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.