You probably won't get rich as a writer, but it's not really that simple
There's more than money to be earned.
No. 91: You probably won’t get rich as a writer, but it’s not really that simple
The internet has been chatting a lot lately about how little money there is to be made writing books. I read an an article from BookRiot that said, based on a survey of 5,067 authors, “the medium income of people who described themselves as full-time authors was just $20,300 when including all book-related activities.”
Apparently this was a hot topic. It made its way to the front page of Reddit with 8,278 upvotes, which is where I found it. Reading through the 700-plus comments, people were surprised by what they saw as a minuscule annual income for a popular-ish industry. Twenty K was all a writer could hope to make? Rough. Of course, this was the medium. But still.
Is the amount surprising? I guess a little. As someone who loves reading and writing, you’d want the number to be higher. But it’s not necessarily a shocker unless you’re under the impression of the Hemingway-esque legend, which I suspect a lot of people are, especially non-writers or those who are just starting out. I thought this would be my writerly fate for a time. But of course, being the incredibly unique and unconventional artist that I am, the riches I’d accrue would be inconsequential, more a nuisance than a boon, something family members could bicker over while I kicked off from some lakeshore in my canoe at dawn.
Yeah, dude. Sure.
With high hopes like these, the tinge of gloom in the comments responding to the matter-of-fact BookRiot article is easier to understand. The replies generally fell into one of three categories.
The realist: You don’t become a writer to get rich, that’s for sure.
The economist: I’d say this is common in a lot of entrepreneurial industries. Roger Federer makes $90MM, but the average for the top 1,000 is around $185K. Think about how much the top 100 skew that.
The case study: I published my first book in 1997, the royalty checks were nice at first but no where near enough to support me.
Missing from both the article and the Reddit comments, however? The voice I’d expect from weathered writer, a few sturdy sentences on money being important but, in the end, besides the point when it comes to the goal of art making. Perhaps a handful of words on how the real pay-off as a writer is not easily measured since, after all, writing is more of a feeling than anything else, a kind of soul expansion that transcends any amount greenbacks, zero to ten gazillion.
But I get it.
The aim of the article was to dispel the myth that writing, and writing alone, is a sure path to fame and fortune. Or at least to set some realistic expectations.
Can writing books be lucrative? Sure. But is it usually? No. The go-to mantra when the question of writerly financials comes up is, it all depends. The natural follow up to that is, depends on what? In a few words, things that are out of the writer’s control. Genre, readership, awards, traditionally published vs. self-published, talent, etc.
The between-the-lines thesis, then, is that a person is likely to make little to nothing from writing alone. But does the chapter really end there?
The experienced writer will probably take the facts presented in the BookRiot article and come to the appropriate realization that a certain amount of finesse is needed to eat. Beyond simply writing flat out and hoping their book rises to the top, a day job is probably a good move.
But the new writer, or the person considering getting into writing, may have seen the spread of unlivable figures and decided against pursuing writing altogether, especially if they already had one foot out the door.
One Redditor commented, depressingly, “Every dream job I've ever considered would leave me destitute unless I made it big. We really need to stop exclusively telling kids to follow their dreams. Resources and responsibilities come first.”
Where, where is the conversation about all that writing gives a person, beyond money? I guess right here. When the amount a writer can expect to earn financially comes up, the amount they can expect to earn soulfully should come up, too. Without that, readers only get one slice of the pie. The most delicious slices are left on the table.
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A couple weeks ago I was lucky enough to share a correspondence with John Warner, the writer and the author of multiple books. He’s also a Chicago Tribune columnist and the guy who publishes one of my favorite Substack newsletters, The Biblioracle.
Like many writers, I had questions about the dark and mysterious world of publishing, and thank goodness I was able to talk to him before relying on the BookRiot article or the Reddit comments as my only sources of truth.
He was kind enough to outline his entire journey, all the way from humor writer at publications like McSweeney’s (where he eventually became the editor) to author. I was floored by his kindness and candor, but more than anything, I was inspired by his attitude.
