Be an engineer. Don’t be a writer. Writers don’t make any money….
…except when they do.
I never thought I’d ever make a livable income as a writer. Not when we first started writing in 2008, not when we signed with a literary agent, and not even when we got our first advance for our children’s book, Little Miss Evil.
Despite my cynicism, I still framed our first $200 author paycheque smack dab in the middle of our bedroom, at eye level, so I can remind myself the dream is alive and well.
Maybe, I thought, one day my author pay-check will support me and I won’t have to be an engineer anymore.
HA! Naivety, thy name is FIRECracker.
It wasn’t until AFTER I retired from my engineering career (thank you, FIRE movement!) that I would FINALLY be able to make a living as a writer.
It wasn’t quick or easy though. Nor was it expected. In fact, it wasn’t until I’d completely given up on making money from my passion, instead, writing for the pure joy of it, that the reward finally came.
“Follow your dream and the money will follow”.
Nope. More like: “follow the money, invest it until you no longer need to work, and then your dreams will come true.”
So how much did we make from writing in 2020?
After 5 years of retirement (and TWELVE whole years of writing), our after-expense gross income is still dwarfed by my old engineering income. Don’t quit your day job, kids! At least until you become FI, anyway.
On the plus side, once your expenses are taken care of by the passive income from your portfolio, every single penny you make from passion income goes into savings, giving you a 100% savings rate! That’s why any unexpected income AFTER financial independence becomes significant. Normally, making $10,000 a year from passion projects wouldn’t even be enough to cover rent, but in retirement, that could reduce your withdrawal rate from 4% to 3%, giving you a 100% success rate!
You may have noticed that this year’s writing income is also lower than last year’s. This is because a) most of our book’s advance got paid last year b) advertising income went down in March due to the pandemic.
That’s the thing with passion project income. It fluctuates so you can’t rely on it. Instead, rely on your portfolio and treat it as a bonus.
However, I am happy to report that we earned out our book advance in 1 year and got our first royalty cheque in 2020! For those readers who aren’t familiar with publishing lingo, a book advance is a chunk of money paid by the publisher up-front to the author before the book is published. This is basically them taking a risk and guessing how good your sales will be. The more copies they think you can sell, the bigger the advance. Once the book is published, a percentage of each book’s price goes towards paying off the “debt” of the advance. Only after the advance is paid off, will you start getting a percentage of every book sale, and this is called your book royalty. This is like passive income from your portfolio because you don’t have do anything else and the money keeps rolling in.
If you don’t earn out your advance, you don’t have to pay it back, but you likely won’t get another book deal from that publisher.
It’s also worth noting that the VAST majority of authors (75%!) never earn out their advance. So we’re beyond stoked to be in this minority. Not only did we end up becoming professional authors, we became financially successful authors! Who woulda thunk it?
Since this year will be the 5-year anniversary of our blog, let’s take a look at how much we made to date:
|Year||Gross Income (after expenses)||Notes|
|2016||$150||Just starting out. We’re paying more than we earned at this point.|
|2017||$13,000||We added affiliates like Questrade and Personal Capital. Also blog readership grew exponentially.|
|2018||$52,000||Our income jumped from the previous year because we switched from Google Adsense to Mediavine after meeting the required 25,000 session/month criteria. We also got the first instalment of our advance.|
|2019||$95,000||We got paid the rest of our book advance, as well as for additional translation/adaptation rights, pushing our income to its highest level. We also added more affiliates to our blog.|
|2020||$65,500||Ad revenue plummeted in March due to the pandemic and didn’t come back until late summer. On the bright side, we earned out our book advance in 1 year and got our first royalty cheque!|
Now, if my cynicism hasn’t scared you off, and you STILL want to be a writer, here are some tips I’ve learned.
Don’t do it for the Money
If you’re already thinking about monetizing, stop. You need to get into writing for the right reasons. And if it’s for money, sorry to disappoint you, but the average salary of a writer is $10,000 or less a year. That’s why most of the authors I know have multiple jobs (teaching, tech, editing) or a spouse who can support them. Write because you love to write. Don’t write for the money.
Focus on Your Reader
They say amateur writers write for themselves and professional writers write for other people.
It’s perfectly fine to write for yourself as a hobby. However, if you want to one day do this professionally, your need to care about your reader. Always be thinking about how THEY are receiving the information, rather than a brain dump of what YOU want to say.
Whenever we get feedback from readers saying “you’ve changed my life”, “thank you for teaching me how to invest”, or “finally, someone who understands the immigrant experience and what it’s like to grow up poor”, it’s the best feeling in the world. When you’ve touched someone with your words, you’ve done your job as a writer.
Always keep your readers in mind when writing.
Before you can gain a loyal following, you have to prove you’re there to stay. No one wants to read a blog that’s only updated once a month.
That means showing up, at least once a week (we started with a 3 posts/week schedule), and producing quality posts regardless of what is going on with your life.
Writing is about parking your butt in the chair and bleeding onto the page. If you can’t consistently show up, don’t start a blog. You have to LOVE writing. Your readers aren’t stupid, and they’ll know when you’re faking it.
I have to admit, learning to write as an engineer wasn’t easy. Engineering (and most office jobs) tends to have the opposite rules as writing. “Use big words to sound important”. “Use lots of words and technical jargon”. “More is better”.
I remember in engineering school, we had an exam question asking us to design a parallel interface and describe it in one paragraph. We were given a list of words like “synchronous, asynchronous, transfer bus, paradigm, algorithm, resistance (wait, did you just fall sleep? Yeah I thought so)…”
The more words we used from that list in our description, the more marks we earned for that question.
All that ended up doing was creating paragraphs like this:
“the parallel interface uses a synchronous clock, which is not asynchronous, and the heuristic algorithmic paradigm dictates…”
Don’t write to show off your vocabulary. Write to entertain. Pretend you’re having a conversation with your best friend.
Less is More.
Done is Better than Perfect
Now, don’t get freaked out because I’ve scared you by saying “bleed onto the page” and “be entertaining”. You don’t need to agonize over every word to create the perfect sentence. Just get it down and you can fix it later.
One of my favourite piece of advice is “vomit onto the page. Then clean it up later”.
Writing is editing and you can’t edit a blank page.
Get it down. Then put it away for a while. Once you are ready to pick it back up, be ruthless with your cuts.
Don’t Force It
I used to think I could out-work writer’s block. After all, just like engineering, the more effort and time you spend coding or fixing bugs, the more you’ll get done right?
Turns out, that’s not how art works. Sometimes the harder you try, the worse you write.
Instead, go for a walk, meditate, read, and do something fun. Your subconsciousness can work wonders if you let it. Hell, sometimes my best ideas come when I’m in the shower or doing the dishes.
You can’t force creativity.
Whenever you get stuck, take a break, and come back to it later. Your brain will thank you.
What do you think? Are you planning to work on passion projects in retirement? If so, what are they?
NEWS: We got this e-mail recently from a reader who lives in Shiga, Japan:
“I read your book all at once. I think what makes it superior to other books is that it is clear and logical in its concreteness and numbers. I’m excited to feel that it’s the bible I was looking for.”
YAY! Quit Like a Millionaire is now available in Japanese!
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