The following transcript is an attenuated Q&A from my recent interview with Thom Chambers in the premier issue of Micropublisher magazine.
Thom Chambers: I know a lot of people will be fascinated by the dollars and cents aspect of transitioning into writing full-time. You quit your day job on March 1, 2011, and in September 2011 published your first book, Essential, followed by three other books. In the intervening months, did you have an income source or were you relying on savings?
JFM: I’ve gotten this question a lot, especially during our tour. It fascinates me that so many people are interested in this. I guess I never thought about how much money my favorite authors make. Like, “I wonder how much money David Foster Wallace earns per annum,” or “How does Gretel Ehrlich pay her utility bill?”
But I have no problem discussing it. I’m fairly open about the answer: when I left my old career I was already a multi-millionaire, and I have enough money to live off of the rest of my life.
OK, I’m joking. Obviously.
Actually, when I left my corporate job, I left with very little savings. Yes, I had enough money to live for a few months, but the key to making it work was reducing my expenses to bare necessities. My minimalist lifestyle allowed me to pursue my passion for writing. My only bills when I left corporate America were rent (which isn’t much in Dayton, Ohio), utilities, and insurance. Other than that, I bought food and hygiene products, and I refrained from any physical purchases last year.
No matter how much money you make, the equation doesn’t work if your expenses are greater than your revenues. This might sound like a platitude, but it’s the cold truth. People often think I have a ton of money, because I used to have a six-figure career. But those people didn’t see the other side of the equation. When I was making $130,000 per year and spending $150,000, the math didn’t work, and so I went into debt. By age 27, I was worse off than I was at age 18. I had myriad debt I had to pay off, which took me two years of disciplined spending practices and Mozart-esque money management.
I didn’t just jump up and quit my job one day. I changed my spending habits over two years, sold my house, paid off my car, sold stuff I didn’t need, got rid of nearly all my bills (TV, Internet, satellite radio, etc.), moved into a small apartment, and then focused on leaving my job and living a more meaningful life.
My initial plan was to become a barista while writing fiction on the side, which I was completely okay with because it aligned with my values. But then, thankfully, a bunch of people started finding value in our website, and so, yes, I earn money now—our site is 100% reader supported—but not nearly what I used to bring home. And that’s perfectly fine with me: I don’t need that much money anymore. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not allergic to money; it’s just that the almighty dollar is no longer the primary motivation for doing what I do.
I love writing, I love adding value to other people’s lives—the money is secondary.
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