What It Takes To Write Full Time

It’s fascinating to me that many bestselling authors keep traditional jobs. Audrey Niffenegger – NYT bestselling author of The Time Traveler’s Wife – continues to teach paper art and creative writing at Columbia College Chicago. Misty Massey, who published through Tor Books, works as a middle school librarian. Gail Z. Martin and A.J. Hartley are both professors at UNC Charlotte.

For most people,  it’s important to have *something* consistent that will get them out of the house. And truthfully, I have not talked to any author in such a position personally, so I’m not sure whether these jobs are taken for leisure or financial support (teaching is quite hard, so it’s difficult for me to imagine that anyone would teach as just a retirement/leisure activity. But it’s a passion for many, so I’m not going to speculate on why academia is a popular place for authors).

Either way, I think they have the right idea. For me, I would need to be a multimillionaire before I’d consider quitting my day job.

“Holy crap, that’s a lot, Michelle!” Well, not really. You see, here’s my thought process –

  1. If I start writing full-time, there is no turning back. My career as a chemist is one that requires constant practice and mental exercise. No reasonable lab manager would hire a chemist who’s been out of this field for more than 2 years. The best I could do is jump back into the field with a low-paying tech job, and work my way back to the bench. Which would be a shame, to basically end up where I am now. I don’t want to have to start over and I don’t want to have to go to grad school to “refresh” my career. That would be a huge detour.
  2. Only a handful of writers maintain success from the jump of their career to the end of their lives. There are plenty of “breakout” novelists who dominate the charts for a few months and then are never heard from again.. Sherrilyn Kenyon’s story is paricularly sobering – she went from bestselling author to homeless in just a couple of years, lost her agent, then had to fight tooth and nail back into the industry. Not everyone is as fortunate as Kenyon. A lot of fabulous authors don’t pick themselves up after losing an agent. Selling yourself to the industry with a flop on your resume is even harder than selling yourself as a newb.
  3. With the above points in mind, I would only quit my day job when I had enough money saved to last me the rest of my life. That, my friends, is about $5 million. And because inflation sucks, that’s actually not a lot of money….especially considering that I’ve probably got another 70 years in me. At least half of that would be funneled into my retirement for growth, so ~$3 million would be liquid asset that I’d live off of for the next 40 years. That’s an average of $75k a year, which is fine now, but not so much once inflation kicks in.
  4. Even for a big time author with a $500,000 advance + royalties from, say,  half a million copies sold (and if $1 for every copy = $500,000), it would still take five high-profile novels to make it to $5 million. And that isn’t counting taxes and agent fees, which are probably 40% off the top.
  5. A full-time novelist probably has to buy their own health insurance. I’m not sure about that, but it’s certainly possible that the medical benefits of working for a company vanish when you work on your own. You may also lose other benefits like 401k match, life insurance, etc.
  6. On the positive end, it’s possible for a well-known author to pad their wallet on the convention circuit, charging appearance fees and such. It’s $10,000/day for Neil Gaiman to show up at your event, for example.

Again, $75,000 a year. I know engineers who just graduated college who nearly make that much. That’s like, a “slightly well off middle class” wage. That is not a “jettsetting lifestyles of the rich and famous” wage. I would need to save up $5 million just to maintain /slightly bump my standard of living. And I’d be okay with that, honestly, if I was able to write full-time. I’m not that materialistic. I’d like to be financially secure, have money in the bank in case the AC breaks, and have spare change for traveling. That’s about it.

Still, I hope this puts it into perspective how bloody hard and risky it is to be a full-time novelist. I’ve met plenty of people who write full-time who are certainly not millionares…but often, they still maintain a part-time job, have a spouse supporting them, or simply don’t look past five years down the road. I’m just not that type of person, though. Like Merida from Brave, I determine my own fate – and cautious optimism is the way I do so.

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11 thoughts on “What It Takes To Write Full Time

  1. Indeed, as a recently published author myself of two books, I wouldn’t give up my daily sustenance to simply rely on writing as a way of life. It’s just not feasible for someone like me :)

  2. People assume if you’re a best-selling author you’re making big bucks. But this isn’t the case unless you’re one of the bigwigs. I think you’re smart to stay up in your field. I didn’t step out of clinical medicine until I finished my public health masters and got research experience so I could dive into nonclinical work. (And trust me, that leap was still very hard and I did it gradually over several years.) Now, even though I’m taking some time off to write thanks to my very supportive husband who’s encouraged it (“when will you ever get this chance again?”), the real world will soon enough call.

    Wonderful post, as always.

    • I’ve heard that medicine is one of the few fields you can step out of and return to with ease, but I doubt anything is ever that simple! It took me so much work to get the job I have now. I would hate to leave it without anything equally secure lined up.

      It’s wonderful that you have a supportive husband. My partner does not stand in my way, but I do wish he was a little more enthused about my writing. It’s about the only thing I’d change about him. Still, I have a lot of very excited, supportive friends who keep me inspired.

      Thanks for the lovely compliment :)

      • It’s actually now much more difficult to step away from clinical medicine and re-enter later. And I suppose it should be to make sure people stay current. But I overly compensate by collecting a huge number of continuing education hours. I know if I wanted to go back, I could easily, especially when primary care docs are in such demand. But I got too burned out. I want to shift to behind-the-scenes work (fitting for an introvert…)

        As for my hubs, I think he’s liked having me home to do all the kid-chauffering and other tasks. ;)

  3. I’m totally not able to quit my full time job to become a writer. It’s just not sustainable or realistic. I’m also not content with one job in life, so there’s no way I’d be able to do that anyway. I pretty much juggle four jobs as of now. It’s not ideal, but it’s how I like things.

    But yeah, for those people who can give solid attention to their writing and not have to work, kudos to them. I’m not going to rely on that being in my cards. If it is, I’m all for it because damn I’m jealous of people that can do that and have some other stable means of support.

    • I’m not too surprised that you, as someone involved in both writing and art, would not be content with just writing. I think you’ll always need an outlet for the sketching/painting/graphic arts side of your heart, and you’re lucky to have graphic arts be your day job (when it’s not totally annoying and tiring, as I know it often is!)

      It’s also important to diversify your activities in general. I’d get sick of spending 8 hours a day in my house writing. I’d burn out quickly. I’d need to go out and see the town, volunteer, do something.

      I think both you and I also have a healthy appreciation for how hard it is to find a job. It would be weird to just “quit” after all that struggle.

      • Yep! That’s like me alright.

        Yes, it’s really very hard to look for a job and go through all the mind games of the interview process, get a job and then up and quit. I couldn’t do it. There are things I don’t always like about my current full time job, but they are minor compared to what I do like. I think I’d miss it too much. Plus, it’s worse when you actually feel comfortable somewhere and have a good sense of job security. Writing isn’t really something I consider a secure job profession.

  4. It takes a lot for people to become a successful full time writer. That’s why I don’t understand all the people who are trying to write only to make money. A successful writer is a passionate writer, not one who’s looking for a quick buck.

    • Exactly. There are a lot easier, faster ways to make money. And for that, I also don’t understand how people can waste their formative years doing….basically nothing, hoping their novel will breakout so they won’t have to get a “real job.”

      Like…even if you did publish a book, or five, you’re still gonna need a day job. May as well get started on a career early, and in something you actually like.

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