My writing life: playing the long game

photo-288I’m working on my taxes this week. As usual, this triggers reflections on my finances, and hence my career.

I had business income from 20 different sources this year. I do think it’s important to have multiple sources of income, though 20 starts to seem scattered. In my defense, some of this is the result of building a speaking career. It might be more efficient to do 10 speeches at one company vs. one at 10 companies, but so it goes.

Beyond that, though, here’s something else that might be interesting to others pondering building a writing career: big chunks of my income are completely divorced from when I do the work. In 2014, I spent most of my time working on projects that generated absolutely none of my 2014 income.

I probably spent half my time writing and editing I Know How She Does It. I got my “on signing” chunk of the advance in 2013. The “on delivery” and “on publication” chunks will come in 2015. So nothing from it will be reflected on my 2014 taxes.

I also spent reasonable chunks of time editing my novel, The Cortlandt Boys. I knew this project was speculative, but publishing it was a long term play to keep me interested in writing, and expand my readership. Since it came out in late December, I saw nothing from that in 2014 either.

I blogged here multiple times a week, and since I don’t run ads, sponsored posts, or use affiliate links, there’s no clear income from that.

On the other hand, I still achieved my income goals. How did that happen, given that I spent less than a third of my time on 2014 income-generating activities?

Well, there’s all the stuff I did in 2009 and 2011. The biggest single source of my income was royalties for 168 Hours and What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast. Many other sources are related to those books as well. My Fast Company writing gig started because the excerpt of What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast did well on that site. Speaking gigs generally happen because someone has read my books.

Book writing is a career with a long time horizon. It’s a frequent lament on writing forums that people can’t afford to write books, and there’s something to that. First advances tend to be small, and those payments will be spread out over 3 years. There’s never a guarantee that you’ll see any money beyond the advance either.

On the other hand, books open up lots of possibilities when they do decently, and there are ways to up the odds, and to cope with the first few years. First, some topics are just more marketable than others. While I might love to write a more academic treatise on the changing ways Americans spend their time, no one would read it. Hence, my time management books. People also lament the importance of “platform” in getting a book contract, but it really is easier to sell a book if you have your own tribe of readers. Blogging is a great way to give yourself a home on the internet and to get better at writing as you start to build this tribe.

As for making money while writing books, I have never believed that book writing needs to be all-consuming. It wasn’t for Toni Morrison writing The Bluest Eye at night after her kids went to bed and let’s face it, we’re not likely to produce anything like The Bluest Eye no matter how much time we spend writing. Books are projects like any other. You can carve out time to seek out high-paying but not-terribly-demanding work to pay the bills while you work on the book. Many writers do things like writing website copy for businesses, press releases, etc.. Incidentally, you can make time for the rest of your life too. I’m always amused by the lines in book acknowledgements in which authors (generally, male authors) thank their families for putting up with all their missed dinners. Not only am I not missing dinner, I’m generally cooking it.

In other news: The temperature is north of freezing today and the ice is melting! Despite the 2-hour school delay this morning, this is cause for celebration.

Photo: Another project I spent much time on in 2014, and didn’t see until 2015…

5 thoughts on “My writing life: playing the long game

    1. @Leanne – it is fascinating! I recommend Time For Life, by John Robinson and Geoffrey Godbey, or Changing Rhythms of American Family Life by Robinson, Suzanne Bianchi et al. Both use time diary data from historical studies, and so are less sensational (and I tend to think more reliable) than complaint-driven books (Americans are increasingly overworked! Americans are increasingly sleep deprived! Etc).

  1. Laura I’m just starting to see some of these truths come to fruition in my writing income. Book I wrote in 2013 with a nine month old glued to me and was released in spring 2014 came through with a nice royalty check in March 2016 for sales in the second half of 2015. Add in the advance for a new book that should be released at the end of the summer and it’s been a great start to the year. I’ll hopefully put a lot of time into promoting the new book over the summer, possibly even doing a mini self-funded book tour, but expect I won’t earn out my advance for that book and start to see royalties until September 2017 at the earliest. I too blog but do not earn a significant income directly from my site (a bit from display ads and affiliate links) but the blog brought the book deals. Long game it is!

    1. @Rachel- I am glad it is paying off — and yes, it is a very long game! Sometimes these days I get inquiries about speeches from people who’ve read 168 Hours – which I wrote in 2009 and came out in 2010. It is funny to think that I might be landing a gig in 2016/2017 because of something I wrote then. Congrats on your new book coming out – I look forward to seeing it.

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