For a long time, J and Crys assumed that everyone wanted to be a full-time author, but is that actually true? This week, they discuss industry and and indie author community expectations, and how that’s filtered down to the individual level. They also talk about what it means to be a full-time author, and why you might not want to be one.
Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost J Thorn.
J: Hey, what’s up Crys?
Crys: Oh, it’s been another day. Jungle problems.
J: Yeah. Trying to get that 20th century thing called electricity working.
Crys: Yeah. 10 minutes before recording, apparently the electric company decided that we didn’t need it.
And so I booked it to my nearest location of free wifi. And then I saw the power company truck drive by as they finished up whatever it was they were doing, so. Life. Anyways.
How about you?
J: Doing the same, you know, doing the same thing. We don’t have the same climate as you, so it doesn’t change until I get outside. So it’s like, it’s that last stretch where it’s hard to stay focused, you know? Because I’ve just been in like the same walls for months.
Crys: Yeah. Always a relief when February is over, like, okay. At some point the sun will come back now.
J: Yeah, exactly.
Crys: My question for you this week is one that you and I both get, I think in a variation of forms, not– Rarely do we get this question directly, but it comes out in statements and conversations and almost a defensiveness sometimes. And that question is, “do I have to be a full-time author?”
J: There’s a lot to unpack here. Yes, this is an interesting question. And it’s the independent pachyderm in the room in many conversations. And I am going to go on record by saying that I have been part of the problem and I’m hoping to become part of the solution.
The reason I say that I’m part of the problem is because I assumed that’s what everybody wanted.
My assumption was everyone who started writing anything eventually wanted to become a full-time writer. I built my whole brand around that Zach and I did the Career Author Podcast, I mean… our tagline was, turning struggling writers into career authors.
Just over the past couple of months, you and I have been having this kind of back channel conversation and realizing that that’s. Really not what the majority of the people in our family want.
There are a lot of people who really enjoy their day job. There are people who don’t want to be forced to write for money. It’s more of a passion.
There’s some people who want to earn a little bit, but they’re not interested in again, taking that plunge. And I was just completely wrong on the assumption. And I think I bought into what so many other people in our space are selling. You look around everything is designed to get you to become a full-time author, whether it’s online courses for ads or podcasts or webinars.
That’s what they’re all geared to. And I think I’m finding that that’s just a small percentage of the people. What’s your experience?
Crys: I would agree with that. And I would add that it’s not only the expectation that circles around there, or around this idea, but also the expectation that other people want the same thing as I wanted.
And that was, I didn’t want to make money from anything other than writing–until a year and a half ago. I only wanted to make money from writing and I’ve shared this story several times, but I made a financial goal, and then all of a sudden that need to be only a writer, which was a badge for me. It was an X-Box achievement. I got it.
I’m like, “Oh, okay. I didn’t know that I had requirements to feel that I had accomplished this, but I did. I accomplished whatever invisible goals my brain said: this equals a full-time author, a career author.” And then I realized that I wanted to do other things because, for me, I have lots of interests.
I don’t want to stop writing, but I do want time in my life for other things. And I had this assumption up until that point that everyone who wanted to write wanted to be a full-time author. There’s just this black and white thinking.
J: Let me ask you a related question that I think is definitely relevant to this conversation.
How would you compare? Well, no, this is probably a bad question for you, but I’m gonna ask it anyways. How would you compare your raw output now versus when you had a day job?
Crys: I didn’t write anything when I had a day job. I mean, that’s not a hundred percent true, but I didn’t finish anything when I had a day job. I didn’t have the mental capacity to write.
I think my ideal as I’m moving forward, as we’re talking about not being a full-time author, is that I have periods of my year in which I do write and periods of my year in which I don’t write. I think. For me, that might be the best in the future. I don’t know. I’m nowhere near claiming that time, or, schedule.
I don’t even know if that would be good for me, but I find it really hard to focus my attention fully on more than one thing. I don’t know. How about you?
