idea to hang on to that day job. (Unless you have a significant other who's willing to carry the weight, of course.) Hell, I know an author who got six figures on her second book deal, but still works full time and has socked that money away so that someday, she'll be able to quit her day job with confidence. A wise move, and I can imagine, a difficult one--the temptation to quit must be enormous.

  13. I guess I left out the fact that I'm 24 and don't have kids to feed or a mortgage to pay. My story might be a different one if either of those were true, but hopefully by sacrificing a steady paycheck to do what I love now, the money will come later. Call me an idealist, or whatever, but it came down to a matter of happiness for me and when my soul is sucked dry, there's little left of me for writing (unless you count my curmudgeonly blog posts about wanting to bludgeon someone on the 4-train during rush hour).

  14. As someone whose primary career is losing its glamour and I'm seriously considering retiring in a few years no matter what, I'd love to be able to write full time. I'm at my best when facing my keyboard, daydreaming about my characters and plots. I'm an introvert and can do well without human contact for weeks at a time. Being alone to write sounds glorious! I don't care about parties or Hollywood deals, just the writing.

    That said, maybe I should take a job as an interior painter. I love manual labor and the time to sit and think without interruptions. Hmm. Maybe my second career calling me while I write?? Thanks for that, Steve!

  15. I quit my job in the hopes of selling a second series--which I did. Along with a third. I wouldn't have been able to do any of those while still working, so I'm a fan of full-time writing and feel lucky to be able to do it.

    But, the distraction factor is indeed high, and I miss my round-trip hour commute (despite my road rage) because of the brainstorming it offered. However, I was teaching 8th grade in a low-economic district with a lot of behavioral/learning issues and would come home so frazzled that I could barely turn on the TV, let alone write. So, I guess it depends on what job you're quitting.

  16. When I sold my debut novel in a three-book deal last December, I cheered quite loudly. And I kept my day job.


    Advances are lovely things. They're bankable. And for me, they're spread out over the course of three books, at about one book per year. Hard to live on that.

    And the advances are taxable. (Ah, taxes. Evil things. Don't forget to set aside a portion of your advance to go to taxes.)

    As for royalties themselves, well, either I'll earn out my advance and then get quarterly checks on any additional sales (minus my agent's 15 percent), or I won't earn out my advance and I won't see another penny on these books. (Right, right, of course I'll be an international bestseller, with a zillion additional printings. The above is, you know, hypothetical.) Hard to plan a budget based on only maybe-royalties, especially when I'm first starting out.

    Yes, I have a day job. And I have a family -- a husband and two young children. I have a mortgage. I have car payments. I have college loan payments. I have health insurance, life insurance, home owner insurance. I have college savings for my children, and retirement savings for me and my husband. I have cost of living expenses. My children are in day care/after school programs because my husband and I both have full-time jobs.

    And I have publishing expenses. Yeppers, really. Those advance reading copies I received didn't mail themselves out to reviewers. My website wasn't free; neither was my web designer nor my internet connection. Or my toner cartridges. Or my computer. Granted, I've splurged by purchasing copies of books by authors in my genre (cough, tax deductible, cough) instead of borrowing books from the library.

    Even though I made good money from my three-book sale to my publisher, it doesn't compare with the money I'm making from my day job. So until I earn enough to become a full-time author, I'll keep on trucking as I've been doing.

    What's that magic number for me? I don't know. I'd think it would have to be around as much as I'm making in my day job. Which means that being a full-time author is a long ways away for me.

    Hey, everyone's got to have a goal. :-)

  17. Writing during work is an option of course. Just like Kafka did.

  18. Michael,
    I appreciate this column, for it allows me to not feel apologetic that I have alternate gainful employment whilst I am trying to write a novel worthy of being represented by an agency such as yours.

    I wanted to give you my own experience of trying to fit my writing in the margins of my life that it can be exceedingly stressful. A year ago, I made the decision to cut back on the hours I worked to being part time rather than full time. Giving me a few more days off has allowed me time I need to spend several hours dedicated to writing rather than trying to scribble notes down during my lunch hours and ignore my family after dinner while I transcribe things into my computer.

    Now by going to 48 hours a pay period (rather than the standard 80 hour a pay period/40 hours per week), I had enough time to actually write and spend time with my family at night.

    Enough so I finished the first draft of a novel in about 14 months. Now, I just have to revise, polish and submit it for peer review and historical nitpicks before I start submitting.

    But, I could not have completed my novel in the same time frame if I worked a full time job. Not and have a balanced homelife.

    That's my reality.

    Linda McCabe

  19. Thanks for the depressing (yet realistic) post. I never even allow the idea of writing full time to enter my mind. I kind of like writing at work. With Windows its easy to minimize Word as the boss walks behind me. Plus, this way, I get paid to do it.

    Also, Michael, I read and enjoyed 'Boy Heaven'. Thanks for the recommendation.

