Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Don't Quit Your Day Job

Right now, there is an awesome thread going on over at The Passive Voice that has really grabbed people’s attention. The thread, Indie Authors Quitting Their Day Jobs, makes for some interesting and in many ways, inspiring, reading. Why inspiring? Because many of the success stories listed there are spurring others to finally get off their butts and make an effort at making their dream a reality and seriously trying to write a book.
The Passive Voice is the blog of attorney, David P. Vandargriff (aka “Passive Guy”), an attorney who specializes in intellectual property law. The blog was where he could anonymously vent his opinions outside the courtroom. It’s a good place to give yourself an education about the business of publishing.
In fact, if you are considering self-publishing a book, you should read through his blog so that you can gain an understanding about the industry.
Writing a story is art. But creating a book so you can sell it is business. Never, ever, forget this! As a self-publishing author, you must wear two hats: the writer and the publisher. The writing part is easy: you sit and you write. The business side can be an enormous pain if you don’t take the time to set everything up properly.
When you read the comments placed by independent authors in the above thread, it is intoxicating when you consider just how well many of these writers have done. But before you march into your pointy-haired boss’ office and say, “Take this job and shove it up your under-qualified, incompetent ass!,” you may want to take pause for a moment and think before you leap.
Of the writers who did quit their day jobs thanks to their writing career taking off, it was only after they had a good collection of books released for sale.
The majority of the writers who responded were still with their day jobs and waiting until book sales picked up enough to replace their day job incomes. A very small minority planned to stay with their day jobs because they loved what they were doing and considered their writing income to be “side income.” 
Of the over 460 writers (at the time of this writing) who had responded to the question about their employment status, only about 30 had actually quit their day jobs as a direct result of their writing income outstripping their day job income.
That’s just over 6% of the respondents.
There is a huge amount of optimism in the posts. Many of the writers are just kicking off their careers with their first self-published books, so they aren’t anywhere near being in a position to go skipping out of the office forever. That 6% is a pretty telling number about the success rate today. That could grow over the next few years in the future as self-publishing is only about four or five years into the revolution since writers discovered they could push a book up as an ebook and sell directly to readers.
There is a third group of people among the respondents who have a story that is near and dear to my heart, because I am one of them. These are the people who turned to writing because they were unemployed and unable to find work.
This is a dangerous position to be in.
People are rarely prepared to be unemployed. When it happens, they are caught off guard and already have limited resources. Not many people are astute about filling their savings accounts with cash for just in case. Most companies try to pay their employees barely enough to remain solvent—I know too many managers who believe that barely having enough income to make it from paycheck to paycheck keeps an employee a hard worker because they are too terrified to lose their job.
So when unemployment comes—layoffs, company closings, whatever—most people don’t have the resources to survive. Their new job becomes finding employment.
In my case, I knew my job hunt was pretty much over when when I received a resumé from someone who I had sent my resumé to looking for work. (It was obviously a mistake, he had apparently gotten his contact lists crossed. The company he thought he was sending it to was bought out and shutdown two years prior.)
I was unemployed for almost three years, my unemployment had long before run out. An attempt to start a business with a couple of friends ended when the economy torpedoed our efforts, despite a strong start and a concerted effort to try and survive long enough to make it through to the other side of the chasm.
I had to do a major reassessment of my life and career options. Whatever I had done in the past was no longer relevant. Admittedly, my skills weren't quite up to snuff. I had always worked in research and development type positions. I was the guy who thought up the wild ideas, kluged together a concept prototype to show it was feasible, then handed off the project to engineers to refine into an actual product. Because of this, I never specialized in any one thing. Whatever position I applied for, there would always be someone else who was better at that one thing the company wanted. And when too much time has gone by, many high-tech companies look at how long you’ve been out of work and decide that something must be wrong with you.
I sat down and had a long, hard think about what I was going to do.
All my life, I had dreamed of writing a book. I always put it off with the excuse it takes too much time and I needed to concentrate on work. Well, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands and no work.
I didn’t just jump on the idea. I pondered on it for days.
I only had a few months left in savings and I knew it would take me about a year and a half to get the first book ready to go.
Then I looked at my IRA and found the argument I needed to spur me on.
The IRA was an investment in the future. If I succeeded with the book, then I wouldn’t need the IRA. I decided that money was best spent investing in a new career.
I estimated that when I was done writing the book and published it, I would have at least six months of money left over to survive until sales started to pick up. I also figured that would give me time to assess how things were going and jump back into the job market if it didn’t look good.
I missed my estimates.