J: Well, here’s why I asked. Zach and I have had this conversation. And I think we, we talked a little bit about this for our Writers, Ink Patreon QA that we did recently. Both of us feel like we are writing significantly less as career authors, than we did when we had day jobs.
And the reason being, when we had day jobs, we knew we had 30 minutes or 45 minutes or maybe 60 minutes a day to write. And so we took advantage of every single minute, because we knew this is the only window we have. And both of us feel like when you have complete control of your time, especially in my case, I have to earn money in other ways.
My assumption was, “Oh, when I leave the day job, I will just be able to write so much more because I won’t have the day job.” And that is not happened. I’ve talked to some other people who have had that sense too, in that the amount of time they have to do a task expands to fit it.
If I had four hours a day to write versus one hour a day, like I’m not writing anymore in this four hours, because this four hours are being filled with other things that I have to do to run my business, which is what my day job was funding before I left it. So it’s a bit of a paradox and it’s something that I don’t think a lot of aspiring authors think about.
They think that the goal is to become a full-time author. And like you said, it was sort of an achievement, like, okay. Check. But then the reality of what that means almost never matches your expectations of what you think it’s going to be.
Crys: I think the root of the goal for most of us, definitely for me, ended up being less about being a full-time author and more about being in charge of my time and my life.
J: That’s a great perspective because there are a lot of people in our family right now who have that they have control of their life, but they’re not career authors. That’s it right there, right? If you need to have complete control of your life and doing that by surviving 100% on your book royalties, that’s awesome.
That’s not a lot of people percentage wise and there are downsides to that. Can you talk about the hamster wheel that you feel that you’ve been on in order to maintain your career author status?
Crys: Yeah, so I have… I started out in a sense of desperation because I was the next thing to homeless.
Thankfully, I had wonderful parents who took me in at the bottom of things, but I had this sense of desperation fueling me. So I started out writing massive amounts, and maybe not massive compared to a lot of highly productive authors, but I averaged more than one book a year with co-writers that first year.
And that pattern has continued–or not one book a year, one book a month, more than one book a month. One book a year would be lovely at the income levels.
J: I was going to say, one book a year!
Crys: Keep the income levels the same, one book a year, let’s do that. And even, last year when I was like, “Oh yeah, like I had a whole month where I didn’t write at all.” And actually I’ve had a whole month this year already where I didn’t really write, like one or two days.
I was like, “Oh, I must have written so much less or published so much less.” And it still averaged out to more than one title published a month, which is insanity.
The fact that I had to keep up that level while going through the end of my almost 15 year relationship and care for my kid and a global pandemic was going on, so half of my friends lost their jobs and some of them, I was able to help out.
It’s insane. Absolutely insane. I joke that I’ve gone through three or four burnouts in the last four years, but the honest truth is probably, it was one long burnout with multiple cliffs.
J: Yeah. Yeah. That’s brutal. That’s the situation that really requires some thought, right?
Like you said, you were in a desperate situation and I don’t get the sense that the folks in TASM are in that level of desperation, which is good. Like I don’t, yeah.
Crys: It’s unhealthy place to be.
J: You, like, muscled through it and you did it, but it’s not like something you’d wish on somebody and–
Crys: Yeah. Yeah. I, as you say, it took a lot of work to get out of that sense of desperation. And I don’t encourage anyone– I mean, you, I think have felt similar feelings with less intensity when you quit your job on the $200 a month you were making on book royalties, and then used that desperation to fuel you.
It works. It’s just not the healthiest choice.
J: No. And very similar to your approach, when I talk to people, I say, “Don’t do that. I did that, but don’t do that.” It’s not healthy and it’s a poor decision. it worked out, but it was a terrible decision.
I don’t know if you feel that way about your decision. But I was like, I should never should have done that. My wife should have never let me do that, but it worked out… but that doesn’t make it the right decision.
