Home » Big Publishing, The Business of Writing » You Can Write a Best-Seller and Still Go Broke

You Can Write a Best-Seller and Still Go Broke

10 January 2017

From Slate:

In 2012, a month after the publication of her memoir, Wild [Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail], Cheryl Strayed was on a book tour, soaking up the wonder of her first big success as an author, when her husband texted her to say that their rent check had bounced. “We couldn’t complain to anyone,” Strayed told Manjula Martin, editor of the new anthology Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living: “My book is on the New York Times best-seller list right now and we do not have any money in our checking account.”

Few connections are more mysterious than the one between writing books and making money. Strayed most definitely did make money on Wild, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film with Reese Witherspoon, but she didn’t get her first royalty check for it until 2013, “so it was almost a year before my life actually changed.” Yes, there was that $400,000 advance—an amount to make any aspiring memoirist’s eyes go dreamily unfocused—but Strayed and her husband had run up so much credit card debt that almost all of the money went to paying it off and supporting her family while she finished writing the book. Book advances, which are advances against the royalties that will be earned after the book is published, aren’t forked out in one lump sum, either. The payments come parceled out in (typically) three or four checks paid on signing the contract, on delivery of the manuscript, and on publication. The writer’s literary agent then takes a percentage of that. When Strayed sold her first novel a few years earlier for the seemingly handsome sum of $100,000, the advance amounted to, as she puts it, “about $21,000 a year over the course of four years, and I paid a third of that to the IRS … it was like getting a grant every year for four years. But it wasn’t enough to live off.”

It’s worth leading with all these numbers because, as Scratch repeatedly demonstrates, the nitty-gritty on this stuff is in short supply in the wider writerly imagination, while fantasy, evasion, and envious brooding runneth over. Strayed is among the few prospering contributors to this collection of essays and interviews who speaks so explicitly. (“We’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money,” she told Martin.) Another is Roxane Gay—author, columnist, editor, publisher, professor, public speaker—who reports that she made approximately $150,000 in 2014. That’s a good income by almost any standard, but does it match your sense of Gay’s prominence and productivity? (Surely there are plenty of professors who make that much, or more, from their academic work alone.) Depending on your media diet, Gay may or may not constitute a “famous writer” in your eyes, and depending on how much you think famous writers must earn, her income may strike you as surprisingly modest. Or perhaps this entire topic offends you. There are still a few idealists out there cherishing the belief that writing, as art, mustn’t be contaminated by filthy lucre.

. . . .

If they are novelists (or—God forbid!—poets), they almost always rely on teaching for steady income. 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. At times, the entire fiction-writing profession resembles a pyramid scheme swathed in a dewy mist of romantic yearning. Many of these essays begin with wry descriptions of the author’s youthful madness in moving to New York or throwing away a dependable day job or career path to “be a writer,” a phrase that often connotes earning enough money to live by writing alone. Yet this is never a simple transaction. For authors, money, however obscurely, is always entangled with legitimacy because writers have for centuries equated publication with professional and artistic anointment.

It’s indeed a significant testimonial when someone else wants to invest their own money in a writer’s work, so it’s easy to forget that a publisher is actually the writer’s business partner, not a conferrer of literary worth. In their candid moments, most publishers will admit going into business with writers whose work they regard as subliterary because they believe that they can profit from their books. This is still considered shocking in some unsophisticated quarters, but publishing isn’t literature: Literature is literature. Publishing is a separate, if related enterprise.

Link to the rest at Slate and thanks to Matthew for the tip.

Big Publishing, The Business of Writing

46 Comments to “You Can Write a Best-Seller and Still Go Broke”

  1. Oh yeah, I feel so sorry about the fact that she was poor at managing money before she got super rich.

    • Pretty much what I was thinking. I know folks who have to work 11+ years to make half a million. Was her husband not working while she was writing?

    • I’m going to guess an extended heroin dalliance (she denies she was addicted, curiously) and rational money management might give a Venn Diagram with limited overlap.

    • I agree with Jim. It does take two to tango. She said her husband AND her had raked up credit card debts, so I’m guessing it’s not all her fault in the money management (or lack of) department. Still…

      Seriously, unless you’re Harper Lee, one book does not a career make… IMHO.

  2. This collection of essays sounds like it should be called “Schadenfreude for the self-published soul”

  3. “In their candid moments, most publishers will admit going into business with writers whose work they regard as subliterary because they believe that they can profit from their books.”

    “… publishing isn’t literature …”

    Nor do they even pretend to nurture — unless they see a profit to be made!

    “Cheryl Strayed was on a book tour, soaking up the wonder of her first big success as an author, when her husband texted her to say that their rent check had bounced.”

    No mention of course that most often the ‘book tour’ is at the author’s expense.

    Poor snowflakes left out to melt.

