A publisher wants my book. How to pay the bills while I write it?
January 21, 2016 12:04 AM   Subscribe

A publisher is interested in my unfinished book manuscript, and has asked for an estimated completion date. I’d love nothing more than to finish writing it. But my financial situation is precarious, and I haven’t been able to find a day job that will leave me with enough time and energy to write. Plus, I’m facing a rent increase in April that may cost me my home if I don’t find another source of income soon. What should I do?

An indie publisher I respect is interested in my unfinished book manuscript. They want an estimated completion date. I’d love to find a good agent, start negotiating a book contract, and finish writing it! But ever since my divorce wiped me out financially, I’ve been living hand-to-mouth, and I haven’t been able to devote much time to writing.

For the past several years I’ve been running a part-time solo house cleaning and home organizing business, juggling various short-term writing and proofreading gigs, studying for jobs, and maintaining blogs and social media for my creative projects, which leaves me exhausted. It’s just too much work for one person with no assistance. I’m physically incapable of cleaning houses for the number of hours I’d need to work to pay my upcoming rent increase in April, so I’ve got to find something else, and soon, or I will lose my home. I like the multiple sources of income approach, and I like being self-employed, but unfortunately house cleaning and gigging aren’t going to cut it anymore. I'm barely scraping by as it is. I need steady, reliable, paid work.

I’ve tried many ways to find a paid day job, but none have borne fruit so far. In addition to the house cleaning and freelance gigs, the time since my divorce has been consumed with various kinds of “hope labor” – including completing a post-bac certificate in accounting, doing volunteer work in the hardware build program at Free Geek, and completing a track in front end web development through an online coding school. All of these things were done in the hope that they’d lead to paid work, but none of them have, despite everything I’ve done – attending hiring events, networking, and following job leads through my social networks. One problem is that I have allergic reactions to animal dander and fragrances, which has limited my employment possibilities more than I anticipated - it's almost like an invisible disability. (Apparently it’s common these days for employers to allow pets in workplaces, especially in tech offices. And how many offices do you know that are fragrance-free? Even in Portland this is tough.) Being female and over 40 certainly doesn’t make things any easier, either.

I enjoy living simply. I’ve reduced expenses as much as I can in order to reduce my need for income and preserve time to write, but even with my modest aspirations and frugal, debt-free, car-free, child-free life, and my financial savvy and good habits (I don’t drink or smoke, rarely eat out, shop only at thrift stores, have no credit cards, etc.), I am still not making ends meet.

I tried finding a roommate to share expenses, but I’ve had no luck, even by offering a below-market rate in Portland’s tight rental market. I live in a tiny studio unit that is family-owned, so even with the rent increase it will still be below market rate. The space could be adapted to share with a spouse or partner comfortably enough, but I’m single, and it isn’t really suitable for a roommate except in unusual circumstances. I love my place and I will be heartbroken if I lose it.

I have a Patreon account, but it will be some time before I can bring in enough patronage that way to allow me to quit my day job and write.

I have some finished but unpublished material - mostly essays and short erotic fiction - that could potentially be edited and polished up for the e-book market in the hopes of bringing in some income, but that would take time I don't have at the moment.

I’m willing to take a part-time, low-paying service job, as long as I can bring in enough to pay the bills. So far, though, I haven’t found one that will hire me, due to my aforementioned health needs and lack of vehicle.

Moving in with friends to save money is out of the question, because I have no friends with pet-free homes. Moving back in with family would be an absolute last resort, because my mother and stepfather (the only family members I could live with, because they’re the only ones who are pet-free and fragrance-free) live in Hawaii, and that would mean selling everything I own, leaving the community I’ve found in Portland, and starting over in a place I don’t want to live.

With every passing year that I continue to struggle to make ends meet, and continue to do unpaid hope labor (and a disproportionate share of unpaid emotional labor) while my writing is pushed into the margins of my life, my hope to write books recedes farther and farther into the future. I fear I will die or fall ill before I have a chance to finish writing the books I want so much to write. And this expression of interest from a publisher I’d love to work with, just before the impending rent increase, has brought things to a head. I’ve got to figure something out. Please hope me, MeFi!

I have two questions:

1) Given my health situation, what can I do for income that will still leave me time and energy to write a book? If you’re a writer without spousal support, a trust fund, etc., how do you manage to pull this off?

2) What should I tell the publisher while I’m working this out? I don’t want to pass up this opportunity, but the first order of business must be to secure a steady income sufficient to keep me in my home. Only after I’ve managed that will I be ready to look for an agent and talk contract terms.
posted by velvet winter to Work & Money (47 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
There are many organisations who offer grants specifically offered for unpublished writers/authors. A quick google search for "grant unpublished author" brought up many. I do not have personal experience with any of them but know of someone who financed their first published book with such a grant.
Hopefully someone here has personal experience or can recommend a particular one, otherwise I would carefully compare the conditions / contracts offered. I am sure there are also scams but certainly also legitimate and resepctable ones.
posted by 15L06 at 12:49 AM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Gosh, this is tough and I can relate to a lot of it. I can't offer any thoughts as to your second point, but for immediate triage, can you drop the "hope labor" for now? Your immediate, pressing needs are money and time - you can revisit the unpaid bits when the crisis is over, you know?

Could you hire a student or similar part-timer to help with the cleaning biz and thus expand your operation a bit? If your clientele is already there, this may be the way to go in the short term, if it's just a matter of being spread too thin as the sole owner/operator of your biz.

Is there anything you can sell? Can you take out a loan so you can give yourself a bit of wiggle room?

Could you work in a hotel/motel, school/hospital/senior's home? Administrative position? It sounds like you have a wide variety of skills - I'd make up a few different resumes tailored to highlight the different sets of skills.

Do your contacts know you're looking for work?

Crossing my fingers for you and best of luck on your book!
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 12:51 AM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Klaxon - I've finally dropped the "hope labor" as much as possible, now that I'm facing the pressure of a rent increase. I often get requests for unpaid proofreading work for album promo materials from musicians I know, and those are the most difficult for me to turn down, because I love doing that kind of work, and the musicians usually don't have much more money than I do, and I love making their albums look more professional. But I don't have the luxury of time to take on things like that anymore. Makes me sad, but it is what it is.

