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On giving up the day job

That title will have had a range of responses. My writerly friends are pressing their noses to the glass to see if one of us has become a Free Elf and escaped to writing nirvana of coffees and muses and no daily grind (ha! The coffee bit does seem a staple of being a writer, as to the rest... Hmm...). My mother is poised to pick uo the phone and say, 'You're doing what!' My real-life bosses and clients are blinking and wondering if it would have been nice to know in advance.

Sadly, my message is slightly different. I'm not giving up the day job. In fact - this is going to be one of my unpalatable truth blogs - for most of us, I don't think it's possible.

Let me be frank. Writing earnings are, generally, crap. There are very few big-publishing deals out there in this risk-averse business and, despite me knowing a good few of them, kindle makes very few writers rich. So, yes, there are writers who are writing for a living (more on that later) but the vast, vast majority of writers are mid-list, often with small publishers, or indie published and making an income in the low thousands at best - and often in the low hundreds or, indeed, as I was until this year, in deficit.

The problem is a pretty basic one. We have lots of writers and we now have a free market where all those writers can release their books, should they so desire. We do not have more readers and those we already have are innundated with social media, games, a zillion leisure activities on their phones. So, in essence, as a business model there is no easy way to look at the market and assume making a career in writing is even as possible as it was ten years ago (when it was already pretty darn daunting.)

But, panic ye not. This is not going to be a miserable blog. Instead, I'm going to challenge your perception of what a writing career is and, also, how the current market in writing is really not much different than the current business market.

Firstly, what do the full time writers do? Work on their next work in progress in their snazzy garden studio? Hell no. They write, sure, but they also maintain mailing lists (especially the self publishers, I think, who have nailed that well), they're being witty and approachable on Social Media, they're on book tours, at conventions where a valuable weekend will be spent talking on panels, signing books, and working, they're writing blogs on a Sunday between tidying the kitchen and making a Sunday dinner (puts hand up guiltily). Others are editing, coaching other writers, running courses, writing articles. Still others are writing screenplay adaptations to bring in the income. In short, very few are writing full time.

Now, bear with me, while I pop on my management-theorist anorak and talk about the workplace today. Jobs for life are pretty well gone, yes? We don't expect the linear career once on offer. We accept we might change work many times. In fact, there has been a shrinkage of the traditional job and employer where all tasks were done in house and shifted instead to a consultancy model - where much of the expertise is bought in. This fringe workforce - often the self employed, or the consultacy firms - have grown exponentially and, within that workforce in particular, there has been a growth in people holding down what is called a Portfolio career.

In that career, we do a bit of everything. Sometimes I get asked exactly what I do do for a living and it's hard to answer. Sometimes I deliver training. Sometimes I assess assignments. Sometimes I quality assure same. Sometimes I'm an auditor. Sometimes I'm a coach. Often I'm more than one of these in one day. I also run my own office, file my own invoices, pay my business's bills, and fix my own computer when it goes belly up (usually by using another device and googling what to do.) Mine is the quintessential Portfolio career - and that's even before I add in doing enough writing to release 4 novels and around 6 short stories in 18 months.

What I see, in the future, is more writers having to look at this model. Either through doing part time work (but that tends towards low pay and can be hard to balance) or consultancy work or, indeed, writing related work that brings in an income. It may also include knowing the funding environment and being competitive in applying for same.

Is this a bad model? I don't think so. As with other fields, it is a model that can be played with. I'm not a good formatter and it's probably not a good use of my time - I might well continue to outsource that component of my writing business.

Because - like it or not - writing is a business. It's not a lifestyle of doing your hobby for a living. It is work and a business, and it is hard work. It is, however, for the bulk of us not a business that is sustainable in terms of income. Which is why,  I'm currently leaning  towards seeing it as one component of my working life and embracing the freedom - and relative security - of a portfolio career. In doing that, I move a non-sustainable income into its own section of the dividing file that is my working life, and suddenly it has a place and I'm free to write and still make a living.


Unknown said…
Great post, Jo. Very much in keeping with what was said at the event yesterday. Such a shame you weren't able to make it! I found it interesting, the discussion of how actual writing is only a portion (in terms of time and income) for even those classed as "writing full time" without the "day job." And here I thought it was just me!
Unknown said…
(not sure why I'm showing up as 'unknown' but that last comment was by me - Ellie)
Unknown said…
It's not just you!

I'd have loved to gone but my weekends are - rightly, I hope - tied up with loads of family stuff and I couldn't extricate myself from it! I think once we drop the notion of full time being our hope and ambition we move to some sort of freedom.... Some sort...
Mark McClure said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Unknown said…
Speaking of technology I just had an oh-no moment and deleted your comment whilst trying to reply, Mark! Aargh. But, yes, only tech allows me to manage the range of work I do.
Drew Wagar said…
Interesting. I think I'm already at this stage. I think you're right in identifying that it is unlikely for any given author to earn a decent living just from writing novels. Flexibility is key.
Unknown said…
Congrats on reaching that stage! (Whisper it - without variety I get bored.... I think a mix suits me best.)