Why (Nearly) Every Novelist I Know Has a Day Job
It’s difficult to sustain a life by writing; there’s zero shame in working a 9-to-5, too.
Whenever the topic of writers and pay comes up, I always enjoy dropping this little nugget: “Nearly every novelist I know has a day job.”
I don’t mean the novelists whose indie-press masterpiece sold a grand total of 15 copies (14 of them to family) before disappearing into the ether; I know mega-successful novelists, the kind whose books were optioned for movies and television shows on the way to the New York Times bestseller lists, who nonetheless hold down a 9-to-5.
Some do it for the healthcare. Others because they genuinely liked the jobs they were working before they hit it big, and have zero urge to quit now. But I also suspect there’s another element at work: fear.
Writing books doesn’t yield a consistent income, to put it mildly. According to a new study by the Authors Guild, the median pay for full-time writers was $20,300 in 2017; for those writing part-time, $6,080. Among those part-time writers, income has dropped noticeably, from $10,500 in 2009. To make matters worse, the number of magazine and newspaper venues has declined precipitously over the past few years, restricting the opportunities to supplement income via articles.
Unless you’re already a mega-selling author, or your publisher is willing to take a very expensive chance on your groundbreaking book, your advances will vary from project to project — and that’s before we talk royalties, which can fluctuate considerably. Hence the fear; you have zero idea how much you might be making a year or two from now.
Granted, I do know some folks for whom novel-writing is their one and only job. Some are retired, and writing is their second career; others have family money of some sort, or a rich spouse, or at least a spouse willing to foot most of the bills. The majority, however, work some other gig: PR, journalism, teaching, video editing, driving, and so on.
“The people who are able to practice the trade of authoring are people who have other sources of income,” a book editor is quoted as saying in the Times.
All that being said, there’s a discrepancy between the reality of the writer’s life, and the perception of the writer’s life by people not in the business; I blame Hollywood, which often portrays writers as living in enormous New York City apartments, enjoying an expensive lunch with their agents before driving up to their second home on the Hudson. Some writers do have that lifestyle (I’ve known some of them), but for the vast majority, writing is a side-hustle, even if they have several published books on their special Author’s Shelf.
This is why things like book piracy hurt; in many cases, those who illegally download novels or nonfiction tomes aren’t stealing from millionaires who won’t miss the extra $10 — they’re taking from people whose margins are already razor-thin or nonexistent. It’s also why many authors get really, really irritated when people ask for free copies of their books.
In other words, life for many writers is hard, and only getting harder — you have to be in it for the love. And find a job that can sustain you.