Want to know how to become a bestselling author? Let’s dig into to this question via a cheeky little bugger wrote into the blog:
So, is anyone ever able to quit their day job after selling their first MG or chapter book? I need a writing reality check.
How to Become a Bestselling Author: Keep Your Day Job
No. Not even close. Keep your day job. If your day job makes you miserable, get a better one. Here’s your writing reality check: Only 3-5% of published writers make a living on their published writing income (advances and royalties) alone*. Want to know how to become a bestselling author? You might have a better shot at winning the lottery.
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.
You Can Build a Career with Writing, But…
That said, most writers do end up making a career and an income with their writing, just not by publishing books alone. They’re not wasting time figuring out how to become a bestselling author; they work hard at related writing pursuits. 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. When you’re considering how to become a novelist, this multi-stream approach is the way to go.
The Feasibility of Quitting Your Day Job for Writing
But in terms of locking down how to become a bestselling author and quitting your day job the next day…that kind of thinking needs a writing reality check. (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 (hence this writing reality check), 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!
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