Is It Time to Quit the Day Job?

By John Gilstrap

Well, well. It’s been awhile since I wandered into the Killzone. I love what you’ve done with the place. I figure it’s been about six years since I took my hiatus from these halls. I see lots of familiar faces, and a happy number of new ones as well. Now, if you’ll excuse me for just a second, let me go to the fireplace and turn my coffee cup around so it’s facing front again.

When I departed the Killzone after its first three years, I did it in part because the pressures of my day job—which required an insane amount of overnight travel—combined with my annual book contracts left me with too little time to do justice to everything. Something had to go, so the voluntary commitment bit the dust.

Effective January of last year, I departed that day job after 10½ years, and while I’m still busy as hell, there’s room again in the schedule for blogging. When I reached out to my buddy Jim Bell to see if there might be room for a returning emeritus, I learned that Joe Moore was planning his departure, and here we are.

I thought it appropriate for my first foray back into blogdom to talk about making the decision to quit the day job. Most artists have dreamed of turning their back on the workaday world and throwing their entire being into writing or singing or painting or . . . well, you get it. How do you know when it’s time (or if it’s okay) to pull the trigger on a job—or, in my case, on a 35-year career? (I am/was a safety engineer by training and degree, with a special emphasis on explosives, hazardous materials, firefighting and various metals processing operations.)

As a rule, I discourage people from making the jump to full-time writing unless they have a financial backstop—a working spouse, perhaps, with a dependable income stream and employer-paid insurance. I for sure discourage people who have never published a book, or who perhaps have published only one or two okay-performers from making the leap.

Full disclosure: I’m a planner and a risk avoider. I don’t roll the dice on important stuff.

In my world view, you always take care of family first. The baby’s got to have food and diapers, the teenagers have to have as good a shot at a great launch as you can give them. My own experience shows that writing success can be achieved just as well as a part-time endeavor as it can be from a full-time commitment. For me, it played out like this:

Books 1 & 2: Written part time, while working 60 to 80 hours a week.
Books 3, 4 & 5: Written full-time, but supplemented by income from screenplays and insurance paid for by the Writers Guild of America.
Books 6 thru 14: Written part time while working a day job that required nearly 200 nights of travel per year.
Books 15 & 16: Written full-time.

If you’ve got a passion for writing, you’ll find a way to make it work, one way or another. In the vast pantheon of people who tell stories on the page, relatively few of them do so full time. And of those who do, my experience shows that they have a working spouse, or have retired and have an additional source of income. In my own case, I spent 20 years investing and saving for this moment, to the point that if the book market crashes, we’ll still make ends meet.

So, how do you know if you’re ready for the switch to full-time writing? Well, obviously mileage will vary, but here are a few questions to ask yourself.

Can you afford it?

Only you know what your lifestyle needs are, and how much cash flow you require to support it. Only you know how much risk you’re willing to take, and what sacrifices you’re willing to make. Still, here are some realities to consider (We’ll assume that you’re married without dependent children, you’re a 50-year-old sole bread-winner making $100,000 per year from writing alone, and that you live in Fairfax, Virginia):

1. 15% comes off the top for agent commission, leaving you with $85K in taxable income.
2. The $85K puts you in the 25% tax bracket, so $21,250 goes to Uncle Sam.
3. Of the remaining $63,750, you’ll owe another $4,400 to Virginia.
4. That brings us to $59,350.
5. Now remember that since you’re self-employed, you need to cover both the employer and employee share of FICA, so that’s another 15% of taxable income, or $12,750, leaving you with $46,600 to pay bills.
6. Don’t forget health insurance, which is far too moving a target to guess at a number, but plan on about $1,000 per month, provided you stay healthy.
7. Of your $100,000, then, you’ve only got about $34,600 left in truly discretionary income.

The killers here are the 7.5% employer’s share of FICA and the health insurance. For my wife and I, who are both healthy yet take some medications, our insured healthcare costs will approach $30,000 per year until we reach the age of 65.

If you’re on the edge of making the move to full-time artist, invest in both a good lawyer and a good accountant to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of incorporation, and on the structure of the corporation you form.

Can you handle the loneliness?

The first time I left a day job to write full-time, loneliness proved to be my Achilles heel. It’s not that I’m not content keeping my own company, but rather that as a Type A extrovert, I missed the water cooler action. Spending the day playing with your imaginary friends can get to be pretty isolating if you let it.

Are you ready to turn your passion into a real job?

