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.