the five book rule, er… guideline

My friend Kristin has a post on her new-ish blog about not quitting your day job. Go read it. I agree with her most wholeheartedly. We used to quote the five book rule around DMLA. Don’t consider becoming a full time writer until you have at least five books simultaneously on the shelves and earning regular royalties. It’s more of a guideline than a rule, really. But it makes the same point.

And I’m particularly struck by the comment in which someone wonders about agents and editors, particularly at small companies, who also have day jobs. I do know a couple people who fall into that category. I’ve also repeatedly run into writers who don’t realize that agenting *is* my day job and that I may occasionally be off the clock, so to speak.

In other news, I just got an email query in which at least half the sentences do not begin with a capital letter, punctuation appears to be optional, and spelling errors abound. I really want to know what a “non desciptive secretary” might be.

51 responses to “the five book rule, er… guideline

  1. You know, I fully intended to play by that 5 book rule. In retrospect, I’d be totally buggered if I had to do a day job and write this many books. But I’ve gotten very, *very* lucky. πŸ™‚

    • We’ll call you the exception that proves the rule. *g*

      • I became a success as a writer because I couldn’t find a full-time job after 9/11. *g* What do I get to be?
        (Still working part time, that’s what.)

        • I was blessed by a layoff after 9/11, and have been part-timing/freelancing ever since. Right when I was mailing out a million copies of my CV, I realized I was averaging wonderful 8-hour writing days, wasn’t starving or on the verge of foreclosure, and didn’t ever want to go back.
          Wondering when the success will kick in, though. Glad to see it happened for somebody.

          • *g* There was three years of starving artist in there, but things are picking up now….
            My standards of success are not, you know, even petit bourgeousie. I am driving a 16-year-old truck, nd I *really* hope I don’t have to replace it any time soon.

            • Yeah, I’m driving a 14 year old Volvo with one of the windows sealed with duct tape. Wouldn’t trade my writing hours for better.

              • I guess I’m a very lucky exception – my house and my car are paid off in full, mostly from the proceeds of ONE book, and I’ve got three more under contract and one “pending” as it were (awaiting word on that) but I’ve more ideas after this, and an agent who believes in my work, and circumstances would have to be extreme indeed for me to crawl back into an office with “working hours” attached. I’m doing okay, and I’m having fun. Writing full time is scary, and if anyone is really attached to the security of a regular paycheck I wouldn’t recommend it as a lifestyle – but you really can’t beat, as once said, the commute…

  2. When you find out about the “non desciptive secretary”, please let us know… enquiring minds want to know! Was she once desciptive, and things changed? Or was she always lacking in desciptivity?
    *sob* That poor secretary!

  3. I didn’t so much give up my day job as sidestep into a different day job, that of freelance writer. Novels, yes, but also advertising and marketing copy, and the freelance editing to round out the paycheck.
    I also adhered to the other part of the rule: have a nice cushion in the bank (six months living expenses) before you do anything. Publishers, alas, don’t always pay in a timely fashion, even once you have the contract, and yet bills must be paid. Getting into debt over ‘money due but undelivered’ is one of the abiding curses of the freelancer life.

    • I’ve also (as was being discussed over in ‘s journal, started changing my lifeset from “work until you retire” to “work and play, repeat as needed until you die.” It’s… an interesting way to live, not the least because of the (occasionally negative) reactions I get from people still in the traditional retirement-track.

      • Yep. Are there writers who plan on retirement?
        Admittedly, I’m doing better right now writing than I ever did working a day job.

      • I’ve heard this discussed in retirement planning circles, though not very loudly. The concept of Just Keep Working, part-time or whatever. The lessening of pressure when you realize that you don’t have to save X number of dollars in Y years, that this is the formula for your life, is liberating.
        We’re in an industry that supports its older writers, though, in that you’re in as long as you can produce and sell. I don’t see age discrimination in publishing, unless I’ve completely missed the signs.