It’s a big deal to entrust your financial future to an industry as capricious as the entertainment business, where your reputation and paycheck are literally tied to your latest effort. Readers’ tastes change, publishers go out of business, editors and agents retire. Any one of those events—or any one of a bajillion others, for that matter—can turn current success on its ear. And you’ll have to adapt. It’s no different than any other business, but in my experience, creative people start a writing business with far less preparation and due diligence than the average entrepreneur. Don’t make that mistake.

Whether you’re traditionally published or you choose the far more challenging self-publishing route, this job is as much about marketing and business management as it is about creativity. While your expenses are tax deductible, they are not free. Those expense reports you used to turn in to the accounting office for reimbursement are now paid out of your own funds. That short story that you used to squeeze out free of charge for a charity anthology now represents real opportunity costs that are measured in real dollars.

Will you be happy with your decision five years from now?

Back when Joy and I were first married, my mother counseled that if we waited to have children or buy a house until we thought we could afford them, we’d never have children and we’d be renting forever. Sometimes, making the decision casts the future. Failure is not an option.

There’s no such thing as security in any job market these days. We all know people who have been laid off without ceremony after having dedicated decades of their lives to the company they loved. Business is business, after all, and there’s rarely room for mercy from the corner offices.

It could be argued that shifting from what I used to call a Big Boy Job to a creative job is no more or less risky than leaving Google to go to work for Apple. They’re all big steps.

They’re all big decisions.


This entry was posted in #amwriting, #writers, A Writer's Life, advice for fiction writers, advice for young writers by John Gilstrap. Bookmark the permalink.

About John Gilstrap

John Gilstrap is the New York Times bestselling author of Lethal Game, Blue Fire, Stealth Attack, Crimson Phoenix, Hellfire, Total Mayhem, Scorpion Strike, Final Target, Friendly Fire, Nick of Time, Against All Enemies, End Game, Soft Targets, High Treason, Damage Control, Threat Warning, Hostage Zero, No Mercy, Nathan’s Run, At All Costs, Even Steven, Scott Free and Six Minutes to Freedom. Four of his books have been purchased or optioned for the Big Screen. In addition, John has written four screenplays for Hollywood, adapting the works of Nelson DeMille, Norman McLean and Thomas Harris. A frequent speaker at literary events, John also teaches seminars on suspense writing techniques at a wide variety of venues, from local libraries to The Smithsonian Institution. Outside of his writing life, John is a renowned safety expert with extensive knowledge of explosives, weapons systems, hazardous materials, and fire behavior. John lives in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia.

23 thoughts on “Is It Time to Quit the Day Job?

  1. My plan is to gradually step down from my soul sucking day job to a life of writing. So far I have exactly little to nothing written, save for a few poorly written shorts. I do however have a plan and am as organized as an be to pursue it. My plan basically involves gradually writing more and working less.
    full time job now and part/full full time writing
    in X amount of years, part time work and more writing
    XX amount of years , an few hours here and there of work and overtime writing
    XXX amount of years (getting good now) Fully independent writer begging my wife not to spend to much.

  2. Welcome back!

    I’m one of the lucky ones who has an incredibly supportive spouse. He works tirelessly so I can pursue this labor of love. (Although I think he’d prefer it became more lucrative for us both!) And I still take freelance editing jobs while I wait to be noticed. (And by “wait” I mean actively market—I’m a dreamer, but I’m still practical.) Going full time is a difficult decision for anyone; I can’t imagine the courage it takes someone without a supportive partner.

    Thanks for that cost analysis. Very useful.

  3. Welcome back, John. We’ve missed you.

    Great summary on full time writing outlook. Health insurance for the self-employed is a huge consideration. Cash flow is another. When bills come in monthly, a full time author must have the discipline to deal with irregular cash flow to budget money, as well as deal with cash outlay to run their writing business.

    Good stuff here, John. Glad you’re back.

  4. I’m also lucky to have a supportive husband who believes in “the dream” as much as I do. I have no doubt he wishes I made more money, but at least he’s willing to go for the ride. How anyone writes full-time without a safety net remains a mystery to me.

    Welcome back!

  5. I worry about the loneliness thing too. Also, I kinda like my day job (despite it sucking the joy out of me from time to time, there are good days too). I’d miss that side of it.
    It’s nice to see a well thought out piece about it. I’ve read a number of posts that were of ‘you won’t get anywhere unless you COMMIT’ type, which is, frankly, a little scary.
    Food for thought. Thank you.

  6. While I’m right in there with the millions who’d love to ditch their day job and write, I know it isn’t feasible. I’m my own sole support and even the day job isn’t exactly lucrative.

    The one thing that would be a piece of cake in the transition to full time writing (for me) is that I would not suffer loneliness. It would be fabulous to have more time alone (probably the thing I crave most often). And frankly, I think having more alone time fosters improvements in relationships because as it is now, when my 8 hour-a-day job takes 13-14 hours out of my day, building and maintaining relationships consists of a brief hello on FB and swapping a few texts or a phone call.

