Earlier today, my writer and publisher friend Michael Seidlinger shared a Slate article on Facebook: “You Can Write a Best-Seller and Still Go Broke.”
The piece is part opinion on the state of publishing today and part review of a new anthology, Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living.* The Slate piece opens with quotes from Cheryl Strayed, an Oregon author whom I met once at a party and who is close friends with some of my Oregon literary pals. It also includes quotes from Roxane Gay, over whom I totally fanboyed at an AWP a few years ago.
In other words, it includes people I don’t really know in real life but through whose lives I’ve passed just long enough to know that they are human beings, which is one of the things this anthology is trying to comment on: that writers are not glamorous, wealthy movie stars, we’re people with bills who fret over our bank accounts and, much as we all would like to sit around in coffee shops scribbling art into expensive notebooks, actually have to be mindful of our expenses and our incomes and treat our writing like the job that it is, even when it doesn’t pay us anything.
In his public Facebook post, Seidlinger (who is an author, the publisher-in-chief at Civil Coping Mechanism, director of publicity for Dzanc Books, and reviews editor at Electric Literature), shares his own accounting (pun intended) of his writing life, ending with the observation that “at the end of the day/month/year, my hope is to have enough after all costs and bills to be able to sit down, not be anxious about money, and read the words on the actual page of the book I’m reading rather than tuning into the doubts continuously swirling in my head.”
So, I’m following in some tremendous footsteps here, but yeah, as Seidlinger says, let’s all be candid here:
Last year, my wife and I received a modest return from our income taxes because I actually spent more as a writer than I made. Book tours, promotions, conferences — I got a little help on the latter from my academic institution, but not enough to cover the costs, so even when my writerly work overlapped with my academic work, the cost was mostly out of my own pocket. The money I did make last year — and, as an adjunct, it still wasn’t much — I earned entirely in the classroom.
Right now, I’m staying home and writing full-time, at least through the end of this academic year. Most folks think that’s great, and it is, but I get the feeling that they assume I’m living off the sales of my books. In reality, because both my chapbook publishers are tiny enterprises barely breaking even themselves, both publishers paid me partly in copies (my current chapbook also pays me royalties, which is rare for chapbooks), and I have the option to buy more copies at cost. I always wind up giving away my free copies to family, but I do make a few dollars off every chapbook I sell myself, meaning I buy the copies at cost (and pay for the shipping) and then sell my copies at readings. I’ve sold about ten chapbooks in the last six months; I’ve made a little less than $50 in profit on my chapbooks, total, in that half-year.
(By all means, though, don’t wait to run into me before you buy your copy of Where There Is Ruin — go ahead and buy a copy directly from Red Bird Chapbooks, because while I do get royalties from those sales, too, buying straight from Red Bird helps make their next chapbooks possible. I love that model, so please, pay it forward!)
And while my novel, Hagridden, is still selling a book or two a month (and thank you, dear readers, for picking up a copy!), and I’ve sold a few of my own copies at recent readings, overall sales have been slow enough that I’ve actually gone three quarters now without a royalty check.
So what’s financing my writing this year? A part-time gig tutoring online (which I love) that nets me maybe a hundred a month, and my amazing faculty-librarian wife.
All of which is to say, we writers aren’t movie stars. We aren’t Wall Street wizards. Most of us make little or nothing off our work, even when we’re doing well. “That books still make money at all is something of a miracle,” this article concludes. And it’s true that “the vast majority of books don’t make money; publishing, like baseball, is a game predicated on failure.” But here we all are, failing anyway — failing better, as Samuel Beckett told us all to do. Because, as this article concludes, there is a difference between the value of our work and the price of our books.
Take my friend Dena Rash Guzman, for example. She’s just published her second book of poetry, Joseph. I love Guzman’s poetry and I’ve long been eager for this book, so its value for me was already well beyond its cover price. But Guzman — who has her own bills to pay — announced at her book release party that every penny of her royalties will be donated to Planned Parenthood to help support women’s health. “Every cent,” she emphasized on her public Facebook post today. And whatever the price of her book, that gesture makes the value of Guzman’s work immense.
So consider the last book you bought. What did it cost? And what was its value? And how much of that, either value or price, do you think ought to go to the bookstore that shelved the book for you, to the publishers who risked their money printing it, and ultimately — most importantly — to the author who likely risked their next meal or their rent check just to write that book?
Something to think about as you shop for books this coming year.