A Time to Eat: On Making a Living as a Writer

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorised and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

A pleasant simple habitual and tyrannical and authorized and educated and resumed and articulate separation. This is not tardy.

Slate had a review of a new book called Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living with has some great observations and information about writers such as Cheryl Strayed and the nuts and bolts of how much they earn from publishing their books.

I spent my twenties in writing programs. A small press published my first book in 1999, and have published eight books with a ninth coming out later this year. I spent my thirties teaching creative writing in a continuing education context (University of Washington Extension, Richard Hugo House, The Writing Center in Bethesda) or as a volunteer, and then spoke at the Associated Writing Program (AWP) on panels over a couple of years (2012-2015).

I learned that the writing industry (when it comes to prose) is predicated on – like acting – the starry-eyed concept that you too can MAKE IT as a writer. This means if you have the skills, you will pay the bills with publishing books. Conversely if you do not have the skills, you will not pay the bills.) Sitting at the book fair table at AWP  I could overhear the gaggle of graduate students strolling past the small press table where I sat talking about agents, book advances, about getting out of school and really getting down to writing once they got a book contract. Some of these students had paid a lot of money for the training to be a novelist. Many programs cost more than 50,000 a year. They were looking at coming out of a two year program in debt more than 100K. They were going to be need a pretty generous advance on their first novel.

Poets have it, pragmatically, a bit easier, although they also pay the same sort of tuition. No one writes sonnets thinking they are going to need a fall back plan when they aren’t able to pay their health insurance on the proceeds of their first book of poetry. Poets more pragmatically hold out for teaching gigs. But even that is also based on an economy of delay and chance.

Novelists teaching in a creative writing program will sometimes say, “Well, you can’t expect to earn a living from writing novels.” The students in their twenties who have ponied up 50K to hear this, titter in a false approximation of a world weary dark humor. That no one makes money from novels quickly becomes a joke in creative writing programs because no one really believes it, because there are novelists out there who do make a living at it: hell Stephen King, Cheryl Strayed, James Patterson, and John Grisham. aren’t hurting, are they? The vast majority of novelists who teach creative writing keep up the fiction that because novel writing is their vocation it is also the way they pay the bills. For many writers being a student in a creative writing class is their first glimpse of the production line of novel making. And the productive novelist-teachers seem plump and prosperous. However, as a student writer I started to acquire some questions. For instance I wondered how David Bosworth at the University of Washington — who had won obscure but prestigious literary prizes for  two books, a collection of well-wrought literary short stories and a novel that ends in a gerund in the title, For My Father, Singing (a sure sign of a mediative book that is decidedly not a page tuner) — made enough money from book sales to pay his own bills? In short, he didn’t. Nearly none of the writers I’ve studied with earned enough money from their books to pay their bills. Stephen Dixon at the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars was one of the few writes who was candid about his income. He said only with a catalog of more than a dozen books translated into a couple of languages did he earn enough money that he could afford to pay his bills, provided his bills were the bills he had as a single man in a cold water walk up in the late 1950s. But he had only arrived at this income after decades of producing published books. All of the writers I’ve encountered over the years writers, except for a half-dozen, have earned their living from teaching other people to write, or a much smaller number had sources of income that were not related at all to writing — family income or oddly intangible gigs that provided enough to pay rent and medical bills. Increasingly writers aren’t able to find shelter in creative writing programs at all and have day jobs that gradually become careers.

Yet in writing programs, the statement “Well, you can’t expect to earn a living from writing novels,” only served to reinforce the idea that you could somehow expect to eventually earn enough money from writing novels that you could pay your bills. Maybe you would have a painful backstory when you were being interviewed for your National Book Award winning novel about the lean years you were a financially struggling novelist, but there was a desk with your name on it, a three hour work day, and an afternoon on the deck reading your rivals’ latest work.

The review in Slate has a couple of great lines such as this about writers who teach:
“What they teach, for the most part, is writing; that is, as none of the contributors has quite the nerve to state baldly, in order to support themselves, they train others to do the work that isn’t providing them with a viable living.”

I don’t think this disparages the teaching of writing or the obvious corollary, the learning of writing. Writing is clearly learned. It’s not like a child without any schooling returns from the wild talking like Henry James and carrying a bundle of manuscript pages. Novels are the product of a bookish education. I can’t personally pinpoint how I was taught to write. But it did happen between my secondary school education and the various creative writing classes I had over the years. I had to do the work of writing, just as in learning to swim I was the one who had to move my arms and kick my feet, but it sure helped somehow to do this in the context of instruction on writing and reading literature.

The mistake here is to think that teaching someone to write a novel has any sort of direct professional application. I use my training in my job as a technical writer, but my general humanities education has been the most practical training, and it helps that I am comfortable sitting alone and typing. My graduate program said they graduated professional writers. When I asked the writing director before I went if that meant I would be earning my living as a writer when I graduated, she feigned a degree of disgust at the vulgarity of the question; she indicated this by a kind of silence on the phone and a faint throat clearing. Then she said, “Maybe you will. Some of our graduated eventually do. We mean should you successfully complete the program, you will be able to write at a professional level.” In the course of the program that only admitted 12 students a year, we found that they considered a successful year any year in which more than one student had published a book. Many students didn’t publish a book until years after they had graduated.

Every creative class I have taught depends, mostly, on the tension of the students just being there to pay their dues so that they can find a literary agent, a three book contract, and move to Ibiza to write their novels. I had a student tell me in the first week of a six week class that she wasn’t sure if she needed to finish the class because she had just been accepted for representation by a literary agent. She placed emphasis on the word literary to distinguish this agent I suppose from a real estate agent or a fish monger. She expected to have a contract before the class was done. Her book didn’t get published for another ten years.

