Getting By on a Writer’s Income
Recently, to give you all a taste of one of the new books for writers I ePublished in 2011, I posted a Writer’s Digest column of mine (“Writing, Always Writing”) from The Liar’s Companion. Enough of you responded enthusiastically to prompt me to Do It Again.
So here’s a piece that originally appeared in 1981 in an annual publication, Writer’s Yearbook. Dated references notwithstanding, I’d have to say it’s held up well. The points it makes seem as valid as ever, and the concerns it addresses have certainly not gone away.
I was grateful for the opportunity to include it in The Liar’s Bible, and I’m happy to share it here…
GETTING BY ON A WRITER’S INCOME
A writer, James Michener has said, can make a fortune in America. But he can’t make a living.
I think the point is good. It’s hardly a secret that a few people get rich every year at their typewriters. The same media attention that 50 years ago lionized a handful of writers as important cultural leaders now trumpets the income of a comparable handful. The tabloid reader knows nowadays about paperback auctions and movie tie-ins and multi-volume book contracts with sky-high advances and elevator clauses.
Balanced against this image of the writer as fortune’s darling is a similarly glamorous picture of the unsuccessful writer starving in an airless garret, eating baked beans out of the can and pawning his overcoat to buy carbon paper. The poor blighter’s starving for his art, and he’ll either go on starving in pursuit of his pure artistic vision until they lay his bones in potter’s field, or else he’ll suddenly break through to literary superstardom, and the next we’ll see of him he’ll be at poolside sipping champagne and snorting lines with the Beautiful People.
The validity of both of these images notwithstanding, most of the writers I know have never gotten rich but have always gotten by. This has certainly been the case with me. I have, to be sure, had good years and bad years. I had a couple of years when I made more money than I knew what to do with—although I always thought of something—and I had other years, and rather more of them, when I might have switched to another line of work had there been anything else for which I was qualified.
I did live in a garret once, in a rather pleasant area under a sloping roof atop a barbershop in Hyannis, Massachusetts. For a couple of weeks I subsisted solely on peanut butter sandwiches and Maine sardines, and I wrote a short story every day, one of which ultimately became my first sale. (The room was $8 a week, the sardines were 15¢ a can, and I got a hundred bucks for the story.)
“I’ve been rich and I’ve been poor,” Sophie Tucker said, “and believe me, rich is better.” I suppose I believe her, but I also believed showman Mike Todd when he said he’d been broke innumerable times, but he’d never been poor.
I think the distinction is useful. The writing life has had me broke any number of times, and I suspect it will continue to do so as long as I pursue it. I won’t be poor, though, not so long as I’m able to recognize that being broke is a temporary thing, that it’s part of the business, and that it doesn’t have to interfere with either my writing or my living.
There are several reasons why being broke is inevitable now and then. Sometimes the fault is my own. My ability to produce marketable material varies with the ups and downs of my own emotional life. Writers are not machines, and even machines do break down from time to time. Like most writers I’ve known and known of, I have occasional periods when I can’t get anything written and other stretches when what I write just doesn’t work.
Other times my writing goes along just fine, but I can’t seem to be able to get money to come into my house. Sometimes changes in the market leave me in the position of a dress manufacturer with a warehouse full of mini skirts. Other times the entire publishing industry seems to have gone on hold, and manuscripts sit on editors’ desks for months without being either accepted or rejected. Sometimes I get slow-paid by publishers intent on solving their entire cash flow problems at my personal expense. Sometimes a publisher decides his inventory is too large and elects not to publish dozens of books he’s already bought and paid for; I get to keep the advance, but I can forget about royalties, foreign sales, and all of the subsidiary income that make the difference between profit and loss.
Any number of things can happen to render a freelance writer insolvent, and if you stay in the game long enough, all of them will happen to you sooner or later. But the point of this piece is not that dire events will occur, but that you can survive them. You may decide it’s not worth it—some of us are not temperamentally suited to the financial ups and downs of fulltime freelancing. If you can’t stand that kind of heat, then you should probably stay out of this particular kitchen.
