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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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First off, I want to make a confession: I signed up for this thing totally on impulse. I really, really wanted to go to a conference this year, but I had missed all the big ones, all the local ones, and all the appropriate ones. So I decided, “Hey, who cares? I just need to to go to something, right? I’m only going so I can meet people, anyway.”

What I’m trying to say is: This was a good conference, but it was totally not for me.

One look at the official website should show you why–and it should have keyed me in, too! So shame on me! Because it’s really pretty obvious: this is a workshop for beginners.

So let’s talk about it!

The Panels

The entire event was presented by Chuck Sambuchino, who’s best known as the editor for the Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents and the author of several comedy and non-fiction books on how to write.

And he’s good. He knows his stuff, he’s inspirational, and he’s funny. He also speaks at roughly five thousand words per minute, so I’m going to guess he really likes his coffee, too.

There were five panels:

  • Your Publishing Options Today: An introduction to traditional publishing and self-publishing with an overview of the pros and cons for each.
  • Everything You Need to Know About Agents, Queries, and Pitching: This covered queries, synopses, and finding agents.
  • Chapter One Critique-Fest: The agents read the first page of several manuscripts and raised their hands at the point when they’d stop reading. Then they all explained what did and didn’t work for them.
  • How to Market Yourself And Your Books: A one-hour summary of Chuck’s book, Create Your Writer Platform, which went through why you need a social media platform and how it can (and can’t) help you.
  • How to Get Published: 10 Professional Writing Practices That You Need to Know NOW to Find Success as a Writer: Just a nice, rah-rah, inspirational speech with ten common-sense tips on writing.

Did I get a lot of out them? Er, not really. But I’m not the target audience here. I’ve queried three novels. I know what agents are, I know how to write queries, and I know what to do when you get a full request. I might not have an agent yet, but I at least know how to get there.

But would this kind of workshop be useful for a beginner? Definitely! It provided a high-level overview of where to publish, how to query, how to find an agent, what agents think when they read your stuff, and how to promote yourself along the way. For someone who has just started writing and has a gist of what publishing is about, this would be great.

Mostly, Chuck is just a really good speaker. None of this was new to me, sure. But I was very rarely bored. Chuck is fun enough to listen to that the panels were entertaining even when their content was pretty basic.

So What Did I Get Out of It?

I was in a stupid-lousy situation, really. I had already queried Justice Unending, my 65,000-word YA fantasy, to all the YA agents attending. (It’s also pretty much done–I’ve finished its query runs and moved on to small/medium presses.) I have the first draft of a MG fantasy done, but I finished that a couple of weeks ago. I’m really not ready to pitch that thing.

And I’ve already mentioned that I didn’t get a lot out of the panels. So what did I enjoy?

Networking!

Seriously. I don’t get out a lot. I definitely don’t meet a lot of other writers. I’m reasonably new to the Boston area, I’m shy as heck, and I haven’t really reached out to others. So hey, committing myself to a conference kind of forced me to get out and meet people, right?

And that was worth the price of admission. Sure, sure, yeah–I could probably have achieved the same thing by being less shy and going to SCBWI events. Or joining a writing group. Or something. But this was the kick in the butt I needed to go out and talk to writers. And it was fun.

So, overall…?

I don’t know if Writers Digest throws these mini-workshops often, but if you’re new to publishing, new to writing, and want a great, big infodump on how it works, then these workshops aren’t a bad deal. It was a one-day event, it wasn’t ridiculously expensive, and Chuck was a great speaker. As far as conferences go, that’s about as low a barrier to entry as you can get.

Oh, shoot! Has it really been three weeks since I last posted? I’m awful at this blogging thing.

But never fear! I have yet another writing resource that you might have seen already, because it came out weeks ago. But here you go: an interesting guest piece from Writer Beware:

Writer Beware®: The Blog: Guest Post: Want to Become a Better Writer? Stop Writing.

Yes, that is a toooootal clickbait title. But the message is good, believe me.

I love advice columns. It’s a weakness. I have more than enough of my own problems, but I’ll still take 15 minutes out of my day to read about someone else’s. And one of my favorite advice columns is Slate.com’s Dear Prudence.

Last month, they posted a video question from a poet and it drove me absolutely batty.

Screenshot from Dear Prudence: Uninspiring Boyfriend.

There’s a ton of things wrong with that question. But this is a blog about writing, so let’s talk about that.

This woman wants to write poems. She only writes when she’s “inspired.” She is (apparently) inspired by drama, but she recently got a very nice boyfriend. She asks Prudence if she should break up with him because otherwise her gift will be wasted and she’ll never write again.

Ouch.

OK. No one who really wants to write only does so “when they’re inspired.” They can’t afford to. They have to write. Maybe they have sales to make, or they have to make a living, or they need to finish a novel, or they just want writing to be a major part of their lives. They can’t wait for inspiration because they wouldn’t write very much.

Lots of folks–especially new writers–romanticize inspiration. They know writing is easy when they’re inspired, and they know that it can be tedious and frustrating when you’re not. And instead of just accepting that that’s a very normal way to feel, they wait until they’re fired up to write anything.

If you take that too far you get people like the letter writer, who think they can either be wildly inspired or not write at all.

Do you know what people who write for a living do? They write like it’s a job. They write every day, no matter what they feel like. And if they feel tired? Hungry? Furious at the person who cut them off on the highway? If they hate their novel with every fiber of their being? Too bad! They have writing to do!

And that’s why this video is so ridiculous. If this poet wanted to write poetry, she would put her butt in a chair and write it. She would know that some days you’re inspired and some days you aren’t, and it doesn’t matter because you have deadlines and goals, even if they’re only self-imposed.

But no, she thinks her options are to give up writing or give up her boyfriend. That’s tragic.

Last week, I mentioned how lovely Twitter was for writers. (Well, at least when you’re not being spam-blasted.) And it is! There’s a wonderful community out there and it’s exciting to read about what’s working (and not working) for other writers. There’s so much you can learn!

But it’s can also be harrowing. Twitter is where authors post their successes, after all. And on a good day, that’s wonderful! You’re happy and excited and inspired. And on a bad day, you feel like a complete moron, because… really. Why don’t you have a 70% response rate for your queries? Why don’t you win every contest you try? Everyone else on Twitter has to beat off agents with a stick! Look at them! Every single person on your Twitter list is wildly successful! Why aren’t you?

When I saw this on my Twitter feed, I was in one of those oh my goodness I feel like a fraud moments. So I filed this away, saved the link, and didn’t look at it. I feel a little less like flagellating myself today, so I dusted it off. And now I’m sharing it with you all:

It’s Not Just You | The Daily Dahlia

I’ve been a huge fan of Writer Beware for years and years. So here’s their 2014 year in review!

Writer Beware®: The Blog: 2014 in Review: The Best of Writer Beware

I’ll have a more substantial post for next week!

Ahhhh, life. Since it’s getting in the way of my writing right now, I’m just going to dump an entertaining link. Here you go! Just like the title says, this is a bunch of agents’ opinions on the worst ways to start a novel:

The Worst Ways to Begin Your Novel: Advice from Literary Agents – The Write Life

Yet more reason to never write another prologue again, ever!