I've also been offered some short-term paid web gigs, but in every case so far they have involved a further investment of unpaid time to learn something I don't yet know (e.g., Drupal) before I could do the paid work. It's a tough call: I certainly wouldn't mind learning it, but I've got a firm deadline. If I invest time in it and it doesn't lead to steady work before April, it won't help me handle my immediate needs.

I don't have the clientele to hire an assistant for my cleaning business, and even if I did, I have no desire to take on the increased administrative burden of becoming an employer myself.

I don't really have anything to sell (unless I am forced out of my home - then I'll have to sell everything), and even if I wanted to take on debt (I don't), I doubt I'd qualify for a loan with no collateral and an income below the federal poverty level. Both of these options would only be stopgap measures anyway.

Thanks for the suggestions. Everyone in my social circles is aware that I'm looking for work.
posted by velvet winter at 1:35 AM on January 21, 2016

Do you qualify for any sort of disability assistance (I don't know how these things work in the USA, unfortunately)?
posted by Klaxon Aoooogah at 2:00 AM on January 21, 2016

Haven't people here on the green recommended night shift work (security guard etc.) for situations like this before? You would be paid to sit somewhere and watch a screen, and in the meantime, you could write. I guess day time might work, too - I wish our gate guy started writing a book instead of leaving the gate unattended to come in and pester us all the time.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 2:16 AM on January 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

I'm sending you a memail.
posted by Brittanie at 2:17 AM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I heard of a young man in a similar situation to yours, who found an old person living alone with a whole house to himself, and willing to let the young man live in, rent-free, in exchange for some help with shopping, cooking and housework. He found this old person through a personal ad in a paper read by older people (this was in London).
posted by Grunyon at 2:44 AM on January 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

You need to be realistic about the likelihood that "publishing your book" is not going to solve your problems. No independent non-fiction publisher is going to give you an advance against royalties sufficient to pay your bills for any period of time. A tiny, tiny, number of such books ever sell enough copies to pay for a new iPhone. And the money just keeps flowing out of book publishing. It's an industry in an absolute death spiral.

But for sure, you should not count on getting a book contract solving any of your financial problems. You have to sell *tens of thousands* of copies of a book to make any sort of real money that amounts to more than minimum wage payment for the sunk cost of hours (years?) put into writing the book. A tiny, tiny number of people in this world make a full time living out of writing books (plural).

You have skills in accounting and web development. Both of those are very marketable, transportable skills if you have just a little experience. Maybe volunteer to do some accounting or web development for a non-profit in your area to get some references, contacts, and experience under your belt?

You also need to study up on book publishing as a business. Printing copies of a book does not make a publisher. A proper publishing contract with a publisher who deals in numbers sufficient to change that equation (that is, with the marketing capital to actually sell tens of thousands of copies of a self-help book, which is what I think you're working on based on your profile --- and be aware that is a *saturated* market of hopeful authors) would not say "send me your manuscript when it is finished." That's still an offer on spec, and in book publishing such offers are worth about as much as "we're hoping for a record contract" is in the music business. It's talk, not an offer. A press that could help you pay your bills would be asking for a book *proposal* as a basis for offering you an advance to support your writing as your job. Unless you have either a track record as a successful author or a high level of public prominence and visibility (or insider knowledge of something people are really interested in), those publishers are very likely not to be interested in your manuscript.

Maybe you know all this, but your question seems to pin economic hope on getting your book finished. I suggest that is wishful thinking, and I say that as an author of a book that is in its third printing and is considered a best seller in its niche market. You know how much I make? About enough to buy a new iPhone every year. (I actually give it away to the subjects of my book, but that's how much selling a few thousand books amounts to.)

If you've been offered paid web development gigs based on further investment of time, you should consider doing that if it's a legitimate training context. Web development is a fast moving target. You can't learn it once and forget it. It doesn't matter if you took an online course. That business is based on experience and connections, and requires constant learning of the latest thing all your clients are going to want.

Sorry to be a wet blanket.
posted by spitbull at 4:06 AM on January 21, 2016 [42 favorites]

Also just a thought, but you might want to somehow disaggregate your online identity from your job search identity as much as possible, given the politics of your public persona (vividly spelled out in earlier Asks and on your profile). Very few conventional employers are going to want to hire someone who has put years into speaking out very publicly against the tyranny of waged labor and in favor of leisure and basic income guarantees, unless you are extremely good at something rare. I mean, your online presence is seemingly organized around the theme of "jobs suck, people should get paid for being creatively leisurely."

I'm not arguing with your politics, just suggesting that wearing them on your sleeve could be hurting your job prospects. Rare is the employer these days who won't google a prospective hire first. And this goes double for anyone working in tech or web development specifically, since your portfolio presumably consists of work you've done for the causes you believe in.
posted by spitbull at 4:26 AM on January 21, 2016 [14 favorites]

Prioritise. I often get requests for unpaid proofreading work for album promo materials from musicians I know, and those are the most difficult for me to turn down, because I love doing that kind of work... But you also love writing, and so you need to prioritise, and stick to it. Your interest in paganism probably means that you have read up on the value of sacrifice, and so sacrificing doing one thing you love for a while in order to put energy into another should be something you can feel comfortable dong. Also, stop updating your blogs for a while - put up a note saying "normal service will resume in one month" - anyone following you properly WILL check back, especially if you can send out a little "I'm baaaack" update to your followers.

Seriously - no-one in this world has time to do everything they love, not unless they were born into enormous wealth. So you need to prioritise, and do one thing for a while, then do another thing when you can get back to it. Stop aiming for this mythical lifestyle where you can have it all, and have a serious chat with yourself where you decide what you most value, then do that. Is it having your own place? Is it writing? Is it a full night's sleep every day? Is it having time for socialising? Is it doing your personal/blogging projects? pick the top ones, and act accordingly.