If you can stand it, and would like to survive as gracefully as possible, here are some survival tips.
1. Don’t Run Scared
While fear may not be the only thing we have to be afraid of, it’s certainly up there at the top of the list. It can be an absolutely paralyzing emotion, utterly undercutting the self-confidence it takes in order to put words on paper in the expectation that someone will be eager to read them.
Fear keeps a lot of writers from freelancing in the first place. Some people are never comfortable with the financial insecurity of freelance writing, and do better emotionally if they remain employed and write on the side. Those of us who do choose to write fulltime must balance fear with faith—in ourselves, in Providence, or in both.
Just about the time I was starting to write stories, Richard S. Prather published an article in Writer’s Digest explaining how he’d become a fulltime writer. He’d begun with the revelation that nobody starves in America; accordingly he’d decided to quit his job and invest a year in the process of establishing himself. It was, of course, the best investment he ever made, and before the year was out he had sold novels about private eye Shell Scott and had launched what was to be an extremely successful career.
Prather’s piece must have impressed me; not only do I remember it after all these years, but also my own first published story began with the line, “Anybody who starves in this country deserves it,” an observation of dubious socioeconomic validity, perhaps, but a not-bad opening shot for a suspense story.
In any event, it was easy enough for me to decide to freelance. My salary and expenses were so low at the time that I didn’t have to sit down and write Forever Amber to make ends meet. Some years later, when I returned to freelancing after a year and a half’s gainful employment, I had a wife and two children and a somewhat higher standard of living. But I also had the knowledge based on previous experience that writing was something I could make a living at, and I made the move without thinking to be afraid of the outcome.
2. Watch Out for Sure Money
There are more ways than one to run scared. In my own case, fear has tended to manifest itself more in terms of an inability to take chances at the typewriter. For a few too many years I wrote pulp novels on regular assignment for sure money rather than risk failure by attempting something more ambitious.
This is even more of a hazard for writers who are rather better established than I was. Not long ago, for example, I was talking with a successful Hollywood screenwriter. He had had some success with a novel some years ago and was talking about wanting to write another novel—and did a pretty good job of talking himself out of it.
“It would take a minimum of six months and probably more like a year,” he explained, “and then what could I expect to see out of it? A $10,000 advance? A couple grand more in royalties if it gets lucky? Maybe a few thousand in foreign sales? You write one half-hour sitcom script and you make more than that by the time you’re done with the residuals. And what does that take—a week of real work? I’d love to write a novel, but I don’t see how I can afford it.”
It’s hard to fault his dollars-and-cents logic. But when I start thinking along these lines, I try to take a step back and remind myself that I never got into this business for the money in the first place. I became a writer so that I could do what I wanted, and if I reach a point where my “success” as a writer keeps me from doing what I want to do, there would seem to be something seriously wrong with the turn my career has taken.
In my friend’s case, it may be close to impossible for him to gamble the six months or year required for that novel’s production. If he’s used to living on a six-figure income, how can he survive the drop in income that writing that novel will almost inevitably entail? Prather may be right, and perhaps nobody does starve around here, but mortgages get foreclosed and cars get repossessed. Should a simple urge to write a novel leave a family living in Griffith Park on nuts and berries?
Which brings up another point.
3. Keep the Nut Down
However good we are at what we do, however much acclaim we win for our efforts, we are not working for the government or IBM. We do not have that kind of job security. We have security of another sort, the knowledge that we possess a marketable skill that no one can take away from us and that will ultimately carry us through adversity. But the operative word there is ultimately. We can’t count on a weekly check the way others can.
For this reason, and to keep from painting myself into a financial corner where I can’t afford to take professional chances, I find it worthwhile to keep my fixed costs as low as possible. I don’t buy things on time, and my rent is relatively low in proportion to my income. (I did buy a house on time, there being no other way for most of us to purchase real property, but when a Hollywood windfall came along, I paid off the mortgage rather than spend the money upgrading the property or enhancing my standard of living, or investing for future gain. Paying off the mortgage, several people assured me, was not a sound move economically. I knew what they meant, and I knew they were right, but I knew the best thing I as a self-employed writer could do with that windfall was knock out that monthly payment, and I never regretted doing it.)
