September 27, 2022
by Annie McCormick
Let’s talk about how you keep the ground solid beneath your feet while you reach for the stars and make a career shift to agented author. Talking about practicalities in the same sentence as passion will likely put a kink in my karma, but I speak from experience.
The list of lessons learned (often rebranded as “wisdom”) is endless. And that ping you just heard was the arrival of an idea. NOT someone calling the flight attendant. People love lists!
As I write this I am on a Boeing 737, it’s just after 7:00 AM as I take off from O’Hare and the dude beside me orders 7Up (way too early for that). Earlier in the week, while I was in Chicago, someone suggested lunch at Heaven on Seven (have you had their gumbo?).
Seven seems to be my number these days.
So I take my cue from the universe and am harnessing the power of that magic number to create a list of seven tips to remember as I make this career shift.
My former baking self started whispering, “If I had only known that then…” On one hand there’s nothing new here. On the other hand, as every 80-year-old grandmother has ever embroidered on a pillow, common sense ain’t so common.
My list begins with Number 1: Don’t quit your day job.
In 2009 I was overwhelmed with the need to do something creative and entrepreneurial. People had always complimented my baking, my life was in transition, and there was no bakery in my little town, the stars seemed to be aligned. I quit my job (as a University Vice President…the very opposite of entrepreneurial), set my fears aside and opened a bakery.
The location, the theme, the smell of fresh bread was everything you would imagine. My two kids rode their bikes to the shop after school. My daughter jumped behind the counter and sold cookies like a fiend. People came in for a quick snack and left with two dozen cookies and placed an order for the weekend. My son converted Gourmet Magazine recipes for a dozen cookies to a recipe for 12 dozen. Armed with giant sheets of parchment paper magneted to my fridge and a Sharpie, there was no recipe he couldn’t convert.
I baked. Every day. All day. In my very Mayberry-esque little town people wandered in to chat, little leaguers wanted me to sponsor their team, the local church needed something for the bake sale. And the number of women who would bring me a pie dish or serving piece and ask me to bake/decorate the desert on their platters so they could pass it off as homemade was endless. A few women wanted me to make their husband’s favorite cake, just like his mother made it, for his birthday. I drew the line at getting between a mother and her son’s birthday cake. When the Chicago Blackhawks were playing for the Stanley Cup I did a live cooking segment on Chicago TV, in the midst of a televised pep rally before the final game. I was making desserts, throwing around hockey terms and joking with the on-air host.
In about three years my bakery would have turned a financial corner. Problem was I didn’t plan for three years. I didn’t have a plan at all. I thought that if I put my heart and soul in it, produced a good product and worked hard, the momentum would catch traction and lightning would strike. I was sure I’d be the next Christie Cookie or Mrs. Fields.
Little by little the cost of the ingredients and the expense of the build out on top of the rent was crippling, and I had no provision to pay myself. I had no budget. I had no other source of income. I ran out of money in 13 months and had a pile of debt that mirrored the GDP of a small nation. I most certainly should not have quit my day job.
I shut the bakery door, dusted off the flour, relinquished my spatulas and returned to the world of higher education. Defeated.
Fast forward to a few years ago. Out with friends, I told another witty story over dinner. I was experimenting with online dating so there was no shortage of stories. Around the table there was the resounding call for me to quit my job and write a book. My friends patted themselves on the back for thinking up this brilliance. Glasses were clinked. Questions about who among them would be in it abounded.
In that moment I flashed back to the bakery and the enthusiasm of my friends at that time. Here we are again, at a moment where I am cheered on, enticed to jump into the deep end and do something I would love. Something entrepreneurial and creative. It was tempting.
And it felt too familiar. Had I learned nothing from the bakery experience?
They were right, though, I did want to write a book. Or two. I do have a desire to tell a story to anyone who will listen. I think better with my fingers on the keyboard. I learned a lot from that bakery and surely some of the lessons carried over. Lesson number one from that chapter of my life: Do not quit your day job.
From idea to agent to published to paid is an unpredictable, lengthy and high-risk path. Very few authors find monetary success in their first book or their second or third. I cannot count on lightning striking or my lucky pencil. I will need to fund this venture.
Every job on the planet has a budget and goals and limits. I certainly did as a vice president. The work of a writer is no different. I will need an income to cover my expenses. Some of those expenses are deductible. And my accountant will want those receipts. (Note to self: Get an accountant.)
Being a writer is no different from running a bakery. I will need the right tools. And if I’m going to spend hours at a keyboard odds are I will need a new computer. I can’t write the manuscript that will change my life on a 6 year old laptop, with a broken “e.”
If I want to be the next Marian Keyes, Jodi Picoult or Nora Ephron I need to have a plan to put out a book about every two years. And if I won't make money until after my third book (that’s the kind of thing you learn at conferences, btw), then it’s a six-year window, minimum, before any ROI.
Where's that day job?
First I will need to build a plan and timeline to produce more than one book. A smart business guy (and copier salesman) once told me that success is all about pipeline. He was so right. Once a book, shoe, hammer, copier or lipstick hits the market, the next one needs to be in development, ready to launch. iPhones have new versions, apps have upgrades, cars have new bells and whistles every year. If I want to make this a career I can’t have just one book. And until book three hits the shelves at a Hudson’s in an airport, I can’t quit my day job.
I have built a budget and it includes books (so many books), subscriptions to newsletters and tools like Scrivener. Professional development is a must. I need to plan to fund travel and registration costs to attend attending conferences and join writers associations. (Upcoming posts will talk about this further.)
A professional writer is an entrepreneur. The one with whom the buck stops. The source of ideas, vision, sweat equity and all the responsibility. For everything. It is a dream fueled by talent and drive. It is a passion. And that’s where this gets tricky. I fell for it once.
The American dream is filled with stories of people who came to this country with the shirt on their back and a single gold coin. Or their dreams clutched in one hand and a torn postcard from a long lost uncle in the other. I knew a man who came to America with a backpack and half a stamp collection. He went on to own a multimillion dollar hotel business…. And bought the other half of the stamp collection from his brother.
We are encouraged to dream. To reach. But reach for the stars with your feet on the ground.
I’m doing a few things to keep my financial world intact as I follow this path. I did quit my job but ndot until after I found another one that pays me pretty well and lets me work remotely with tons of flexibility. I found some very creative ways to reduce expenses. I dropped the gym membership and put off golf lessons for a while.
Stay tuned for tip number 2 next month. In the meantime find the Excel app on your laptop and start to plug in some numbers. And then tell me how you’re funding your dream and paying your bills while you write. Trust me, I can use all the advice I can get. What are you doing to make it happen?
Often referred to as the Queen of BS (Brand Strategy) Annie McCormick has a distinguished career, spanning nearly three decades, setting brand strategy for organizations big and small. She is a dynamic, strategic, nonprofit executive and storyteller with extensive experience setting strategy to advance the mission of the institution and engage key strategic partners. She currently reigns as the Queen of BS for Tall Poppy Writers.
She aspires to write novels that will make you laugh, go with you everywhere and be featured in your social media feed with glasses of wine and good chocolate.
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