As an instructor or sometimes visiting writer I sometimes make the error of dismantling the myth of the writer who makes money from their books. It never goes over well. The students shift in their seats when I begin to talk dollars and sense. Something like nine in 10 books do not earn back their production costs. The average advance paid for a book is 10 thousand (for the books that event get an advance). Many books published by small presses do not come with an advance. I’ve heard average income earned from a sold book is a dollar (a generous amount considering the royalties paid to musicians for album sales). I recall Jonathan Evison once said it was more closer to 4 buck per book, but that has not been my experience. The number of books published per year is rapidly increasing, and yet the consumption of books falls year after year. This decline has recently stalled, but few people are under the illusion that more people will be reading 20 years from now than are reading right now. The median income level in Washington State in 2013 was about 58 thousand dollars. A press would need to sell 58 thousand copies of your book year after year for you to earn the median income level in Washington State state. The vast majority of books sell under a 100 copies.

The numbers are not in your favor. And in my experience, the numbers are anecdotally really not in your favor.

And yet… there exist writers who do earn their living from writing novels aren’t there? I’ve been on a panel with Cheryl Strayed, the author of memoir Wild, and was lucky enough to have her attend the Jack Straw Writer Program the year I was curator back in 2007. I’ve also been in readings with Jonathan Evison before his first book, All About Lulu, came out from Soft Skull Press. Both of these writers are probably the only writers among the thousand or so writers I’ve been around since my first book came out in 1999 who have gone from struggling, just-published writers to writers who can claim they are making or have a hope of making their living from publishing their books. From the outside both writers seem to be writers who must be rolling in dough! They are the kind of writers whom as a beginning writer you think, yeah, if Cheryl Strayed can get on Oprah and have a movie like Wild made out of her book, I totally have a shot. Both writers are practical and approachable, so for me it is very easy to put myself in their shoes.

Yet as much work as Strayed and Evison have put into their craft, as talented as they are, there is a certain amount of random chance to their success. Both Strayed and Evison went all in on writing. They’ve had movies made of their books. They’ve gotten press release sized advanced. Yet what does success look like them for them? Luckily in terms of transparency in what does it looks like to be a successful novelist, both of them have spilled the beans: (Strayed/ Evison).

My own trajectory was written by Mary Ann Gwinn when my novel The Strong Man was released by the Publication Studio, Portland back in 2010. I have never been paid an advance for a novel. My first novel, a collection of linked stories called The Remains of River Names, won a five thousand dollar prize from the King County Arts Commission. I was able to keep 1,500 of the prize, and the rest helped underwrite the cost of the book production. This was in 1999. Since then six small presses have published my work: Black Heron Press, StringTown Press, Clear Cut Press, Final State Press, Publication Studio – Portland, and Dr. Cicero Books.

I was once told, as if I had any sort of control, by the publisher of a now defunct Seattle publisher that I should stay with a single press for branding reasons. The print runs for my books have been very small (by far the biggest print run was 2,000 copies), but thanks to Alibris/Amazon it takes a very long time for a book, even one without a distributor, to exit the system. I’m hear to tell you that even so, books do exist the system. They are cleared from most bookstores in a quarter. Independent Bookstores will hold on to them for much longer, but even the Elliott Bay Book Company will pack up your two or three year old unsold collection of short stories and make way for something new. They are a retail store, not an archive. Even public libraries that buy the book gradually cull the book. It was a shock to me when I discovered the King County Public Library which had most of my books at one heady moment in 2010 now only has a single copy of my first book. I am just waiting for that copy to get culled or go missing…

My income from book sales has not been enough for me to survive, even if I was unmarried, homeless, required no medical care, and supplement my income by collecting empty bottles. Perhaps one of the reasons writers’ details about the financial nuts and bolts seems unstated is that in fact there is nothing to state? The secret story to the financial insolvency of non-academic writers is the crazy list of jobs they usually have in their bio. No one chooses a career as an itinerate house painter, telemarketer, talent scout for minor league baseball, newspaper columnist, and novelist. Yet this line of of jobs is typical for a novelist. It makes for good grist of the mill, yeah? And the stress of poverty.

My struggle as a published writer is against oblivion rather than financial survival. I gave up very early on committing to only writing novels. I had bills to pay, and so accepted that my day job was my job. It wasn’t a day job. It was how I paid my bills, and paying bills was just part of writing a novel. To write something like a novel I needed a regular drip of daily writing at a desk in a room, a computer, and those things had a cost: the time, the space, cost something in the United States and in Seattle.

I feel there should be a basic income in the US, and maybe then conversation can be made, thankfully, moot.

My struggle before getting published was ontological; it seemed without being published my work didn’t exist. Getting published at least meant I had books that could go out of print and get culled from the library. There was at least something to forget. Yet the fragility of this existence seems the most pressing thing to me now as a public writer. Print runs sell out. Presses go out of business (goodbye Clear Cut Press. See you later Publication Studio, Portland). Book distributors go out of business. Newspapers who had published reviews of my books disappear. The blogs that replaced the newspapers eventually return 404 errors. Bookstores close. Books are more permanent than blogs, but even books gradually wear out, are pulped, and finally become rare or gone.

My uncle, Fred Briggs, for instance, was a poet in Seattle in the 1970s. He killed himself in 1980. During the 70s, he published several mimeographed books of poetry. The only copy I know of his book, The Rain City Coloring Book, crumbled and turned to moldy slime in my father’s leaking attic in the mid-1990s. He failed to earn a living, and failed even failed to earn a death.

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