Friday, November 13, 2015

The Economics of Writing

In my writing classes, we talk a lot about PROCESS being the most important thing. And yet, most writers I know are hoping to get a PRODUCT out of that process. Get an MFA, publish a book, get rich and famous, meet Beyoncé. Right?

One of my friends who graduated from my MFA program a few years ago released a beautiful anthology of essays about yoga. Cheryl Strayed wrote the foreword. Dinty Moore, Brenda Miller, Dani Shapiro and Amy Monticello all wrote essays for the collection. It's on display at Barnes and Nobles and other fine book-selling institutions. And yet, she has not seen a dime for her efforts.

“If I sell 500 e-books,” she announced to a wide-eyed group of MFA students the other night, “I'll see one dollar.”

A few days later, I came across these two articles by seemingly successful women writers, Emily Gould and Roxane Gay, who give an honest breakdown of their economic experiences in publishing. (Interestingly, Gould and Gay have teamed up for the first episode of Bindercast!) 
Emily Gould was on cloud nine when she sold her work-in-progress for $200,000 in 2008. Unfortunately, your writing career weighs heavily on the sales of your last book, and unfortunately, the sales of her book were nowhere near the projected expectations. Living in New York, the advance did not take her very far, and the failure of her last book “guaranteed that no one will ever pay me [Gould] that kind of money to write a book again.” Since then, she has sold a novel for $30,000 and has started working a “a full-time job that, while it leaves me no time to write, is helping me slowly repay the debts I incurred by imagining that writing was my livelihood.”


Roxane Gay tells a different story. She has three published books: one with a micropress, another with a small press, and a collection of essays with HarperCollins. Her experiences have run the gamut, and yet, she writes that “the first and only dream dashed was the one where I could quit my job to write full time.” She writes about her first book: "Ayiti has remained in print for three years. I have earned $205.60 in royalties. That is a success story." Roxane admits to obsessively refreshing the Amazon sales rank for her book only to find that, on any given day, “there are literally 300,000 or 10,000 books selling better than mine.” And this is a woman who writes for Salon, the New York Times Book Review, BuzzFeed, Jezebel. She runs multiple lit mags and she's been a keynote speaker at all the conferences I've been to (or wished I'd gone to) in the past year. Shit, I've even seen her on television discussing the feminist merits of Magic Mike. This woman is everywhere, and yet, she makes her livelihood teaching at Purdue University, not selling books.

So this brings me to my question: Why write? The notion that writing is going to make someone rich and famous is a grave misconception, one that should be dispelled sooner rather than later. As a beginning writer, it's not hard to imagine not making any money from my writing. No one has ever paid me for my writing, unless they were my client with the Family Roots Project, in which case it's not really my writing that they're paying for, but their own story told by me.

Speaking to my friend who edited the anthology, though, it's easy to understand how this misconception melts away once you're in the thick of publication. You see your book on the shelf at Barnes & Nobles. It's normal to assume that this venture will bring you money. Plus, writing takes A LOT of time, like any craft; is it wrong to think that writers should be paid for their work?

Sadly, very few writers make their livelihood selling books, and that's a fact that we MFAers must befriend. Here are a few things I am learning about making a "living" as a writer.
  • “If you want to write, keep a low overhead.” —Grace Paley
  • Diversify. Think of writing as a trade like any other, and find other venues that will pay you for your craft. You won't make a lot of money doing it, but you'll be doing what you're good at, and getting paid for it!
  • Have a different career that makes you money. The myth is that you won't have time for writing if you've got a full-time job, but the truth is that finding the time to write is hard no matter what you do for a living. Perhaps having LESS time to dedicate to your creative ventures will make you use the time you do have more judiciously.
  • Being independently wealthy helps!
P.S. Check out this great article by Amanda Hirsch at Having it Alt about "The Artist Tax"!