Friday, October 11, 2013

Whistle While You Work

Fla Inspirational Writers Retreat
Not long ago, during my workshop on creating book proposals at the 2013 Florida Inspirational Writers Retreat, one of the attendees posed an important question.

"When do you quit your day job?" she asked, a glimmer of self-employment hope in her eye. "I'm finished with my book now and ready to submit it to a publisher. When can I make writing my only profession?"

I took a deep breath.

"Well, um ... never." I replied with an apologetic little grimace, knowing my answer would disappoint her and the other wannabe full time authors in the room.

Fifty years ago, it might have been a realistic goal: writing a blockbuster book with the intention of becoming a full-time author. Making enough income from royalties and advances to have no other obligation except to spend your days tapping away at the keyboard. Even twenty years ago it was not unheard of. J.K. Rowling did it. Jerry Jenkins too. And a number of lesser known authors whose works lept from the starting gate and continue to sell well today.

And let's not forget the cyber-author phenoms who have sold e-books in the millions.

But for the average writer, it's probably not realistic to think you'll be able to quit your day job and live off your literary income within the next, say, ten years. Possibly twenty.

Why? One huge reason is that writing income is cumulative. The more books you sell, the more money you make. The more titles you have, the more books you sell. And the more years you've been churning out those best-selling books, the more titles you'll have.

The rub is that the books must sell well to produce significant income. Consider how many books you must sell to pay this month's grocery bill if you get 10% royalty on a $10 book. You'd have to sell nearly 100 just to pay for a week's gasoline. That's more copies than the average self-published book sells in its lifetime. And these days, traditionally published books average 3,000 total sales.

But don't fret. It's not such a bad thing to keep your day job. You'll be in good company. I still have mine (part-time occupational therapist for 33 years and counting), after 10 years, over 130 articles and 12 published books. I tell my writing workshop students that I need to work to support my habit. My writing habit.

 And here are a few other notable authors who wrote after work:

  • John Steinbeck ran a fish hatchery.
  • Harper Lee was a ticket agent for Eastern Airlines.
  • Stephen King was a janitor, school teacher, and washed hospital and restaurant linens. 
  • J. D. Salinger was the entertainment director on a Swedish luxury liner. 
  • Jack London stole oysters and then resold them. 

Ha! That last one cracks me up. Plus it helps introduce major reason number two: writing income is not terribly consistent. Some months are plump, some are lean. And those are inevitably when the A/C goes out. If you haven't any other income source to fall back on, desperation may lead you to the oyster beds.

Royalties generally only come in two or three times yearly, and you don't make ANY money in royalties until your advance is earned out. So if you received a $5k advance and your book only sells 3k copies, you'll never receive another nickel. Rule of thumb is that it takes around $10k copies sold to earn out an average advance, and after that you'll start making a modest income, which will gradually increase with the number of books you have out there still selling.

So chase your writerly dreams, dear friend, but do the math. And invest in some oyster buckets.  

*Special thanks for Kimberly Vargas for the list of author jobs in her 9/27/13 WordServe Water Cooler blog post


Cheryl Johnston said...

Great post, Deb. Sometimes the truth of dreams is that we still live in the real world and the bills roll around every month, while the funds for our writing work might be spotty. Writing and submitting lots of articles is one way wordsmiths can generate a little more income (and it's good practice and keeps our skills fresh), but typically that income only supplements the monies earned from the day job. I loved the examples!!