I don’t want to give the impression that I live like a churchmouse: I very likely spend as high a percentage of my income as the next wastrel. But I try to squander it on luxuries rather than saddle myself with a heavy burden of ongoing necessities. I’ll spend money on travel, blow it on high living, or otherwise find a way to divest myself of it without increasing my day-to-day expenditures. Thus, when the money supply dries up and I have to cut back, I simply go without. I don’t own a car; I take cabs when I’m flush and use the subway when I’m not. I treat myself to a lot of good dinners when there’s money on hand, and I stay home and eat rice when it’s gone.
4. Don’t Take Income for Granted
When pests asked J. P. Morgan what the stock market was going to do, he always gave the same answer: “It will fluctuate.”
So will a writer’s income. If anything, my income seems more subject to fluctuation now than it ever did, and seems concurrently to depend less on how hard I work than ever before. When I started out, I wrote a book a month for one publisher, working on regular assignment and knowing that I was going to get a certain check every month. I would write the book and I would get the check. Nowadays I’ll work hard and produce a lot and make next to nothing, and then the next year I’ll goof off and get little done and earn a lot.
Just recently, for example, a book of mine was published and sold to a paperback house. The publisher was as certain as he’d ever been that he was going to get a six-figure advance for this property, and his track record shows he doesn’t make many mistakes along these lines. Well, there was no book club sale, and no paperback publisher submitted a floor bid, and they finally had the auction and he got the six-figure price, all right, but two of those figures came after the decimal point.
Well, these things happen, and I’m glad I’ve been in the business long enough to roll with the punches. The real heartache comes when you take the big money for granted and act accordingly.
Friend of mine writes mysteries. For quite a few years he had a movie sale every year, regular as clockwork. Sometimes two books sold in a year, but there was always one that came through for him, and that was half his income.
Not surprisingly, he learned to count on it. If you make, say, $60,000 a year, year in and year out, and half of that comes from film sales, it’s not too long before you’re living on $60,000 a year, and in the expectation of $60,000 a year. It would be hard to do otherwise.
Then the well ran dry. Nobody bought movie rights to his books, and he sat around wondering what he was doing wrong. Well, he wasn’t doing anything wrong, any more than he’d been doing anything especially right previously. You just can’t take windfalls for granted, and when they come regularly, it’s an easy mistake to make.
There are other ways to take income for granted. When I write a mystery, my income is realized from several sources. There’s the advance my hardcover publisher pays me. There’s the royaltyincome the book earns over and above the advance—it doesn’t amount to an awful lot—and there’s the paperback money. There’s another small chunk from a book club specializing in mysteries, and there are checks from the six or eight foreign countries where my books are regularly published.
Every now and then, these sources of subsidiary income dry up. There was a two-year stretch, for instance, when my French publisher didn’t buy a single American mystery. There was another point when the Scandinavians suddenly ceased buying foreign books. It’s important—but almost impossible—for me to remember that the only thing I can take for granted when I write a book is the initial advance. Other sources of income may be probable, but they’re a long way from certain.
Fortunately, there are so many diverse sources of subsidiary income that I can survive when one or two of them dries up. Which leads us to our next point.
5. Don’t Put All Your Eggs in One Basket
As I said, when I was first in the business, I wrote a book a month for one publisher. Then I had a falling out with my agent and we parted company, and the publisher in question turned out to be a closed shop, dealing only through that particular agent. Although I liked writing for him and he very much liked publishing my work, we both had to live without each other. This was manifestly easier for him than it was for me.
Well, I survived, and in the long run the experience was enormously beneficial for me. I was forced to grow as a writer. But I had made a mistake. I had grown far too dependent upon a single market, and when it was closed to me I found it extremely difficult to make a living.
