Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Building a Career

As an entrepreneur I'm frequently asked for advice about starting a new business, and there's one thing I always say, "Give it five years." A new business is a tough thing to start. It takes time, commitment, energy, and frequently lots of work for little to no pay. Guess what? Starting up a writing career is no different. In fact, starting a writing career is the same thing. It's starting a new business, and to truly succeed you need to give it time.

Before I go any further I want to clarify that this post is for the contracted writer. In other words, while you technically start your career with your first query letter, I believe the five-year mark starts with that first publishing contract.

When I first started BookEnds we did really well for a new agency, but we worked hard and did a lot of work outside of what we wanted to be doing. In other words, while our goal was to agent for a living, we weren't yet making a living at agenting so we needed to find other ways to pay the bills. In addition to reading submissions, networking with authors, editors, and other agents, and trying to sell books, I was freelance editing for publishers. Freelancing a couple of manuscripts a week just to keep some sort of regular income.

Within three years (thank goodness, because I couldn't have made it another two) I was doing well enough as an agent that I could give up the freelancing. Truthfully, I had to give up the freelancing. Spending time freelancing might have brought me fairly quick money, but it wasn't going to bring me as much as agenting and it was cutting into the time I needed to spend working with my clients. It meant another small pay cut until I could build up more clients, but that's what business is, it's constantly reworking and rebuilding in an effort to grow. When they say, "You need to spend money to make money," they don't always mean "spend" in the literal sense, especially if you truly believe time is money.

So why do I say five years? Because in five years' time I believe you have some sense of whether or not you've made it. You might not be able to buy that house in the Hamptons yet, but you can see that your business is solid and growing and that you've come a long way from where you started. You might even be able to pay the bills regularly and put some away for that house in the Hamptons. You have enough experience at five years to know that this career is not going to be easy, but nothing you really desire ever is. You do know, however, that you can do this, that you can make a living out of it, or almost a living.

While I think many of you dream of a career writing novels, you also need to be realistic about what it takes to start this career. You need to know that that first publishing contract is not likely to put you on easy street and that in addition to those novels you might need to find other things to do to keep you afloat while you build this business of yours. But give it five years. If you're still selling books and writing and getting published you're going to start to see some real growth in that business and you'll know at that point whether or not this is a career for you.

Jessica

19 comments:

Donna K. Weaver said...

And as with many (most?) in the acting field, most authors won't be able to give up their day jobs unless they have someone else in the house with an income stream.

Stephanie McGee said...

Excellent advice, as always. I think if a lot of us writers keep this perspective in mind it'll save our sanity as we traverse the start up of our careers. Thanks.

Kenya Taylor Wright said...

Thanks for this post.

As I walk to my job passing by people typing away in Starbucks I tend to hate every step to my job. But I have kids and student loans. I believe my writing will one day give me the ability to spend the day typing away! I'm more surprised that 5 years after a contract is signed, is a fair estimate for comfortable living as a writer. I was thinking closer to 10 years or 5 books.

Either way I am inspired! Thanks!

Debra Lynn Lazar said...

Can't wait to get that first publishing contract! No matter how long it takes, I'm enjoying the ride, since I'm a firm believer that life is about the journey, not the destination.

Eileen said...

Amen. I am five years since my first contract. In September I officially step away from my day job (cue the celebratory dancing) to write full time. I've accepted that I'll still be picking up the occasional contract/freelance position to make sure ends meet, but it feels like a huge step forward.

This business is hands down the hardest thing I've ever done. I keep reminding myself that I'm smart and capable. I could easily do something else, but I am CHOOSING this profession. And to be honest I can't think of anything I would rather do.

Lyn Miller-Lachmann said...

Keep in mind though, that you have to be prepared for anything. Five years from signing my first contract, I had another book under contract with the same respected small press, and the editor was excited about the direction of my career and the way I was growing as a writer. Then he passed away suddenly. The press closed four months after my second novel pubbed, and I was back to start--the equivalent of if at the five-year mark my small business burned down.

Because I enjoyed writing and felt I had grown as a writer, I decided to start over rather than give it up and in fact enrolled in a MFA program when I got laid off from my day job. So, as with any other business expect unexpected obstacles and having to start afresh further down the road.

Sharla Lovelace said...