    • You beat me to the quotes, Allen.

      Scandalous, the secrecy surrounding the big secret: even best-selling authors don’t get nearly as much money from writing as people think, including the authors.

      Prestige cannot be traded for mortgages nor grocery store bills.

      And authors who think one book every couple of years is enough to live in NY on are seriously deluded.

    • allen, the book tour, esp if high pub budget as she had, is totally paid for by publisher, not the author.

  4. I’m looking forward to getting the book (from the library, alas), but I expect to be disappointed. Writers published by New York tend to be very scared of talking about money. Contrast that with the indie world, where it’s about nothing else.

    • often what authors get paid is reported in PW, in Daily Deals, in PUb Marketplace, not at all a secret what most authors get paid. Advance often listed along with rights avail and also first run, and also pub/pr budget in $$$$

  5. I think the weirdest thing about this collection is that Jennifer Weiner and Jonathan Franzen both appear in it. Google both names in one search if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Somehow I don’t think this one is gonna have an all authors roundtable.

  6. This article made my day. 🙂 Sorry. It’s just too inadvertently funny.

  7. bowerbird intelligentleman

    when half the workers in america
    are very soon replaced by robots,
    society is going to have to rethink
    its work-to-earn-your-living ethic,
    and real writers will still persist and
    poser wanna-be no-talents will fade.

    -bowerbird

  8. I don’t know why, but reading this made me think of Larry Correia’s “Official Alphabetical List of Author Success.” I wonder where Strayed fits?

    http://monsterhunternation.com/2014/07/24/the-official-alphabetical-list-of-author-success/

  9. Few connections are more mysterious than the one between writing books and making money.

    Translation: Math is hard.

    …if the mission statement of this anthology is to demystify “how, exactly, literature and the people who make it are valued,” many of the pieces here seem to deflect away from transparency as if repelled by a magnetic field. If their authors set out to write about money, they end up spinning their wheels on the more formulaic and far less interesting subjects of self-discovery, dream-following, and “career”—a label given, often by wooly-headed Brooklynites, to an amorphous blend of personal reputation and public persona.

    Translation: Nobody wants to discuss just how badly they are getting screwed.

    For authors, money, however obscurely, is always entangled with legitimacy because writers have for centuries equated publication with professional and artistic anointment. Anyone can call themselves “a writer,” but to be published (by somebody other than yourself) is to be a real writer.

    Translation: I don’t know how to move beyond being graded by some authority figure.

    There’s plenty more in the OP, including this old-but-interesting link to one of the bits in the book which was posted in 2013, about “a tortuous four-year relationship with a manipulative, capricious, dishonest editor.”

    https://www.guernicamag.com/you-are-the-second-person/

    • For authors, money, however obscurely, is always entangled with legitimacy because writers have for centuries equated publication with professional and artistic anointment. Anyone can call themselves “a writer,” but to be published (by somebody other than yourself) is to be a real writer.

      This one seems obsolete. Today you can make more money publishing yourself than being published by someone else. So is legitimacy entangled with money or with anointment by someone other than readers?

    • There’s plenty more in the OP, including this old-but-interesting link to one of the bits in the book which was posted in 2013, about “a tortuous four-year relationship with a manipulative, capricious, dishonest editor.”

      https://www.guernicamag.com/you-are-the-second-person/

      That’s heartbreaking.

    • @ DaveMich

      “a tortuous four-year relationship with a manipulative, capricious, dishonest editor.”

      When you’re an indie, you’re the boss. The editor is an employee — as is anyone else you hire to do work. You can hire and fire.

      That right there should be sufficient reason to join the indie ranks.

  10. I feel this woman’s main problem is not living within her means. Buying a lot of useless material possessions often contributes to that, as does needless travel.

    • “Yes, there was that $400,000 advance—an amount to make any aspiring memoirist’s eyes go dreamily unfocused—but Strayed and her husband had run up so much credit card debt that almost all of the money went to paying it off and supporting her family while she finished writing the book.”

      It took us years to put that kind of money in our retirement account. YEARS.

      The other question is who lends them that much money on credit cards? And who pays when people default? The rest of us.

  11. So, they went into debt so she could write, then had to pay it all off with the advance, and again had no money. I’m supposed to feel sorry for this woman and those like her? Yeah. No.

    She should feel darn lucky that anyone would read her little memoir, much less pay for it. She got a trad pub contract and thought she’d hit the lotto. Yeah. No.

    Research needs to be done so people understand what they’re getting into. Even a trad pub contract isn’t often the road to riches. It does allow one to build one’s self up by getting literature and stuff published. How awesome. Now, where did they put those job applications?

  12. A NYT-bestselling author on a book tour ended up bouncing a rent check? I don’t understand. Why didn’t she pay her rent with prestige and validation?