        • Well, my first reaction to this is remembering a few horror writers who recently passed away. They had not sold anything in a decade or so and ended up penniless in nursing homes and such. Now, I honestly do not know if they were unable to sell or had been physically unable to write, but I think it’s always wise to consider the possibility that one could grow out of a marketplace when you’re older.

          • You can outgrow a market. You can outlive your skills–I read an interview with John le Carre in which he said that he had charged certain of his friends with the task of telling him when he no longer had what it took.
            I was thinking more of active age discrimination. “Don’t buy anything from anyone over 55” sort of thing.

          • I suspect there were writers who thought they would always have a good income from “Soviet Union invades US” novels.
            Earlier, there were probably writers who took it for granted there would always be specialized pulp magazines which wanted short stories. For example, ones devoted to one sport. (Boxing for one; I was startled the first time I read a Louis L’Amour short story in which the hero uses his fists against someone with a gun.)

        • That concept works until you hit the point where you need money and can’t find work. Which is where I am right now, and f*cked up does not begin to meet that stage. Having a pension, and having a rainy-day fund tht could pay my next mortgage payment is beginning to look real good from where I’m sitting. For me, it was a redundancy, but I’ve got writing friends with long careers and good credentials who are in similar positions.

      • Very true! I really like this approach,
        cat holm

      • “work and play, repeat as needed until you die.”
        I like it!

  4. “non desciptive secretary”…
    Since I don’t think “desciptive” is a word, one is inclined to assume she’s either left the R out of “descriptive” (which also doesn’t make much sense in the sentence. She’s an adjectiveless secretary?) or has horrifically misspelled “deceptive”. In which case, it is good to know she’s honest, but the relation of this to a secretarial position remains a bit… unclear.
    Maybe she meant “nondescript” secretary? As in, just a general, average secretary? Not the adjective I’d want to use (especially in a query letter, wherein I’d want a prospective agent to know I was the best damned secretary they’d ever heard of…), but a possibility none the less?

  5. That’s an interesting link, a idea I held for a long time. But in a two-income household, there are choices. When I was unemployed for 4 months last year and barely touched my severance, I realized that we don’t need so much to live off… and also regretted not spending more of that “time off” working on my writing.

    • Naturally, there are variables…. you could be a student still living at home, you could win the lottery, you could get an unusually large advance (though Kristin has cautions about that as well and, believe it or not, it does have its pitfalls). Having a spouse who will support writerly ambitions can certainly ease the financial burden, especially if that single income can cover all the basics. But as points out, there are considerations other than income, and as mentions, it can be used to supplement. Those are wise considerations because as per comment, publishers don’t always pay in a timely fashion.

  6. Speaking as someone in a single income family with a young child who has chronic health issues, I won’t be quitting my day job for years. Even if I hit the five book rule, I need employment benefits like group health insurance. It would take a staggering amount of money to buy the underlying stability.
    Now, if the health care financing system is ever meaningfully reformed, I might reconsider, but that’s a topic for another blog. But for me day job = health insurance.

  7. Great post. If I had a dollar for every person who said “So, when you sell your book, is your husband going to quit his job?”, I could… well, I could pretty much let him quit his job!
    I think I lucked out, career wise. We made the decision, 10 years ago, to tighten our financial belts down so that I could be a full-time stay-at-home mom while our youngest was not yet in school.
    So, when she started school, and I started focussing on my career, we were already used to making do with a single income. Not feasible for everyone, but it worked for us.
    But we’re still looking at my career, in the financial long term, as something to eventually supplement his retirement income (20 years down the line), not replace his day job.

  8. I’d tend to lean toward an annual $ amount than number of books.

    • That works on an individual basis. Kristin says: “only when your back-end royalties make in a year what you need to live on and to live well.” In other words, when you don’t have to rely on irregular advance amounts. The five book guideline is more in the nature of general advice because living expenses will vary, depending on where you live, whether you have family members to support, own or rent, etc. What can I say – I’m the queen of caveats.

