What to Do Before You Quit Your Day Job
If you hope to leave your present job to become a full-time author, hold tight for as long as possible- especially if you have yet to earn any income from the book(s) you have published.
It is absolutely possible to publish work while maintaining a full time job. In many respects, publishing books while also enjoying income (and potentially, benefits) from a steady job is easier than publishing books while also worrying about how you will pay your bills each month (after all, some research has found that financial woes can negatively impact your cognitive function).
Should you be dead set on quitting your day job, build up as much experience and regular income as an author as possible before making the switch. Ideally, you will not leave your steady work until you are earning enough as an author to comfortably support yourself.
Actions you can take to ease in to full time authorship include:
- Ghostwriting for other authors (this helps you build up experiences and get a hang of the publishing world)
- Editing others' writing
- Self publishing books or novellas to build a a reputation, readership, and regular monthly income from royalties
No matter what you do, do not quit your day job just because you sign a contract with a publisher. A one-time deal with a publisher offering a modest advance is not a sign that you will be able to make money as an author in the future. In many cases, an advance will not even carry you through the next six months.
Potential Career Paths for Authors
Common career paths adopted by authors include:
- Full time authorship working through a traditional publisher
- Full time authorship as an independent, self-publsihed author
- Full time authorship as a self-published author who also signs the occasional traditional publishing deal
- Part time authorship supplemented by a full time job unrelated to the publishing industry
- Part time authorship supplemented by a full time job within the publishing industry (e.g. a job as an agent, publisher, editor, etc.)
- Part time authorship supplemented by freelance work unrelated to the publishing industry (e.g. web design, personal training, etc.)
- Part time authorship supplemented by freelance work related to writing or the publishing industry (e.g. teaching, editing, ghostwriting, freelance writing)
The benefit of doing freelance work in addition to publishing books is that it can bring some much-needed social balance to your life (working alone and independently as an author can make for quite the lonely pursuit).
Working with Print Publishers vs. Self Publishing
The most highly-discussed issue with regard to choosing a career path as an author involves one's choice of publishing alternatives. Because self publishing has become a far more viable path to success (and no longer suffers from widespread stigma), it has become an increasingly popular option.
The Perks of Working with a Traditional Publisher
Publishers (which, as we have been told, mostly offer uniform royalty rates), offer the following perks:
- Having your book edited for you (though it is typically expected that any manuscript you submit will have already been edited)
- Having your book formatted for you
- Having someone else find and direct a cover artist
- Financial security (in that, when you sign with a publisher, you can at least expect an advance)
- Help getting reviews (it makes a difference to already have the "endorsement" of a publisher when garnering reviews)
- Help entering international markets
- Help accessing bookstores and offline markets
In short, the advantages offered by traditional publishers will appeal most to authors who appreciate prestige and would like someone else to handle details and logistics.
The Perks of Publishing Independently
Self publishing platforms (which also apparently offer uniform royalty rates) are superior to traditional publishers with regard to the following perks:
- Full editorial control over your book (though it is in your best interest to carefully heed and respond to feedback presented by editors and beta readers)
- Control over your book's title and cover design
- Control over your publishing deadlines
- Control over the price at which your book is sold (and whether or not it may be given away for free)
- Higher royalty rates, and therefore the ability to sell books at lower prices to consumers (e.g. $2.99) while still making more from each book's sales than you would when selling through a traditional publisher
- The ability to sell a book that will never go out of print
- Monthly paychecks (as opposed to advances and periodic contractual payments)
- Detailed, real-time analytics telling you how well your book is selling
The advantages presented by self publishing platforms will appeal most to those who want control and flexibility.
The Draw of the Hybrid Approach
More and more widely-successful authors are now adopting a hybrid approach in which they sell some books through traditional publishers and provide others as self-published works. This middle path enables one to enjoy perks associated with both of the above approaches. While it may not be practical for you to reach out to publishers early in your career (before you have gained significant notoriety and readership), you should therefore not rule out the potentiality of working with a publisher in the future.
Income Levels to Expect as an Author
According to data released by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics in May, 2012, the mean annual wage of authors and writers is $68,420 (the mean hourly wage is $32.90). Bear in mind that professionals included in this category include copywriters in the advertising industry, journalists within the news industry, and screenwriters who write scripts and other materials for the radio, film, and television industries.
Also keep in mind that the annual mean wage of writers varies significantly depending on geographic area.