    End game goal is to at least reach the point where I work outside the home part-time and can have more time for my writing. But that will be a long term goal.

  7. Welcome back, Brother Gilstrap! Gosh, I can remember when I first got to TKZ, a fan of Nathan’s Run, and Jonathan Grave did not yet exist. Now look!

    Good, solid advice here from the traditional author side. Let me respond to a couple of points from the self-publishing angle. You wrote:

    “Are you ready to turn your passion into a real job?”

    To self-publish successfully, I’d phrase it as: Are you ready to turn your passion into a real business? You will need to think like a publisher and entrepreneur. While that may seem daunting to some artistic types, I contend the principles are pretty simple (which is why I wrote a book on making a living as a writer).

    Whether you’re traditionally published or you choose the far more challenging self-publishing route…

    I’m not sure why you think self-publishing is “far more challenging.” Most former trad-pub writers I know who have gone to self-publishing are making more moolah, are more productive, and are enjoying not being at the mercy of a troubled industry. I’ve had friends who’ve been dropped by their publishers for lack of sales who are now supporting their families again. They like the monthly payments, the 70% royalty, and keeping the 15% agent tax.

    Being a full-time writer is a challenge either way, but for a writer just starting out, the more challenging route is probably the traditional one. Advances are nose-diving and the pressure to sell through is intense even as shelf space shrinks and industry proceeds drop. There’s virtually no marketing. There’s also the rights question. That’s the asset, the value. After five years, who will control the rights?

    All questions worth pondering. But the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing: you’ve got to write books readers love. Not just like.

    As far as health insurance, though, there’s good news. You can keep your doctor and your premiums will go down. Or so I’ve been told.

    • Jim, it’s great to be back.

      As I recall, we have never agreed on the relative merits of traditional publishing versus indie publishing. I consider the indie route to be far harder simply because there are so many more chores involved–everything from seeking a competent editor to cover design to rights negotiations–and all of it is paid for by the writer. In my world, all money flows toward the writer. I don’t begrudge a single penny of agent commissions because it’s hard-earned.

      But let’s pace ourselves. The blogosphere is long and wide.

  8. John, it is so great to have you back! I can’t tell you how much I’ve missed your voice here. I am not qualified to comment on the income considerations of working a day job versus taking the leap into full time writing, because I’ve never had to rely solely on my writing for sustenance (or at all, in fact). I *would* add that I tended to be much more productive when I had to manage a day job in addition to writing. (i.e., If I have 2 hours to do something, it takes me 2 hours. If I have 24 hours, nada much seems to get done). Oh, and I need external deadlines, too. Without someone expecting to get something from me a specific time, I tend to go on Shore Leave. All of which is meant to say to my fellow TKZ’ers: listen to John G–he’s a great role model!

  9. Welcome back, John.

    Great job analyzing the dollars and cents for the self-employed writer. I’m sure most of us would consider $100K/year an astonishing income for writing…until we read your breakdown. Damn, better cancel my order for the new Mercedes.

    OMG, $30K/year for medical costs for two healthy people. Terrifying…and only getting worse.

    We writers are dreamers, so it really helps to have a reality check now and then. Thank you.

  10. Nearly 5 decades ago, my then fiance and I made the decision that we would never allow putting food on the table or a roof over our heads to require two incomes. He was a grad student, I was teaching junior high. He got his degree, a job, and we had a kid. Because of the times, being a stay-at-home mom was still ‘normal’ and I did some part-time work to supplement our income, but it was all ‘gravy’ (albeit watery). Two more kids (second one was twins, which was another jolt to the budget), a lot more years, a few more jobs, but I was never ‘career’ oriented, so I could cherry pick the jobs I wanted. Had I been bitten by the writing bug then, who knows what would have happened, but I didn’t get into this writing gig until well into my AARP days, and I’d say I have the ‘luxury’ of being able to weather the vagaries of the business. I’m fully indie now, and my income is still gravy, although it’s a lot richer than the old days.
    Medicare is a boon, Social Security is nice, but my writing income remains separate from the household. It’s there as a cushion. And, I can walk into the Honda dealership and write a check. Not going for the Mercedes yet.

    As for John’s comments about having to find an editor, cover artist, etc. That’s not a new chore for each book; once you find them, you’ll probably keep them for a while. Yes, you pay them, as well as handling marketing, but if you’re not a writer of John’s stature, you’re going to pay for and handle a lot of your own marketing anyway.