This happens to lots of people. You can take a market for granted just as you can take certain income for granted, and an abrupt change in that market can be devastating. Sometimes there’s not much you can do about it. In the ’50s the market for pulp westerns dropped absolutely dead. A whole slew of writers had done all their writing for these magazines for a couple of decades. They didn’t know how to write anything else. Some of them managed to write western novels for the paperbacks, but that market couldn’t absorb all of them, nor could all of them produce novel-length stories successfully. Others switched and wrote mysteries, or got into television work, or somehow adapted.
But some of them stopped being writers.
Now, you can say with some justification that these fellows should have seen the scribbling on the side of the building. The pulps didn’t all die on the same afternoon. There was a point where some western writers realized they were going to have to develop new markets while others missed the boat—or stagecoach, if you prefer.
Any market can dry up. While it’s hard to guard against the collapse of a whole genre, a writer can avoid being too dependent upon a single publisher. If too much of your income comes from a single source, you might as well be on that man’s payroll. You’re working for him and he can fire you at will. Or he can go out of business.
Or the editor who likes your work can move elsewhere. This is almost certain to happen repeatedly in the course of a writing career, and it has its good and bad aspects. While it can mean the end of a relationship with one publisher, it can also mean the beginning with another. And that’s one way to…
6. Make Friends in the Business
I haven’t heard of a business yet, with the possible exception of the undertaking trade, where people wouldn’t prefer to deal with people they know. Some writers use this fact of life to explain their own lack of success, muttering darkly that a conspiracy of old friends is keeping their work from getting published.
That’s paranoia. Editors don’t keep their jobs and publishers don’t remain in business by buying inferior work from their buddies. (And yes, I have known an editor or two who bought garbage and took kickbacks, and another who published his old pals out of friendship even when their work was no good, and none of these people is working today.) What a good relationship with an editor or publisher will do is assure you that they will use you if they can. They would rather work with you than work with an unknown quantity. They know you’re reliable. They know you can deliver. They know you won’t make a nuisance of yourself over some minor point. And, all things being equal, they’ll do business with you rather than take a chance on some yo-yo they’ve never laid eyes on.
Publishing is an extremely small business in relation to its importance and influence. Editors commonly change jobs many times in the course of a career, even as writers commonly change publishers. One happy result of this—there are unhappy results, too—is that sooner or later you wind up knowing a whole lot of people at a whole lot of publishing houses.
It’s worthwhile to cultivate these friendships. This doesn’t mean sending out a ton of Christmas presents. It means becoming as genuinely friendly as your nature permits with the people you do business with. If you don’t live near New York, it means budgeting for one or two trips a year just to allow yourself the chance to know personally some of the people with whom you’ve been corresponding.
It means, too, that you must get past thinking of the relationship between writer and editor or writer and publisher as on a par with that of tenant and landlord. It’s hard not to regard it as essentially an adversary relationship, especially during the early years when the chief function of an editor seems to be that of spilling coffee on your story prefatory to returning it to you with a form rejection slip. But we are all of us in this silly business together, and working for the same ends, and it’s useful to remember this.
7. Be Careful with Advances
William Faulkner once wrote a friend that the best way to get published was to secure an advance from a publisher. Then, he explained, the only way the publisher can get his money back is by publishing your book.
Faulkner’s point is not altogether off the mark. There’s a definite advantage in getting a publisher to make a commitment in advance. While he still may elect not to publish a book if it falls short of his expectations, he at least has a vested interest in publishing it and this can make him more receptive to the final product.
There are dangers, though, in living on advances. You find yourself trying to come up with an idea that will lead to two chapters and an outline and a fast contract, not something that will evolve into the best possible book. Some years ago, when I was more prolific than I am now and landed virtually all of my contracts on the basis of an outline or a brief proposal, I could hardly avoid the realization that I was writing a couple of hundred words for half the money and then had to write an entire book just to get the other half. It seemed economically sensible to stick to outlines—I could write dozens of them in the course of a year far more easily than I could produce half a dozen actual books. But sooner or later, I found, you have to deliver the book, or after a while they won’t make more deals with you.
