Wow, Nora is either a mind reader or New York is in a bubble in the future, because her (excellent) Sidelines post covers something I was mulling over last night. Namely, is writer income really that unstable?
I’m sure there are plenty of writers who live advance to advance, just as there are plenty of people who live paycheck to paycheck. Both of these are unstable, but everyone’s situation is different. However, if you’re lucky enough to be able to build an emergency fund and save money most months, then I put forward that writing money is actually more stable than a salary.
It took me a while to come around to this way of thinking. When I first decided to quit my day job to do my writing full time I was distraught and worried about leaving what I saw as stable income for the wild and woolly world of advance checks and (maybe, hopefully, if-wishes-were-wings) royalties. I’ve always worked, and while writing is definitely still working, it didn’t FEEL like work when it was all I was doing. Needless to say, my first few weeks were a blur of trying to meet impossible word goals and keep the house spotless. (All I did was learn that moving to writing full time doesn’t necessarily mean you can double your output. I’m sure this isn’t true for all writers, but, for me, more hours does not necessarily equal more words.) I also worried constantly about not bringing in regular money. Sure I had book money, but getting checks and putting them in the bank (especially when you have to save an unknown amount for taxes) is nothing like getting regular monthly deposits. The lack of a monthly cash dump in my bank account made me feel constantly broke, almost enough to send me panicking back to work. Then my husband brought up the following:
He considers my book money to be the more stable of our two incomes. The reason is thus: if you’re making a living off your books, the money comes in in lumps. If you work for a salary, you get paid monthly. Now, say the unthinkable happens and (for whatever reason) both my and my husband’s income streams stopped cold. I would still have a lump payment, and while I’d lose future money, for the moment, nothing would change for me. My husband, however, would see his income vanish instantly with instant ramifications. Of course this disaster would still be disastrous, but because of the lumpy nature of writing income, we’d actually be in a better position than if I’d been also working for a salary.
Everyone’s situation is different, but by and large the hairy nature of writing for money simply strips away the illusion of security in most jobs. Jobs are no better than anything else in the world, every one of them is just a series of unfortunate events away from vanishing. While writers don’t have any more control over their future than anyone else, lumpy income streams at least allow you to plan your path (i.e., you have a few months of paid warning to decide if it’s time to start begging the dayjob to take you back). Compare that to a surprise layoff and you see what I mean.
I’m not saying the writing life isn’t stressful and a bit like walking a tightrope over a flaming pit at times, but, like any income, with planning and luck it doesn’t have to be volatile. The lumpy nature of book writing income actually lends itself to saving, planning, and stability. Sure, my book could tank, my publisher could go under, and my name could be mud for the rest of my life, but I could also get fired from a job without warning, the company could go bankrupt, or my skill set could be rendered useless by an advance in technology. What I’m saying is there’s no escaping possible disaster no matter where you set up shop, but at least with writing I have my (modest) lump of of a few month’s income from which to plan my next move, and that feels pretty stable, and pretty good.