I know, I know… this is the opposite of what everyone else talks about. I’ve talked before about how most posts about publishing are directed toward one goal: leaving behind that dreadful day job (Bad day job! Bad job!) and making a living as a writer. It doesn’t surprise me that quitting the day job is the focus for so many authors. We like to judge things by their dollar value (or pound value, or yen value, or whatever you use where you live). The general belief is that when you quit your day job because you make enough money selling books, then and only then have you conquered that elusive mountain called Success, leaving the rest of us to dream of the Success that eludes us.
There are a lot of authors out there—both traditional and indie—who are doing brilliantly with their books. They’re making a lot of money, and some of them do leave their day jobs. And it’s true that most authors want to sell as many books as they can. I know I do. However, like with everything else in life, it’s important for each of us to decide for ourselves what we really want, not what we’re told to want by others. For a long time I felt like a failure for holding onto my day job. I need to be braver and quit. Just do it! But when I’m being honest I’ll admit that what I really want is financial security. I don’t mean financial security as in having millions in the bank; I mean I want to know I have enough to pay my rent and my bills, put gas in my car, go grocery shopping, you know, usual life stuff. I love the idea of making a living from my books, but I also love my steady paycheck.
Blame it on my childhood (I do). I love Dickens for his novels, but my attachment to him also stems from the similarities in our early lives. Dickens’ father John spent money faster than he made it, finally ending up in a debtors’ prison when Dickens was 12. While I was never sent to work at a blacking factory like Dickens (that I can recall), I, too, was raised by parents who never grew up when it came to money.
My parents were 16 and 20 when they met, and two kids later they remained teenagers in the lack of maturity they displayed when it came to financial matters. If there were such things as debtors’ prisons in the 1970s and 80s, the Allards would have been permanent residents. There was never enough money. Ever. My father was fired from every job he ever had for reasons ranging from being late to stealing money to stealing goods from the automobile parts departments where he worked. My mother worked occasionally, part time jobs here and there, but mainly she yelled and screamed about my father not being able to hold a job, and I became anxiety-ridden with her worries. We were evicted from every place we ever lived. Ever. The electricity was turned off too many times to count. I don’t know how many cars were repossessed, leading to the mornings when we’d go outside for my mom to drive my brother and me to school and the car wasn’t there, vanished to Repo Man Heaven. I remember a family friend sending my mother home with bags of groceries because there wasn’t enough money for food. I don’t remember being hungry, but I do remember the sickening feeling that comes with moneylessness. As a child, I couldn’t do anything about it, but as an adult I can and I do. Like I said, in praise of day jobs.
A few years ago I allowed myself to be convinced that I wasn’t a real writer unless I made my living writing so I tried my hand at freelancing. I hated it. I mean I really, really hated it. I hated that every job paid differently, and I hated that though I always had my work in before the deadline, the magazines or newspapers paid me whenever they got around to it. Sometimes the check they sent me wasn’t the right amount (Did we agree to $400? I have here $250…), and sometimes my payment was “lost in the mail” (Are you sure you didn’t get it? It says here it was sent last Tuesday…). Sometimes there wasn’t as much work in July as there was in June and I felt like a child again, worrying about whether or not the bills would be paid. At the end of the summer I raced back to my usual day job without looking back, and I’ve held on ever since.
Then again last year I flirted with the idea of leaving my day job after the release of Her Loving Husband’s Return, the third book in the Loving Husband Trilogy. Her Loving Husband’s Return landed on the Amazon best seller list the day it was released and it stayed there for months. Awesome, right?
Here’s the thing about book sales: they fluctuate. Daily. Hourly if you’re keeping track on KDP. After a while, sales of even the best best-selling books slow down. If you make enough money while the sales are hot to feel confident depending on that as your income, then by all means do so. My point is never to say that my way is the right way. If you have a more adventurous spirit than I do, then do what feels right for you (remember Leo Babauta’s #11). I’m simply showing why leaving the day job isn’t the ultimate goal for every single writer in the world. Book sales are part of the ebb and flow of life—sometimes books sell well, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes you feel like a nut, sometimes you don’t.