“I recommend a combination of thinking long term,” he wrote, “but always acting in the short term to maximize your interest in your own writing. Try not to worry about what someone else (like an agent) will like. Work on something that absolutely fascinates you. Become as absorbed in it as possible. Be aware of the hours you've spent being that absorbed in something and be thankful that you've even experienced such a sensation, as most people go through life never knowing what that actually feels like.”
The article and the Reddit comments also mentioned a subject John talked about. That is, the ostensible need for a writer to have a partner that can pay the bills. When he and his wife moved to a new city, he decided to try being a full-time writer for a spell before getting another teaching job, since his wife made enough to support them both.
“That lasted all of six weeks before I picked up a couple of sections of first-year writing at the College of Charleston,” he wrote. “I knew that I would be miserable trying to spend all my time writing another novel.”
This is the kind of stuff that seems important to emphasize when we begin talking about the financials of writing professionally. Without it, writers come too easily to the conclusion that if they can’t write full-time, they might as well not write at all.
The Reddit comments mentioned part-time writing a few times, but still in the context of money alone, instead of money and creativity. Without mentioning the non-monetary rewards of writing, an unattractive picture is painted for those uncertain writers I was talking about earlier, a future where they’re exhausting themselves working and writing, all for a few bucks.
Maybe the obvious—that writing is fulfilling, energizing—shouldn’t have to be stated if a person is destined to be “true” writer. But maybe it does. In any case, it doesn’t seem harmful to say that writing is worthwhile even if you tear up the page and throw it in the trash when you’re finished, an actual writing exercise Kurt Vonnegut recommended students try in a 2006 letter to Xavier High School.
Thanks to John, I asked myself for the first time, Is writing full-time even enjoyable?
I have a remote job that leaves me with plenty of time to write. But for some reason, I had always envisioned quitting someday to write full-time.
The figures in the BookRiot report make that vision look very untenable, but even before I had seen those numbers, John made me realize that writing full-time does sound miserable, a discovery that came from considering creativity more than finances.
Imagine the pressure of having to produce constantly, or the shame and uselessness you might feel on days when things aren’t flowing so well? Your artwork and your livelihood are linked, not exactly creating an environment conducive to your best work.
And when I thought about writers I look up to—John, George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, Christina Rivera Garza, etc.—I realized that all of them are technically “part-time,” teaching at universities across the country and the world.
Part-time is actually what I and many writers prefer, even when they have the financial ability to become full-time. It may even render better work. You scribble in the morning or in between meetings, making writing almost a guilty pleasure. The environment is stress-free, allowing plenty of time for wonder and experimentation. By necessity, you make your time count. And instead of sitting in front of your keyboard all day, you go out and do things in the world that serve as raw material.
George Saunders touched on this subject in a recent Office Hours article for his newsletter. He was responding to a reader concerned getting married and starting a family would cut down on his time to write.
“For a person to decide early on to stay single in order to serve their writing,” Saunders wrote, “(especially if that person is inclined, as our questioner seems to be, to partner up and have a family) might put an awful lot of pressure on the writing, pressure that may not ultimately be helpful artistically, in that it eliminates the sense of play needed to do our best work. So, in that sense, to make that decision preemptively might be a bad craft decision. Suddenly, whenever you’re writing, you’re worried, like, ‘I gave up everything else for me, Art, so you’d better pay off, and soon…’”
With this context, the BookRiot report and the twenty large don’t seem half bad. From where I’m standing as someone who both writes and has a job, twenty grand sounds like a nice chunk of change. You mean, I can get paid for doing something I would have done for free? No, something I feel that I need to do?
Somehow all of this reminds me of being a younger, skinny jean-wearing skateboarder. Inevitably, some model citizen would find me skating in an area where it may or may not have been allowed and start yelling at me.
“Get the hell out of here, punk ass! Go and do something productive.”
Why? I’d think. I’m having the time of my life jumping off this ledge over and over again. It’s fun even when I fall. And eventually, I’ll land the trick. ♦
HEAR: “I Want You To Want Me” by Cheap Trick
VIEW: A work of art called “Comedian” by Maurizio Cattelan. Thoughts?