I started writing this post a while ago, after I read a rash of posts about people quitting their jobs to write. It was always in the most terrible ways, too–they were the “I’m struggling to support my boyfriend because he doesn’t work, but he says his ‘big break’ will come as soon as he finishes his book” or “I’m just out of college, and writing is my DREAM, so I’m not going to look for a new job” kinds of stories, which always fill me with a sort of cold-stomached dread. I forgot about this post until early this week, when I saw *another* “Hey guys! I don’t like office jobs, so I quit my job!” post And here we are again!
So let’s talk about the logistics of being a career fiction novelist!
Conventional wisdom holds that if you want to write for a living, your best approach is to:
- Find a job that pays the bills.
- Write and publish in your free time.
- Quit your job once (or if) you make enough money from publishing that that change won’t ruin you.
This is a cautious approach that ensures you have enough to eat and live while you establish yourself as a writer. It’s not very sexy, but it’s a reliable, safe path.
It’s also agonizingly slow, especially if you already have a lot on your plate. Consequently, there are always people who would rather throw caution to the wind. They aren’t making much, if any, money. They may have never even written anything before! But by golly, they want to be an author. So they save up money, quit their jobs, and plan to become a professional author before their money runs out.
But this… really doesn’t work. Here’s why.
Hardly anyone supports themselves on the sales of one book.
Let’s just start out with some fascinating stories, like:
- Paul Kemp, the author of more than a dozen novels, who explained why he still needed his day job when post was written
- Rachel Caine, author of a considerable number of novels, who quit her day job 17 years after first being published.
These are successful authors with many, many books, and they are absolutely the norm.
You, too, will most likely have to have a lot of books, and a lot of success, before the sales start adding up.
But let’s go into the details. Let’s imagine you have less than a year of savings. You have a completed manuscript. You want to sell your debut novel before your money runs out, and you really, really want to make a sale that’ll give you enough of a salary to recoup the time you spent pitching, with enough left over to write your next book. What would happen?
Agents are slow.
If you’re on a strict timeline, you can forget about agents. Let’s say you send out 100 queries today. What would happen?
- The agents have to review your query. While each has a different reading schedule (that they’ll list on their submission page), most of them… well, most will never respond at all. But the ones who do will respond with rejections or requests somewhere between 1 week and 6 months.
- If they do like your manuscript, they may ask to look at a partial or the full manuscript. And if they don’t get to it quickly and read it in a month or two, which is all very common, it’s considered bad form to prompt an agent about those until after 6 months have passed.
- If an agent does offer you representation, they still have to find a publisher to publish it. And, guess what? That can take months, too! There’s also a non-negligible chance that they won’t find anyone to buy it at all. This would be horrific for you and your agent, and agents are as picky as they are precisely so this is a rare occurrence, but it’s not impossible.
Can this go faster? Absolutely! If your query is perfect, the agent loves it, and the stars align, an agent might respond to your query within days and offer representation within weeks. Is that something you should count on? Of course not. Agents can be perfectly interested and still take months to respond to every step of this process.
And, of course, an agent is just step #1. Now you have to accept that…
Traditional publishing is slow.
Again: if you’re going to starve to death if you don’t get money in a few months, traditional publishing is too slow for you.
Advances are slow. Also, they’re small.
If you publish with a publisher large enough to give you an advance, then congrats! You’re guaranteed some money!
But while numbers vary widely by content and genre, the average advance for a debut author is under $10,000. Writer Beware used to link to a famous survey of SF/F authors and their advances–it was posted in 2005, the link’s dead, and I can’t seem to find a good mirror–that famously stated that the average advance for a SF/F author is about $5,000. And that was more than a decade ago!
Also, you don’t get it all at once. You get advances in chunks. The publisher may give you it in chunks of 1/4 or 1/3 at a time, spread over months. That means your already-small advance is now divvied up into even smaller chunks.
And, of course…
Publishing is slow.
They have to edit it. They have to do art. They have to market it. Also, they put out books at certain times of the year. Your book probably won’t come out for–wait for it–months.
You don’t start making monthly royalties until you sell enough to make back your advance.
And now you can look forward to making $0 until you sell enough books to recoup your advance. If you do. (And if you don’t, erk. That can happen, too. And then you have the added pressure of disappointing a publisher.)
None of this is good if you need money fast.
So you can see what this means, right?
If you had a book that was done today and decided to go the agent –> publisher route, or even just went directly to a publisher, it could easily take you more than a year to see any money, and it will, most likely, not be a lot.
And that’s a big “if.” A lot of the “I’m quitting my job to write!” posts I’ve seen involve people who haven’t even started their novel, and who may have never written a novel before. So, yes. That’s not helping, either.
Small presses are fast. Self-publishing is faster! But…
…They also don’t pay advances, so you’ll have to make all your money off of royalties. So all of your money comes from sales.
On one hand, this is great for the author who’s in a blinding rush to become an author, because you can publish as fast and as often as you want. Also, you keep more of the royalties!
But, uh, what’s your platform like? How many devoted fans do you have?
Unless you’re an internet phenomenon, you probably don’t have hundreds of thousands of fans lining up to buy your books. If you’re like most of us, and you’re just a nobody on the internet, you’re not going to sell a lot. While this article is from 2012, it includes a not-too-unbelievable fact: most self-published authors make less than $500 per year. (EDIT: This last sentence was rewritten to better reflect the facts reflected in the article.)
ALL authors, no matter where they publish, typically support themselves on volume.
No matter how you cut it, your first book, whether it’s traditionally or self-published, will likely net you somewhere between a few hundred and few thousand dollars. And either way, it’s going to take you months to get that money. So how do people afford to quit their jobs, ever?
Well, that’s why so many don’t.
But the more books you have out, the better chance you have. Most authors who quit their day jobs have several books out. They have fans! They have series! Their royalties have reached a semi-predictable state where all their books, selling together, can guarantee a reasonably predictable amount of money per month, even if sales on one book dip while the others rise.
This is true for everyone. If you go the agent and/or traditional publisher route, you’ll find that publishers take bigger chances and pay better advances to authors with established, successful track records. (The process also goes much faster if you already have an agent on hand when you finish your next book.)
And library-building is an extremely common approach for self-published authors. One of self-publishing’s greatest strengths is that you can put out novels as quickly as you want. While everyone publishes differently–that’s the charm of self-publishing!–a lot of people support themselves on sheer volume.
And that’s why publishing is a marathon, not a sprint.
If you want to write for a living, your plan shouldn’t be “I’m going to do everything I can to write one book.”
You should plan for the long run. Find a system that allows you to write often and regularly. Set long-term goals for multiple projects. Get yourself on a sustainable, steady schedule that doesn’t burn you out, but still pushes you toward your goals. Produce, polish, and finish content regularly.
You may reach a point where you can support yourself after one, two, ten, or twenty books–or it may not ever happen. But while it’s slow and steady and so-very-uncertain, a gradual approach is more likely to work out in your favor than the “Burn your entire life down and make gutting sacrifices to write your first novel” one.