Is it Time to Quit Your Day Job?

Rachelle Gardner

Blogger: Rachelle Gardner

Many writers dream of being able to quit the daytime gig and write full time. How do you determine if you can do this? The secret to making a living wage as a writer lies in two words: volume and variety.

VOLUME

One mistake writers make with respect to their “publishing dreams” is hoping for a big break that’s going to change their lives, allow them to quit their job, and propel them into the life of the full-time writer.

Making money, for the vast majority of writers, isn’t about having one huge contract. It’s about building a career, book by book, and building an audience that wants more of your books.

Writers begin to see a “living wage” when they have a stack of books out there in the marketplace. Each book needs to be bringing in royalties regularly. Even if each book is not selling a huge number of copies individually—if you have a whole bunch of books out there, each selling some copies, it starts to add up.

If you have a couple of books published, and you’re hoping or assuming the trend will continue and your publishing income will grow, now is not the time to quit the day job. Wait until you’re reliably replacing your income.

It’s all about building a foundation, building a reputation, so that each book you release builds on the last and each one expands your audience so that your new readers are always wanting to go back and find your older books, too. You’re not ready to “quit your day job” until those royalty checks coming in regularly are adding up to the amount you need to bring in.

Long tailThis is true for people who are in traditional publishing as well as self-publishing. In fact, publishers have always built their business on this model, known today as “the long tail,”  which refers to a situation in which a few products sell huge numbers (the “blockbusters”) and a great many more products sell fewer units each, but there are so many of them that they add up to far more revenue than the blockbusters. (Hence: volume.)

So this is why people always say “don’t quit your day job” to newer writers who have a book or two published. Even though it can be tempting to look at your advances and calculate whether you can get by without the steady income of the regular job, we always recommend you don’t take that leap until you’ve got somewhat of a “long tail” built up — a large volume of work that’s available for sale and making money on a regular basis.

Now let’s talk about the second component in making a living as a writer:

VARIETY

You may wonder what I mean by this, because we know we need to “brand” ourselves, we need to find a niche and write to a certain audience in order to build a following. That’s all true, especially for writers just getting established and trying to find their audience.

But making the transition to having “writing” as a full time living usually involves variety…as much as volume. The idea is to create multiple income streams.

There are a number of ways writers can vary what they’re writing to increase their income potential. Here are some ideas:

1. Digitally self publish shorter works. If you’re a novelist, consider writing some non-competing short stories or novellas that come “in between” your novels and help prime readers for your next novel. Non-fiction writers can write shorter resources that stay with their brand yet don’t compete with their main books but instead, enhance them or expand upon them.

2. Write in another genre, possibly under another name. If you’re publishing contemporary romance and you’ve written another series in the suspense genre, your publisher may not want to consider it because it’s “off brand.” However, that doesn’t mean you’re stuck with no place to go. You may be able to independently publish, or you may find another publisher for that genre if you use a pseudonym.

3. Write something completely different. Many authors grow their income by writing articles for magazines and online journals, or by writing Bible studies or devotionals. Novelists can consider writing on non-fiction topics in their area of interest or expertise.

4. Look for work writing marketing copy or online copy. Many organizations need press releases, newsletters, website content, and other kinds of writing. Admittedly, this may not make you a great deal of money, but I know plenty of writers who supplement their incomes this way.

5. Consider work-for-hire or ghostwriting. This isn’t easy to break into, and may require that you do some work for little money until you prove yourself. But some people have a special talent for ghostwriting and can make a good living doing it.

It’s not very exciting or romantic… but most full time writers have to branch out in one way or another. They’re not spending all their time doing their favorite kind of writing. They’re “piecing together” a living from a variety of different writing-related income sources. You have to be pretty scrappy (or well-connected) to make it happen. In the end, you may conclude that the day job is just fine, thank-you-very-much.

  • Have you dreamed of quitting your job and supporting yourself as a writer?
  • Have you thought about what it would take to be able to do that?
  • Does the concept of needing volume and variety make sense to you?

 

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16 Responses

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  1. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser says:

    I never considered quitting my day job for writing, but God had other plans.

    Writing is about all I CAN do now; not many people will hire you when you tend to pass out from blood loss and pain a few times a day. But my laptop doesn’t much care. It just gives me printer’s pie when I do a faceplant into the keyboard.

    Volume makes sense, and so does variety; the latter, I would think, more for an established writer.

    I can see one risk in variety, from my own experience. My fictional ‘voice’ is quite different from my blogging voice, and transitioning between the two is sometimes a bit awkward for a while.

    And that is under my sole control; if I was writing ad copy or online content for a client, it would be that much harder.

    I wonder if anyone else has this problem?

    One writer who might serve as something of an example is the late Ed Abbey. “Desert Solitaire” made enough to give him a living wage for years, burrowing along at a low but tangible sales level “like a patient mole”, as he put it.

    But he did a lot more, writing articles, essays, reviews, and other books; he also wrote the prose part of a photo book, “Slickrock”. None matched the sales volume of “Desert Solitaire”, but none HAD to.

    (BTW, IMHO DS isn’t Abbey’s best book; for me, pride of place belongs to a collection of later essays, “Beyond The Wall”. Read it, if you want some lovely, haunting descriptions of the Southwest, without the sometimes irritating braggadocio inherent to DS.)