This is part of our, it’s not even a rebranding, really. It’s thinking more about the people we’re serving, the people in TASM and realizing that there isn’t anyone who’s in Slack saying like, “Oh my God, I have to get out of this job in three weeks or else.” There’s nobody that I’m aware of in that situation.
We’re best to serve people where they are not where we think they are. And I, because I’m taking full responsibility for the past, at least five years, I was working under the assumption that that’s what everybody wanted. They wanted to be 100% free of their day job and earning a living strictly on royalties.
I just don’t think that’s the case. At least not with the people we’re dealing with.
Crys: I can think of three people off the top of my head in TASM who have almost bashfully said, “Oh, you know, I don’t want to be a full-time writer because I’m doing well in my job. And I love my job.”
I’m going to call out JP, who is our member and my co-host on the Write Away, he wants to side step into the career he actually went to school for. He wants to get more into research while writing books, and use the books as a way to supplement him to do the research.
There’s just so many ways that we can layer our lives to give us that freedom of time and that autonomy.
J: Yeah. And I think that’s, and this is my fault, I think because I set that expectation when I created TASM, there are a lot of people in our family now who are maybe a little hesitant to say that. Like they might feel some level of shame in that they’re not reaching for that golden ring, or they’re not driving themselves towards that uber-goal.
It’s almost like might feel awkward if they say no, I’m all right. I like writing on the weekends and it’s fine if I release a book a year, every two years.
I don’t think my approach has encouraged those people to be fully themselves there. Whether that’s an expectation I set or some type of comparisonitis that they have, and I think that’s one of the reasons why we wanted to spend a whole podcast episode on it was to like, just blow that open and say, that’s not what if that’s what we started, that’s not where we want to go with this.
Crys: And it’s not just an our community issue. This… it’s not just something you’ve been saying, this is a industry-wide idea. And I love 20BooksTo50k for a lot of reasons. I love getting all of the knowledge that is put there, but one of the negative things that happens, not because the group intended this at all, but newer writers look at the big numbers that fairly new authors are putting out or receiving in money, and they do initiate that comparisonitis.
And that has been happening since Kboards. This isn’t a new problem in the indie sphere. The message from the beginning of indie publishing is, this is a way that you can be a career author, a full-time author, because you’re certainly not going to be able to hit that in publishing unless you’re Stephen King, et cetera.
J: Yeah. I like the guys at 20Books and like you said, this is not a criticism of them, but there’s two problems with 20BooksTo50k; the 20 and the 50.
Write, like, 20 books. 20 books.
Like I know that’s a good year for you, but 20 books is a lot of books. and the other number, $50,000 sounds great. But if you are in raising a family in a typical American city, that’s not a . , you’ll, you’ll pay some bills, but like it’s not easy street.
And so the expectation is really flawed on both sides. And then like you get these, you get people– I’m stereotyping here, I’m generalizing– but like you get, say, some 24 year old kid, right out of college with, you know, all the time in the world, no responsibilities. And they’re able to dedicate five hours a day to Amazon ads.
And then they go and they post in the group that, you know, they had a $5,000 a month. It’s like, that’s great. Right? But like, that’s not what most of the people who we interact with are going to do.
I think that was at the core of my dissatisfaction with where PPC ads have gone, whether it’s Facebook or Amazon, there are a lot of people selling good people, selling really good services and products around that.
But the whole expectation is flawed. Like, you know? The expectation is, well, if you do these ads, then you’re going to be able to make $10,000 a month and you’ll be able to quit your day job. And again, I think that’s just, that’s not an assumption that everyone has, but that’s an assumption we as an industry, as indies, have perpetuated.
Crys: And I want to kind of broaden the conversation just a little bit, because this might sound discouraging to someone who does have that desire to be a full-time author. There’s nothing wrong with that. And you can still get there, but… you and I are both really interested in financial independence, both FI and the FIRE movement.
