Creativity, Value, and Quitting Your Day Job

I wrote this post for the Rainbow Romance Writers blog and am reprinting it here by permission. Just some thoughts I had about a few articles making the rounds recently.

When I first moved to New York City fourteen years ago, I had a friend who lived in this tremendously terrible apartment in Brooklyn. She made more money than I did, and I lived in a decent apartment, so I thought it was strange that she lived in a building that was covered in graffiti and kind of smelled like urine all the time. It took me awhile to work out that she liked the cachet of living in a crappy New York apartment.

When you’re twenty-two, as I was at the time, there’s a certain amount of glamour in moving to New York City and living in squalor, especially if you’re a creative person. It’s the “starving artist” dream, right?

But I have long thought the starving artist archetype does all creative types a disservice, because it undervalues creative work. The real truth is that, while it is difficult to carve out a living from creative work, it is definitely possible. But we have to put the work in. And we deserve to be paid fairly.

I first started looking into becoming published over ten years ago, and there’s been a significant shift since then. At the time, the standard advice for most fiction writers was to submit short stories to magazines to get a few writing credits before you started querying agents, and by the way, don’t quit your day job because making any money publishing is something only a select few do. So I assumed I’d have a day job until I hit an important bestseller list and/or married a celebrity chef.

I am still waiting for both things to happen.

But then something shifted. A few authors I knew were putting out books so consistently that they were earning a somewhat predictable income and were able to leave their day jobs (with the support of their spouses). Their growing backlists ensured a certain baseline of sales every quarter. A couple of these authors are probably people you haven’t heard of, so they weren’t putting out runaway bestsellers, but they were putting books out steadily and earning a decent income.

Shortly thereafter, authors began talking online about how they were making money—real money—through self-publishing ebooks. Thus the conversation shifted entirely: financial success from writing was no longer rare but something anyone could achieve by uploading their book online.

The thing is, that level of success is rare. Sure, it’s possible to make real money from writing and publishing if you do it well. However, according to Bookscan, the average U.S. book sells less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 overall.

One book won’t bring you sustainable wealth, that much is clear. Fiction writer Meritt Tierce wrote an article for Marie Claire with the headline, “I Published My Debut Novel to Critical Acclaim—and Then I Promptly Went Broke.” In the article, she explains that she quit her day job two weeks before the book release. The book got killer reviews, but she’d been expecting higher sales.

I will admit, I read the headline and thought, “Oh, boy, what kind of delusional nonsense is this?” but I do think Tierce makes a good point. Not having a job created so much anxiety for her that she couldn’t write. So she got a job as a letter carrier for the post office, but it had an unexpected consequences:

I made $16.65 an hour, which was enough to relieve at least some of the financial pressure. But the part of the loop that went straight from If I had money now to I could calm down and write something didn’t account for intense physical exhaustion. I walked eight to 12 miles each day, carrying a heavy satchel. I actually liked being drained that way, as if each piece of paper I put in a mailbox represented a small packet of my own energy. But at the end of the day, there wasn’t anything left for Second Book. I had the stamina to do the job and come home and recover from doing the job and then go do it some more the next day.

This is, I think, a really common problem for writers. We write because we’re passionate about it, but we gotta put food on the table, and sometimes that other job zaps all our energy.

Complicating things is the “myth of no effort” and the way arts are undervalued. As writers, we know it takes hours—months… years, sometimes—to write a novel. But we tend to assume artists are naturally talented and just kind of put our art out there. (See this article. Or this one, arguing that writing is not a job. I beg to differ there. Writing is as much a job as my day job is. And calling it “a thing you can do if you like it!” is just further undervaluing it. Society doesn’t think we should pay artists for art, but artists’ time and work has value.) I think this is related to the struggling artist archetype. We’re supposed to struggle for our art. We’re supposed to live in crappy apartments and eat ramen and channel our pain and frustration into our art. Except that level of anxiety, as Tierce points out, can be crippling to creativity.

So don’t quit your day job.

Or do quit. Remember my friends who did? Each of those authors has worked to write enough books to build a backlist, but they also put the work into a steady marketing plan. One author I know who is doing very well self-publishing has a killer social media presence. A lot of the authors I know who don’t have full-time jobs are also regulars at conferences and put in a lot of time and energy to reaching new reader bases.

It’s not easy. But it’s possible. You can’t just go at it willy-nilly, though. You have to strategize and plan. You have to write and publish books regularly. And you have to spend some time on the business part of your writing career.

It surprised me, then, when my friend Sara Humphreys made the announcement that she was quitting the business of writing. She’s not quitting writing, she’s quitting everything else. The pressure to produce more books—to build that backlist and to give books to her clamoring fans—was killing her creativity, and her social media efforts were eating up her writing time.

I both get it and don’t. Parts of the marketing process are fun for me. I love conferences. I love Twitter. I love interacting with readers online. But I do understand how much of a time suck it can be, especially during weeks when I only have a set amount of time for my author stuff. And, honestly, if I have to choose between writing and marketing, I almost always choose writing.

Historical romance writer Eloisa James told me once that she considered herself lucky because she had a day job she loved—she’s a college professor—so whether she made money from her writing didn’t matter. Although she does—her books have sold thousands if not millions of copies—she doesn’t feel the pressure to earn money from writing. It gives her more creative freedom, because if she writes a strange book and it tanks, her life will go on. I think about that sometimes. I do all right, writing-income-wise—I sell more books than the average, let’s say—but my primary source of income is still my “day job” (which I do freelance now, giving me the flexibility to write and travel to conferences).

The books are why I got into this business to begin with. I want to write and tell stories. And I want to make money doing it.

I think it’s important to take the time to focus on the why. You won’t get rich quick writing. And you’ll have days when banging your head repeatedly against your keyboard is less painful than putting words on the page. Making a writing career work requires sacrifices—TV watching, time with your family, chores left undone, etc.—and untold hours of work. On the other hand, if you manage your career well, you can be successful and live the dream.

I’m not really sure what conclusions to draw from all this, except that a writing career is a balancing act. All things are possible, but you have to put in the work. Overnight success is a rare thing in publishing, but a long-term career is something I think we can all achieve if we continue to hone our craft, work hard, and put out the best books we can.