Friday, December 15, 2006

Living Wage as a Writer

Some people have been emailing me and trying to do the math about being a working writer. The fact is, it's impossible math to do. Yes, there are people who live entirely off their novel writing. These people are few and far between - and not only that, but they usually have totally different financial setups when they do their taxes. Let me give some examples:

(1) The great novelist - Has probably won a Pulitzer at some point, or the National Book Award. Everything he (it's usually a he) writes will be a bestseller no matter how bad it is, at least for the first two weeks. He'll always get a review in the New York Times Book Review, probably close to the front. To live fairly comfortably, he only has to produce a book about once a decade, which is probably around his output anyway. Examples would be Philip Roth, Thomas Pychon.

(2) The bestseller - This guy or girl just writes really, really marketable stuff, and not only that, but produces it on a regular basis of every 1-2 years. He/she usually gets hammered by critics but is at the top of the list anyway, and his/her old stuff is always in print. This person could have retired years ago, financially, but simply can't stop writing - because he's a real writer. And for real writers, writing is like breathing. His breath just happens to be very commercial. Examples would be Stephen King, Tom Clancy, John Grisham.

(3) The mid-list author: Had one break-out hit, regularly produces a book a year that goes for 30-40,000 advance, possible royalties depending on the reviews. Probably works in a genre like fantasy or horror or mystery, because mid-list authors don't survive in general fiction. Eventually, he/she will probably get an offer to write some material for some fantasy series (like the Dragonlance novels) and will do it, but under a different name.

(4) The one-book author - Very, very few one-book authors can live off the proceeds of that book. You know their names and have read their books - JD Salinger, Cervantes, Dan Brown. (I can't believe Cervantes went in the same sentence as Dan Brown) Chances are, these writers have other material - some of it published, some sitting on a shelf - that you or may not have heard of or read. The point is, they wrote a classic of literature (or just something that sold enough to have them swimming in one-dollar coins like Scrooge McDuck). These people come along maybe a couple times a century.

I'm leaving stuff out here, but it's time for Shabbos. Happy Chanukah. And no, there isn't an official spelling of the holiday.

21 comments:

Therese Fowler said...

Terrific run-down of who's making a living in this line of work.

I'm aiming for #2!

One small correction, though, if I may: Dan Brown is making piles of money off of more than his DA VINCI CODE...which IMO disqualifies him for "one book" status.

LadyBronco said...

#2 wannabe right here!!

Fourteen Year Old Writer said...

I'd be happy with #3.

Writerious said...

Dan Brown wrote Angels and Demons and... um... another novel, the title of which I forget (a very forgettable novel) before he wrote the Da Vinci Code. So he's a three-book novelist so far, with something about the Masons coming up in his next book.

Me, I prefer the Norman Rockwell Code:

http://www.thenormanrockwellcode.com/

Simon Haynes said...

Dan Brown has 4 novels in print. However, the first three were all but invisible until the Da Vinci code came out, and sold afterwards on the strength of that one.

Anonymous said...

To be honest, I like the idea of #3 myself, but perhaps a little better than that. My god, I've heard of starving artists, but who quits their day job for $30k a year? Which is only about $25k after agent's cut, then you've got to take self-employment taxes out on top of the regular ones? Not exactly the sort of money that pays a mortgage. But I'm a genre author and ending up in (1) or (2) is exceedingly unlikely.

S. W. Vaughn said...

And a happy Chanukah to you!

Yep, I'm a #2 aspirant as well, but I'd be just as thrilled with #3. Woot! Who needs money when we can write?

We need only enough to keep the juice on, so as not so lose all that work we've got stored on the computer. Food is for wimps. :-)

kis said...

but who quits their day job for $30k a year?

I would. My day job pays me less than half that--and in Canadian dollars. Even without my husband's income, I could pay my mortgage and feed my kids and live exactly as I live now on a mere $30k a year.

Divine Bird said...

I'd do it for $30k a year! You can do a lot on that kind of money, even after taxes. :D Of course, you can't have much extra, but hey, I just want to pay my rent and put gas in my car.

PerpetualBeginner said...

#3 would be just dandy by me - which is good, since it's almost undoubtedly where I will end up, should I ever succeed in getting published repeatedly.

Of course, as a SAHM, $30k a year is a distinct pay raise.

Bernita said...

Gimme # 3.

writerworking said...

And of course lately Philip Roth has been popping out one a year.

jb said...

Would love to be #1. Would be thrilled to be #2. #3 would exceed my expectations (at least when I'm riddled with writerly self-doubt.) I wouldn't turn down #4.

ORION said...

In reality this is fairly simplistic. Rejector has left out the vast majority of authors (several of whom I know)- Those who have published one or even several books that earn out their advances but do not make enough to live on. In fact the odds are, even with being traditionally published, earning enough to live on can be very difficult.
You don't go into this with the expectation of earning a living (although that would be nice) you go into it because you can't help but write.
JMHO

Bill Thompson said...

Orion's right - read the author bios on bookjackets, and see how many well-known writers are also still working as professors, lawyers, doctors, journalists, etc. As the saying goes, don't quit your day job.

Anonymous said...

Salinger isn't a one-book author: Catcher in the Rye; Franny & Zooey; Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters; Nine Stories. Now, being known primarily for one book is a whole other thing, but as far as I know, all of those books are still in print, which means they're still selling, which means they're still producing moolah for their author.

Mrs. Brain Bomb said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

You left out Nora Roberts. She'd rather write than breathe, I think. She's an amazing writer.

And then, the one book that always comes to my mind when amazing one book authors come us is To Kill A Mockingbird.

Anonymous said...

Wow, she did leave out those who don't make a living wage as a writer ... almost like the post was about those who make a living wage as a writer.

sean ferrell said...

Why am I suddenly thinking I won't be able to give up my day job?

Kanani said...

Hey, great post!

I guess one of the things I like about my writing group is that no one is under the delusion that they're making a living off their writing. They're not. Though some do make a living writing scripts, pitching projects, none of them are bringing in bucks while trying to write their first novel.

In other words, everyone has a job. Most aren't remotely related to writing.

And all this 'life' experience filters into the work. Lacking is the idealism, the 'starving artist' routine, because everyone has rent, food and kids to take care of.

So that leaves us trying to answer family members and friends who say, "WHEN is your novel going to be finished?" And the only answer is, "when it's ready." They wonder why we keep at it. Why you can't just pop a book out in 3 months, have it published, see it climb to the NY Times bestseller list, get on Oprah, be picked up in Limos to appear on GMA.

No, it's not like that.
We write because it offers us an escape into a world of our own creation.
And yes, it would be nice to be a Pynchon, a McCarthy, Didion or Schaeffer. And someday one more person from this board will actually do it.