The Day Job

[January 2012] I’m on a deadline and couldn’t think of anything to write about this month, so I dredged up an oldie but a goody from 2005 that is still as pertinent to me today as it was back then. I updated a few of the details but the sentiment is the same.

When people who’ve known me for a while find out that I’ve published some books and am pursuing a career as a writer, one question usually comes up before long: When are you quitting your day job?

This question brings assumptions with it, whether or not the person asking it realizes as much. First, there’s an assumption that if I’ve published books that are in bookstores and in libraries, continue to have good Amazon rankings, were reviewed in Publishers Weekly, are available as limited editions, were translated into other languages, etc. that I must be rolling in dough, so I’ll soon be upscaling my life. I think the idea that there’s huge wealth in publishing comes from an unwarranted extrapolation from the music industry or Hollywood, where a single modest success can set a person up for life.

The second assumption is that my day job is merely a support system for my writing. If that were true, if I was just putting in eight hours a day at a job I barely tolerated so I could write, I would be miserable. As it happens, I currently have two jobs. One I do during the daytime. I’ve been with the same company for 22 years. I love my “day job.” I’m good at what I do there, and it is fulfilling and rewarding. It’s not just something that pays the bills, buys printer paper and covers my family with health insurance. My second job, which I’ve been doing since 2000, is equally fulfilling and more flexible. It has to be, because I fit it in where I can, between day job, family life, chores, and many other things.

My normal response, when I really don’t want to get into a lengthy discussion of the finances of a writer (i.e. always) is this: “I know a lot of writers. I know a lot of writers with day jobs.” If I’m feeling particularly expansive, I say, “The number of writers able to support themselves comfortably solely by writing is fairly small.”

Here’s the reality. Suppose, just suppose, I wrote a killer novel, a publisher loved it and saw a decent market for it, and offered me a big advance. A huge advance. Hey, we’re making things up – let’s say the advance is a cool quarter million. $250,000 smakeroos. That, by the way, is astronomically higher than the average advance for a first novel. What would that mean for me?

Well, after my agent gets his 15% and Uncle Sam gets his share, I’d be lucky to come away with $150,000. And, of course, not all in one lump sum. Best case scenario, half now and half on publication. “Now,” of course, means that six to eight weeks after the publisher approves payment, a check will be sent to my agent. Sounds like a decent amount of money, but in the general timeframe of publishing I’d be unlikely to see both installments in one calendar year, so that really amounts to two years’ worth of income. I’d have to be hopelessly optimistic or foolish to give up a job where I have a fifteen-year history for something like that. Suppose I’m a one-hit wonder (or, worse, a one-flubber when the book doesn’t sell).

Even if I hit the big times and got a million bucks in advance, that really only represents (after commissions and taxes) a decade of good income. I’m 50 – I have about fifteen years ahead of me before I could even start to think about retiring from my day job. What happens when I’m 55 or 58 and blocked and there’s not much money coming in from the royalties any more, and…

Maybe I’m a bit of a pessimist or alarmist. I prefer to think of myself as a realist. I love to write. I like the income I make for my writing. In the best case scenario, I hit my stride, find my voice, find an audience and start producing commercially viable novels every year or two, and I reach the point where I could conceivably retire from the day job. Would I? Well, I’m realist enough to acknowledge that if I attained that level of success, I might have to give up the day job in order to meet a regular publishing deadline. My 2-hour session between 5 and 7 a.m. before I get ready for the day job just might not cut it. It’s the kind of dilemma I wouldn’t mind facing some day.

In the interim, however, no, I have no plans to give up my day job. There are real people where I work. People I can interact with. A social group, a friendly bunch. And I enjoy what I do. It doesn’t get in the way of my writing – I’ve found a way to make these two avocations co-exist. I would miss it if I had to give it up.

It’s not my general aspiration to write myself out of a day job. It’s my aspiration to write, to continue to get published, improve my craft and have a blast with everything life tosses my way.

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