On a practical note - your tech skills are the sort of thing you might well be able to do from home to avoid allergens. Contact companies directly, and offer to do freelance work for them for a good rate from home, or sign up with an employment agent to get contract work, specifying that it needs to be work you can do from home.

Lastly though - I know a few people who live "off the grid", by which I mean they don't work, they have very low outgoings, and spend their days working the land and raising their kids - to the outside it looks like they "have it all". They have to prioritise too. Farming or smallholding means you may not be able to take holidays above a few days due to the constant workload (I also have friends who say they'd go crazy without travelling regularly). Spending enough time producing homecooked food means you lose time to do your artistic pursuits (and yet this is so important to others). I'm telling you this to illustrate that everyone prioritises some stuff and loses out on other stuff.

The trick to real happiness is deciding, then standing by your decision, letting go of the stuff you have decided is less important to you, and finding joy in the stuff you decide to do.
posted by greenish at 6:03 AM on January 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

What about H&R Block? Aren't they hiring a bunch of seasonal employees right now? I think they have a course to take but with accounting certification, you should be able to sail through that in pretty short order.
posted by Beti at 6:27 AM on January 21, 2016 [5 favorites]

The way you frame working on the book for the publisher, it sounds like more hope labor. What confidence do you have / are you getting from the publisher that the book would be published if you put the work in?

I would add up my expenses plus 10% for 3 months and ask the publisher for an advance of that sum. That puts the risk squarely on their shoulders, not yours. If they cannot/will not give the advance, change your online presence and look for work that will pay you hourly what you need.
posted by zia at 6:37 AM on January 21, 2016 [6 favorites]

Also, make sure that if the book doesn't sell enough to pay back the advance, the advance is forgiven and doesn't become an additional burden of debt.
posted by zia at 6:38 AM on January 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

So, where are you falling down in terms of finding jobs?

- Are you having trouble actually finding openings for jobs you would be willing/able to do? If so, can you figure out why? From what I understand of the Portland job market, you really might be in a tight spot as far as this goes, and that's going to lead to some tough decisions.
- Are you submitting application materials (application, cover letter, resume) for jobs but not getting any response? If so, you need to improve your application materials and/or be more selective/realistic about the jobs you're applying for. (If you're including a list of your requirements, like the dog-free, fragrance-free workplace, in your application materials, I would advise you to stop - bring these up at the interview or offer stage.)
- Are you getting to the interview stage for positions but then you're not able to lock things down? If so, you need to work on your interview technique.

The potential book deal changes nothing. You still need to find a job that lets you support yourself. This is basically the same question as the one you linked to before.

While there's nothing wrong with doing low-skill, low-pay work, it sounds like you have the skills to do higher-skill, higher-pay work. You need to aggressively go after the higher-skill work because the competition is just as tough either way (while there may be more low-skill jobs there are also more low-skill people) and the work is just as tough either way (if not tougher in low-skill jobs).

I haven't read it myself, but Alison Green of Ask A Manager has an ebook called How To Get a Job that you might find useful. She is just generally a font of good information.
posted by mskyle at 6:51 AM on January 21, 2016 [7 favorites]

The people I have known personally who are not academics and who have published books all had support, either in the form of an employed spouse, extended family, or the kind of job that doesn't leave you drained and exhausted at the end of the day. If you don't have the options of spousal or family support, you need to prioritize the job search completely, leaving all the side projects, interests, and even the writing until that is established.

I also agree with the comments above about the economics of publishing and making sure that you are not writing this as "hope labor."
posted by Dip Flash at 6:53 AM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't know much about book publishing (in a previous life, I did magazine work), but I would suspect that any established indie publisher has intentions on publishing new titles every year.

So unless your book is on a topic that is only going to be relevant *now*, and not one or two years from now, I wonder whether you can have the publisher's interest but give them a long time line. Perhaps there is someone with indie book publishing experience that help you with wording the communications that would say to the publisher, "hey, I am glad you are interested in this manuscript, and I will be turning to that project soon but likely not in time for your fall 2016 release -- let's keep in touch and discuss later this year ..."

Then focus on getting a solid job that will support you, and work the finishing of the book into that new schedule.
posted by girlpublisher at 7:58 AM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thank you for all the suggestions. I appreciate all of them, wet blanket or otherwise. I will respond to the questions in more detail when I return from work. But for now, I did want to mention that I'm aware that publishing a non-fiction book isn't going to improve my financial situation much, and I don't expect it to. That's one of the reasons I've been trying to get multiple sources of income set up.
posted by velvet winter at 8:00 AM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

If your body/life can handle being on night shift and you can find one that isn't an issue with fragrances, night desk work at hotels is a commonly used way authors get paid to sit around and write.
posted by Candleman at 8:46 AM on January 21, 2016

Do not work on your manuscript for this publisher without a signed contract and advance payment. That's what an advance and a contract is for, to bind you to turn in your finished book by a specific date.

I would caution you to not give up guaranteed income based on a conversation about POSSIBLE income with no firm offer and no paperwork to back it up. If this publisher asks for your completion date again, ask them for a contract. That's how it's done. (I'm not just being a know-it-all blowhard here; this is my area of expertise.)

As you have guessed, you will most likely never see royalties on your book. Most authors don't. And yes, you may have to pay back the advance if you don't turn your MS in on time or they reject the finished MS. Most contracts will allow you to retain whatever they've paid you on signing and if you get someone to look at your contract, they can get better language for you that allows you to keep the full advance.

If this publisher does make an offer, you don't have to get an agent because you already have a book deal. Why give someone 15% of everything if they didn't even do the work of shopping your book and getting you an offer? That's the hard part. You can hire someone for a flat fee or hourly rate to review your contract (an attorney or a freelance publishing contracts consultant-- the latter is what I would use because they're not as costly as attorneys and they know the business.)

That said, if you want to make room in your life to write, that is a great goal. I love the idea of night work, security or reception work. Keep writing if it feeds your soul. But I wouldn't count on this publisher or this conversation as a reason to "quit your day job," so to speak. Work for YOU, but don't work for this publisher for free. Good luck!