Earnings for authors, especially self-published authors, may ultimately be far lower than you might hope. In May 2013, The Guardian reported that "a survey of 1,007 self-published writers – one of the most comprehensive insights into the growing market to date – found that while a small percentage of authors were bringing in sums of $100,000-plus in 2011, average earnings were just $10,000 a year. This amount, however, is significantly skewed by the top earners, with less than 10% of self-publishing authors earning about 75% of the reported revenue and half of writers earning less than $500."
Your income as an author may very depending not only on your geographic location, but also depending on your genre. In the same article, The Guardian also shared that "romance authors earned 170% more than their peers, while authors in other genres fared much worse: science-fiction writers earned 38% of the $10,000 average, fantasy writers 32%, and literary fiction authors just 20% of the $10,000 average."
In short, you should not expect to make all that much as an author. Like entrepreneurs, most authors will fail (at least when it comes to making a significant profit). Those who succeed tend to demonstrate superhuman persistence, a willingness to constantly learn and adapt, and acute understanding of audiences' wants, desires, and needs. While the income of a famous author may be impressive, financially successful authors are by no means common.
Primary Sources of Income for Authors
When it comes to monetization of a published book, authors may earn money from:
- Publisher advances
- Publisher royalty payments
- Monthly royalty checks from self publishing platforms
- Monthly royalty checks from audiobook distribution platforms
- Advances and royalty payments from film and other dramatic adaptations of your book
- Royalty payments (or flat contract fees) associated with book-related merchandise (e.g. shirts, calendars, posters, etc.)
Should you be interested in independently selling merchandise related to your book through an online store, check out our Online Sales course.
Because most authors are unable to support themselves from book-related profits alone, it is worth mentioning the most common sources of supplementary income:
- Full time work
- Part time work
- Freelance work
- Income from a spouse or family member
Ideally, you will be able to slowly transition to supplemental income to income generated exclusively from your books over time.
Establishing Financial Security as an Author
Signing your first deal with a publisher will not guarantee your financial security. There are, for example, promising authors who made $500,000 in publisher contracts only to eventually be dropped due to low sales. The key to financial stability lies in diversification and the cultivation of steady, predictable income streams.
With regard to book sales, the steadiest source of income appears to from be the sale of self-published books. In addition to getting monthly paychecks and higher royalty rates, you can maintain complete control over a self-published book's price and distribution.
The less you depend on income from a single book to make ends meet every month, the more financially secure you will be, so once again, it pays to be prolific. Just as income streams from different books can help to diversify your income and reduce risk, your ability to monetize other aspects of your work as an author (though paid speaking engagements, consulting gigs related to your nonfiction knowledge, and the sale of book-related merchandise) will further reduce variability and the possibility that a single unanticipated shift will cut off the vast majority of your income.
Saving plays a crucial role in your long-term stability. Instead of immediately increasing your monthly expenses along with your income (by buying a bigger house, a more expensive car, etc.), save as much as possible and invest wisely. There is no guarantee that you will always make a steady income as a writer, so it is best to save up for a potential future in which that income stream dries up (in addition to your eventual retirement).
Because you might not always be able to earn an income as an author, you can also reduce risk and establish additional financial security by cultivating income streams outside your writing-centric pursuits. It is very common to do so. For example, many published authors teach on the side- be it history (common amongst nonfiction historical writers) or the actual craft of novel writing (popular amongst fiction writers).
Administrative Tips for Authors
Handling Taxes as an Author
Thankfully, most publishers and self publishing platforms are pretty good at issuing paperwork (such as 1099-MISC forms) that enables you to file taxes without much of a hassle. All that you must do is:
- Keep records of all business expenses throughout the year
- Keep records of all your income as an author throughout the year
- Familiarize yourself with Schedule C and Schedule SE to understand what you will need to file as a self-employed professional
- Hold on to your tax records for at least three years
The better you are at keeping all records and receipts, the easier it will be to file taxes every year. Thanks to resources like IRS’ Self-Employed Individuals Tax Center and user-friendly tax filing software like TurboTax, you can most certainly handle everything independently, though if accounting just isn't your thing, by all means hire a CPA.
Getting Health Insurance Coverage as an Author
Should you not have a full time job (or a spouse with a full time job) that provides health insurance coverage, you will need to get insurance coverage independently (going without coverage is not a risk we recommend taking). Though there are many independent insurance plans for self-employed individuals, you might also consider getting discounted inruance through authors' groups such as the Author's Guild.
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