Having just signed my first contract two months ago, I dream of that day. My hope/goal is to steadily put books out so that royalties overlap and advances increase. That's my hope...with fingers crossed... :)

I can retire from my day job in 14 years. I'm hoping that writing allows me to do that much much much sooner! I'd love to do this full time instead of after everything else is done.

Martin Willoughby said...

Perfectly put. Terry Pratchett took fifteen years before he could give up full time work.

Mia said...

Great post and comments. Realistic goals with some warning signs along the way.

wry wryter said...

As one who, on the threshold of writing full time, stepped back for family and just plain life, I’m jumping back in a little late. I realize I don’t have an end-date stamped on my ass but looking at five years seems like such a long time. It’s like making a lateral move in business; shouldn’t the time already spent count for something?

It is with sadness, not regret, I contemplate opportunity missed because in no way would I trade my husband, children and ‘wonderful life’ for what might have been. Like I tell my daughters YOU CAN HAVE EVERYTHING, JUST NOT ALL AT THE SAME TIME.
Five years, I’m trying for three. Dreams never die do they?

Valentina Hepburn said...

Really good post. I think five years is about right. My freelance writing career took about that long until I felt relatively secure, but even then nothing is guaranteed. I lose clients, get new ones and just pray there are enough to earn my living and pay my bills. My 'other' writing has to be a 'hobby with a hope' right now. I won't give up though. I'd feel like I was letting myself down.

Sally MacKenzie said...

Hmm. I think by five years out you have a pretty good sense of the lay of the land, even though that's changing like crazy now. But whether you can actually live off your writing--that depends a lot on how fast you write, how many publishers you write for, what kind of books you write, what your expenses are, how high your need for financial security is. I think most writers don't support themselves and their families with only the writing. And everyone who's been in this business longer than I have--my first book came out in 2005--says you have to be willing to reinvent yourself to keep going. So if one market dries up, you need to be willing to write something else.

Frankly, I don't get the sense that anyone ever feels like they've arrived, that they are secure and they can heave a big sigh of relief.

Kristin Laughtin said...

I think the right time frame is going to vary for people and where they are in life. Five years might be a good benchmark for people who are already fairly settled in other areas of their life. For people who can anticipate major life changes, they might need longer, at least to figure out if their career is working financially. For example, you might have decent sales and be able to support yourself fairly well, but that money might not be enough if you start having kids. Then you might have to get a day job on top of keeping your writing career going.

If we're just talking writing/getting published/selling, then yes, five years from first contract is probably a really good goal.

elizabeth seckman said...

Thanks. That's all I have to say about that.

Sheila Connolly said...

It was five years shy one month from that first "Aha!" moment when I decided to write a book until I received a contract offer from Berkley Prime Crime; in another month it will be five years (and ten books) since that day. I would not have quit my day job, but I kept getting dumped by employers, so I figured I should find a better way to use my time. Thank goodness it worked!

Michael Seese said...

Sorry for the late comment. To back up what Jessica said, in the newspaper the other day, there was an article about actor / comedian Steve Carrell. One of the questions asked of him was when did he feel he had "made it." His answer had nothing to do with "The Office" or the "40 Year-Old Virgin."

He said he felt he had "made it" when he was able to stop waiting tables and other odd jobs, and just be an actor.

I don't think he had kids at the time, so his income requirements probably were lower. But still...

My first book was published in 2008. But it was by a REALLY small press. So I may be on the 10-year plan.

Michael Seese said...

Sorry for the late comment. To back up what Jessica said, in the newspaper the other day, there was an article about actor / comedian Steve Carrell. One of the questions asked of him was when did he feel he had "made it." His answer had nothing to do with "The Office" or the "40 Year-Old Virgin."

He said he felt he had "made it" when he was able to stop waiting tables and other odd jobs, and just be an actor.

I don't think he had kids at the time, so his income requirements probably were lower. But still...

My first book was published in 2008. But it was by a REALLY small press. So I may be on the 10-year plan.

Amanda K said...

I think that this is a fantastic post, and entirely accurate. I also think it can be applied to anyone's career. Five years. Yup. Thanks for sharing!

Patricia said...

Loved this post, Jessica. I know everyone is different and this timeline is just a guestimate. But it makes me feel good to know that, having started writing in May 2009 and having written three books, I shouldn't think that two years is an inordinate amount of time spent in this "business" yet.
Patti