  13. I’ve come to the conclusion that to be an trad-pub author nowadays, one must give up one’s ability to do math. It’s very sad; they aren’t hard numbers.

    Reminds me of a conversation about two years ago. The author had gotten sold her first book and gotten a pretty good deal, enough that she and her husband felt she could write full time. Except it took two years to get the book out, and of course, she got paid in lump sums, so she frequently worked for no money. Now it was three years after the first book was accepted, she had had two children and she was writing the sequel during naps and after bedtimes. But she was having a hard time getting it done, so she and her husband decided he would stop working and take care of the kids full time so she could write. The second book wasn’t under contract, but she was confident that though there would be some short-term issues, she would earn enough that long term they’d be much better off.

    I had to leave the conversation, because I was the only person who wasn’t congratulating her on this wonderful decision.

    • If wishes were fishes and hopes were dimes …

    • What a sad story. Wow. I sincerely hope it works out for them, because quitting a job to pursue traditional publishing is a boneheaded move almost 100% of the time. It’s silly to do if going indie, too, but at least with indie publishing you have control over time-to-market, packaging quality, price, promotions, etc. You can control something. Traditional publishing gives you no control. Even Gene Wolf kept his day job throughout his entire career. It sounds like that author and her husband caught Colophon’s disease.

    • I’ve come to the conclusion that to be an trad-pub author nowadays, one must give up one’s ability to do math.

      Assumes facts not in evidence – namely, that one ever had the ability to do math. I have always been amazed by the number of writers and artists (and what’s worse, journalists and editors) who are proud of their inability to do math. Apparently, knowing that 2+2=4 precludes having culture or a soul.

  14. “At times, the entire fiction-writing profession resembles a pyramid scheme swathed in a dewy mist of romantic yearning.”

    This is not by accident. The traditional industry has encouraged writers to be helpless and delusional, the better to suck up their rights and take their money. They don’t want writers empowered and better able to negotiate. But the most appalling thing is the writing departments of major universities have assisted them while sticking young dreamers with burdensome tuition loans (assisted by the US government). Between it all it’s a factory to churn out suckers.

    Thank god for self-publishing. It’s going to be hard for the old system to keep explaining why well read writers need to live in poverty.

    • hey don’t want writers empowered and better able to negotiate.

      Unless one is a best seller, authors have no power with publishers. And they won’t have any as long as the publisher has such a large supply of manuscripts to choose from. Supply pushes down the price paid to authors.

      Authors competing with authors is what drives down prices paid to authors.

      As independent authors take more and more market share, the price publishers pay authors will fall even further. Independents are taking the market share and money that would have gone to publishers and published authors.

      • Unless one is a best seller, authors have no power with publishers.

        On the contrary, authors have the power to say, ‘Not worth it,’ and turn down a deal requiring them to sell a thousand hours of work for less than minimum wage.

        As independent authors take more and more market share, the price publishers pay authors will fall even further.

        So – the supply of manuscripts to trad publishers dries up; authors learn they can make more money on their own – and this is supposed to depress prices? Doesn’t work like that in any market I’ve ever heard of. This must be that New Math I keep hearing about.

        • I think they meant that indie authors were eating up more market share from a demand standpoint, not supply. So the price (advance) a publisher would pay an author would be lower since there would theoretically be a smaller piece of the pie in terms of what consumers are willing to pay on books in a given period of time.

          Not saying I agree with this statement, but that is what I inferred.

  15. I was at a panel with 100 people at V-Con in British Columbia, Canada and science fiction author Robert J Sawyer said his current book was the last one because his favorite word describing PRH was “rapacious.”

    Ten years ago he was paid 1/2 of advance at signing and 1/2 on turning in the manusript.

    Five years ago it was 1/3 signing, 1/3 manuscript, 1/3 when the hardback came out.

    Now it’s 1/4 signing, 1/4 manuscript, 1/4 hardback, 1/4 hardback plus one year.

    He’s taking advantage of other media writing opportunities.

    • Interesting. I wonder if he was one of the ones destined to be cut in the purge or if some of the saved are jumping on their own initiative.

      • At least one major SF imprint is cutting all MMPB and offering some authors the option of converting to hardback. One author I’m acqainted with mentioned the print run was big enough they would never earn a dime. Especially as their current reader audience was all MMPB.

        • Sounds to me like a really enterprising indie could make money advising midlisters on moving to indie publishing. I should move to NYC.

          Wait, there’s this newfangled thing called the internet!

          I should start a business.

          • I forgot to mention said author is planning on writing a new book every two months. Just looking first one was out six days ago.

  16. This why God made day-jobs. Lawyers, drillers, teachers, and plumbers who write avoid these problems.

    • But, publishing is supposed to take care of them! They should be paid a living wage so they can create art every five or ten years! Where’s the adoration, the appreciation? Oh, won’t someone think of Literature(TM)!

