The Writer's Economy

When The Poverty Line Is A Step (way) Up




For years, my sister used call me with the great news of another writer’s success.


“This girl just got $750,000 for writing a vampire book,” she began one evening. The “girl” she was speaking of was Stephenie Meyers, whose original 3-book contract with Little Brown for Twilight launched her astonishing international career. “Why can’t you write vampire books?” my sister wanted to know.


“Vampires,” I said.


I was probably getting my young children to brush their teeth for bed or towel-drying their hair after a bath or sweeping up peas from under the dinner table. Children were another of my “bad” ideas of which my sister disapproved. The opportunity costs were enormous, the variable costs unpredictable. And for what? No return on the investment unless you happen to produce the next Bill Gates. “I don’t know anything about vampires,” I told her.


“Nobody knows anything about vampires, you idiot! They are mythical creatures. Do you know what mythical creatures are?”


“Like unicorns, dragons, griffins—”


“Noooo,” she yelled into the phone. My idiocy was painful for her. “They are invented bullshit that people make money from! Are you getting any of this? Please tell me you are writing this down!”


Like many people, my sister could not understand why a writer like me bothers to invest so much time and effort, forfeiting opportunity elsewhere, to settle for so little. She understood that some people are into the art world, as opposed to the finance world in which she operated.  But within the microcosm of writing itself, why wouldn’t I use my talents to do the obvious? If vampires are “in”, why don’t I invent a story about the paranormal and write a bestseller?


There was no point in explaining to my sister that I didn’t forgo every other career option in my life to sell out to whatever was trending in Young Adult fiction. I said, “Thank you, but I don’t have any great interest in vampires.”


“You don’t have to have any great interest?”


“Or any interest.”


“Do you have interest in money?”




“Then think money and write vampires.”


“It doesn’t work like that.”


“Oh really?” she said impatiently. “Then exactly how does it work?”



This is what I will attempt to explain in some of the blogs you’ll see over the course of the next few months. What is it that the writer wants with her work? What is she willing to trade with the peculiar economy, or more accurately economies, she finds herself in? What is it she seeks and what does she think she is likely to gain, if anything? You might imagine, as my sister did, that it is obvious what a writer is after: big advances, bestseller lists, literary awards, great reviews and speaking tours. Even a cursory look at the industry reveals, however, that she is unlikely to get even one of those rewards for her investment in the craft of writing—ever.


Let’s talk about money. I received a message from an aspiring fantasy writer in response to my blog, Why You Shouldn’t Write A Bestseller. She wrote, “I’m not entirely sure why I wouldn’t want to write a bestseller.” A reasonable comment. She then went on, describing the things she might be able to buy with the money from the bestseller: a few sheep and horses and a “bucolic piece of countryside.”


Those who read my blog know I live in the countryside with sheep and horses, so she was teasing me. While I don’t deliberately try to write commercial books, I do shout as loudly as I can to anyone who might hire me or publish me that during a fast-receding moment in my life a novel mine was on the New York Times bestseller list. So it was a little cheeky of me to write a blog with a title that expressed a desire not to be on a bestseller list. It was simply a provocative title to a piece I wrote in response to the excellent TED talk given by literary agent, Jonny Geller, called What Makes A Bestseller.


I blogged about the importance of focusing on the writing, itself, without consideration of the rewards (financial or otherwise) that may be the result of the effort. I never argue against being a bestseller, but about trying to become one. And why might I discourage anyone from that?


Maybe because the likelihood of becoming a bestseller is so slim. In April 2015, one of the UK’s leading research institutions, Queen Mary, University of London, published a paper called ‘The Business of Being An Author: A survey of Author Earnings and Contracts’. Below is a list a few of the more sobering findings of the survey. The last bullet point is a direct quote from page 9:


•Earnings for authors have been falling for over a decade and authors are now earning 19% less in real terms than they did in 2005

•The typical earnings of all authors are only £4,000 and those of professional authors are merely £11,000 which represents a drop of 29% in real terms since 2005.

•A small number of writers earn the vast proportion of the money paid to authors as a whole.

•The size of advances, as well as the likelihood of any advance whatsoever in the event a publishing company agrees to publish a book, has declined since 2006

•17% of all published writers did not earn any money from writing during 2013. Further, of those writers, 98% had had a work published or exploited in each year from 2010 to 2013. Thus, at least 17% of writers are continuing to work without any expectation of earnings.


A few other facts about our dismal financial prospects include the obvious, for example, that we are not earning anything near minimum wage. They also include the outrageous:  That the contracts many authors have to sign to be published require them to get permission for using their own work in teaching.