    Anyone who pays attention to the industry should know that most published authors still have day jobs. The big names pull in most of the money, which is why I like the indie option.

  11. Welcome back, John!

    This is a terrific, realistic look at writing full time. The dollar breakdown is pretty astonishing. My husband and I have been doing the quarterly tax thing for years–if people only knew what it’s like to have to write those self-employment checks, rather than only seeing routine deductions. I think our tax system would be very different.

    I’m always sad to see writers who get a lucrative 2-book deal dump their day jobs. One contract does not a career make–and it rarely works out well.

  12. Welcome back! We kept the coffee on. It’s really strong by now.

    I’m still working on it. I did make the decision to swap my law practice for gradually selling out the family antique business and working on other writing-related income streams.

    My best friend was given no choice. Writing was her single saleable skill that had the potential to support her household after a family tragedy. She’s owning it like a damn boss, supporting family on about 30 hours a week of non-fic freelance.

    Another friend, after 20+ years in the freelance, self-pub, small press workhouse, is finally breaking out and were able to take that last scary step, his wife left her job (and the insurance) to be a full-time mom while he toils in his writing cave.

    On the flip side, a friend who just inked her 4th contract stocks produce at a rural Walmart.

    You nailed it (and you speak about it eloquently at cons) with analyzing the keys:

    – What are your needs and lifestyle? I happen to be one of those rural types who paid cash for my house. No mortgage. No kids. Overall, my lifestyle is quite modest. The sample “discretionary” income is my target gross before taxes and business expenses.

    – Do you have the skills needed to generate the cash to meet those needs? People ask me how I can buy something at a thrift shop for 50 cents and sell it for $50. Practice, practice, practice . . . trial and spectacular error. That applies to writing as well.

    – Are you willing to treat it like a job/business? That can be a tough one. My time management skills absolutely stink. The friend who is breaking out? His super-power is time discipline. That’s the last one standing between me and a level of security.

    Good to see you back at the Zone . . . Terri

  13. Seems I always learn a little something from you, John.
    “… since you’re self-employed, you need to cover both the employer and employee share of FICA….”

    Never considered that.

    Enjoy Boucher.

  14. Very helpful and realistic post. Yes, I agree, most people need to keep the day job to pay bills, but it’s hard to write well when you’re perpetually tired and pressed for time. Once they have enough money and investments to cover the necessities of life, it might be worthwhile for them to retire early so that they can pursue their writing passion full-time.

  15. Hi John. Welcome back to TKZ! I wasn’t here when you were here before, but the others have sung your praises. I am a newbie, working on my first novel. I’ve wanted to write my entire life, but I never did it when I had to work full-time. I had to take a disability retirement early, so I decided there was no better time to do this than now, when I have the time. The trouble is, due to disability, I have the time but not always the focus due to good and bad days. Everything is a give and take. I try my best, but sometimes I can’t write even though I want to. Thank you for this post, it is definitely food for thought.

  16. Hi John and welcome back. I, too, “met” you via “Nathan’s Run.” (My sister recommended it to me and I loved it). So glad you are back. But about your post…

    Really good advice for anyone considering not just a writing life change but any life change. ie: Do your financial homework, get input from spouses and people whose decision you will affect, and…maybe this is most important…don’t be afraid.

    My husband and I are considering a life change. It doesn’t involve my writing but considering we are both on the shade-side of 60, we don’t do anything without considerable weighing of the scales. Today, we sat on a bench on Grand Traverse Bay and watched the sun go down here in northern Michigan and decided we are going to give up our “large” condo in Fort Lauderdale for a much smaller one. (which will mean the husband has to give up his collection of sports bobbleheads and I have to sell the piano). This will free us up to maybe buy a small place here in the northern woods. I know real estate decisions aren’t of interest to folks here but I think there might be a parallel.

    You can’t be afraid to make leaps…like you, writing full time…but you need to do your homework and make sure it makes sense financially, emotionally, and doesn’t negatively impact those you love.

    I recognize that I am lucky in that I am in a position, with my husband, to have some flexibility because I am older and have no one dependent on me other than two small dogs. But as you say, you have to approach any major life change with a combination of head and heart.

    Welcome home, dude!

  17. John! You’re back! This is fantastic. Some of the schedules you have kept while turning out book after book were incredible. You got some kind of drive going there. I’m looking forward to your posts. This one is great.

  18. John, good to have you back at TKZ, filling a hole that I was worried might accommodate someone whose posts I wouldn’t enjoy. Glad to be proved wrong.
    I appreciate this blog post. My road to writing was different, but the points you make are quite valid. I look forward to more posts by you, with counterpoint by “recovering lawyer” Jim Bell. Write on.

Comments are closed.