Is any of your material more suitable for periodicals or web publication? (You mentioned essays.) That might be a nice way to get a few hundred bucks here and there and to amass a publication history to show book publishers.
posted by kapers at 8:56 AM on January 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

If you’re a writer without spousal support, a trust fund, etc., how do you manage to pull this off?

I'm hoping you will get (or have gotten) an answer that will let you pull this off. But if you don't, just know that it's not a failing on your part. Writers love to talk about how they succeeded due to their own hard work, and that's certainly true for some -- but for many of us, it was hard work plus remarkable good fortune, in the form of family support. Ann Bauer wrote an article about this in Salon, and it might be worth reading. I don't think it will give you any practical tips on how to support yourself, but it will, at least, give you some emotional armor against people who try to tell you that all writers face the same difficulties you're facing, and that your inability to magically summon up the time and energy to write is somehow your fault. (Nobody has said that in this thread, but I've heard that sort of thing often enough that I think it's wise to guard against it.)

On a (slightly) more practical level, it's worth checking out PEN's list of grants and awards. I say "slightly" because unfortunately, the odds of getting any given grant are low, given how many people want them. And, of course, you still have to find the time to put together a grant application. I would say it's probably worth at least looking through the list of grants, just in case there's one that happens to be uniquely suited to you.

What should I tell the publisher while I’m working this out? I

If they're a small but legit press, they probably know that most of their authors aren't making a full-time living out of their books. They don't need to know too much about the exact specifics of your financial situation, but I think you could say something like:

"I am so excited that you're potentially interested in my book! This book is my passion project, and I am committed to finishing it -- but unfortunately, at the moment, I'm having to put all my energy into paid work.That makes it hard for me to know when I'll have a publishable draft ready. It's important for me to honor my commitments, so I don't want to give you a date that I can't make. Can I check back in with you [WHENEVER YOU THINK YOUR FINANCIAL SITUATION WILL HAVE STABILIZED] ? I hope that my work situation will have stabilized by then, and that I can at least let you know when I expect to have a finished manuscript for you to consider."

Depending on what sort of interest they did or didn't express, you also might add something like this:

"By the way, my understanding from your email is that you are interested in seeing the book when it is completed, but aren't able to offer an advance right now. If I've misunderstood and you would in fact be able to offer an advance, please do let me know, as that would potentially enable me to ease up on some of my other work to focus on this book. But either way, thank you for your interest! I'm a big fan of {NAME OF PRESS} and I'm honored that you'd like to see {NAME OF BOOK}."
posted by yankeefog at 9:11 AM on January 21, 2016 [7 favorites]

It sounds like you do a lot of things that you're passionate about and excel in, so I'm wondering whether there's not a way to monetize those more.

I'm no expert in the playlist / DJ business, but could you expand the paid services you provide there (provide on-site music for events such as ...funerals? hosting multi-day mourning retreats in partnership with a yoga teacher?)?

Could you simply raise your cleaning prices? The cost of providing those services (i.e., your rent) has risen.

Have you explored options for advertising revenue on your blog? It could bring in another few bucks a month if you haven't already done that.

I also (perhaps ignorantly) find it surprising that your studies in accounting haven't led to more consulting or a job. Could you market your tax skills to other small nonprofits and self-employed artists? 'Tis the season...

I also read your 2010 post links in the question. (Can't believe it got so few answers!) If I'd seen it, I would've commented that it sounds like you're really flexible (except at the level of certain physical needs where you understandably can't be), and so it might just be a numbers game -- finding a way to efficiently apply for lots of office admin, book reshelving / stocking, dishwashing (does that pay enough?), ... etc. jobs until something turns up. A temp agency could be really useful.

Just brainstorming here. You've been dealing with trying to figure this out for years now, so I'm sure you've probably already considered much or all of this. Good luck.
posted by salvia at 9:18 AM on January 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Have you looked at government jobs? I have serious fragrance issues that are currently exacerbated by pregnancy and my employer bends over backwards to accommodate me. Here's an accounting job that appears to be with the transit system. I think if you had one stable full time job that allowed you to provide for yourself it would give you more time to focus on your book - but is your book your priority? If you want to finish your book, some of your other projects may have to fall by the wayside.
posted by notjustthefish at 9:32 AM on January 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

I work in a tech office that is well known for being dog friendly, but I didn't bring my dog in for years because my office mate was allergic. You should not assume "pet friendly" means "persons with allergies need not apply". Many people in tech are fragrance sensitive as well. I'm currently pregnant with a very bad chest cold and would be completely unable to deal with a co-worker wearing perfume, and it's a complete nonissue. Unless your allergies are vastly more debilitating and severe than average, I think you're writing off a lot of potential employers for no reason.
posted by town of cats at 10:20 AM on January 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

tldr; Kickstarter?
posted by oxit at 11:10 AM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

I know you've been planting a lot of seeds in the hopes one of them will take, and because of your (imo totally fair) criticisms of the current order. But you're clearly running yourself actually ragged trying to beat the system by doing things that do meet your criteria, and it's leaving you with no juice for the real artistic work you have in you to do.

I agree that your best bet for current and future* financial stability - and for headspace to produce this book - is to have a clear focus, and go all in on one kind of skilled job. Something with less physical risk than cleaning. Not proofreading or copy editing, that just doesn't have the value / market it used to have. I agree with those suggesting going for accounting, or bookkeeping, and sticking with it far as your energy/time allocation and branding are concerned, stick with it until something comes of it.

Without a clear focus, friends who know you're looking for work might be confused about what to put you forward for or suggest. Your concerns about different work environments and systems are (imo) valid, but if you present them first to friends and acquaintances who could help, they might be unsure about whether a given workplace will meet your needs. (They may also hesitate to put their reputations on the line if they think you might bolt, sorry to say.)

I think if you can find your way into an accounting job working for someone else, just for now, while you're writing, and find ways to manage that - i.e., understand, deeply, that it's a work-to-live scenario, that will free you from worry and grief - you could eventually set up your own accounting or bookkeeping business on your terms.