One of the best ways to reach financial independence is to add just a little bit of extra income onto what you’re currently making, and throw that into investments or something else that will be generative, or saving, something.
Books are such an amazing way to do that because they will slowly earn over time. Yes, you’re going to have months sometimes where this or that book doesn’t sell a single copy, even if you’ve got a hundred books out there, but each of those little sales is still adding up to something.
J: It is. There’s also a bit of a risk in that if you are looking to substitute book royalty income for your W2 job, you’re just as vulnerable. Instead of being vulnerable to a single employer, you’re vulnerable to a single revenue stream. And so it’s no surprise that people like Joanna and Chris Fox and Lindsay Buroker and J D Barker, they have investments across industries. And I know you’re involved in real estate, right?
Crys: I’ve been stepping in a lot lately. Yeah.
J: I’m exploring a lot more now, especially as I have retirement horizon and like funds that I’m looking at, and I don’t want to rely just on book royalties. I think that can be just as dangerous as relying on a single employer.
Crys: Yeah. And when you publish fast, like I do, and a lot of your monthly income depends on new releases, you are subject to your health and which is such a terrible catch-22 because the more consistently and harder you have to work to publish books, the more likely are to get sick and not be able to finish books.
J: I know sometimes I come across as a doomsayer and I know, I know that that people don’t like when I do that, but I just speak from my heart, the truth, and I’m not trying to scare people or be pessimistic. I’m just trying to observe what I see. And there are two areas right now that worry me when it comes to royalties.
Those are subscription services and AI. And I know our good friend, Joanna is really optimistic about AI. And I am just as pessimistic about it. I feel as though it’s going to just, it’s going to just gut the industry. It could possibly flood the market with AI created, AI assisted, where… I mean, if you can type in one sentence, hit a button and have it kick out a novel, then what’s to stop 4 million people from doing that?
And on the subscription side, seeing what Spotify has done to revenue for musicians, and it’s not just Spotify’s fault. Spotify is the current step in this evolution towards diminishing revenue for musicians. To the point now where musicians really don’t make any money on the music.
They get paid a fraction of a penny per play on Spotify. And although the Amazon KDP fund has been lucrative so far, there is no guarantee that they won’t cut us off at the knees. Tomorrow they could announce the end of Select or they could drop royalty percentage to 20%.
I’m not saying they would, or you should worry about it cause it’s not under your control. But I think these are two areas in looking in the future that indicate that relying solely on book royalties is a risky venture and that you really should be considering other forms of revenue, even if all you want to do is write books.
Crys: I lean more in the middle on whether AI is going to hurt or harm us. I find it very difficult to imagine, but I mean, we are writers, so we imagine a lot. AI truly stepping in to replace writers? But who knows?
J: I mean, I hope not. Like I really hope not, but I could also see it being a situation where it shifts the artistry to something else. And we’re not good with change. So if it shifts to something else, say something more technical or something that involves code, as opposed to just like pure storytelling like that, that’s going to have an impact.
So again, I think there, there’s nothing, kind of circling coming full circle. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with saying “I don’t want to be a career author” or “I don’t necessarily need to make a hundred percent of my income from book royalties.”
And I don’t think there should be any shame involved with saying that. Whether that’s in TASM or 20Books or anywhere else, I think people should be encouraged and proud to say, “I really like what I do. And I also like to write and I don’t have to give up either.”
Crys: Yeah. I think the most important questions people need to ask themselves are “what do I enjoy doing with my time that gives back to the world, and how can I keep doing it?”
J: I agree. That feels like a good ending.
Crys: I feel like that’s our question for the listeners. “What do you enjoy doing? How does it get back to the world and how can you keep doing it or get to do it again?”
J: Yeah. Yeah. I like that.
Crys: Thanks for joining us this week. Comment below! If you would like to be part of the conversations in real time, you can join us at The Author Success Mastermind.