If I had depended on the sales of the Loving Husband Trilogy as my sole income, I would have done well for a few months, maybe about six months, but then what would I have done when the sales slowed down? Common wisdom says to write more books so readers have more to buy from you. Okay, I’m doing that, but I can’t churn out several books a year (also common wisdom), especially since my next novel is historical fiction and there’s a fair amount of research involved. Common wisdom also says to try different marketing strategies to get more sales. I agree with that, too, but no matter how much marketing I do I can’t predict sales or make anyone buy my books. If I knew the formula for forcing readers to buy my books I’d bottle it and sell it.
If you’re a genre novelist and you write quickly and develop a loyal audience, you may very well be able to make a living selling books. Erotic novels sell very well. Look at the Fifty Shades Trilogy. That author won’t have to work another day in her life. Bella Andre has become a publishing rock star with the success she’s had with her erotic romance novels, and she has a legion of loyal fans who snatch up her new books as they come out. For me, book sales provide a second income. I don’t have the stress of worrying about sales since I have my steady paycheck to depend on. After I do what I can, the books sell what they sell. I’ve learned to become very zen about the whole book sales thing. My life is a lot less stressful that way.
One of the things I love about Joanna Penn from The Creative Penn is her honesty about her journey as an author entrepreneur. She admits that since she quit working in IT she now makes about 55% of what she made when she had her day job. Kudos to Joanna for saying so since most authors won’t admit this. As a source of pride they’ll say they quit their day jobs, trying to prove they’ve made it as an author, but they won’t say what they’re making in comparison to what they made at their previous jobs. True, there are a lot of authors doing extremely well financially, but I bet there are a lot of authors like Joanna who are living on less since they quit their day jobs. Married authors may have an easier time with this since they might have another income to depend on whereas us singletons have only our solitary selves to pay the bills. Joanna also wins points because she admits that not all of her income comes from selling books. She sells courses in indie publishing and she does speaking engagements. Crafting a career for herself as an author entrepreneur helped her out of a job she hated and into something she loves. She makes less money doing it, but she’s happy, and heavens knows she’s good at it. She’s helped many authors with indie publishing, myself included.
Unlike Joanna, I don’t hate my day job. Sure, some days are better than others. Hell, some years are better than others, but that would be true of any job, yes, even writing. Writing isn’t rainbows and roses every day, and then there’s the stress of worrying from one day to the next how many books you’ve sold and struggling to find the magic formula to drive more sales. For someone from my background where there was never enough money, constantly worrying about paying the rent doesn’t work for me. I did enough of that when I was a kid.
True, I have less time to write than I would if I quit my day job, but you know what? The writing gets done. Writing is a priority in my life—it’s the only time I understand my place in the world—and I make time for it. Many writers, sometimes even the most respected and beloved authors, don’t make as much money writing as we think they do. I just reread Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and she spent part of her career struggling financially, and she’s Anne Freakin’ Lamott—the goddess of all things writing as far as I’m concerned. My man Dickens also struggled financially for the first part of his career, and he’s Charles Freakin’ Dickens! He complained he was being robbed by his publishers—sound familiar?—while he tried to raise his large family in London (even then London was too damn expensive). He didn’t do well financially until he started his reading engagements where he acted out passages from his novels to enraptured audiences all across Britain and once or twice in America. Some scholars say the exhaustion from the readings destroyed Dickens’ health and ultimately killed him, so maybe that’s not the best example. My point, and I do have one, is that even great writers don’t always make a living from their books.
I found this article from Fast Company about famous writers—and Dustin Hoffman—and their day jobs. Here’s another one from the Huffington Post. After reading them, I don’t feel so bad. Maybe I am cautious in the way I approach money, but my life has taught me that caution, especially when it comes to financial matters, is a good thing. I can write my books, market them to the best of my ability, and then I can relax knowing that, at the beginning of the month, the rent will be paid and whatever I sell becomes extra income. Don’t use a day job as an excuse not to write. If you’re an artist, the art will happen, even if you work a nine-to-five. It has to. That’s what makes you an artist.