I don't know what you should tell the publisher right now, but I think your focus should be financial security. If that means there's a delay wrt this book, ok. If it means you lose this opportunity, that would be hard to take. But someone's shown an interest in what you have to say. By setting up a life and lifestyle that support you without undue worry, you will have the time to actually say it, maybe be more productive and prolific, maybe find other venues to share your work.

*Even if your needs are simple now, they might not be, down the line.
posted by cotton dress sock at 11:33 AM on January 21, 2016 [9 favorites]

One thing to suggest since you're in a tech hub. Find the local community of Drupal developers. They exist in every big city, it's a hugely popular CMS, and the recent release of version 8 means tons of businesses and non-profits are going to be on an update cycle in the next year or two (especially all those on Drupal 6, which is being deprecated quickly and which has a large installed base). It has a history of being a very friendly and supportive development community where you can learn a lot and make connections if you can figure out how they network and meet. If you already have some skills with PHP/MySQL CMS frameworks, Drupal is very learnable to a level where you could take on modest freelance projects, and a lot of experienced developers will be learning Drupal 8 afresh in the next year so there will be lots of workshops and classes and webinars happening.

So I checked and the next meeting of the Portland Drupal Users Group is Feb. 13.

Because *especially* in a tech hub full of smart people with CS chops, the way you get web development work that pays is going to be connections to more known developers sending you the projects they turn down. You need connections.
posted by spitbull at 12:07 PM on January 21, 2016 [4 favorites]

Have you thought about a GoFundMe campaign?
posted by itsflyable at 4:11 PM on January 21, 2016

To nth spitbull and cotton dress sock - I hire people, and I googled you and you come right up. Not knowing you in person, and having a whole stack of applicants to pick from... yeah...

I have mixed opinions on various points you bring up (agree with some, disagree with some), but sadly when I'm hiring I'm not picking a new friend, I'm picking an employee and I have to stand by my choice (make a case and defend my choice to get them hired) and if I choose poorly that can also reflect on me. It's not just about your skills, but about how you compare in the broader pool of applicants. Also, a good hiring manager will include "fit". Highly highly recommend AskAManager Alison Green.

Definitely disentangle your online personas and try again.

(Also, IRS work is kind of seasonal and pays pretty well, and my cousin did census work for awhile. Even teaching would leave your summers free. You might like some of the Barbara Sher books, which can sort of guide some brainstorming around how to set yourself up and get your needs met.)

Also nth what folks are saying about book publishing. I know someone who has a published nonfiction book with 32 Amazon reviews (60% 5 star), and 168 ratings and 31 reveiws on GoodReads (average 4.5 stars). She eventually made $5k on her book, which she said wasn't even half minimum wage for the amount of time she put into it. Memail me if you want to know the book.
posted by jrobin276 at 5:52 PM on January 21, 2016 [2 favorites]

Wow. Thank you, everyone. I'm a little overwhelmed, though gratefully so, with all the responses - both here and in MeMail. I'll answer my MeMail over the next few days.

I thought about the responses all day while I was at work. This is one thing I enjoy about repetitive work like house cleaning: it leaves enough brain cycles free in my mind to ponder things.

I think the first take-away I have from this thread is that I am simply not in a position to finish writing my book right now, much as I wish I were. I have more pressing matters that must be handled first.

On to the first round of question-answering:

Do you qualify for any sort of disability assistance (I don't know how these things work in the USA, unfortunately)?

No, I'm quite certain that I'd be denied. (And after hearing about the nightmares some of my disabled friends have had to go through to qualify for the meager disability assistance that's available, and the tightrope they often have to walk to keep it, I think it would be ill-advised for me to try. I might even be laughed out of the office. "You can't find a job because you have animal dander and perfume allergies? Oh, puhleeze...")

What about H&R Block? Aren't they hiring a bunch of seasonal employees right now? I think they have a course to take but with accounting certification, you should be able to sail through that in pretty short order.

In Oregon, tax preparers must be state licensed, which involves studying for and passing a state exam - in other words, more hope labor. I don't have any wiggle room left to take on more hope labor, given the short time I've got left before my rent increase. And while I do have a post-bac certificate in accounting, I haven't kept up with the field in recent years, and unfortunately I never managed to get any professional accounting experience. I completed my education at the height of the recession, when few employers were hiring; even with my instructors' recommendations, I couldn't get interviews. Eventually I gave up trying, and started a house cleaning business to survive. I've been cleaning houses ever since.

The way you frame working on the book for the publisher, it sounds like more hope labor. What confidence do you have / are you getting from the publisher that the book would be published if you put the work in?

It does sound like more hope labor. Thank you for mentioning that, because I have a tendency to get a bit starry-eyed at times, and it's something I need to keep in check. A few years ago I went through the process of preparing a full book proposal (for a different manuscript) and submitting a query letter to a publisher I wanted to work with. I was so proud of my work, and so excited about the possibility of working with this publisher, that there were butterflies in my stomach when I sent it. The response was a disappointing "let us know when the book is finished, and we'll consider releasing it." So I decided not to work with that publisher. This time, I wasn't shopping my work around at all. A publisher approached me after reading the chapter I posted on my blog, asked me to send a table of contents for the MS, and expressed strong interest after I did. But so far there has been no firm offer, no contract negotation, and no talk of an advance. So it's really just talk at this stage. That's not something I'd give up my current income for, especially considering that I'm living hand-to-mouth.

Round two of question-answering will happen after I catch up on other tasks.
posted by velvet winter at 7:52 PM on January 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

The response was a disappointing "let us know when the book is finished, and we'll consider releasing it." So I decided not to work with that publisher.

One quick (possibly off-topic) followup: If you have finished that other manuscript (or if you finish it at some point in the future), it's worth taking that publisher at their word and sending it to them. Their response was definitely disappointing-- but it wasn't a rejection. And if you send it in with a cover letter reminding them that they asked to see the manuscript when it was finished, it will at least get your book read faster, and with a little more attention, than if it was just a random submission that came in over the transom.

