Guest Post: Should you be a full-time writer?

by Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette KowalA lot of writers have a goal of being a full time writer. I think there’s this image of your life continuing exactly as it is, except that now your job is writing. Sure, you know you won’t go into an office, but it will be so nice to have no demands on your time, except writing.

Yeah… so, about that.

Writers are freelancers.

As someone who has spent most of her adult life as a freelancer, let me speak to those of you who have conventional day jobs. How comfortable are you with not knowing where your next paycheck is coming from, or even how big it will be?

Being a freelancer means that you have to constantly be hustling to get work. You get big checks when you turn in projects and nothing in between. Royalties? Twice a year and unpredictable in size.

When you are not writing, you are unemployed.

If this idea makes you uncomfortable, think very carefully before quitting your day job.

Your quality of life will change

You no longer need to leave the house. You won’t see people unless you make the effort to do so. Ah…. solitude. At first, yes. It’s glorious. But if you are even a minimally social creature… it can get really isolating really fast.

If you are a midlist writer (likely), you will have less money for indulgences. You might have to move to somewhere less expensive. Or travel less. Or you might have to travel more to promote the book. The only thing that is certain is that your life will not look the same as it does with the regularity of a dayjob.

There is no guarantee you will sell the next book.

This is the depressing thing that terrifies every writer. There comes a point in a writer’s career when they try to sell a book and can’t. Yes. Even New York Times Bestsellers. Even people who have won multiple awards. Don’t assume that you will sell books at the rate at which you can write them. I’ve sold seven novels, but I have three novels sitting in the trunk that we can’t sell. The only book you can count on income from is the one that you have already sold.

Diversify your income stream

One of the things a freelancer learns is that they must diversify their income stream in order to survive. This means having multiple clients and, often, having multiple types of work. For instance, as a puppeteer, I could sell my services as a performer, a designer, and a builder. I also did art direction, and occasionally gardening.

As a writer, my income stream comes from fiction, audiobook narration, puppet building, and teaching.

I could also have opted to do non-fiction, or editing, but the key is that I have money coming in from more than one source so that if one of them goes away, I have another way to pay the bills.

The side-effect of the multiple income streams is that you have multiple competing deadlines. Don’t like having more than one boss? Welcome to your new life. You now have a bajillion of them making demands on your time.

You don’t have to go full time.

It is totally okay to have writing as a second career. Anyone who sneers at you for keeping your dayjob for security is a judgemental prat. All a dayjob is doing is diversifying your income stream and giving you the ability to turn down work you don’t want to do. Believe me, there’s nothing as unpleasant as having to craft your way through a story you aren’t interested in just because you need the paycheck. Have I done that? Yes. Will I tell you which story? No.

But– is that part of why I record audiobooks? Yep. Sure, I enjoy it, but it also means that I don’t have to write things I don’t want to write.

How do I decide if I should quit?

Ask yourself these questions.

  1. Do I consistently have more paid writing work that I want to do than I have time for?
  2. Am I comfortable with a freelancer’s lifestyle?
  3. Are the changes in quality of life acceptable?

If the answer to ALL of those is “Yes” then by all means, take the leap.

But if you answer no, or hesitate… then I would really, really think twice before quitting the dayjob.

But my dayjob is soul sucking!

The answer might be to find a different day job that gives you more flexibility. If your job is eating up your energy, that’s a problem. But here’s the trick, you don’t have to have upward ambition in two different careers. If you want to be a writer and that’s where you want to focus your energy, then find a job that doesn’t require all of your attention. Be open about the fact that you are a writer when you are applying for a job that you’re over-qualified for so they understand why and that they won’t lose you to a better job.

During of the two periods in which I had a day job, I was a receptionist. As long as I got my work done, my boss not only didn’t mind the fact that I was writing a novel, he actively encouraged it.

Did that mean I was a part-time writer? Yep.

And being a part-time writer is totally okay. It’s fine to write one book every ten years. When people tell you that you won’t have a career that way, what they mean is that you can’t support yourself. But if that’s all the writing you want to do, then writing one book every ten years does not invalidate you as a writer.

So, should you go full time? I don’t know. That depends on you and what will make you happy.

(If you’ve made the jump from part-time writer to full-time writer, I’d love to hear about how and why you did. And if you ever regretted it.)

•••

Glamour in GlassMary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, 2010) and Glamour in Glass (Tor, 2012). In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and in 2011, her short story “For Want of a Nail” won the Hugo Award for Short Story. Her work has been nominated for the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov’sClarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. She served two terms as SFWA’s vice president. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters.

Visit www.maryrobinettekowal.com or her journal, where this post first appeared.

