Should You Quit Your Job and Write?
By Miranda Paul
If you haven’t checked out resources such as SCBWI’s The Book or Harold Underdown’s Idiot’s Guide to Children’s Publishing, you might not know how much (or how little) to expect when you sell a picture book.
I'll enlighten you: there’s no set amount.
Advances can be as low as $0 from very small presses to $10,000 or more from larger houses publishing repeat authors or high-demand titles. For debut authors (who aren’t celebrities and don’t have a wide fan base), plan on an advance of $5,000 or less.
Compared with the magazine market’s pay-per-word rate or a work-for-hire flat fee, traditional publishing seems more lucrative. But it can be tougher to sell a picture book than a magazine article, and WFH editors tend to give repeat work.
The reality, for me, is that I didn’t quit my day job—I was teaching English when I sold my first picture books, and I still substitute teach now. My income is supplemented by speaking and hosting local writer’s workshops in my city and online. I do school visits and professionally critique manuscripts. I freelance for magazines and websites and submit on spec work for others. Heck, I even donate plasma.
I’ve diversified myself enough so if one door seems to be closed, another is open. If you’re able to hear me present at a writer’s conference, I may go over my first year of freelancing in financial detail. I’ve had quite a bit of success, but have made plenty of missteps, too. I’m often better at the dreamer part of writing than I am at the business and promotion parts. Here’s what I’ve learned along the way.
1. Writing is a job.
If you’re quitting your job because you don’t want a job, prepare for disappointment. Writing is one of the hardest jobs I’ve ever had. I rarely get to “leave it in the office.” No one makes a tidy schedule where I get to punch in and out and get a paycheck based on my time and performance. There are tedious duties with no assistants or secretaries to pass the work on to (at least for me).
I might be able to wear my pajamas to work, but if and when I do, I’m giving others yet another reason to stereotype my writing career as a non-job.
2. Writing is a business. YOUR business.
To be successful in today’s market, I push myself to do more than write and dream. These things are significant parts of what I do, but not everything (unfortunately!).
If you want to succeed, you need time, energy, and money. Yes, money. Who launches a business without startup funds or financial support and a fallback plan? If you were going to open a restaurant or become a doctor, you’d need capital for your venture or a loan for your education. If you want to make money, you’re probably going to have to spend money to learn the craft, take classes, attend conferences, buy a computer or software, set up a website, obtain professional help or advice, buy books, purchase art supplies, etc. (Please note I am not suggesting you pay to publish your book.) I can’t even recall what I’ve spent on my B.A. in English, plus other courses and conferences. My annual books and research budget is in the thousands.
Just like any self-employed person, you’ll track your expenses and income, file and pay taxes, and keep records. If there are things you’re not good at or don’t like to do, you can hire people to do them for you—but again, that means money.
3. The picture book industry moves slowly.
If you’ve started submitting your work, you know that it can take months or even years to get your work read, land an agent, or sell a book. A year (or three) might pass before that book is released. Your royalties might come after an advance earns out, which could take months or years after that. Essentially, each book might be a four- or five-year journey. Even if you sell three picture books per year, do the math. Why not keep your day job, write for magazines, or take on freelancing gigs that suit you, at least until you’ve got more an idea of what your capacity and income will be?
If you want to approach this industry as I have, try letting your current writing jobs support your future writing aspirations. You can, and hopefully will, make money. Test the waters, ease in slowly. Build an empire. Take risks, but don’t sell the farm.
(Apologies for the overuse of cliché.)
Everything you spend is an investment in your craft, your career, and you. Make smart and purposeful choices with your money, time, and energy—that suit your lifestyle and goals and reward you in myriad ways.
Now get off the internet and back to writing. Kids are waiting to read your stories!
Miranda Paul is the author of One Plastic Bag (Millbrook, 2015) and Water is Water (Neal Porter Books, 2015). In addition to being an instructor for the Picture Book Academy’s newest course on grammar, she is the founder and administrator of RateYourStory.org, an online service dedicated to helping writers prepare their manuscripts for submission. Whenever she can find an ounce of free time, she hosts spontaneous dance parties with two kids, two cats, the best husband in the world, and an ever-changing rotation of international houseguests. Read more online at: www.MirandaPaul.com.
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