  17. So I’ve sat on this post for a few days before commenting, partly as I was surprised at the harshness of the posts regarding the person and their financial situation and wondered if a subsequent reading later would give me the same indigestion as some on here experienced. In the end, I didn’t view it harshly, I suspect because in my day job, I see a lot more people with far different “financial issues” and perhaps more deserving of harshness. She wasn’t it.

    I can’t remember the national percentage off-hand, but most people are officially in debt and that’s not including their mortgage or this month’s charges. If you include mortgages, most people are one pay cheque from qualifying for bankruptcy. It is the basis for much of the disquietude that led to support for anyone who wanted change in the last election…the wolf is too close to the door, and they know it.

    If you combine the various elements in the story, you see that after having sold a previous book in the career she is pursuing, she took time off from other revenue-generating options (i.e. other jobs) to write this new book, and she had earned $100K for the previous book so it wasn’t unrealistic to hope she would be able to make it profitable. It was a risk…some on here wouldn’t take that risk, some might. Not for me to judge. She did take it though.

    She is not the first nor the last to realize that writing is harder and slower than one might hope. If you could write it in a year, great. She took four. Lots of people do. I’m really surprised to hear everyone on here think the solution is simply “write faster”.

    So while she was writing, their credit card debt rose. That’s pretty standard. It goes up every time someone loses an external paying job, voluntarily or otherwise. You might be making minimum payments, everything else, but the vast majority of people declaring bankruptcy do so after carrying debt semi-successfully for a fair number of years but with it weighing them down or increasing.

    It is why trustees frequently hear as the second or third comment, “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”. And you know what? People didn’t go deeply into debt because they were simply overspending…the vast majority went into debt because of a job interruption. Bad money management might “keep” them there, but it often isn’t the source of the problem.

    And while we are raking her over the coals for her money management, I think we are missing a pretty big point in her money management approach — she PAID her debts when she got paid, it just took so long to actually get paid, that they were bouncing their rent cheque.

    This happens in lots of industries with self-employed bodies, even outside the arts. A nephew of mine was making decent money, had been for several months, and was putting all his groceries on his credit card as he hadn’t been paid yet. Quite common, even if you don’t do it.

    Equally, there seems to be the assumption that the husband should have been supporting her while she wrote. I find that line perhaps the most troubling…that if she was “home writing”, well it isn’t really work, so she should take care of the kids while he went back to the “real workforce”. Do we even know if he had any employable skills? Any other source of employment? ANy way to make any money? Or that he didn’t already do that?

    And again, it bears repeating — once she got her cheque, she PAID her bills.

    Her point is that being NYT and getting a large advance once every few years does not cure all your financial problems, despite those who are saying “Boohoo, she’s rich.” No, she’s not rich. She made approximately $25K a year for four years and then $100K a year for four years, before taxes, and that appears to be a HOUSEHOLD figure, not just her personal level. That’s far from “rich”. Plus, it isn’t necessarily sustainable.

    Which is the point she’s trying to make. Transparency in what it actually means to get an advance and, as per the Robert Sawyer-related comment, how that money does NOT come out all at once but in dribs and drabs, and often as not, more dribs and no guarantee of drabs. And that you have to live while writing, so if you “pay it forward” on your credit cards, getting it published may only pay off what you have run up, not get you any farther ahead.

    A more productive question would be — how have you financed your writing? What financial risks have you taken that others can mock since it didn’t make you (so-called) “rich”?

    P.

  18. i’d call waste material of el toro

    400k in debt for two persons, with presumably one working full time. Tot it up, food, transportation, rent, health insurance [if at all]. How many months of that basic total brings us to 400k, at prob 17 -27% interest on cards adding monthly to debt in humongous amounts. Incredibly naive madness to use credit cards. Essentially guaranteed to drive one straight into a brick wall.

    Typically agent takes 15%, foreign agent 20% divided between domestic and international agent. That is a write off on taxes. Uncle Sugar takes an amount of that 1/3, 1/3, 1/3 of 400k AFTER agent commissions, but frankly, there are huge writeoffs for ‘research.’ Thereby taxes far lower. If buying a home, write off on depreciation and a certain amount of mortgage. If used a vehicle for travel research, more write offs.

    It seems the story is spun as 400k is poor pay. It isnt. It is a king’s ransom. When managed well… And living within one’s means beforehand.

    There would have to be high impact facts left OUT of this article to see/say that this is not the typical mess-use of large amounts of money that some persons get themselves into without thinking things through carefully.

    Like Alicia, we managed frugally. When advances came, there was little debt. Both of us worked to provide for children and grands too, while writing. I honestly dont know any other way than to be frugal, and then when feast comes, celebrate, but NOT blow it. Save, save, save.

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