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December 12, 2002

Writing for a Living

Friedrich --

I'm always pleased to see people taking writing classes, music instruction, art classes. It's a great way to enhance your involvement in the arts, and it can refine and civilize your perceptual and critical apparatus in the most pleasing ways. Plus, it's wonderful fun to make art things. The vibe in an intro-to-oil-painting classroom, in my experience, is very enjoyable and unlike what most people remember of being in class. In school, you were -- to some extent -- there merely because you had to be. In oil-painting class, everyone's there because they want to be.

At the same time, it can drive me nuts that so many Americans are prone to base their involvement in the arts on the fantasy of having an arts career. Readers seem to love imagining that they too could score big. If you look at hobbyist magazines, it's incredible how much of what's published caters to (I'll just say it: exploits) the fantasy that there's a career to be had here, and maybe even a killing to be made.

I've noticed that English dabbling-in-the-arts magazines don't seem to sell this fantasy quite as hard -- they're straightforwardly publications for amateurs who follow the field because they love it. Are the English more commonsensical and down-to-earth than we are?

I've been lucky enough to follow the business of some of the arts pretty closely. (More closely than I ever wanted to, to be truthful.) So I'm going to use this blog occasionally to get down some of what I learned. Today: writing.

The boiled-down executive-summary version of what I have to say: writing books as a "career"? Hah.

The slightly longer version:

English-major rube that I used to be, I early on imagined that the country was awash in busy writers, busily making livings. Then I began to wonder. Finally, I called an acquaintance who runs an authors organization and asked him flat out: how many writers in this country actually make a living at it?

We backed and forth-ed a bit. Was I including writers of technical manuals? Sit-com writers? Ad copywriters? Journalists? We finally decided to focus on something along the lines of "authors who write the kinds of books you think of when you think 'books' -- ie., the kinds of books you take out of a library intending to read."

So how many of them actually make a living at it? Oh, my friend said, certainly fewer than 200.

Like I say: "Career"? Hah. I remember one study that showed that most authors of checking-it-out-from-the-library nonfiction actually lose money on the books they write. Why? Because they pay their own expenses, and books almost always wind up taking more time and research than an author anticipates.

And fiction? I just bumped into a friend who's published a couple of books. He's about to finish the first draft of a novel. Unprompted he sighed, "I'll be happy to get $3000 dollars for it." Out of that he'll have to pay taxes, of course, but also 15% to an agent.

It is in fact possible to write for a living, and to approach this challenge in a halfway-sensible career fashion -- provided you work as an ad copywriter, a journalist, a TV writer, or some such. But when people fantasize about "making a living as a writer," they aren't generally picturing "writing to spec," or "writing what someone else wants written." They're imagining writing in a self-expressive way about things that are of interest to them personally -- and having money shower down on them for doing such a darned good job. They aren't picturing slamming together "Word 6.0 For Dummies" on a pushed-up schedule.

The kind of "real-author" writing career that people love imagining is a career in the same way boxing is a career -- ie., not a career at all, though a few in the field do win big. It's a crapshoot, a Lotto. Persistence, brains, talent and skill do play big roles. But luck plays the biggest role.

Hmmmm. Yet the creative-writing industry sells its wares to thousands of customers every year, most of whom (in my creative-writing-class-going experience) harbor strong fantasies of "having a career" as a "real writer" ...

What a scam.



Update: In a comment on this posting, AC Douglas links to a mini-essay he did some time ago about trying to get a book published. No way can I leave the link buried in the comments -- the piece is too good. I don't share all AC's enthusiasm for pre-corporate publishing, but it'd be hard to find a better, short-and-to-the-point intro to what the current publishing environment is like. You can read AC's piece here. The best book-length discussion of the past 40ish years of American publishing that I know of is Michael Korda's memoir Another Life, buyable here.

posted by Michael at December 12, 2002



Like a co-worker usta say, "Geez, who peed in your Cheerios?" (She shocked a lot of folks with that one.)

Do you think the probability of being a published fiction author should discourage anyone from writing anyway? Especially since they can publish for free on the web? (I'm guessing not, given the intro on painting and reasons not to quit.)

By the way, I'm one of those lucky few who make a living by writing, though not as I had intended (I had once harbored the fantasy of making a living writing fiction). I write documents describing desired computer functionality, and it took until last year for it to dawn on me that I *do* make a living writing - which was the larger intent of my dreams when I was young. I always smile at that Joni Mitchell line in "The Circle Game": "Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true," because that's me. I wonder what the number is of people who wanted to make a living writing, and actually do, but it just doesn't occur to them.

Posted by: Yahmdallah on December 12, 2002 03:32 PM

"Who peed in your Cheerios?" -- that's great! One to remember. And great to hear you're managing to get by on writing.

Well, maybe my tone was a bit off, and sometimes I think "sheesh, fantasies of making it big, where's the harm?" Other times (today for example), I get peeved about it. But, no, no personal feelings of betrayal -- I never did want to write for a living.

The annoyance, when I do feel it, comes up mainly about two issues.

1) the usual annoyance with advertisers making false claims and consumers happily eating it up.

and 2) i do suspect that many people's enjoyment of art is warped somewhat by this kind of fantasy-based exchange. They get involved in an art, and their fantasies of glamor and making-it are fed and petted. The art they follow at that point is often the art that's hot -- ie., which literary writer is selling today? (Rather than, say, who do I enjoy the most?) Then, when they get a glimpse of what the life really consists of, often they lose interest in the art.

I'd be a much happier boy if people were interested in the arts because an involvement in the arts is simply a rewarding thing, and if the arts industry based what it's selling more on that than on fantasies of making it.

Not that anyone has to listen to these opinions of mine, or has ever wanted to, mind you. Which is why I'm blogging...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 12, 2002 04:07 PM

"Well, maybe my tone was a bit off...."

If by that you mean too harsh, to the contrary. You were far too gentle. It's quite pathetic Out There. Everyone and his brother thinks he's got a novel in him. Agents are the first-line gatekeepers in today's publishing world (most houses let go all staff that used to perform that function), and their universal statistic is that in the fiction market, except for the most specialized genres like Sci-Fi and romance, 99% -- let me repeat that: 99% -- of what crosses their desks is flat-out unpublishable. The entry threshold today is the most severe it's ever been. Literary fiction? Forget it. Staple genre fiction? You'd better have some great gimmick that no-one's even thought of before now. Good writing is not enough -- not nearly enough. It has to be *sellable* writing, and that has little to do with good. In fact, good writing is somewhere near the bottom of the marketing potential checklist.

Too sad, too sad.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 12, 2002 04:55 PM

For those interested, here's a little piece on my own experience Out There.


Posted by: acdouglas on December 12, 2002 05:19 PM

But let me quickly add that if anyone wants to throw money at me for being just such a darned sweet/entertaining/smart good writer, I'm not going to turn it down.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 13, 2002 11:52 AM

Writers are suckers. The REAL money's in independent films. Especially short films.

Practically everyone who makes short films earns a return of 2-300% on the time and money they invest, GUARANTEED!!!

Don't you deserve to retire and live a life of leisure (or a life of the mind, whatever)?

If you'd like to know more about this highly lucrative investment opportunity, read my website, or contact my production office:

Posted by: on December 14, 2002 11:44 PM

Writers make it every day, and there are thousands of them making millions of dollars. Stop trying to crush people's dreams. It is true that most of the people who try will not succeed but what would life be without dreams?

Posted by: Joe on March 16, 2004 06:01 PM

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