I've found that any given submission is a longshot, but if an editor has expressed any kind of interest in your work beforehand, it raises your odds from 1% to 1.5%. Still not great odds, but it's a step in the right direction!
posted by yankeefog at 2:37 AM on January 22, 2016

On the allergies, it seems to me this is a red herring issue, and is not responsible for your lack of job offers. No corporate hiring officer is even supposed to ask you medical questions in a job interview, nor are you supposed to volunteer medical information - it's against the law. If you are hired, then they have to accommodate your legitimate medical issues. So unless you are walking into interviews saying "I can't work near pets or Chanel No. 5" they don't need to know it and your allergies are not part of the obstacle here. And for most people an OTC antihistamine is the solution anyway.

I agree that disability (SSI/SSDI) will be impossible. You work now. Your allergies obviously don't keep you from cleaning houses, which is normally something highly allergic people would likely avoid (and I wonder about that, do you only clean pet-free households? Do those even exist in Portland, which I think of as the land where everyone owns a dog?). You work now. You're not disabled. Those guys are really persnickety about such things. Many disability claims are denied and a vast number are bullshit. It also takes a long time to go through that process.

If you clean houses for cash you probably aren't paying taxes either, or contributing to your social security. You then have no SSDI disability insurance to speak of. If your income is low enough, you might consider applying for SNAP benefits and/or low income heating assistance and the like.
posted by spitbull at 5:13 AM on January 22, 2016

Very few conventional employers are going to want to hire someone who has put years into speaking out very publicly against the tyranny of waged labor and in favor of leisure and basic income guarantees...

Indeed. I've struggled with this dilemma for many years. Some of the work I am most strongly driven to do - writing and speaking out about the absurdity of requiring people to meet their basic survival needs by earning a living through wage labor - may be interfering with my ability to earn a living myself, and therefore with my ability to keep a roof over my head while I write about it. It's maddening. No one is required to hire me, but I'm required to earn wages to survive.

Yet if I remain silent about these things, I've learned the hard way that I will pay a heavy price, emotionally and spiritually, for that silence.

So I suffer either way.

One of the reasons I've been happy to work as a house cleaner is that it leaves me free to write on these subjects without risking my income. My clients all know that I speak out about this when I'm not on duty, and they understand that my Rethinking the Job Culture project addresses systemic problems in our culture, and involves no animosity toward them personally. I'm grateful to my clients, in fact, because working for them has allowed me to survive the recession and the financial fallout from my divorce. Nonetheless, I believe we as a culture can do better than we're doing now, and that's one of the reasons I write about this with such conviction and commitment.

My book chapter for this project is also what attracted the publisher when I wasn't even shopping my work around, so there's that.

In any case, it seems my online presence may mean I'll have trouble getting hired in web dev no matter what I do. I can cover my online tracks somewhat, but any web-savvy employer will be able to find "dirt" on me. So perhaps the best approach would be to concentrate my search elsewhere.
posted by velvet winter at 11:13 AM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

On to round two of question-answering...

So, where are you falling down in terms of finding jobs?

I'm able to find jobs I qualify for, and I'm able to get interviews - often because I have good references who are happy to recommend me. I'm told that I interview well, and I've been *thisclose* to a job offer several times. The last almost-job-offer I got was for a web content editor position (though admittedly that was a few years ago, before I started my house cleaning business.) I passed their skills test with flying colors, and I have no doubt that I would have enjoyed the work and done well at it. They ended up picking another applicant, though they told me it was a close call and encouraged me to reapply at a later date, when they expected they would have another position open doing similar work. However, that position never materialized.

What it often seems to come down to lately, though, is the classic catch-22: can't-get-a-job-without-experience, can't-get-experience-without-a-job. I've got lots of education - two baccalaureate degrees, a post-bac certificate in accounting, and a completed track in front-end web dev - yet I've been self-employed as a house cleaner and freelance writer for years now, and I think that's what's hurting me most, even though I frame it (truthfully!) as "running my own business." Employers who hire web devs want to see an attractive professional portfolio and a year or two of experience, even for jobs that are ostensibly "entry-level." I wouldn't mind doing more unpaid work to gain that experience if I had the flexibility, but because I am living hand-to-mouth, I simply can't afford to do that. I can't take on any more hope labor, as I'm now between a rock and a hard place. I need to find steady paid work by April, or I'll lose my home.

I may just go into a staffing agency and start applying for administrative or web content editing work again, and then revisit the web dev stuff later on down the line. Seems like that would be more likely to get me hired sooner, as my years of freelance writing experience would be more directly related.
posted by velvet winter at 12:09 PM on January 22, 2016

I heard of a young man in a similar situation to yours, who found an old person living alone with a whole house to himself, and willing to let the young man live in, rent-free, in exchange for some help with shopping, cooking and housework. He found this old person through a personal ad in a paper read by older people (this was in London).

I'd be happy to be a live-in housekeeper or grounds-caretaker of some sort, assuming I could find the right match. I've considered it many times before, but finding the right match isn't easy. Still, I will definitely give this more thought as a possibility for the future.
posted by velvet winter at 12:31 PM on January 22, 2016

Is any of your material more suitable for periodicals or web publication? (You mentioned essays.) That might be a nice way to get a few hundred bucks here and there and to amass a publication history to show book publishers.

I think some of it would be, yes, with some editing. I've already got some published articles and interviews online. But as others have mentioned, I need to prioritize, and right now my top priority is securing a steady income that will keep me in my home. Once I've accomplished that, I will then turn an eye toward things like this that will advance my writing career.
posted by velvet winter at 12:44 PM on January 22, 2016

I'm hoping you will get (or have gotten) an answer that will let you pull this off. But if you don't, just know that it's not a failing on your part.