Because of the way life goes, I missed my deadline for release of Nobody by almost two years. When it was released, I only had about a month’s worth of money left. Happily, sales started decently and I was able to make enough money to keep myself solvent for another five months beyond the release.
But I missed another estimate.
I figured it would take about six to eight months for my book to find its audience. It turns out that the average time in the industry is about 18–24 months before that happens. Even Hugh Howey and H.M. Ward, two of the top independent authors on the market today, went through an extended dry spell of almost two years from the release of their first books before sales suddenly took off.
I’m only at the halfway point.
I ran out of money three months ago and I have three months until Dragon is released.
For those wondering how you pay the bills when you are in that situation, the answer is: you can’t.
There is light at the end of the tunnel for me.
There are people waiting for Dragon to be released. Other authors who read Nobody have contacted me and told me they expect it to be an absolute success when the public finally discovers it. (As one put it, “This should be an out-of-the-park hit!”) Readers are a fickle bunch, and they don’t like to invest their time on just one book from an author. So, they will often hold off until the second or third book in a series is out before they jump in and buy it. All that in consideration, I do expect a strong surge in sales when Dragon finally hits the shelves. I figure that will be enough to allow me to pay the bills until the third book, Oracle, gets released next year. Due to the part in the story it covers, I am hoping that Oracle might just get me on a bestsellers list, however briefly.
Anybody with some extra money laying around feel like making a three-year investment on being a patron of the arts? (Investing, not donating!) Feel free to contact me and I’ll explain what I’m offering.
It’s tough getting started as an independent author.
Despite the hyped-up success stories and reports you read in the press, self-publishing is NOT a gold rush. It is a long, drawn out marathon.
You don’t win by reaching the end before everyone else, you win by actually making it to the finish line. The way you are going to reach the finish line is by making sure you have the resources to get there.
I won’t say “Don’t try to sprint to the finish line.”
When you finally make the decision that you are seriously going to try to write a book, the excitement of actually stepping out on that adventure creates a lot of energy and creativity. Instead, go nuts. Throw yourself into it. Enjoy the moment! Take advantage of that excitement and energy to propel yourself as far forward at the start as you can. Just don’t expect to be able to maintain that pace. Some people can, most people can’t. You will naturally fall into a rhythm that works for you.
If you want to write for a living, then chances are you probably enjoy writing to begin with. Use writing as a reward. Worked hard at the office? Give yourself some nice writing time that evening. Work in the office suck? Wind down by having some fun in your own world when you get home and get in a couple hours of writing. Don’t think of writing as work. Think of it as a reward. When I started toying with the idea of writing a book, I began to write story notes on the train going home. It was a great stress reducer and it made the train ride quite enjoyable. I got huge amounts of writing done during that time.
But don’t quit that day job thinking you are going to be a full time writer.
It takes the average writer about 1.5–2 years to produce a novel-length book. Add about 50% to that if it is the writer’s first book. It is entirely possible to write the manuscript in just a couple of months. The rest of the time gets taken up by the editing process. Editing is more than just checking for spelling and grammar errors. It is also managing the development of the story, maintaining the continuity and flow, watching out for errors where the author may contradict something that happened earlier in the story. Editing can often take up more time than it actually took to write the original manuscript.
As I mentioned above, it takes about 18–24 months before a book begins to gain traction in sales. Your budget should take in account two things for this period: how long you can produce a second book and how long it might take you to find a job should things start crashing.
All this sounds like a lot of negativity.
I’m not being negative, I am simply advising that people have a contingency plan in place. I’m also advising people that fantasy is one thing, reality is another. Definitely daydream about your success. That is the goal! But don’t be fooled into thinking the fantasy is going to become reality overnight.
The people who have achieved the most success in self-publishing are those people who are constantly working towards that success. They are writing their stories and getting them released on a regular schedule. They are doing the due diligence of having their books edited and proofread before being released to the buying public. They are searching out new channels of promotion to get word out about their books. They work on engaging with their readers through blogs and convention visits. They network through their friends and acquaintances to reach out to potential readers.
They don’t just put their book out there and hope for the best. They work hard to improve the chances of that success.
The one factor of success that cannot be controlled is luck. That twist of fate that dictates one book will catch the public’s eye fairly easily while another, equally good book, wallows in obscurity. It’s a lot like a roll of the dice. But by doing the work mentioned above, a self-published author can weigh the dice in favor of coming up a winning roll.
That success can happen if you work at it.
Just don’t quit your day job.
(…Until your sales really start taking off!)