We’re going to start this blog with a Big Disclaimer: In the following paragraphs I’ll be discussing, at length, a lot of differences between writers and what I’m going to call “professional writers.” As previously discussed, I don’t really go in for talking about writers like we’re in different tiers, and neither I nor anyone else has the power to put a label on someone signifying that they’ve “made it.” Here, professional writer is an arbitrary classification that I’m using to talk about writers who make their living from their work, as opposed to also having to work a day job. I’m not saying professional writers are the only real writers, or produce better work, or any nonsense like that. We’re just talking about finances, and I had to find a way to distinguish between those who live off their work and those who don’t eat ramen noodles six days a week. Okay, everyone on board? Good, then let’s go ahead.
Since I have the privilege of getting to interact with a lot of fellow writers, many of whom are just beginning their careers, the topic of how long it takes before one can “go pro” and live off their work comes up a lot. As will surprise very few of you, most of us can’t fucking stand the bullshit cube jobs that a degree in English or Creative Writing qualifies you for. The honest truth to that question is this is not something that can be answered with a blanket statement. Every person, and every person’s lives and responsibilities, are different; and when, or if, to take that gamble is going to be up to them to determine for themselves. And make no mistake here: it is a gamble. Unless you’ve got Stephen King or J.K. Rowling money, at which point yeah fuck it quit the day job, there is always the chance that you’ll go belly up. Tastes change, fads happen, and what flies off the shelves this year might be untouched in the discount bin come next year. But, like most risks in life, the payoffs when you win are heads and shoulders above not rolling the dice.
With all of that in mind, I can’t tell anyone when it’s time to go from writer to professional writer, but I can offer up some perspective and things you might have overlooked when making the decision.
1. There Is No Immediate Cashflow
To the shock of no one here, I used to be a bartender, and before that I did my stint as a server. Whatever else you can say about those jobs, the cashflow system was great. If I was short on rent, I could just pick-up and cover shifts all week, walking out the door with money until I had what I needed. It was almost like an ATM, where I traded time and effort for those sweet sweet dollar bills.
Writing is as far from that as you can get. Let’s say, best case scenario, you write a book, put in on Amazon and that mother fucker explodes. Celebrities are talking about it, people are doing fantasy casting lists, Hollywood is calling, and you are selling so many copies that Amazon is upping it’s Kindle production just to keep up. You might, quite logically, call in and tell your boss your thoughts on him fucking himself (hint: you’re for it) and kick back to bask in your rewards. Two weeks later, your savings are gone and you realize you aren’t getting paid for all that success for another two and half months.
See, Amazon pays out on a three months delay. If I have a shitty January sales wise, that means there will be a lean April when the check rolls in. In that scenario above, you forgot to account for that, and ultra-jumped the gun. Amazon is also one of the quicker paying systems out there. If you’re going through a publisher, expect even heavier delays, because not only to they have to wait the same three months, or more if it’s from a major chain, but it then has to pass through own internal book-keeping systems.
With careful budgeting and an attention to your income, this is more inconvenience than serious problem, but you need to always be aware that no matter how good a book you write today, it won’t help with this month’s rent.
2. Pipeline Is Key
I’ve heard people say that it takes five books out before you have any shot at making enough to live off of. Others have said ten. I did it at two, but I should have waited for three if I’m being honest, and beyond that I’d spent half a decade doing a web-serial and getting a name out there. The exact number might be in question, but here’s something no one says: Once you get there, feel free to throttle back the output. Know why they don’t say it? Because being a professional writer means you need to always be producing something.
Any of you who have had to work in sales know the concept of a pipeline: You have deals in various stages of closing that you track every month, so that you can always hit your quotas and make your pay. Quick, look to the right of the screen. See that list of projects in various phases of development? Yup, that’s not a coincidence. Part of why I put that up was to show you all how pipeline factors into being a professional writer. Especially as a newbie like myself, staying relevant and in the eye is key, meaning I can’t afford to let more than a few months pass without a new book hitting the digital shelves. Sure, there are authors that can take their time and only put out a book every couple of years or so, but by and large those folks either aren’t trying to live solely off their work or are making so much cash that their schedule is entirely up to them.
As with everything in life, there will be exceptions to this rule, but I’d squarely advise not betting on being one of them. Getting to make a living off our art already means we sort of cheated the system, counting on more than that is just dangerous.
3. You’re Going To Be Disconnected In Ways You Don’t Expect
I love my job. Make no mistake about that, I deeply enjoy the work I do and consider myself one of the luckiest sons of bitches on the planet to get paid for it. That said, going into this as a full-time job is different than anything else I’ve ever done, and I’ve worked in an almost comical amount of fields. I don’t just mean the obvious stuff either, like learning to self-motivate and schedule, things bosses used to do for you.
I mean that you’re suddenly going to be cut off from a huge chunk of the adult world. Pretty much no one likes their 9-5 jobs, but they all have them. Work, here meaning work in the standard office or hourly sort of way, is a massive factor in pretty much everyone’s lives. They spend 40 hours a week there, they make friends, go to parties, fall in love, get fired, worry, plan, scheme, and spend vast swaths of their thoughts and time in those occupations. Work is a universal shared experience, except that you won’t have it. You’re at home, doing a job you love, probably without even putting on pants.
This is a hard thing to really put into perspective until you’ve lived it, and for a lot of people what I’m describing isn’t really a flaw. I’m a social person, and while I often miss the amount of interaction that came from being around others, it’s not worth the trade-off to go back to things I hate. Instead, I just supplemented the interaction by hanging out with friends more, but even then we all live in very different worlds. If I want to spend a day down at the pool, no big deal. But I’m going alone, because normal adults don’t get to do that on week days. It takes some getting used to, and if you’re the sort of person who craves that daily interaction, it’s something you really should be aware of before you mail a box of dog turds to your boss.
4. Is It Worth It?
So, with the money worries, constant upkeep, and strange social life, you might be wondering if going pro is something you even want to do. Like I said above, that’s your call to make, no one should be trying to telling you what’s best for you. But, for me, was it worth it?
Fuck yes. Not many people get to live off doing what they love. If the chance comes, and if it’s right for you, then I highly recommend living as a professional writer. Five out of five stars.