Thank you so much for saying this, yankeefog. In my heart of hearts, I know that is the truth. But I live and work in a cultural milieu that so relentlessly shames and blames people in situations like mine that it's taken me half a lifetime even to dig out from under the psychological baggage enough to speak out and write at the level I do right now. So every bit of that kind of reassurance goes a long way.
posted by velvet winter at 1:09 PM on January 22, 2016

What's the monthly gap between what you're making cleaning and what you need to make to cover your increased rent?
posted by salvia at 1:25 PM on January 22, 2016

If you clean houses for cash you probably aren't paying taxes either, or contributing to your social security. You then have no SSDI disability insurance to speak of. If your income is low enough, you might consider applying for SNAP benefits and/or low income heating assistance and the like.

That assumption is incorrect. I'm a responsible business owner who keeps accurate records of every penny I earn. My business is a sole proprietorship. I'm educated in accounting. My personal finance knowledge has a lot to do with why I am debt-free: I borrow as little as possible, in order to minimize the amount of interest I must pay. Accordingly, I pay all federal, state, and local taxes, on time, every year, even when I've suffered great pains to do so.

I've been on SNAP benefits for awhile now, and I get bit of assistance on my phone bill. That's all I qualify for.
posted by velvet winter at 1:26 PM on January 22, 2016

What's the monthly gap between what you're making cleaning and what you need to make to cover your increased rent?

I suspect I know where you may be going with that, but I'd prefer not to get into any more detail here. Happy to hear more of your thoughts in MeMail though, if you are so inclined.
posted by velvet winter at 2:35 PM on January 22, 2016

That's great to hear that you run your business like a business.

If you are getting to interviews and they are going well, I really think what is happening is that prospective employers *are* googling you after they decide they might want to hire you.

Anyway, your answer is staring you in the face. If you don't believe in waged labor as a path to prosperity and satisfaction, then the alternatives are to live off the grid and off the land (that is, to be poor) or to run your own real business, one that isn't just a job that pays you about what you'd make doing the labor, but one that has the potential to free you from the front-end labor and allows you to benefit from the surplus value of exploiting other peoples' waged labor. Since you describe your housecleaning operation as a serious business with serious financial administration, then the course of least resistance that gets you closer to your dream of not working yourself (after a long time) is that you must have other people working for you.

Could you get more house-cleaning work if you had more time to do it? What about if you had more time to market your services? If the answer is yes, then you need to hire someone or go into partnership with someone, double or more your workforce, and scale up the business until you're the boss running the operation that is staffed by other wage laborers, and your work is marketing, accounting, human resource management, and growing the business. You will never, ever get ahead being the person pushing the vacuum cleaner. There is always someone willing to push a vacuum cleaner for the bare minimum wage. You can only advance financially by being the person who hires that person and taking a share of her/his labor value.

In other words, welcome to capitalism. You are either a boss accumulating surplus value, a worker hanging in there and never getting ahead (without having a technical specialty that can't be automated or outsourced cheaper), a lottery winner, an inheritor of prior family wealth, or destitute/on public assistance. Those are your choices. A small number of people make a waged level of living doing creative work on their own terms. But many more wish they could and are willing to undercut anything close to a living wage in such fields as music, writing, or other arts.

You need a little capital to hire other people, but maybe you can partner with someone, and housecleaning is not a high capital investment business. You get paid, you pay someone else part of what you get paid to do the work.

You will of course acquire all the burdens of being an employer the moment you do that. And you may find yourself googling the people you interview to see if they seem inclined to working hard to generate surplus value for you.

But just to be aware, and I'm sure you know this, in my city housecleaning is a largely cash business staffed largely by undocumented immigrant women. There is always someone willing to work cheaper than you would get from a proper service where the workers were legal and getting benefits and social security contributions and all the rest.
posted by spitbull at 7:21 PM on January 22, 2016 [1 favorite]

Plus owning your own business that employs others to generate the surplus value means you can leverage your investment in web development and accounting to your own benefit. A good website and proper bookkeeping are two big upfront expenses for the average small business.
posted by spitbull at 7:29 PM on January 22, 2016

I suspect I know where you may be going with that, but I'd prefer not to get into any more detail here. Happy to hear more of your thoughts in MeMail though, if you are so inclined.

Where I'm going is: could you raise your prices enough to cover the rent increase?

If I understand the story, you were doing okay, then rent went up, and now you can't clean enough houses to make ends meet and might be on the streets by April. How to pay rent seems to be the most urgent question here. "What job or consulting business will give me enough free time to write a book?" seems to be a longer-term question.

As an outsider, I wonder if your most certain path to income isn't to increase what you're earning in your current business, e.g., by taking on a few more clients and boosting everyone's prices a bit. Sure, you won't be the cheapest cleaning service around, but I imagine that part of your appeal is that you aren't just any cleaning service.

From what I can tell, moving from thing to thing is where this unpaid "hope labor" comes in. As cotton dress sock points out, it will help to pick one thing and really dig in there. Given your timeline, the best option might be the thing that is already making you money, which is that you know you can make money cleaning houses. Even applying for new jobs will be really time-consuming. It might be worth applying for a bunch online, but then while the interview process (etc.) grinds slowly forward, assume that won't pan out and really focus on building up your current business.
posted by salvia at 8:46 PM on January 22, 2016

OK, I've finally answered all the MeMails now. Thank you so much, everyone. I really appreciate all the correspondence and offers of assistance. One person even mentioned a free-rent-in-exchange-for-housekeeping situation that I would have seriously considered if it were anywhere near Portland or another walkable town in the PNW where I could live car-free. I'm in a great living situation already with below-market rent, though, which is part of how I'm able to keep my expenses low, so I think the best approach is for me to figure out how to increase my income enough to stay where I am. Even if I can't do it by April, however, I won't end up living on the streets, because I can move in with my folks. As I've mentioned, that would be an absolute last resort, because it would involve selling everything I own and moving across the Pacific Ocean to a place I don't want to live...but at least the option is there.

I also got some great encouragement and helpful tips that will help give me a leg up whenever I do manage to get my financial situation sorted out enough that I can devote more of my attention to writing the book and getting it published. I look forward to that day!

