Pub Rants

Don’t Quit Your Day Job

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All writers wait for the day they get that big fat advance/royalty check so they can take this job and shove it.

It’s the dream after all. But when is that day exactly? How much money is enough to quit the day job?

Most writers, truly, will not have to worry about answering this question. The good majority of authors out there will never earn enough from fiction writing alone to quit the day job. That’s a basic fact.

But what if?

The big “what if” happened last year for one my authors. Beyond her wildest expectations, she got a “significant deal” advance. A week later, her novel was optioned by Disney. Serious money on the table. Her head was spinning because all the writer dreams were coming true.

First thing out of my mouth when I called to announce the news, “don’t quit your day job.”

Why?

Call me fiscally conservative but I think the answer to the above question is only when your back-end royalties make in a year what you need to live on and to live well. Until that day, I wouldn’t be so reckless as to quit the day job and I caution my authors to do the math as well. (Now if her movie option is actually purchased and the work goes into production… well, then we can revisit the whole “quit the job” notion.)

A big fat advance check will only last so long. What does your day job make in a year? 20k, 40k, 100k? More? Less? Even if the advance is large, it will only last a couple of years (minus agent commission and tax payments). What about health insurance and that yearly cost? Retirement plan?

What if the book never earns out the advance and is a big dud? Ugh. What a nightmare but it’s still a reality that should be contemplated. It’s really hard to get another book deal if the first one doesn’t match expectations. Not impossible. But hard and the money certainly won’t be the same second time around.

That day job is looking better and better!

My author was cautious. She hasn’t quit her day job (although she has been asked by a number of people about when she plans to). In fact, she wrote and mailed the estimated Federal tax check to the IRS practically on the same day she received the money (smart girl—the last thing you want to do is get into tax debt with the IRS—although some very successful authors have horror stories of not being as fiscally wise in their heady younger days).

So, unless your royalties are second income, or you are used to living off peanuts, or don’t care about retirement, I wouldn’t quit your day job.


33 Responses

  1. Anonymous said:

    I wonder if some agents have day jobs, too. I know some editors do, especially those working for the smaller publishers..

  2. reprehn said:

    I’m a stay-at-home mom, so I don’t have that option:) But I have heard this before, and it’s good to hear again. My husband has his own business, and we’ve also heard that if I should (when I should) get published, we might look in to putting it under that umbrella for tax purposes — is that something agents know about too?

  3. Catherine Marie Scott said:

    As strategic minded as I am, I had always dreamed that I’d keep my day job, even after THE CALL, until the day royalties paid enough for me to back down to a 24 hour work-week, which would still provide benefits… and more writing time.

    Time to go to bed to avoid burn-out.

  4. Anonymous said:

    Elektra, if you’re smart, that small business you use your advance for will be “Elektra, published author.” Seriously, the average first time book advance, paid out in thirds over a year or more, looks more like a Christmas bonus than a way to avoid the cost of a small business loan from your bank. Most first authors I know spent a LARGE percentage of that first advance on making sure there would be subsequent advances. It’s not income, it’s gross.

    My first advance was equal to twice my then yearly salary. But since my then yearly salary was barely over the poverty level, I was simply happy for the small portion of it that I considered an income windfall. The rest of it went RIGHT back into the system of making me more advances. Health insurance and self-employment taxes are ridiculous. I don’t know how anyone does it without a backup plan!

  5. Dorothy said:

    Really. I agree with Eileen. This totally blows that condo in Beverley Hills all outta the water. Thanks, Kristen…just when I thought there was a chance I could finally stop waiting on tables and have someone wait on me for once…sulk…whine…

  6. jason evans said:

    We may not like the flavor, but the dose of reality needs to go down without the spoonful of sugar. As much as I don’t like it, the fact is that the chances of writing out-earning my day job are slim to none.

  7. Muttman said:

    Writing was a lot more fun when I thought I could publish one book and ride off into the sunset.

    Thanks, now I got nothing to look forward to. 🙁

  8. Chrysoula said:

    Do you mean ‘royalties double your income’ when you say ‘royalties are a second income’ or do you mean ‘it’s okay to quit your dayjob if somebody else in the house has one to cover insurance and basic living expenses’?

  9. Pam Calvert said:

    This is soooo true! Luckily, I don’t need much to quit my day job. *grin* And I’m hoping to quit next year. With two incomes, this can easily happen.

  10. Mur Lafferty said:

    My first advance (for a nonfic book) is covering my daughter’s daycare for 4 months so I can *write* the book. Sadly, I’m co-writing, else it would cover it for 8 months… So yeah, I’m not seeing me hiring a full-time nanny and quitting the freelance article writing anytime soon.

    Thanks for the post, this is excellent advice.

  11. Jennifer Jackson said:

    Great post, Kristin. I took the liberty of linking to it from my own blog. We have a five book “guideline” that our agency recommends, which means having five books simultaneously in print and also having regular income from royalties, before quitting the day job.

  12. [email protected] said:

    Kristin, I’ve heard of authors spending the whole of their advance, many thousands, on publicity. (Long distance travel, contests, free gifts..) Do the author’s own efforts truly pay off in the long run?

