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.