Don't quit your day job, and other one-size-fits-all advice

As I write this, the publishosphere internets are blowing up about a Medium article by an author who got fairly fantastic advances on her first two deals, and didn’t manage to earn them out. She’s still getting decent advances, but is struggling along in what we call the “midlist death spiral.” (It’s not always a death spiral: I’ve spent 16 years plugging along in the midlist and I’m still here. Someday maybe I’ll write a breakout book. Maybe next week.)

One thing that interests me is how nearly identical in content this is to an article on Salon (remember Salon) that got a similar response from the publishing industry back in 2004, except we were all on Livejournal then instead of twitter. Here that one is.

So, nearly every debut author starting off is going to hear the same advice: “Don’t quit your day job.” Or the more nuanced, “Don’t quit your day job until you can live off your royalty checks.” (i.e., until you can survive on the biannual royalty payments without relying on advances and pub payments, etc, to make ends meet.)

Which is often good advice except… what about those of us with nonprofessional day jobs that don’t offer benefits or which are exploitative or downright abusive in some way? And how realistic is it for most working authors? And how, exactly, is one expected to do a sixty-hour-a-week job AND turn in a book a year? Without dying? (It’s easier when you’re 35 than 45, I can tell you that much from experience.)

So with that in mind, maybe a little practical advice on not getting into too much trouble as an early-career author.

  • Do the math. If you do luck out with a six-figure debut advance, remember that that’s going to be paid out over four years or so in smaller chunks—which is actually better for your taxes. Also, remember taxes, and that you’re probably going to get to keep, oh, 60-70% of what you make after agent percentage and the government’s share. Live within your means.

  • Paperwork and revisions can take months, and you don’t get paid until the paperwork is done. Then you don’t get paid again until the book is accepted. Then you don’t get paid again until it’s published.

  • The publisher is a business partner and it’s your job (and your agent’s job) to hold them accountable. If your agent won’t do that, get a different agent.

  • Don’t spend it until it’s in your pocket. Yes, credit cards are useful and medical/equipment/housing/pet/family emergencies and cash flow crunches happen; I’m not talking about that. I’m also not talking about an amortized cost such as a car loan: if your old beater is dying by all means use some of that advance as a down payment on a decent car. But remember to plug that car payment you’re assuming into your monthly budget and plan for it. What I’m saying is that it’s for the best if you don’t go blow a few grand on a vacation or something and plan to pay it off when the big check comes.

  • Also, if you are fortunate enough to sell sub rights (translation, Hollywood, etc) don’t spend that money until you actually have it, either. It’s incredibly unreliable when subrights money comes in. Sometimes it takes Hollywood types six or twelve months to get the paperwork handled, even after the deal is agreed, and it can go south anywhere along that process. I have not been paid for a lot of sub rights agreements over the course of my career—companies go under, plans fall through, publications just don’t happen.

  • If your book does exceedingly well, and you do hit some national lists and sells through quickly… it’s still going to be 6-18 months before you see any of that extra money. Brace for it. There’s a three-to-five-month delay built into royalty cycles (I’m currently waiting to be paid for the royalty period that ended on June 30th, for example.) and a thing called reserve against returns. Basically what it amounts to is that everybody in publishing collects interest on your money for 4-11 months before they give it to you. Without the interest, naturally. (If you’re self-pubbing through Amazon, they only collect the interest for a month and a half or so.)

  • Pay off your debts when you can, buy durable goods that last when you need them (rather than the cheapest available) and stick to a budget.

  • Don’t spend ludicrous amounts of money on self-promotion and travel. Build your brand and your network by treating people well, making friends, and providing interesting internet content. By all means go to literary festivals, cons, and so forth if you’re invited or if you want to go for the social opportunities, but if going to cons made you a best seller I would not be sweating how to pay the mortgage now.

  • Be aware that the money is going to come at weird times and it will get held up when totally inconvenient, and sometimes you’re going to have to chase people down who have been sitting on an invoice for months. Sometimes years.

  • Keep producing. Write the next book. Then the book after that. Backlist is a huge source of revenue for me, and I have books that finally sold through their advances 10 years after publication. (They weren’t huge advances, either—but now those books bring in a couple grand a year all together, which—twenty bucks is twenty bucks, right?)

  • Diversify your income streams. This is probably the most important item, so I’ve left it for last—and this is really what “don’t quit your dayjob” really means. Make sure you have money coming in on diverse fronts—Patreon, teaching gigs, work for hire, short stories, nonfiction, self-pub, reprints, having two traditional publishers—hell, advertising revenue on a blog or Youtube channel—not just the trad pub biannual royalty check. There are people who can live off that biannual royalty check; most writers cannot. (And for the ones who can, they have to keep the product coming or the royalty checks taper off fast. Frontlist drives backlist, as they say.)

There’s more, but off the top of my head, that’s a few things that help one navigate the harsh reality of paying the rent and being a writer. I hope some of it helps.