    Do you think publishers are doing enough for new authors?

  13. Natalie Damschroder said:

    Sheesh, this timing sucks.

    I’ve unofficially tendered my resignation for my day job, as of June 7, to become a full-time writer and SAHM, because circumstances make it viable.

    But I’m not doing it with false hopes and high expectations. I’m currently netting negative figures with my writing, and have been in this business long enough to know ALLLL the realities. 🙂

    My husband has a good job with benefits that cover me. I have two kids, one about to start middle school and lose practical day-care options but not be old enough to be home alone. We’ve made financial adjustments and will be making sacrifices that make this possible.

    Then I have 8 years to make it work, before my younger child is old enough to not need me home all day, and if I’m not making enough money (not day job money, but enough money) with the writing, I’ll have to look for another job again.

    So I’m going into it with eyes wide open, just as I do anything else in the industry. Still–way to pop the bubble. LOL

  14. Elektra said:

    anonymous, thank you for the advice.
    I forgot to mention, however, that I’m a student, so I haven’t got many expenses of my own. The small business is really that, with start-up costs that a $5000 advance (which, from what I heard, doesn’t seem an unreasonable expectation) would amply pay for.

  15. Anonymous said:

    natalie, I’m in sort-of the same boat as you. I’m writing and staying home with my kids. They’re very young and it will be four years before the youngest starts school. I figure, if I’m not making at least part-time income by then, it’s back into the ‘real world’ I go. Pooh.

    But boy am I grateful for the opportunity to persue it. Having a supporting spouse really helps.

  16. Anonymous said:

    Okay Elektra, elsewhere you’ve said you were 19. Am I correct? So you’re a student. Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you’ve got a nifty scholarship/parents/trust fund that covers all your student fees and living expenses so you don’t have a cent to pay. You sell a book by the time you turn 20. It comes out when you are 21. Right when you are about ready to graduate/look for a job/get an apartment, etc.

    And let’s say it is a 5k advance. Right off the bat, you’re paying your agent a 750 dollar fee. Then you’ve got, oh, expenses. Website, bookmarks, author photo, etc. which, even on a shoestring budget (which will be what you’ve got with your 5k advance), is going to run you at LEAST another 250 bucks. At LEAST. (Probably more like another thousand, but let’s say you get REALLY shoestring about it).

    Okay, now with the 4k or less — most likely far less — you have left, you’ve got to pay taxes — but if this is the ONLY income you have, you won’t have to pay income tax, phew! But you DO have to pay self employment tax, which is another 15.3%. So we’re left with more in the neighborhood of 3k.

    And that’s if you don’t have to pay any income tax. And if there’s absolutely NOTHING else you want to buy with your book advance — say, a nice dinner out to celebrate, or perhaps thank you gifts for you cover designer, publicity rep, editor and agent. Or a couch for your apartment that you’ll get when you graduate.

    And don’t forget that you’re not getting that 5k check in the mail. No, you’re getting a third of it several months after you sell the book, then another third of it when you deliver the full manuscript, then the final third of it when it comes out. So I guess, if you wait until the 18 mo. after your book is published that it comes out, and don’t spend a dime in any sort of self promotional activity, and don’t spend a dime of in on anything else, then yeah, you could invest in a very, very small business.

    (Pray for a 10k advance!)

  17. Jackie said:

    Crap, you mean this writing gig is WORK? And on top of that, I have to keep on slaving at the corporate machine? Gah. 😉

    See, it’s stuff like this that I’m glad I didn’t know when I was first starting out. That might have killed my dream in a very fatal dose of reality.

  18. Another Author said:

    I think there are a million different things that need to be factored into whether a writer who receives a decent advance should quit their day job. Every situation is different.

    One thing that needs to be addressed is the time it takes to produce additional work. In this day and age, one book a year isn’t really going to cut it to be able to support yourself, but it would be difficult to meet deadlines on more than that AND have an outside job AND take care of your family.

    A lot of it depends on the outside job, the contract, the payouts, whether you’re married, whether your spouse has health insurance, whether you already have a retirement plan, whether you have kids . . . whatever decision an author makes, I agree with Kristin that they need to do the math and be brutally honest with themselves.

  19. LaShaunda said:

    Thanks for the post. Many new writers need to read it.

    Unfortunatly my heart was broken when I started interviewing authors and found out about the real world of writing.

    You have to do it because you love it not because you want to quit the day job.

    I plan on keeping the day job, my kids need the insurance and to eat. LOL!

  20. Natalie Damschroder said:

    No, you’re getting a third of it several months after you sell the book, then another third of it when you deliver the full manuscript, then the final third of it when it comes out.

    If you have an agent, and it’s that small of an advance, you’d better be getting half on signing the contract, half on turning in the final manuscript. Waiting until publication is unacceptable in that scenario.

  21. pennyoz said:

    Don’t quit the day job, but there is a part of this that nobody has mentioned…
    You can turn some of your publishing notoriety into “visits” which can pay quite well. You probably can’t rely on them fully for your upkeep, but they can generate publicity as you go along as well. Pay for trips to research your next book…