    • Since the job of a writer is to be fundamentally a journalist of the human heart, it would seem to me that some form of formal engagement with the world is at least desirable, and perhaps necessary (at least for some).

      This puts the writer’s cave into the category of myth, and perhaps that’s exactly where it belongs.

      I suppose I can speak to that, because I have the functional equivalent of a cave. Almost no human contact (no phone, only Internet, and I have about 15 minutes a day to speak with my wife…if that), a remote location, and, now driving isn’t a good idea.

      It makes the job a LOT harder. Not hearing conversation, much less taking part, one quickly loses the feel for conversational nuance, and currency of slang has a horrifically short shelf-life.

      Television doesn’t do any good; it’s so stylized as to be a grotesque caricature of real life. Don’t want to write that.

      Not easy, but needs must when the devil drives, and I do my best. I read a lot.

  2. Thank you, Rachelle, for grounding every writer’s dream in reality. Sure, I think it would be great to “just write,” but truth be told I would miss the routine of my day job and paycheck. Especially the paycheck.

    There’s stuff I do on the job that I don’t enjoy, but it comes with the paycheck. Managing an income stream from writing would also include stuff I don’t enjoy. So until God gives me an unmistakable directive otherwise (or like Andrew, my circumstances make it so), I’ll continue the delicate balance of vocation and avocation.

    • One thing that bears mention is that in Ed Abbey’s case, his writing allowed him to take jobs hat he, for the mist part, enjoyed, such as seasonal work manning a fire tower in national parks and forests.

      And there is something worthwhile in keeping an outside job, I think; it lends perspective and clarity to one’s writing…something about iron sharpening iron.

      Nevil Shute is another example, having done some of his best work while employed as a research scientist during WW2. (By this time he was capable of supporting himself as a writer, but the exigencies of war meant that his country needed his engineering expertise. And by all accounts, he enjoyed the work.)

      “Pastoral”, which may be one of the most charming romances ever written, came from this time.

  3. Kristen Joy Wilks says:

    This makes a lot of sense. On the practical front, “Just keep writing stuff”, seems to be what I should be doing. I have enjoyed some article and devotional writing and just stumbled upon romance. Didn’t realize how much fun it would be to write! But your advice to branch out seems like what most of us beginning writers do anyway. We just want to be published anywhere, be it newsletter, magazine, online, or in print.

  4. I self-published my first book last fall, and my second came out last week. I’m starting to build my long tail, and I lucked out in being able to release three pretty close together because I never stop writing. Even when everything in my writing career seemed to be in a holding pattern, I never stopped producing.

    I write romance, and I’m currently writing in a small sub-genre. My plan is to diversify some within romance and get some stuff out there that also appeals to a wider reader base.

    Relying on my writing for my sole income is still at least a couple years away, but that is the plan.

  5. If you had asked me this question before I started selling real estate, I would have said, “Of course I want to quit my day job.” Now, I feel I can balance both careers and be satisfied by both. I feel very blessed.

  6. Hey Rachelle! You write really appreciable posts. However, here on my mobile phone, the blue background and all, doesn’t look good.

  7. Tony Faggioli says:

    Great blog Rachelle! Good info, even if it was a little bit sobering.

  8. Sue Harrison says:

    A wise and interesting post, Rachelle!

    I was one of the luckier writers, able to quit my day job, but now, many years later, I wish I would have been even more pro-active about investing for future retirement income. You need to earn enough to set aside a portion of your royalty money for retirement income. Just a point for writers to consider as they dream about quitting their day jobs!

  9. don and rascal says:

    . . .
    Last month I quit my day job so I could apply for a job as a Child Psychologist.

    I didn’t get the job, they said I was too old to be a Child Psychologist.

  10. Lisa Jordan says:

    This is one of those posts I plan to bookmark and refer back to again and again. This one sentence summed up everything for me: You’re not ready to “quit your day job” until those royalty checks coming in regularly are adding up to the amount you need to bring in.

    I work during the day and write in the evenings. Just this past weekend, my husband and I talked about my end goal of retiring from my day job within the next four years and writing full time. Such a perfect and timely post.

  11. If I quit my day job, no one would eat, have clean clothes, or know where the extra towels were. 😉

  12. LD Masterson says:

    I’ve got the perfect situation. I got downsized into early retirement so I can live off my pension and write full time.

  13. Nickie Asher says:

    Makes absolute sense to me and I am working that plan. I write under three names. I write different genres, one under each name. I’m slowly seeing my sales increase. Over time, I know I will be able to leave my hated day job.

  14. Amanda Deich says:

    Hi Rachelle! When I first read this post, I felt like I understood the publishing game a lot better! Royalties seem to balance out the small advancement that most authors get when they sell a novel. But I spoke to an author friend today – a more experienced one – who told me that royalties are pretty uncommon. Is this true? And if it is, how can an author truly make money over time if they’re not a best-seller?

    My author-friend said an editor told her to think about writing like a project instead of a career. Sadly (and happily), I would write for free because I HAVE to write. But I do think the creator of the novel deserves more than a small advancement and no royalties.

    Your answer may help me determine whether self-publishing or traditional publishing is right for me. Prior to my friend telling me about the virtually nonexistent royalties, I was pro-traditional (at least in my case). Now I’m not so sure.

    Thank you!