Blogger: Wendy Lawton
Location: Books & Such Central Valley Office, CA
It’s my turn to blog again. I planned to write on a whole different topic, but this last week I found myself muttering the words “kiss of death” way too many times to ignore an emerging pattern.
Let me explain. The phrase “kiss of death” is shorthand for “Uh-oh, that writer has just stepped off a precipice.” It only takes three words to mark a potential catastrophe. Kiss. Of. Death. And words are not always needed. Janet and I share an eyebrow signal that identifies a kiss of death without benefit of words. It works great if the kiss of death moment occurs in a crowded room or from a lectern.
I’m going to choose four potential career killers I’ve identified as the kiss of death for an author. Today we’ll examine the moment an agent receives a call from her client announcing that he has just quit his day job.When a writer raises his hand in a workshop to ask a question about an author’s remuneration, nine times out of ten he’ll hear the old saw, “Don’t quit your day job.” Everyone in the room laughs and the writer is no closer to uncovering the fiscal realities of his hoped-for avocation. When I was a new writer, it frustrated me. I had come from the world of business and thought it crazy that no one dealt with the financial realities. Now I understand why.
There are too many variables and uncertainties to address the financial questions in anything other than a one-on-one setting. And even then, it’s impossible to plan. Let’s say the book sells. The size of the advance depends entirely on how much competition there was for it, which house bought it and how much clout the author has. The advance can range from nothing to a million dollars or more. Statistically, the four-figure advance is much more common than the six-figure advance. Once the book does sell, there’s no telling if it will make royalties beyond the advance. Even with a two- or three-book contract, there’s no guarantee a writer will receive another contract unless he has solid, growing sales numbers. And who knows how fast a publisher is willing to take subsequent books? Selling the first book guarantees exactly nothing.
How about the multi-published author? When he has had enough success to keep the contracts coming, isn’t that time to contemplate quitting the day job? It depends. It’s going to take a lot of faith, a lot of savings and a lot of courage to live on a writer’s income. The mortgage payment comes due every month. So do all the other bills. A writer’s money comes in fits and starts. Too much is out of the writer’s control to manage the flow. How many writers have turned in a finished manuscript only to have it land on an overburdened editor’s desk? As the writer waits impatiently to hear that the manuscript is acceptable, time and billing cycles tick by.
But that’s not the only reason an agent hates to hear that a client is thinking of quitting his day job too early.There seems to be something about writing as a second job that makes the writer uber-productive. When you only have a couple of hours a day, those hours are golden. On the other hand, when the whole day stretches out before you, it’s easy to lunch with friends, play video games to “warm-up” and spend way too much time on the internet. Besides that, many writers need the stimulation of the work world, rubbing shoulders with all types of people to stay real and write real.
The strain of living on a financial roller coaster seems to sap creativity from writers. So much time is spent trying to keep the money flowing that the writing suffers. And that’s the biggest reason quitting the day job can be the kiss of death to a writer’s career. As the need for money becomes greater, writers often take on too much work, pushing deadlines, working for multiple houses and rushing the art of writing. To build the kind of career that will allow a writer to eventually write full time without financial strain, each book has to be better than the last. A writer can’t keep chasing deadlines and squeezing in books to make ends meet. He needs the freedom to write slowly and artfully.
So that’s why, when you announce that you just quit your day job, your agent may look heavenward and whisper the words “kiss of death” under her breath. But does that mean the time is never right to become a full-time writer? No. When you have multiple contracts, when each book you write is selling a little better that the book before, when you have matched your day job income with writing income and when you have a good cushion of money in the bank– maybe enough money to cover the mortgage, bills and expenses for six months– then it is time to make the career switch.
But let’s be fair here. Some have made the decision to write full-time earlier in their career, and it works brilliantly. Or perhaps you have your own patron of the arts (translation: working spouse). Use the comment section to tell us your story. Tell us why it wasn’t the kiss of death for you. Tell us if you’ve found the perfect day job for a writer.