  20. I could write a book on this subject. (hey!)

    Great post, Michael. I agree completely. And I would not be a full-time writer today if fate hadn't intervened 2 years ago, when my husband took a job clear across the country at the exact moment my writing was taking off.

    I've worked 'real' jobs since I was 11 years old. I was the main breadwinner for much of my married life (my husband worked for 'peanuts' for years at non-profit type jobs, out of devotion). And I was good with that. My most recent job was a 7 year stint as a Realtor, and I loved it.

    But life was crazy. My phone was always ringing, I did evening showings as well as working at the office all day, and I squeezed in writing whenever I could -- I admit now that my family suffered from lack of Mom.

    When my hubby took the job, we thought long and hard over what I would do -- start over as a Realtor in a community that not only I was totally unfamiliar with (don't you hate it when the Realtor gets lost?), but also one in which the real estate market was booming out of control? I had my kids to think about -- at 11 and 8 years old at the time, this move was a bit traumatic. I couldn't be that busy.

    So we worked the numbers. Went down to one car. Sold our 2400 s.f. house in Michigan and bought a 1300 s.f. house AZ -- for the same price as what we got for our big wonderful home in Mich. Yep, it's a little tight in here at times, but I have my green chair and a computer.

    I was home all day. The steady for the kids. I began cooking way more than before -- something I loved to do and it also saved us some money. We no longer needed childcare.

    If we hadn't done what we did financially to make it work, we would never be in this position.


    I also doubt that I would have written a novel (or, uh, several of them) by now.

    And, this is a biggie -- It took me a year to adjust to this strange new life. I had a hard time transitioning from making decent money to making zilch (except for the occasional $50 or whatever from short stories that trickled in). I really underestimated how drastic the change would be. And the pressure gave me writer's block for a year. I put too high an expectation on myself. "Okay, you're a full time writer now -- go write something. Now!" It was soooo different. And I sat home, staring at a blank screen, hoping that when my hubby came home he'd not ask, "So, did you write anything today?"
    I dreaded the question, and felt terribly guilty about my non-production. I should add, I have the most supportive husband in the world, and he is tickled that I'm doing this.

    So those are the main reasons why I agree with 'don't quit the day job'.

    Of course, one day everything changed. Something clicked -- and all the ideas that were blocked came flooding out, and I couldn't write fast enough. When I'm writing a novel, I work hard. Like, '18 hours a day, forgot to eat breakfast and lunch' hard. Like, 'my fingers are numb and I've worn off the letter "N" from my keyboard' hard. Some days I wake up at 3 a.m. with my brain buzzing, and go write for three hours...and then get the kids off to school and write for 12 more.

    In many ways, I've worked harder at this job and am more dedicated to it than in all of my previous jobs combined. And I think that the most rewarding part of it.

    I wouldn't go back to working a steady job -- no way. I love this now. But it took me some time to love it.

    If anyone plans to become a stay-at-home writer:

    1. get the finances in order first. If I never, EVER make another dime with my writing, our family will be financially fine.

    2. Transition slowly, if you can, by cutting hours.

    3. Don't be hard on yourself if it takes you a bit to get into the swing of writing full-time.

    Good grief -- sorry about the longest.comment.ever. :) Fantastic topic, though.

  21. I don't particularly care for my job (also an Admin. Asst., like the client you originally talked about), and there's no way in the world I could quit.

    I fit in writing time whenever I can. I get up at quarter to 5:00 in the morning, to feed the dogs and do some exercise. Then, if I have a few minutes before I leave at 7:00, I get in about 15 minutes of writing (my goal is how many words I write, not how much time). I then parcel out the writing I do over the day, although the biggest block is during lunch hour (naturally).

    By the end of the day, and with my cruddy commute home (New Jersey roads are quite horrid), I'm too pooped and my brain is too fried to even think about writing.

    I also try to allot as much on weekends as possible, although hubby has beaten me to the computer a few times, and has tied it up. Must. Save. For. Notebook. Computer. :-)

    Thanks for this blog entry - quite interesting to see what others think and do.


  22. I've written - creatively - even before I joined the 9-to-5. When I started working and the occasional writing assignment or project was part of my job, I dove in. Job descriptions, procedure manuals, book reviews. They were opportunities to *create.* I enjoyed crafting a clean, concise description as much as I enjoyed writing a Christmas poem to share with family and friends.

    Many years later, after I scaled down to part-time work, I cheered over my first published magazine article. The extra time at home was a big incentive. This wasn't a technical piece either - it was the first in a series of articles about my learning to fly. Since then, I've had more articles published.

    I've also been working on a novel and doing research on a non-fiction piece. I took early retirement at the end of 2006, but just like working didn't stop my writing, retirement hasn't opened the floodgates. Whether working or retired, life happens. There are still bills to pay and family and social obligations. What I find exciting about writing now is the flexibility. But, whether working the day job or writing full-time, love of and dedication to the craft are what make it all come together.

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