18 Responses

  1. Emmie Mears

    I’m an awkward case because I’ve been full time with two at least 40 hour a week careers since 2010 or before. I’ve worked a day job to (barely) squeak by with my bills and written full time in addition to that. It’s only in the last month I’ve started to earn money with my writing.

    My ultimate goal is to write full time, for many reasons. Flexibility, yes, but also I am a terrible sleeper and getting up at 5:30-6 AM five days a week means I seldom get more than 4-5 hours of sleep a night. (I worked in food service for five years to avoid that, but the income was as unpredictable as freelancing.)

    I’ve seen the work I’ve put in over the last 5-10 years (before 2010, I wrote at least part time) as laying the foundation so that hopefully I’ll be able to make this transition, but we’ll see. If there’s anything publishing has taught me, it’s that there are no guarantees.

  2. Joelle Presby

    Why not indie publish those three novels? If you’ve polished them and feel they are ready, maybe it is time to make them available to readers instead of only to publishers. (I presume there isn’t a contractual obligation to hold them back if your publisher has declined to make an offer on them.)

    1. Mary Robinette Kowal

      Honestly, because I’m lazy. I want to be a writer, not a publisher. I was an art director, so I have the necessary skills and also know exactly how much work it is. I’d rather write something new.

      Besides, I trust my editor. If she doesn’t want it, then it’s probably not ready for prime time.

      1. Jim Johnson

        As a happy reader of your work, I find it very sad to hear that you’d trust your editor over your readers. I completely understand that indie publishing isn’t for everyone, though.

          1. David Rogers

            I’m confident there are *far* more readers in the world than those who are reading your currently published work. Perhaps there are new readers to be found?

            It simply makes no sense, and saddens me, that you seem so completely convinced there aren’t going to be readers willing to pay for (and, God forbid, enjoy) those three stories (plus more you might possibly write).

            It also makes no sense that you seem so willing to let someone else limit how often you can publish.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Bachman

            That was in the 80s. This is the second decade of the twenty-first century. Times have changed. You control your writing career; not your editor, publisher, or agent. You.

      2. CL

        Aubrey Rose has a publishing business that does all the work for you for 50% of the take. Considering that you just have the novels sitting there, why not hand them over to PubYourself Press? They’ll take care of all the non-writing work for you.

        http://pubyourselfpress.com/

  3. Sarah Ahiers

    I sold a book last year and it sold big. But I knew I wasn’t quitting my day job (even though my advances are paying much more than the day job). The day job offers steady income. And great health benefits. But my boss is retiring in 3 years and I know the nature of my job will change. So I told myself I’ll reassess then. Worse comes to Worse, I find a new day job

  4. Jonathan Green

    Hi Mary

    I went part-time in 2007 and after a year went full-time. When a regular gig dried up I had to return to the day job and writing by night. Ironically, it was at this time that I was most in demand, but a lack of advances meant that I couldn’t not take the day job as I would have been broke for 18 months – 2 years whilst waiting for the money to come in, if it came in at all.

  5. Frank

    For a number of years, I worked at a research facility that employed a full-time technical writer-editor who was very good at her job (she previously worked for Redbook magazine), but on my leaving her parting words indicated her career regret at not having been more willing to diversify, so moderation even in writing is the key…

  6. Peter

    This statement is both insightful and wise.

    “If your job is eating up your energy, that’s a problem. But here’s the trick, you don’t have to have upward ambition in two different careers. If you want to be a writer and that’s where you want to focus your energy, then find a job that doesn’t require all of your attention.”

    I only recently came to this conclusion myself and wish I’d seen the concept so clearly expressed a few years ago. The hardest thing was to convince myself that it was okay not to be ambitious with the day job. After that, well, frustrations were more manageable.

  7. Kyle Aisteach

    “The only book you can count on income from is the one that you have already sold.”

    I would take this a step farther by reminding the reader that the only income you can count on from that book is the income you have already received. Even if part (or all) of an advance remains contractually obligated, publishers go into arrears and fold with very little warning to the authors who have monies due. Freelancing is a lot like retirement in that you’ve got to plan for extended stretches of time living off the money that you’ve already got.

  8. Jessie Kwak

    Thanks, Mary – I especially appreciate the bit about diversifying income. I’ve been a freelance writer for about 18 months now, and that’s been my mantra!

    I took the leap from my day job as a copywriter because I hated sitting in an office all day, and it didn’t leave me any time to work on my fiction. I figured that taking on freelance business clients would have its own challenges – and it does – but being self-employed means that I can set my own schedule and leave room for writing the fiction I love, even if it doesn’t pay many bills yet.