      • I know–it’s very personal and individual-driven.
        A well-regarded mystery writer used to work at my company. She was told that she could retire when her 7th book came out, and she did. I have no idea what her advances or royalties were. She had the supplemental retirement income, but also family issues that she took charge of. It didn’t end well–health problems led to writing and financial problems. The upshot is that books were delayed, and she became a poster child for my company’s charitable foundation (literally) because she needed to go to them for help. Whenever co-workers ask me about quitting the day job, I bring her up. And I don’t know why I mentioned this, except to support the statement of, yeah, caveats all over the place.
        By “back-end”, does she mean “backlist”?

  9. The only reason I was able to go freelance was because I had rental income from property investments (aka filthy capitalist). I’ve been in and out of part-time employment during those freelance years, because I like money. I now run a business, so my time is divided between this and the writing. I have always worked on the principle of having a default position just in case the main source of income goes tits-up, and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve been able to do this. Since I live in the UK, health care is not a problem, but whether this will still be the case in 20 years’ time remains to be seen. Our government has pretty much knocked state pensions on the head…which is why I’m still heading down the property route.

  10. Rules and Advances
    Hi Jennifer
    The five book rule/guideline is the best advice I’ve heard so far!
    I just left this comment after reading Kristin’s post. What’s your opinion?—->
    Kristin, I’ve heard of authors spending the whole of their advance, many thousands, on publicity. (Long distance travel, contests, free gifts..) Do the author’s own efforts truly pay off in the long run?
    Do you think publishers are doing enough for new authors?
    Carrie
    http://www.carriekabak.com

    • Re: Rules and Advances
      I was told (a long time ago) that Amy Thomson spent her advance for Virtual Girl promoting directly to bookstores and booksellers nationwide, and that her efforts helped the book a lot. I’ve never asked her if this was true, but you reminded me of the question.

    • Re: Rules and Advances
      I’m not Kristin, but – publishers’ attitudes to new authors is very much that they sink or swim, and if they swim, then they get more publicity. Bantam took the approach that reviews were the best form of publicity for new writers.
      I have done a certain amount of self promotion, but not past the point where it became financially unviable. I don’t know that some of the more extreme forms of promo really pay off (authors who have stalls at cons selling mugs with their characters on, for instance. Full marks for trying but whether it works…hmmm). I’m afraid I take the view that it is a market, and your work will either become critically acclaimed, or commercially successful (and hopefully both) on its own merits.

      • Re: Rules and Advances
        mevennen: Re: Rules and Advances
        “I’m afraid I take the view that it is a market, and your work will either become critically acclaimed, or commercially successful (and hopefully both) on its own merits.”
        I totally agree with this.

    • Re: Rules and Advances
      Do the author’s own efforts truly pay off in the long run?
      At Worldcon there was a fantasy author who spent her advance on having visualisations created, complex films, entirely computer-generated. I remember the images, hauntingly beautiful. I have completely forgotten the author, the title, and the publisher.
      I remain sceptical.

  11. Thank you for that link–yet more really valuable, practical advice I think all us writer hopefuls need to know. πŸ™‚
    Thank you also for yet more things we need to watch out for in our query letters!

  12. Ah, practical advice.
    My goal had been to save up money (preferably all from writing) that would cover my budget for at least 2 years, and then have plenty of contracted books in the coming (ala *grin*) before I jumped. We are a two income household, but my guy’s income doesn’t cover us both. However, his health insurance will, so that’s a boon to have.
    Now, I just have to get some books sold πŸ˜‰
    Thank for posting this. Even the practical still need the reminder sometime.

