Writing, Money, and Living Off Large Advances
Or, about that Medium article....
We’ve got a queue going again, and we’ll resume with questions on Thursday!
Now last week, while I was on deadline, this article blew up Writer Twitter. The overwhelming grain of the responses was critical — that this author had been financially irresponsible, that she should have realized how volatile a writing career is, and that she should have neither depended on those large advances nor assumed she could raise her standard of living to the degree she did.
There’s certainly a lot of truth in the criticisms — this industry is incredibly volatile, and learning the ins and outs of publishing is very, very important. Plus: usual financial common sense like paying off debt is, well, smart.
But the author was revealing some very painful truths about publishing in that article that I think got lost in the distraction of the expensive cocktails. Most armchair quarterbacks seemed to think they’d do a lot better than she did if they were granted a large advance, but… honestly, I think handling advances is a lot harder than most people think. And I say this as someone who came from making a living in the movie industry!
So let’s talk about some hard truths that come with living off advances.
Hard Truth #1: Budgeting Responsibly is a Lot Harder Than It Seems At First Glance
I'm going into my fourth year of living (primarily) off a large advance. I did all the “right” things financially, and I knew a lot more about the publishing industry than the author on Medium. I have no debt. I do the “smart” thing and pay myself a salary each month, and I budget hard.
Now here's truth #1 that I think is getting lost: You don't know when the next contract will happen. Which means you don't know how long that amount will need to last.
This can be DRASTIC. Let’s think about how it plays out. You can say, okay, I'll just pay myself less in “salary” to make that amount last longer, just in case... But how extreme do you go? Do you pay yourself little enough that you're introducing pain points into your life in order to be “smarter” financially? When you don't actually know if you need to?
Personally, my biggest regular expenses are health-related, and… I currently don't pay myself enough per month to take care of them all. (Don't worry, I do the bare minimum.) Would it be “smarter” to pay myself even less and make it all last longer, at greater expense to my health? Is it “irresponsible” if someone in my situation did pay themselves enough to take care of all their basic health needs, even if it was riskier?
What about small “luxuries”? I decided I could afford to live without a roommate. This is not huge, but it costs something. How hard should I scrimp? What about people wanting to do things for their children/pets? What about wanting to DECIDE to have children/pets?
So yeah, if you're on a multi-book contract that is extending over years, it's easy to say you just estimate and divide to see what your salary and corresponding standard of living can be. I saw a lot of people suggesting this after the Medium article, that you “just” do that and then you won’t run into trouble. But with publishing timelines, your estimate could be off by YEARS. Many of these contracts cover multiple books, and it’s impossible to know how long the timelines will be.
Are we expecting an author to stretch a large advance over eight years instead of five, just in case? At the expense of raising their standard of living, which for a lot of writers isn't fancy cocktails, it's doctor's appointments or enrichment for their kids or increasing the food budget beyond ramen?
It’s harder to make the call then, isn't it?
And I’m not complaining — but I want to talk about this. Because it IS the reality of trying to do this as a profession, and we have to plan around this in some way. But it means I have a lot of sympathy for the author of the article. She estimated badly, which is so, so, so easy to do, when you're talking about something this irregular over timelines this long.
Hard Truth #2: It’s Not Always Good Advice to Keep the Day Job
I also saw a lot of people criticizing the author for not keeping a day job, saying they would never “assume” that publishing monies would ever last in a way that would sustain them long-term.
It's easy to say not to quit the day job. But I find that to be... an extremely privileged position from a health perspective. Again, I’m coming from a place that is worse than most from a health/disability perspective, but it is inconceivable to me that I could both maintain my current publishing deadline commitments and keep a 9-5 job.
Some writers can. I cannot. I have a large advance with an aggressive, multi-book schedule. When I'm under deadline I'm working 70 hours per week, plus I've had extensive travel. And they’re paying me enough to monopolize my time with that, so it’s fine. But it also means that I do not physically have the time for a second full-time job.
Even for writers not struggling with health issues, it honestly boggles me a little that we so blithely advise people in this industry to work two full-time jobs, even after they can quit one of them. When I sit with that for a minute, it feels odder and odder.
However — though I’m lucky enough to be paid well enough to do this as a career right now, people are correct that that’s only guaranteed for a certain amount of time. And there’s an opportunity cost there. While I’m doing this, I’m not working up in a different, potentially more stable career. If my writing income does go off a cliff, I won’t have those years put in for raises and promotions somewhere else.
Again — this is the reality of it. And I’m very grateful to have a writing career. But that brings us to Hard Truth #3…
Hard Truth #3: You Can Do Your Job Brilliantly and It Might Not Matter
What the Medium article said is true, about having so very, very little control about your success trajectory in traditional publishing.
You can do everything right, be the best worker every possible, and... it can all just go off a cliff. It is rare in other industries to have a dynamic like this, where you can be doing your best possible work and have such a sudden income dropoff through no fault of your own. In most other jobs, we expect that barring disaster, one can have a reasonably stable/upward trajectory. Even in most freelancing, the trajectory is expected to go up if you're doing good work and smart business.
In writing, you can find yourself right back at entry level, just... suddenly. Rebranding. Switching pen names. And with no other job history to fall back on, because you just spent years living off a big advance, and no matter how smart you play it, that money becomes not more than a reasonable, not-huge income when it's spread over years. (Also, most authors' contracts aren't for huge lump sums at once, which makes investing rather than living off it significantly more difficult. You're not getting hundreds of thousands of dollars at once, usually, unless your advance is REALLY huge or your contract is unusual. So the people saying the author should have “just” invested it and she would have been fine are probably also wrong, or at least that’s wrong for most people’s situations.)
Trying to figure out how to navigate all this — it’s scary AF. Now personally... I am okay, so far. But I know I could easily not be. And I've seen too many of my full-time writer friends either in trouble or wobbling and looking down the black hole. And the author of that article is absolutely right, that there are a lot of resources out there for getting to a debut, but not much for navigating all this stuff afterwards.
Juggling secondary income streams, planning around the instability, figuring out which of these risks to take — it's harder than most people think. Even if you're “smart” about it.
So yeah. I wish people could ignore the fancy drinks for a second, because she's talking a lot of truth. We all have to learn as much as we can and make the best decisions we can.
If you agree with what I’m saying but still don’t like the tone of the Medium article, I really agree with all of Chuck Wendig’s take on it and co-sign his advice mightily. For a little more on this topic, I also have a prior column about what it’s like to try to live off advance payments, and the mistakes I’ve made doing so. And of course, if you have any questions about any of this, write in and ask and I’ll answer them in this space.