    I’m certainly not a full time fiction writer, but I’ve been making a living off writing creative words – and hopefully as time goes on the income balance will shift more towards fiction.

  9. JustMe

    That’s…really sad. You sound like me 10 years ago, when I was with trad pub (Penguin) and young and starry-eyed with only a few books out.

    I thought I was being realistic. For the time, I guess I was. Really, though, I was being screwed by my publisher.

    Over time, I realized that the my editor didn’t know a think about my genre. None of them did. Majoring in English at a Seven Sister college is TERRIBLE preparation for editing.

    I realized that the art department had no idea what people bought or why. They weren’t made to know, so they didn’t bother.

    I discovered that the copy writers were horrific and, if allowed to write my blurbs, would slash my sales.

    I learned that the marketing department, if not constantly plied with treats, would simply “forget” to make sure my book was restocked no matter how quickly it sold out.

    I went indie. It’s a ton more work, yes. But now, instead of fighting for a $20k advance and being pathetically grateful for every pitiful $1-7.5k deal my agent wrangled out of foreign publishers, I am bringing in $50-90k a month. On my own. And I get to decide where the marketing, etc., money is spent. And I get to decide how often I publish and in what format. And I know what readers actually want and don’t have to argue with some idiot who has never, ever read my genre for enjoyment about what would sell.

    Traditional publishing is quickly becoming the place for people willing to play the lottery with their work and for people who actually do “just want to see their books on their shelves.” I guess a sucker really is born every minute. For me, my retirement is maxed out, my house is getting paid off, my kids all have college funds, and I’m looking into trust funds. I’d rather do that than any day job. And working for a ton of bosses? I work for me, and I HIRE other people.

  10. Jean Reinhardt

    Thank you for a very well balanced, thought provoking post, Mary. I self publish and once my books began to make a decent income for me I reduced my ‘day job’ from five days a week to four (I’m self employed so it wasn’t a problem). The extra time I have for writing means I can publish three books a year instead of two, so now I’m earning more from writing than I am from the ‘day job’ but I like the security of having two income streams. When I retire on a pension, I hope I can devote more time to writing, or maybe I’ll take up painting, or having afternoon siestas. I think it’s very important for writers to evaluate their situations on a regular basis and make adjustments when they feel the need, if it’s within their power to do so.
    Lewis Carroll was a teacher for almost half his life. He was also a mathematician and an inventor, while Herman Melville worked to support a family throughout his lifetime at various occupations but was happiest when working at sea. Producing a novel like The Whale (Moby Dick) is evidence of how well the ‘day job’ can stimulate a writers creativity.

  11. T. Jackson King

    Mary, that is a well done and nicely balanced essay on the pros and cons of going to work as a full time writer. Like many SFWA members I worked full time at the day job and part time as a writer, albeit with an Agent and a NYC publisher early on in my career. Worked as a print reporter, managing editor and then as a federal gov archaeologist for multiple agencies to pay the mortgage, support my family and have decent health insurance for the family. Then divorce zapped me. Stayed with the fed jobs and paid to support my kids. But at 38 I finished my first novel, with my second novel getting pubbed in 1988 by Warner. A second novel came out in 1996. Then wrote a dozen novels of hard SF that no pubber wished to buy. Went into writer’s block for about five years. Then began writing more short stories. With the help of a writer friend I ‘woke up’ to the world of Indy self-publishing about five years ago and wow! I love writing my own book blurbs, buying my own cover art from fine artists online, doing book design, then putting up both print and kindle ebooks of my novels. The novels I wrote earlier are now up on Amazon, and selling poorly to very nicely. And over the last two years I’ve been writing new stuff at three novels a year pace! Which I can do even while retired on social security. I endorse the points made by Just Me, and also, Mary, your point about diversifying your income stream. But I sure do like getting royalties paid every month, doing the setup of each novel’s retail page on Ammy, and building an overseas readership of my novels that is slowly growing. While I sell less than 2,000 ebook copies a month, so my income is not stupendous, still, I make a monthly income that is larger than social security. And I can deduct scifi conventions and plane fares as biz expenses! Working as an Indy writer/self publisher is exactly right for me. And, I think, right for many talented writers in all genres who do not wish to wait two years to hear about a book they’ve submitted. Then get paid only twice a year, if then. Also, I fired my agent years ago and stopped subbing to the New York majors ten years ago when it was obvious they would not buy what I was writing. Now, I let readers buy it directly! And I have 17 novels out and being read by Real Readers vs. pretend English majors! Anyway, Mary, a very nice essay and very encouraging to read the diversity of other author comments. Tom/T. Jackson King.