The Read Writer Model

I am not qualified to give financial advice, so you should take my words with a grain of salt.

Assuming you found a job, a boring but stable job with little chance of getting fired with lots of down time in which your colleagues spend playing Candy Crush, some position in the darker corners of the public sector or deep in the forgotten caverns of the corporate labyrinth, an ideal job to fall back on while nurturing a budding literary career, how would you go about managing your finances?

If possible at all, it should be a job in which you will not be fired for reading a literary novel while you wait for the next active assignment. The job should require as little of your energies as possible, but involve such esoteric expertise that your existence must be indispensable. The pay need not be very high, especially if you live in one of those countries with socialized medicine and free public schooling, but if it were in America, it should have at least better-than-average health coverage. Moving to Canada might be a good option for a writer.

Now let’s say this boring job gives you the option of working overtime, which only gives you more time to read books (or browse the internet, as the case may be) while getting paid. There are plenty of jobs in the world that demands you come in on time, sit behind your desk, then pays you to stay overtime, but hardly provides you anything to do. Strangely enough, nobody wants those jobs. And the hundred or so dollars in overtime that you make extra every week can go into an index fund along with your 401K for your retirement.

Your books too, can be considered savings for retirement, since electronically published books can stay in print indefinitely. Even if your publisher goes out of business, as long as you have the original data and the copyright, you can reprint from another vendor. If you publish a book a year for the next thirty years, even if you sell only a small volume of each book every year, that is money in the bank.

Now, what kind of books keep generating small but steady income over many decades? Non-fiction of course. Do you know how to tie a monkey’s fist? Yes, monkey’s fist. A “monkey’s fist” is a decorative knot that old-time sailors used on classic wooden sailboats to give a little weight to the end of the rope. How to tie this knot is explained in the Ashley’s Book of Knots, in print for over half a century. It would take a great deal of effort to write a book like Ashley’s but any book of this nature, large or small, tends to stay in print a long time. A listing of useful facts for writers in whatever category should do the trick.

Sound boring enough yet? The idea is to take a desk job at a forgotten paper file storage in the basement of an investment bank in Toronto, earn a small salary while you read and horn your writing, pile up small amounts of money in a boring investment fund, and publish a steady stream of fact books that people like you will read to write their own creations. Maybe along the way, you might write some creative fiction as well.

How unglamorous can you get? No flashy debut. No internship in New York City. No cocktail parties with the rich and famous. No walk down the red carpet. A hermit life surrounded by file cabinets is not what most aspiring writers dream about when they embark on a career as writers. Most contestants in NaNoWriMo already have boring jobs and they want to get out of it, not go out and seek an even more boring position. But I got this idea from the Dolly Parton Business Model. Yes. That Dolly Parton.

A janitor named Ronald Read left behind a secret fortune of eight million dollars in blue chip stocks while working minimum wage jobs all his life. (He should have changed his strategy to spending some of that fortune in the later part of his life, in my opinion.) He was a typical buy-and-hold investor, investing in small amounts of stocks all his life, reinvesting the dividends, and passively watching his fortune grow, never trying to “play” the market looking for a strategic “exit point” to maximize his profits. Dolly Parton did the same with intellectual property, namely, her songs. She passed up opportunities to sell the rights to her songs, preferring to let them earn licence fees over the long run (until later in her life when the “long run” became less attractive). Essentially, she is a buy-and-hold investor in her own songs. All I am proposing is to apply Dolly Parton’s strategy to a writing career.

We focus so much on the lives of writers like Stephen King, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, and Danielle Steel; authors so rich they do not have to worry about planning their finances. We read about the illustrious careers of star writers who have contributed to The New Yorker, Paris Review, and Harper’s Magazine, and raked up a couple of awards before settling down to write their first novel (in a study with a view of a leafy neighborhood in New England). We forget that most writers keep their day jobs, write a lot of unexciting material, and do not get a lot of recognition. We mistakenly think such writers are losers. We forget that there are better and worse part time writers, just as there are better and worse celebrity writers. Some of these writing-in-the-basement, boring-day-job, buy-and-hold writers will lead very fulfilling lives and exceedingly lucrative careers. Somewhere out there is a literary Ronald Read in the making.

Just short of two decades after the publication of the first Harry Potter book, J. K. Rowling may already be an outdated business model (if winning the lottery was ever a business model at all). Electronic publishing, with its utter lack of need for storage space and complete freedom from the need of a printing press, is the biggest game changer since Gutenberg’s movable press. We can now keep old books in print, and keep making a profit, without keeping physical books in stock. It begs for a new business model for writing careers: A reproducible model that can be reflected in a credible business plan. Maybe, the Ronald Read type of a writer is just such a model, or perhaps, the Read Writer.

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