Monday, October 5, 2015

On money, sacrifice, and awkward questions from strangers

Lately I've noticed an interesting phenomenon.

No, it's not the fact that those trendy, colorful silicone spatulas make great bedroom toys (though that's a phenomenon worth exploring, too).

It's the frequency with which people want to talk with me about money. Sometimes it's an offhanded comment from a colleague who wants to know whether my recent success with About that Fling and the Front & Center series means I can afford to quit my part-time day-job in PR. Sometimes it's strangers flat out asking me how much I make as an author.

I've never been comfortable sharing my writing-related dollar figures with anyone who doesn't either edit me, represent me, or grope me. But the frequency with which I'm getting the money questions makes me wonder if I don't owe it to readers and fellow authors to address the subject and maybe clear up a misconception or two.

Anyone watching my rankings over the last year could probably guess there's a bit of cash that comes with having books landing (and staying!) in the top 20 on Amazon's bestseller list. It's true, I've seen some sales figures and royalty statements lately that are unlike anything I've had in my previous years as an author.

But the last part of that phrase is key. My previous years as an author....

Some of you are familiar with my long, drawn-out path to publication, but here's the story in a nutshell: After a decade of writing for my supper as a journalist and marketing geek, I started trying to write fiction in 2002. After a few manuscripts and a lot of rejections, I landed my first book deal in 2005, then lost it a year later when the Harlequin imprint I was writing for was canceled a month before my book's scheduled debut. I wrote another book, got an agent, spent a year racking up rejections and realizing that agent wasn't the right fit. I signed with Wolfson Literary Agency in January 2008 and spent the next couple years writing more books and racking up a whole helluva lot more rejections.

During this period, I made a conscious choice to downgrade my day-job career so I could devote more time to writing. I took a massive pay cut, but the trade-off was that I had more time for writing. It was a big gamble, and I felt the sting of it over the next two years when my agent and I didn't see a dime from any of my writing.

Then came my three-book romantic comedy deal with Sourcebooks in February 2010. Hooray! I've finally made it. Right?

Well, not really. While it's true I got an advance, it was a tiny fraction of the money I'd given up when I made that choice to scale back my day-job. The first book didn't come out until August 2011, and while Making Waves was well-received and well-distributed, it was hardly a runaway bestseller. There's also the fact that royalties move at the speed of two sloths humping in maple syrup, so the writing income was neither predictable nor very noteworthy.

It was during this same period that I went through a rather unexpected divorce. Getting divorced isn't a whole lot of fun under the best of circumstances, but doing it at the bottom of a recession is about as fun as chewing off your own genitals. I lost my house, my savings, and a fair amount of my limited sanity. Since my writing career wasn't raking in the big bucks, I knew the smart thing to do would be to accept my day-job boss's offer to bump my part-time job to full-time and trade the writing hours for a more reliable income.

But that's not what I chose. I stayed the course with the author gig, cranking out more books (and yes, racking up more rejections). Believe it or Not came out in March 2012 to fairly dismal sales, and then my third contracted book, Let it Breathe, was deemed by my publisher as "not the right third book for your career."

I went back to the drawing board and wrote a whole new book that eventually became Frisky Business and came out in May 2014. I also followed my (very smart, very underpaid) agent's advice and branched out with other publishers, cranking out the Getting Dumped series and signing on with Entangled Publishing for a short novella and a handful of military-themed romantic comedies that would eventually become the Front & Center series (Marine for Hire in February 2014, Fiancée for Hire in July 2014, Best Man for Hire in December 2014, and Protector for Hire in June 2015).

Somewhere in the middle of all that, the money began to trickle in. We're not talking "quit the day-job" territory, but 2014 was the first year the writing gig wasn't claimed as a loss on my taxes.

Let me repeat that: I began writing fiction in 2002, and after 12 years of rejections and sacrifices and book deals and good reviews and bad reviews and ups and downs, I finally, finally showed a profit on my writing in 2014.

I thought a lot about that last week when my agent forwarded me my first royalty statement for About that Fling, which spent most of the month of August among Amazon's top 10 bestsellers. I was working at my standup desk at the day-job when I got it, and I had to sit down for a minute and just stare at the numbers. We're not talking "buy a personal Learjet" amounts, but it was the biggest check I'd seen in more than a decade of trying to make it as an author.

As I stared at that statement, elation gave way to something that resembled . . . guilt?

I can name a dozen author pals who've worked every bit as hard as I have and still haven't reaped the rewards. My head was swimming with thoughts of which bills to pay off or how much to sock into retirement and whether my new husband and I might get to take a vacation to celebrate our one-year anniversary. But part of me felt like the whole thing wasn't quite real. Like someone might walk in and grab the check out of my hand. "Sorry," the check-snatching stranger will say. "That's not really yours. Keep trying, though, and you'll make it eventually."

My husband and I keep a list of splurges we call "the blue sky list." They're the things we'd consider blowing money on if we suddenly won the lottery or robbed a bank. I looked at that list this past weekend and thought about whether one or two of the items on it might be within reach.

Then I thought about 13 years of making day-job career choices that meant swapping bigger paychecks and retirement security for the possibility this author thing might someday pay off. If you added up all those sacrifices and put a monetary value on them, the amount would tower over the figures on that royalty statement and laugh and laugh and laugh like the royalty statement has junk the size of a shriveled Vienna sausage.

If I could hit the rewind button and go back 13 years, would I make all the same choices? Probably not all of them – that crotchless teddy was ill-advised. But for the most part, I feel like I made the best career decisions I could make at the time.

But if I did have that rewind button and I took my 41-year-old-self back to visit my 28-year-old self, what would we say to each other? If my 28-year-old-self knew about the struggles that lay ahead – both financial and personal – would she have forged ahead anyway?

I like to think so, but I'm honestly not sure.

One thing I can say is that I love my life and my writing career, and yes, even my day-job (I still have it, I still love it. Royalty checks are fickle beasts, and having steady monthly income is important).

But I'm happy with how things have turned out, even if the path to get here wasn't what I might have expected 13 years ago.

Maybe that's the definition of success?