Chip MacGregor

March 28, 2012

When is a writer ready to go full time?


Emily wants to know, “As a writer, when are you ready to go full time?"

This is a favorite question of mine, since I routinely see wannabe authors get a book contract, quit their jobs, then wonder why that lousy agent of theirs can't help them survive financially.

I have three rules of thumb for authors who want to go full time:

1. You need to have four-to-six books earning you a royalty;

2. You need to have 18 months to 2 years of book contracts;

3. You need to have a plan in place. (That plan will include a budget, a writing calendar, an accountability partner or writing support group, a writing space, adequate equipment, and most likely a therapist, since you're probably delusional to consider the idea anyway.)

Let's look at reality for a minute — let's say you just got a decent two-book deal. The publisher is paying you, say, $10,000 per book on an advance, so the total deal is for $20,000. You get a third of that on signing ($6666 — but if you're an evangelical, don't take that as a sign of the apocalypse, okay?). You need to be able to live on that for the next few months while you write your book. If you can write it in three months (relatively fast for most novelists), you've had to live on $2200 per month. Pretty thin stuff. If it takes you six months to do a novel, you're having to make do on a thousand bucks a month. You see where I'm going with this?

Once the publisher approves your manuscript (which can sometimes take a few months), they'll send you your completion check for that book — another $6666, payable thirty days after they request the check. You've now made a whopping $13k, you're months into the process, and you just used up all your good ideas on your first book. So it's on to book two!

Many novelists take eight months to write a book. But at that rate, even a healthy $16,000 advance (which is pretty good for any novelist) means you're getting by on $2000 a month. AND if you take that part-time job to make ends meet, you now find you have LESS time to work on your novel, so it takes you a year to complete. You don't want to hurry it up, since then you won't write as good of a novel, and writing a lousy book is sure to kill your career.

This is why I'm always reminding authors how tough it is to make a living at writing. You need to have books that are already out there earning you money, so that you know you've got some income from projects you are no longer working on. (Without this, you're simply trading your time for income.) You also need to have contracts in hand that will earn you MORE money — and that money is easy to track, since you know when and how much you'll be paid. AND you need a plan for how you're going to move forward. 

Let's be honest: the first rule of writing is "don't quit your day job." Stop acting like writing full time is some sort of God-given right. If you had chosen painting or sculpture or singing or dancing or any other art, you'd probably be facing even longer odds at making a living at your craft. The fact is, MOST artists struggle financially. That's why most writers have some other source of income. Either they work full time, or they work part time, or they have a job related to the industry (freelance editor, reporter, book salesperson, counterfeiter), or they are married to somebody who has a real job that pays the bills. Don't lose sight of the fact that it takes most people years to get to the place where they are writing full time… IF they ever get there.

It's easy to hang out at a writing conference and assume that "everbody else in writing is making a living at this except me." Not true. Many of these folks are doing something to pay the bills. (For example, Steve Laube serves as a "double" for Shaquille O'Neil whenever he's in Phoenix. Sandra Bishop is the Queen of Roller Derby. Janet Grant is soon going to be taking over the judge's role on "The People's Court." And, of course, I'm a model for Speedo.) I'm really not trying to dissuade you, just trying to help you gain a realistic picture of what it takes to make a living in this business. 


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