If there's anyone else who'd like to chime in via MeMail, feel free, as I'm still pondering, and haven't made a definite decision about what I'm going to do next. I'll be attending three different social and networking get-togethers this coming week, though, so that's one of the steps I'm taking, at least: I'll be talking about my situation and inviting suggestions. And I think I'm going to tell the publisher that while I am strongly interested in working with them, and pleased that they approached me, I am not in a position to give them a commitment about the timeline for completion of the book at the moment. I'll make it clear that I will get back to them as soon as I get my situation sorted out, however.

spitbull: I've already mentioned that I enjoy living simply and have no desire to take on the responsibility and burden of becoming an employer myself. Frankly, managing a house cleaning business and hiring employees sounds like a nightmare to me. Even if I were going to be part of a cleaning co-op owned and managed by the workers, which is something I'd consider, I'd still want the business management to be done by someone with the aptitude and temperament for it. That person is not me.
posted by velvet winter at 3:34 PM on January 23, 2016

...could you raise your prices enough to cover the rent increase?

I considered that for awhile, especially since I serve a niche market: I specialize in eco-friendly cleaning for people with allergies, asthma, and chemical sensitivities. (In other words, people like me.) I use only all-natural supplies like baking soda, essential oils, and white vinegar for cleaning. So my clients are all folks with health and ecological concerns of their own, and none have pets. After carefully researching the low end and high end of market rates and sort of "testing the waters" with my current clients, however, I feel pretty confident in saying that I don't think I can raise my rates without losing clients. And I love my clients, and they love me. And it's hard to find clients without pets! So I'm afraid that's a no-go.

But even if it were workable, unfortunately it still wouldn't be enough to cover the shortfall. And I can't take on more clients due to physical limitations: house cleaning puts a lot of stress on my back and knees. My body is feeling the strain more and more as I age. So I think it's time to transition into something else anyway, much as I love the way working as a house cleaner has preserved my creative freedom.

How to pay rent seems to be the most urgent question here. "What job or consulting business will give me enough free time to write a book?" seems to be a longer-term question.

Indeed. Thank you for stating that so clearly.

From what I can tell, moving from thing to thing is where this unpaid "hope labor" comes in. As cotton dress sock points out, it will help to pick one thing and really dig in there.

That's good advice. I have indeed been planting a lot of seeds in the hopes that one of them will take - one that will somehow lead me to a day job that still permits me time and energy to write a book. But it may be that, because of the other constraints of my circumstances, this is just not possible for me at the moment, because I have no other source of support - no spousal support, no grants, no publisher advance, no trust fund, nothing. And it's true, as cotton dress sock reminds me, that my needs may not be simple later, even though they are right now. So as soon as I decide where I'm going to focus my efforts, I will be back to the job hunt. I don't see any other way.

Also, in an earlier comment you mentioned expanding the musical consultation services I provide. (I particularly like the idea of providing dark ambient music playlists to accompany mourning retreats in partnership with yoga teachers. That's very close to what I'm already doing.) I've found that there's a lot more demand for such things than I had originally expected, so I think this will eventually bring in more income for me. But that, too, is a longer-term kind of thing - the project is still at an early stage. My immediate focus needs to be narrow: find a way to increase my income soon, so that I will be able to keep living where I am, and will then one day be able to expand my writing and other creative projects.

Thank you to everyone in this thread for helping me to clarify all of this!
posted by velvet winter at 4:55 PM on January 23, 2016

I don't think I can raise my rates without losing clients

Just to mention, it's not uncommon for small business owners to raise the rates for new customers, but tell existing customers that they can keep the rate they're used to, so that's something to consider next time you get an enquiry from a potential new client!
posted by greenish at 2:08 AM on January 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

You've gotten a lot of great advice on this thread. I wanted to zoom in on just one little thing. I believe you mentioned having once written a book proposal for a prior book, and then sending it off to a publisher, where it did not result in a book deal.

I have a couple observations about that. First, the huge majority of nonfiction books are sold by agents, not by authors working directly with publishers. Most big publishing houses won't even deal with un-agented submissions. Did you try to find an agent? It sounds like shoring up your income situation is job number one, but once you are able to return to the question of writing again, I'd advise you to at least try. I can't bear the thought of a person taking the trouble to write an entire book proposal, and then only sending it to one recipient. A proposal should go out to multiple prospective agents, dozens even. Getting work sold is a numbers game.

Agents may be less important in the indie press world, and that may be where you want to be. Still, I advise you to consider this, either for the book proposal you wrote in the past, or for the current manuscript. No reason you couldn't write a proposal for the current book you have in progress, and send it to agents (once you get your immediate income crisis sorted, of course).

The best advice I've heard about how to find agents is this: find books you admire, ideally similar in topic, form, or audience to the book you intend to write. Ninety percent of authors thank their agents somewhere in their acknowledgements. Take the agents' names, Google them, and query them. Instructions for querying an agent are easy to come by online or in how-to-get-published type books (just make sure your source is fairly current). If you know published writers, you can also ask them, delicately, what their experiences with agents have been, and if they'd be willing to share their contacts.

Finally, no reputable agent will ask for money up front. Agents get paid when you get paid, that's how it works. So there's no financial downside to seeking one, except for the time you will put in. And though the agent will take a cut (typically 10 or 15 percent of your advance and any royalties), the upside for you is that having an agent will help you get a bigger deal, or indeed be the critical factor in your getting a deal at all.
posted by toomuchkatherine at 8:07 PM on January 26, 2016

Here's an update, and it's great news.

First, it turns out the April deadline was a misunderstanding, and the upshot is that I've got more time to sort out the immediate income situation without the threat of losing my place. Huge relief there!

Second, I am no longer single, so my partner and I are now considering these decisions within the context of our new relationship. No decisions have been made yet, but we're very supportive of one another's individual creative goals, and I think this bodes well for the future of my writing career.

And third, I have decided to look for bookkeeping and accounting jobs again. Once I've got something in place, I am hoping I'll have enough time and energy to take up work on the book manuscript again, and perhaps re-submit my book proposal to other publishers.

Thanks again, everyone!
posted by velvet winter at 6:42 PM on February 14, 2016 [1 favorite]

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