By Richard Curtis
Most writers dream of leaving their day jobs (some have night jobs as well) and launching careers as full-time freelancers. In their eagerness to realize that goal, many of them quit as soon as they've made a few sales. This decision invariably turns out to be ill-advised if not catastrophic after the author discovers that he did not properly reckon the cost of independence, project the size and flow of earnings, or prepare himself psychologically. Even an author lucky enough to strike it rich on his first book should use the utmost restraint before quitting his job to become a writer. By the time he realizes he doesn't know what to write for an encore, he may have raised his lifestyle to an unsupportably high plateau.
The questions of whether and when writers should go full-time are among the most common and vexing that agents have to deal with, and if an agent ever had a notion to play God, here is his opportunity. The responsibility for this decision is awesome and demands ten times the prudence required to advise authors about such matters as selecting the right publisher for their books. The number of factors is large and their complexity intimidating. It's the kind of decision that should be reviewed with a great many people to collect as much input as possible.
An excellent idea is to make a list of pluses and minuses, what you stand to gain and what to lose. Often the right choice will jump out at you when you review this list. The secret is to make sure you have enumerated all the factors. Then you must be brutally honest with yourself. You do not want to subject yourself and your family to needless suffering because you erred on the side of wishful thinking when you drew up your scenario.
My first rule of thumb is to determine whether you have enough work lined up under contract to guarantee employment for one to two years; that probably means you have reached a level of skill and reliability your publisher can count on. I seldom permit an author to include in his expectations income that is not absolutely guaranteed—royalties, foreign rights sales, movie deals, and the like—unless there is a solid history of such windfalls in his track record. If you've never sold British rights to your previous books, if you only hope your next book will earn royalties, if your father-in-law thinks your book is a natural for the movies, I toss these items out of the equation, because they are only fodder for self-delusion and disappointment.
I do, however, include in the equation the renewal of current contracts after you have fulfilled them, particularly if you are a genre writer. If you have a three-book contract in an ongoing series, I tend to consider it a likelihood that you'll be given another contract at the expiration of this one. If you're an established mainstream writer with three or four books under your belt and a potful of good ideas for new ones, I'm disposed to take for granted that you'll land a new contract when you complete your present book.
The renewal of contracts means money payable on signature of those agreements, so that when you look down the road for money to be earned after fulfillment of your present commitments, you should be able to count on income from new deals. It is also reasonable to figure that you'll get more money per book than you're getting now, because it's likely the publisher will feel you're a better writer and there'll be more of a sales record to justify raises. There is also a tendency among publishers to give raises to their regular writers if for no other reasons than inflation, longevity, loyalty, faith in the future, and humane motivations. You have to ask for these raises, but there's a good chance that if you don't push it too hard, your publisher will give you a little more the next time around just because you're a nice person.
Another important factor I weigh when discussing with authors the decision to go full-time is increased productivity.
At present, because you're only able to devote an hour or two to your writing in the evenings, and maybe twice that much on the weekends, you are not capable of turning out more than two books, say, per year. But if you launch a full-time writing career, you may be able to double or triple your annual output, meaning double or triple the revenue. There is also, I've observed, a tendency for writers to improve the quality of their work after they become full-timers, because they're exercising their skills to a greater degree, and (domestic distractions notwithstanding) their concentration increases. And if you do become a better, faster writer, the prospects for raises in pay from your publishers become even better. The process, in due time, becomes self-perpetuating.
Having painted the future in broad, and slightly rose-tinted, strokes, it's time to focus on the hard realities of budgeting your money after you make The Big Move. Get out that legal pad and set up two columns, Income and Expenditures. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that's about the only straightforward thing about setting up a budget, because when you start to analyze each item, you quickly see that simple concepts and definitions are elusive.
When you work for "the man," you most likely receive a regular paycheck from which certain mandatory deductions are withheld. Among these are federal and state income taxes, sometimes municipal ones as well. Social security contributions are also compulsory. Then there may also be deductions for disability insurance, worker's compensation, medical insurance, union dues, stock option purchases, pension contributions, and donations to the boss's pet charity. Your net take-home income has been 20, 40, even 50 percent or more of your gross salary.
When you become a full-time writer, however, you suddenly find yourself in the position of "taking home" a "paycheck" from which nothing (except commissions, if you have an agent) has been deducted. At first glance that's great. At second and third glances, you realize that the heavy burden of responsibility for many of those obligations, formerly taken care of by your boss, now rests on your own shoulders. You will have to set aside enough money to pay income taxes, social security, and other taxes such as unincorporated business taxes, occupancy taxes on your business property (your office, that is); medical and/or disability insurance premiums; pension contributions (you may now qualify for a Keogh Plan savings account); and whatever other "benefits" you wish to continue enjoying as carryovers from your erstwhile job. So, the $50,000 per annum that you project taking home when you go full-time may translate into less than $25,000 of disposable income after you set aside all the obligations your employer used to pay on your behalf.