In case you are wondering if it is any better on the “indy” side of writing, it is not. It seems that, while one can make money as a self-published writer, the earnings are low and you have very real possibility that the book costs you more in editing, proofreading, design and marketing costs than it earns in sales. Many self-published books are very badly written, not edited nor proofread for this reason. The result are poor quality books that discourage buyers.


However, there are also very good self-published books–I’ve read a number of them. Are those authors making a lot of money? Some are, but these are often either genre writers (romance chief among them) or non-fiction books about business productivity, social media, how to market books (or anything)…and they are marketed very well. In other words, if you have a book with a clearly definable audience who needs the information you are supplying, or if you are a decent romance novelist with a following, you can do pretty well! But if you are a literary writer or even a kind of crossover literary/commercial writer, don’t expect a pot of gold.


Amazon is not interested in increasing your wealth, but their own. Recognising that they were paying out more for short books than longer books in their Select and Unlimited programs, Amazon made a very clever move this year to pay authors by the book length, not the book. In other words, they will pay authors less for short books and more for longer books, but only if those longer books are read. Don’t ask me how, but they are somehow able to track what pages have remained on the screen long enough to be read. And they only pay now for those read pages.


Who does Amazon’s new payment scheme hurt? Poets, short story writers, some children’s authors. I’m pleased that it means that “books” about dinosaur sex and the like (yes, these 20-30 page stories exist) will take a financial hit, but it seems markedly unfair to poets. You can get the power of a novel in some poems, and yet they are being paid by the page along with everyone else.


The history of writing shows a long stretch of time during which only the rich could afford to toil away on stories. Charles Dickens was an exception–he started life as a labourer in a boot-blacking warehouse and his father went to debtor’s prison–but on the whole poor people did not partake in literature at all, much less write. Not only were they unlikely to have been taught to read and write to decent standard  but they couldn’t afford to write even if they were literate. Paper and ink was expensive, hours spent away from work an impossible indulgence. Anyway, they didn’t have books, themselves. Where were they supposed to see the examples of excellence in the first place if they didn’t own more than a Bible in the house?


That those outside the privileged middle classes can write a novel is a relatively recent phenomenon. Unfortunately, that possibility is being whittled away as even good writers are now having to settle for an income at the poverty line or well below.


In her 2015 Guardian article, ‘In America, Only The Rich Can Afford To Write About Poverty’, Barbara Ehrenreich explains how the problem of underpayment has hurt journalists, too, especially those who want to address serious social issues such poverty.  She writes, “There’s Darryl Wellington, for example, a local columnist (and poet) in Santa Fe who has, at times, had to supplement his tiny income by selling his plasma – a fallback that can have serious health consequences. Or Joe Williams, who, after losing an editorial job, was reduced to writing for $50 a piece for online political sites while mowing lawns and working in a sporting goods store for $10 an hour to pay for a room in a friend’s house.”


While it appears that writers have the great freedom to write in any medium—paper book, e-books, journals or on-line articles—that freedom requires most of us to forgo any payment for our work.


It is easy to blame publishers, but they are not the problem.


Publishers are not standing at the gates trying to stop you from becoming the literary or commercial (or both) success you can be. They want the most interesting newcomers possible and to make money launching new careers. The problem is that they don’t know what will succeed in the mysterious literary market and when they bet on a new author they are often wrong.


Speaking to NPR’s This American Life in July 2003, David Rakoff, who described himself as having “a negative capacity to identify trends”, describes how as an editorial assistant he was handed a manuscript he particularly disliked. He described it in his notes as “subliterate, borderline mysogynist, an easy pass.”  The manuscript in question? Men are From Mars, Women Are From Venus. And while I do not disagree with David, who was smart and educated and funny and talented, and whose death from cancer in 2012 marked yet another loss in the world of literature, I can’t help but assume that if he didn’t know what would sell, very few other editors do. David was just brave enough to admit as much.


If we write, it cannot be for the riches. However, there is something sweeter about money we’ve earned from using our talent, something extraordinary about earning even a little doing what we love.  Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning includes the sentence, “Meaning is really what we make our living on” and by this he means something very different than our literal living, the food we eat, the clothes we put on.


Meaning has value but no price, and often no publishing contract either. You won’t find any useful meaning in the occasional romance series that sells for eight figure sums. And it is unlikely you’ll find it in the next paranormal romance either. Those genres get the money, though, and I suspect their authors really do consider their books excellent. For those who are wowed by sales figures, it might be easy to believe so.

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