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The one where I shouldn't quit my day job
My husband and I both enter to win the HGTV dream home every day. It’s ridiculous—most of them are in places I would never want to live and all of them are designed in vehement opposition to my taste—but the whole thing started with a house in Tahoe which, of course, would be very dreamy and very unobtainable otherwise.
It's been several years since the Tahoe house, but it has turned into something of a ritual so we keep the habit around. For my husband, every morning when he enters his email address he thinks about what he would do if he won. Would he move into the house? Would he sell it and use the money to quit his job/travel more/live out of a van/buy a place in Tahoe? He then uses the answers to those questions to make decisions about his life right now. (Because he could, theoretically, do any one of those things without winning millions—with the exception of maybe buying a place in Tahoe.)
For me, it's more of a gauge on where I'm at mentally. Every morning when I enter my email address I can immediately tell whether I'm feeling lucky or not. Some mornings I come to that buggy, over-advertised page and think, "this is so stupid, what a waste of time this is." Other mornings I think, "wow, I could actually win this thing! ANYTHING IS POSSIBLE!!!!”
Those two responses are usually a product of my writing life and whatever happened in the preceding 24-hours that made me believe or disbelieve in my dreams as a novelist. And recently, as I've approached that HGTV page I've found myself feeling a sort of antipathy. This is probably because, after an immense amount of research about how to publish my novel, I wrote this article and then this article that led me to believe that writing books is nothing but an obscure hobby.
As it turns out, I posted that second article on Hacker News last week and it went insanely viral. It saw more than 60,000 views and 600 comments; drew in more than 500 new newsletter subscribers; garnered the attention of Hamish McKenzie, the co-founder of Substack, who wrote me an email asking how Substack could better support fiction writers; and some of my favorite authors turned up in the comments (I’m looking at you MICHAEL J SULLIVAN and JANE FRIEDMAN). It was wild.
I kept up with the comments on Hacker News until they hit around 500 and then I got lost in the threads, but they generally went something like this: 1) this idea is awesome and you’re totally onto something, 2) there are plenty of authors making a living outside of traditional publishing methods and here they all are, and, 3) if you're doing it for money, you're doing it for the wrong reasons.
As to the first set: thank you. I guess we’ll see what happens. As to the second set: I made a list of every single successful Substack, Patreon, Kickstarter, and Kindle Unlimited author sent to me in the comments and have already reached out to every single one of them for a future article about what they’re all doing right and how they got to where they are. But it’s the third set I want to talk about today because it is the mantra every creative person knows well: Don't quit your day job. You should do it for the love of the craft, not for the money. If you’re doing it for the money, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.
Not to become beset by delusion, I allowed myself to sit with that idea for a moment and wonder whether I’m actually being very late-stage denial about the whole thing. I mean, the odds are totally against me. No one reads books, the ones that do don’t buy them, very (very) few authors make a living doing it. And so, for the sake of self-preservation, I thought it might be worthwhile to wonder how my life might be different if I could just accept the cold, hard truth that I will never be a full-time author (cue a rippling TV screen and the sound of a xylophone as I fall into a reverie about what my life could be).
What would I do if I knew for certain that I would never make money as an author? Well, I would still work as editor-in-chief at Utah Business, a job I love. I would still write freelance articles for magazines, which I also love. I would still write books on the side which I absolutely love. But I wouldn't have any social media accounts because I don't need to promote anything. I also wouldn't spend any money on advertising because that money's not going to come back to me. I would probably just put my books up on Kindle and hope for the best. I’d get excited about the couple hundred readers that happened upon them and I would be very happy.
What would I do if I knew there was a chance I could become a full-time author? Well, I would still work as editor-in-chief at Utah Business, a job I love. I would still write freelance articles for magazines, which I also love. I would still write books on the side which I absolutely love. But I'd add a social media account because I want to give my writing the best possibility of an audience. I would also invest in some advertising and try to learn as much as I can about the industry so I can give myself the best chance of success. Whether I made $5 or $5 million, had 10 readers or 10 million readers, I would know that I put my best effort in and I would get excited about each and every new reader that happened upon my books and I would be very happy.
In other words, my life would largely be the same, but with the possibility of the dream I'd put a little more effort into my craft. And why not do that? I mean, sure, I'm mostly an introvert and I still struggle with my existence online, writing this newsletter/marketing this newsletter does take up time that could be spent novel writing, and spending part of my monthly budget on advertising could go to fancier dinners out.
But I love writing. And by putting myself out of my comfort zone I have learned so much about the publishing industry. I have discovered emerging technologies (like Substack) that are insanely cool and, because of them, I get to publish my book as a serial just as my heroes Alexandre Dumas and Charles Dickins once did. I have immersed myself in a community of likeminded people that I could only have ever found on the internet. I have been mentored by authors I’ve only ever admired from the pages of their books in the comments of my newsletter. I have grown my audience by hundreds of people in a manner of weeks and those people are amazing and inspiring writers who might one day read my book just as I have found and loved theirs.
And, what if? What if the traditional publishing model just doesn’t work for authors anymore? What if there are other ways an author could be successful but we just haven’t tried them? What if we could adapt the publishing industry to the 21st century, just as the feuilleton once adapted books to the 19th? What if there’s a way to monetize a niche audience and there’s a chance authors can make a living from their work? What if people actually read my book, and I can actually make a living from it?
And what if I never tried?
You don't have to worry that by dreaming I will somehow become unhappy with my current life. I already have my dream job and I definitely don't need “being a novelist” to be it. I also once owned my own magazine and I am well aware of how not fun hustling for my paycheck was—and how harmful that was to my creativity. As it stands, I am still writing the same books I would be writing whether I had a day job or not—I just have to put a little extra work in every day to do it.
So why not DREAM? As Brent Andersen once told me when I was interviewing him for an article about how he founded one of the most beautiful aquariums in the country: "What would you do if you knew for certain you couldn't fail?" You might not get all the way, he told me, but you'll get farther than you would have without the dream.
I already have.
Thank you so much for reading.
P.S. I’m hosting my first #readathon this Saturday—the idea is to spend the entire day reading! Pick out your books and come join us in the discord server to chat about what you’re reading throughout the day! See you there!
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