To your projections of income from your writing, add income from your spouse's job if any, investment dividends and savings interest, and other sources of guaranteed revenue such as teaching, lecturing, or consulting income. And you must not rule out your savings as a potential source of income. Because delays are more the rule than the exception in the publishing game, it is entirely possible that you will have to tap the principal in your savings account or liquidate a long-term investment in order to tide yourself over between checks.
Because many major expenses are payable quarterly (such as estimated federal taxes), semiannually, or even annually, you might consider opening a savings account for those obligations only. You can then earn a little interest on the money you have set aside to pay those bills. Needless to say, you must never invest that money in speculative ventures.
When you try to tote up the "expenditures" side of your projections, you once again discover that nothing is as simple as it seemed to be when your boss took care of things. You will immediately see how costly medical insurance is, particularly when you are no longer participating in a group health care plan. The social security rate for self-employed people is higher than for those in "respectable" jobs (writing has not been a respectable job for twenty-five years).
And then there are those "bennies" and perks you took for granted when you worked for that company. If you had an expense account, you will now have to absorb that portion of the benefit that was formerly spent on yourself, in particular travel and entertainment. No longer can you charge the firm for your spouse's meal when you take clients or customers to dinner; no longer can you bill your boss for mileage incurred on that side visit to Disneyland during your business trip to Los Angeles. And because current tax law permits you to deduct only a percentage of legitimate entertainment expenses, you've also lost that part that your company absorbed in tax on the nondeductible part. Say good-bye to the free use of the postage machine when you mailed off your personal bills; to the telephone from which you called your publisher, your agent, your kid in college, your mother in Florida; to the photocopying machine on which you ran off copies of your manuscript after everyone had gone home; and to the office word processor, computer, coffee maker. Say good-bye to the paid vacation. You want a vacation, you now can take fifty-two weeks a year if you want, only you have to pay for them out of your own pocket. Say good-bye to sick days on salary. Say good-bye to the company car and the company jet and the company dining room. Buy your own car and jet and dining room.
I am not saying there aren't also many hidden benefits to leaving our job for a full-time writing career. But somehow, the savings on carfare or on the expensive wardrobe you're trading in for the freelancer's uniform of jeans and T-shirts don't seem to balance the hidden costs. And not everybody fervently believes that getting to see more of one's spouse or kids is a hidden benefit.
The biggest challenge to the newly independent is the large lump-sum payments due with unforgiving regularity throughout the year. Among these, as I've said, are quarterly estimated federal income and social security taxes, but there are also state and local taxes and estimates and medical insurance premiums. This is not to mention those other lump sums you have to pay whether you are self-employed or not, such as automobile and home insurance, private school or college tuition, summer camp fees, repair contracts on major appliances, and the like. And these all have a way of going up. Add to them the cost of occasional but inevitable contingencies, the kind that always seem to rear their heads hours after your warranties expire and moments after you have served notice to your boss of your intention to leave his employ; washing machines giving up the ghost, television picture tubes burning out, automobile engines seizing, wisdom teeth impacting.
Aside from being fiscally unprepared to deal with these aggravations, you may not be emotionally able to cope with them. This is by far the graver problem, for while you can often juggle your accounts or hustle up some money to cover short-term deficits, it is much, much harder to find the psychological resources for dealing with that condition of perpetual anxiety about money that is the lot of most freelance people.
The truth is that not everybody is constitutionally cut out to work for him- or herself. There are those who are incapable of preparing a budget or of staying within its rigid boundaries. There are those who cannot handle the loneliness of freelancing and the loss of the social support that comes from working with others. There are those who lack self-discipline, those who, after years of punching in and out at a time clock, reporting to a boss or supervisor, adhering to rules and regulations and work orders, are at a loss to structure their own time. There are those who cannot set short- and long-term goals or keep to them. There are those who cannot live with the distractions of full-time domesticity. There are those who go to pieces at the prospect of drawing on their savings or selling off an investment to cover an unexpected expense. There are those who indulge their newfound freedom by tackling that Great American Novel they've always dreamed of, instead of doing the commercial projects that have to be done to keep their finances on a steady course.
Having tried the freelance life for several years in my twenties, I can testify to having flunked most of the above tests. Though I did produce a goodly number of books during that period, and earned a decent living, I found the loneliness and isolation very hard to bear, and the budgeting of money impossible. I had some savings salted away, but having been raised to think of drawing money out of savings as tantamount to filing for bankruptcy, I suffered woefully. Every month, when the time came to pay my bills, I developed all sorts of neurasthenic symptoms ranging from vapors to hysterical pregnancy. So, be as candid with yourself as you can be when you contemplate making this critical career decision, and ask your spouse, your best friend, your accountant, your attorney, your shrink, and your agent to be so, too. If they vote yes, then all you'll need is a laptop, a pair of jeans, and a few T-shirts, and you're in business.
Oh yes—don't forget $100,000 worth of book contracts!
This article was originally written for Locus, The Newspaper of the Science Fiction Field. It's reprinted in Mastering the Business of Writing. Copyright © 1990 by Richard Curtis. All Rights Reserved.