A cheeky little bugger wrote into the blog, basically answering his own question:
So, is anyone ever able to quit their day job after selling their first MG or chapter book? I need a reality check.
Gladly! Here it is:
No. Not even close. Keep your day job. If your day job makes you miserable, get a better one. Only 3-5% of published writers make a living on their published writing income (advances and royalties) alone*.
Some YA writers can quit their day jobs after a major sale/auction (though I still don’t know if I would advise this) because, if it’s going to get big, YA money tends to be bigger than MG, chapter book, early reader or picture book money. But even with YA, it’s rare that an author can quit their day job after their first book sells. It’s even more rare that all this wonderful stuff happens with a debut creator.
That said, most writers do end up making a career and an income with their writing, just not by publishing books alone. They teach workshops, they teach at a school or university, they freelance for newspapers and magazines, they write nonfiction, they copywrite, they edit, they tutor…there are lots of trades that use a writer’s skillset.
More often than not in today’s publishing world, I see people who have fingers in lots of different pies and who cobble together a cohesive livelihood from lots of separate but related income streams. And not just writers or illustrators do this. I know of agents who freelance edit and editors who teach classes on the side, too. I think this is smart, actually. With multiple income streams, you face less risk of your only cash flow drying up.
Not everyone has the temperament to freelance or to multitask like this, though. There are also a lot of writers who hold down full-time or part-time desk jobs and have a steady income (plus health insurance!) while they publish their work.
But in terms of scoring that big book deal and quitting the day job the next day…that’s not just magical realism or fantasy, that’s high fantasy. (Consider this: after your initial deal is struck, your editor and agent can sometimes spend months negotiating the finer points of your contract…then it might spend months getting drawn up by the contracts department…then it’ll go to accounting and it’ll take more months, in the worst case, to get your signing check. What’s a signing check? Sometimes it’ll be 50% of your advance (less your agent’s 15%, of course) but, these days, more often than not, your publisher has structured payouts so that you’ll only get a third or a quarter of your money upon signing the contract. On the other hand, the glacial pace at which publishing moves does mean you’ll have a lot of time to grovel your way back into your former-but-soon-to-be-again employer’s good graces after you impulsively quit!)
I’m always on the side of cautious optimism, so I urge you all to have a stable source of income, even when you do end up selling your work. And, seriously, if your’e doing something that you hate for a salary, do something else. You never know how long you’ll need it.
* Updated 8/18/2011: From Stephen King’s On Writing, page 238. Thanks so much for finding this, Garbo!