  13. My “when you can quit your day job” standard — written from the perspective of writing in general, not necessarily from that of a book writer — is “your current day job income plus 30%.” That extra 30% would go for toward the cost of health insurance, filing quarterly, IRA contributions and all the other little expenses that come with not being part of some company.
    My other advice — if you can manage it — is to have a spouse/partner who has a day job that covers your basic life expenses (mortgage, ultilities, food), and who gets all the benefits you don’t. As it happens I make more than my spouse in terms of income, but being a writer it’s not regularly distributed through the year — and having that baseline of spousal income is a huge financial and psychological cushion.

  14. I think, as others have sort of mentioned, that there’s a lot of ground between having a full-time, fully-supporting day job, and quitting the day job utterly–part time jobs (especially part time with benefits), freelance work in other writing or non-writing fields, and so on.
    I do also always wonder a little bit about the conventional advice that you have to be able to meet your current income. Depending what that income is, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to decide to take a pay cut in order to write, so long as one is realistic about how much of a pay cut one can really afford. The assumption seems to be that one needs to maintain one’s exact same standard of living, and while I don’t recommend literally starving for one’s art, I think it is worth considering whether there are lifestyle changes one realistically can make.
    Including, perhaps, thinking hard about where one wants to live–the royalties required to support oneself in New York or San Francisco or DC are significantly higher than what’s needed in many other parts of the country.

    • I do also always wonder a little bit about the conventional advice that you have to be able to meet your current income.
      I mention this in the day job thread in my group. I sincerely do not believe that I will need 100% replacement income.

  15. My day job is “Retired.” I suspect I’ll need to start working again, probably part time.
    One problem: Most of my working life, I was a clerk typist — starting back when IBM Selectrics were new. The job kept changing with new technologies.

  16. In other news, I just got an email query in which at least half the sentences do not begin with a capital letter, punctuation appears to be optional, and spelling errors abound.
    Hey, I just got an email query, full stop. And it’s not the first. Apparently there’s people out there who can’t tell the difference between “agent” and “random person who publishes a small list of agents.”
    This Disturbs Me.
    As for quitting the day job, my day job earns me less than $20K a year and I’ve never had decent insurance, so I am perhaps more blase than most about the possibility, but I don’t actually WANT to quit, so there we are. *grin* Not that I’d turn my nose up at a chance to have to decide….

  17. Funny you mention email errors–I have had agents AND editors come back to me with little capitalization and some errors. Since they’re being nice to me, I don’t mind! πŸ˜‰

  18. My day job (which I won’t quit until Book Six is published) is answering customer service e-mails all day. It’s amazing what some people think passes for a business e-mail. Names? Optional. Salutations? Not likely.
    And it’s like they don’t even realize most e-mail programs have a spell-checker embedded.
    (And here is where I hit ‘post’ and then notice at least six typos.)

  19. No, no, no… it wasn’t descriptive secratary you see… it was des scriptive secretary. See she was very French and des scriptive means she was: the scriptive one! Actually, she was a non des scriptive, meaning she was a secretary that was not the writing type. It’s so hard to find good help these days.
    I’ve also repeatedly run into writers who don’t realize that agenting *is* my day job and that I may occasionally be off the clock, so to speak.
    Urgh, I know the feeling but for different reasons (Navy Recruiting and public/motivational speaking). Have you given up on going out in public or do you just head to the next few cities over?
    -=Jeff=-

  20. Hmmm
    Just wondering…(and abusing ellipses while wondering)
    …is there anything from preventing an author (or hell, even wannabepub) from registering their name or say a business name as a sole propietership or even an LLC and using the tax advantages from being ‘self-employed’ or a ‘small business’?
    I’m sure from the contract perspective it would have to be signed by the author as xxauthorxx, blankityblank LLC to keep his/her records straight for IRS purposes. But that could and should help out with business expenses as well as ‘start-up’ costs. I wonder…
    -=Jeff=-

    • Re: Hmmm
      You really should consult an accountant about the particulars. However, I do have at least one client who is registered as an LLC for tax purposes.

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