Monday, July 07, 2008

I Quit!

Question of the day: I'm an English teacher who woke up one day and realized she has to go after her dream of becoming a writer now or go broke. I want to pursue writing novels and short stories and possibly articles. I was wondering how can I break into the business and earn enough that I can quit my job? I know it's going to probably take a long time but I'm willing to give it a shot. Also, can one look for a mentor in the writing business and how?

I think I've addressed the first question before (search the archives for a header called "Ditching the Day Job"), but I'm happy to answer it again, though I'm not sure that you'll be happy with the answer, which is this: it is likely that it will be a very, very long time until you can quit your day job. Bummer, I know. Actually, let me caveat that: it all depends on what sort of income you deem acceptable to live on. I live in NYC: my requirements for living/earning are a lot higher than someone who lives in the plains of Kansas. In other words: 50k in NYC is not the same thing as 50k in the plains of Kansas.

So, with that caveat out of the way, here are some additional thoughts. Several surveys have recently been conducted on what freelancers earn, including
this ASJA one, and most freelancers (according to the ASJA poll, nearly 70%) earn less than 50k. (And according to that same poll, it took 4-5 years to establish themselves.) If I recall correctly, another survey I read about pegged that salary at closer to 40k. So - again, your 40k might not be my 40k, but it's a good barometer for what you might expect to earn after years of breaking in. This is not a career for those who aspire to lives of luxury.

Is it possible to earn more? Sure. Of course. I'm an example of it. I've worked my tail off and been lucky enough to make a healthy living as a freelancer, but I don't know that you should count on it. I really do believe that timing and luck (and yes, perseverance and chemistry with editors and personality) play into a writer's success, and I'd be foolish to think that I hadn't reaped the benefits of both of these.

I think it also depends on what sort of writing you do. I know far more full-time magazine writers than I do novelists. The average fiction advance is pitifully small (less than 10k), and you simply (obviously) can't survive on this if you're expected to contribute to the household income in any significant way. Magazine writing can be more lucrative (ergo that 40-50k annual earning), but much of this is feast or famine: you might have months-long dry spells and then be so busy that you can't keep your deadlines straight. more thing to be aware of when and if you quit. I know several best-selling novelists who have yet to quit their day jobs. Seriously. Maybe this is a case of being overly-cautious (who am I to judge? I don't have access to their financial statements), but it can also be prudent: an advance is a one-time thing and if you don't keep selling new books to a publisher or earn royalties, well, that's all you're earning from this book.

Okay. I feel like I've been really discouraging. I don't mean to. Because it is fully possible to make a living as a freelancer. Just as me! (Er, you already did!) And plenty of my friends. But it is a process - and it can be a long one. I was lucky: due to a variety of circumstances, I was contracted to write a book nearly as soon as I left PR, and from there, national magazines followed. But I still continued to supplement my income with PR work until it was clear that I could literally afford to drop it. So I guess what I'm saying here is dig into the trenches and be prepared to walk uphill. If you're a teacher, find time to pitch smaller magazines, local publications or websites (all of which will be easier to break into) in the afternoon when school is out. (Again, check the archives for breaking in - there's a lot of good info on how to do it. You can also search for "FOB.") But don't march into the Principal's office and yell, "I quit," just yet. Eventually, maybe, probably even. But not until you have your ducks in a row and feel certain that there are clients and editors out there waiting for you to write for them.

As far as your mentoring question, I'll answer it tomorrow! I've been long-winded enough today as it is. :)

So readers, when did you quit your day job? How did you know that it was the right time? And if you haven't, when do you plan to?


Susan Johnston Taylor said...

I left my day job after freelancing on the side for about 3 years. But honestly, I really started to think of writing as a serious business about a year and a half ago. I think making that mental shift is the most important to setting yourself up to go full time. Also, I live in a city, but I have roommates and I don't have an extravagant standard of living, so that helps, too!

Trish Ryan said...

It also helps if your day job doesn't pay all that much :) I quit mine when I got my first book advance. But I was temping at the time, so it wasn't as if my bills were all that high. If I'd been practicing law, I suspect the transition would have taken longer!

Larramie said...

What if this teacher could quit working full-time and substitute as well as tutor to keep a steady income? Or a trial leave-of-absence? Also, there's all those school vacations providing more free time to write.

Caroline said...

What a great blog! I quit my day job after I had my first child and was ill. I was out for a year, but then they kept calling me asking me when I was coming back. I tried to line up freelance so I knew we'd be okay, and we met with our money guy (not that we have any) who showed us it could be done. The proudest day of my life was being able to say, "Well, I'm physically able to come back, but I'm spiritually unable." There was a sharp intake of breath, and then my moron boss said, "So you're not coming back?" and I said nope, and I have never looked back.

Eileen said...

Alas I fear me and my day job will not soon be parted. I dream of writing full time- but at the moment at least, need to contribute more than writing is paying. On the plus side- by having an income it is easier for me to pay for conferences and marketing costs without feeling anxious.

Anonymous said...

Hey Allison! Thanks for answering my questions. That was a lot of helpful information of which I'm grateful for. Sorry I only got to read this today as I'm currently backpacking in Vietnam during summer vacation. As to the comment above, I'm going to use my period of summer holiday to write lots after my trip. ;) I know getting to point of quitting my job would be a long time --years even but as long as we start and persist, I think eventually we'll get there. Again thanks for the great answers Allison!