Sunday, June 24, 2012

How to Quit Your Day Job - Or Knowing When Not To

It's the Holy Grail for most writers, the brass ring, the sign that you've Made It. It's absolutely one of my personal success goals.

Quitting the Day Job.

The phrase has been around for a long time, usually tossed off when an aspiring musician plays or sings, and the listeners shake their heads, saying "don't quit your day job." Yeah, it's an insult. It means you're not good enough to risk trying to make a living by the art. Or the acting. Or the athletic performance.

It's a truism of our culture that, if you aspire to these callings, you almost always have to take a more pedestrian job, until you build up enough of a reputation - and possibly craft - to make a real income. There's also the ever-present role of serendipity: waiting for that big break.

Quite a few writers I know first aspired to it partly so they could work from home, often to be there with the kids. The joke is often on them, since in several cases, the kids were grown and gone before the writer really hit success.

I am lucky to have a great day job - one that allows me to work from home anyway, so that motivation is gone. They also pay me well, far more than I make from writing so far. I work with really smart, interesting and interested people, doing something I believe is important and serves other people. (I often get asked, so if you're interested, I work mainly on keeping drinking water clean.)

And yet, I would quit my day job in an instant, if the money balance shifted.

Why? Because the writing is the thing I really want to focus on.

So, how do you know when it's time to quit the day job? Not on that first book sale, almost certainly. Unless you have a trust fund or a spouse with excellent income.

The decision boils down to three things: finances, self-discipline and emotional balance.


This seems like a no-brainer, but it's the part most people don't fully think through. It's not enough to have a big advance. Even if you're lucky enough to get a $30K advance - which is *really* good these days for newbies - you have to figure on that money trickling in over likely three years. Don't plan on earning out before a couple of years, either. Can you live on $10K/year? (Hint: the poverty level for a one-person household in 2012 in the contiguous US is $11,170.)

You also have to know if you can replicate your success. Publishers have no obligation to keep you employed. Can you sell more books? Consistently enough to keep your income reasonably steady? Often this only comes about for writers once they have a substantial backlist - a number of books that, combined, generate overall reliable sales.

Finally, if you're figuring that your book sales need to be equivalent to your day job income, remember to factor in the value of benefits. The day job might provide health insurance, dental benefits and retirement benefits that you would have to handle on your own. My company provides, by way of showing us just how well they treat us, a "translation" of our salaries with the value of benefits added in. I found it very helpful of them to show me the true cost of my emancipation.


I struggled with the right description for this and I'm still not convinced it's the best one. A couple of weeks ago, I did a post on my personal blog titled "Why the Last Thing You Need Is More Time to Write." The thing is, not many of us are really equipped to have hours and hours of writing time. I'm lucky that I've worked from home for years and have a pretty disciplined routine for it. Conversely, I've had people work for me for the day job from home, who utterly and completely fell apart. One guy, who'd been in the military, would get online so he appeared to be there, then would nap, run errands, do favors for friends. Without a schedule and someone telling him what to do, he was lost. And he lost the job.

Working from home sounds fun to people. They talk wistfully of no commutes, wearing pajamas all day, setting their own schedules. And then find that they missing getting out of the house and that they have to get dressed and establish an external schedule, so as not to wile the time away.

Which leads me to...

Emotional Balance

Being a full-time writer doesn't mean that every day is Caturday. It can be lonely and stressful. You get very little external feedback, other than reviews and sales, much of it long after you did the work. No one gives you a raise or a bonus or even gives you a performance review. Worse, your family and friends will likely have no idea what your days are about, other than that you're at home and thus available. Your spouse and children may snarkily suggest that staring into space doesn't count as writing. You might start to feel that way, too.

You might start to feel a little crazy.

I think this is a very real danger for writers. It's easy to lose that grounding in the real world, to lose perspective. Like with George W. Bush not knowing what a grocery store scanner was, insulation from the larger world can lead to an unhealthy isolation. And, by the way, those family and friends don't count, because you don't have to interact with them professionally and they don't see you in any kind of objective way.

So, it's something to think about. Things to plan for. Given all that, would I still quit my day job?

In a heartbeat.


  1. Excellent summation. I've kind of gone through the same thought process numerous times (maybe in a bit less disciplined way LOL) and reached the same conclusions. Going for the large backlist myself, although I have a long way to go! I'm lucky to have a great day job as well, but as you say, the only thing I WANT to do is write!

  2. Building the Backlist for the win, Veronica!!

  3. Great post--I'm finding it hard to balance a full-time writing career and a full-time day job but can't see letting the day job go. As you say, reliable income and benefits. I do have a feasible early retirement date circled on the calendar, though :-)

  4. Ooh, I totally want one of those circled dates, Suzanne. Lucky you!

  5. Great post, Jeffe. I was lucky enough that when I got married my husband and quit my job to move to CO to be with him, he told me not to bother getting a job in this one-horse town. My job was to write. (Of course, that was 8 years ago and we expected this job to start paying by now but that's a whole nother story.) If you're going to write instead of having a day job, you really do need discipline - because there are so many other things to fritter away your time on. And thank goodness for the internet or my emotional balance would probably be like one kid on the seesaw and I'd start picking flowers off the wallpaper. ;o)

  6. LOL - remember that short story about the yellow wallpaper? Still gives me the creeps!

  7. Very timely. I'm wrestling with this right now. My big brain crush is around "how much cushion is enough to safely make this transition - one year in the bank? More?". Of course, this is followed by "am I completely nuts to even consider leaving a paying job in this economy?"

    I think I am nuts. I'm still trying to figure out how to do it in the next year anyway...

  8. Ooh, that's an interesting question about cushion. Don't "they" say one should have a year's salary in the bank anyway? (Ha to that!) Good luck to you. If I could, I'd totally do it too, regardless of the economy.

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