Years ago I knew a writer who was always living on advances. His agent operated as sort of a banker; whenever my acquaintance sold a story, the agent would advance him the sum due him, reimbursing himself when the check ultimately arrived from the publisher. At other times, when the writer needed money and had not sold anything, the agent would extend an advance against future sales, which is really nothing more than a polite term for a loan. On one such occasion, the writer turned up to collect a $50 advance, and received a check for $45; the agent was so accustomed to taking 10% out of everything, he’d even done so with the loan.
If you live on advances, you’re always behind, working to get even. You’re like a coal miner in debt to the company store. I think it’s sound business sense to contract for one’s work in advance rather than write all the time on speculation, and it’s undeniably true that the greater a publisher’s cash commitment to a book, the more likely he is to promote it effectively. Still, living on advances has its dangers.
8. Have a Way to Make the Rent
I never knew my paternal grandfather, who died a decade before I was born. I do know, though, that he started out as a plumber. He saved a few dollars and bought a couple of buildings, and he ultimately made his living in real estate. But he never let his card in the plumbers’ union expire. He paid his dues every year, just in case.
Writing’s the only trade I know, so I can’t go down to the union hall if the rent’s due and the wolf is at the door. I’ve often wished I could. I think a writer should know how to do something, preferably the sort of thing that enables him to pick up day work when the going gets tough. I know writers, for example, who are experienced bartenders. They can get work whenever they need it. Experience as a fry cook is probably more useful to a writer than experience writing ad copy or selling insurance, because it’s the sort of thing you can walk into on the spur of the moment and keep as long as the financial shoe pinches.
While I don’t have that sort of fall-back skill, I do have some things I can do to bring in small sums on a steady basis while my main business of book-writing blows hot and cold. I write my WD column, for example; it provides a steady monthly check and gives me a regular task to perform. I do occasional reviewing for a book club. I teach a course at a university.
Occasionally I’ve thought about getting a hack license, or doing office temp work, but I haven’t had to yet. When the time comes that I do, I hope I won’t let pride stand in the way. Having to do something else to make a few bucks doesn’t mean that one has failed as a writer. It just means you’ve got a case of the shorts, and that, as we’ve seen, is part of the game.
9. Remember the Difference Between Poor and Broke
And act accordingly. Being broke is not a crime, nor is it proof of one’s inadequacy as a writer or as a human being. If you go around with an attitude of implicit apology for being temporarily without funds, it’s going to do you more harm than good.
Conversely, an air of confidence can get you through some tight spots. Some years ago I bought a house in New Jersey. I made the deal and set the closing date with the intent of making the down payment with a chunk of movie dough that was coming my way.
Now, this didn’t seem unrealistic at the time. The deal with the movie company was already made when I arranged to buy the house. It was just a question of drawing up the contract and getting the cash.
Terrific. Various lawyers dragged their feet on the contract, and then, when it was finally signed, the producer found a way to stall. He kept being out of town and unreachable by phone, and the closing date on the house kept approaching, and I didn’t have any money. My then-wife asked if I didn’t think I should tell the seller. “No,” I said. “I can’t see how it will help me to give him that information in advance.” Well, then, didn’t I think I ought to engage a lawyer? “No,” I said, “because if I have a lawyer and he has a lawyer, the two lawyers’ll fight.” Then what did I intend to do? “I’ll just play it by ear,” I said. “Maybe the money will come in by then.” And if it doesn’t? “Maybe I’ll think of something.”
Well, I went to the closing and explained the situation. I offered to pay the down payment with a post-dated check, which would enable the sellers to sue me if I couldn’t cover it but which wouldn’t really get them their property back, since title would have passed to me by then. Still, they were eager to sell, and they knew I wasn’t going to put the house on wheels and truck it across the state line, and I knew the money was going to come in from Hollywood sooner or later. And, because I didn’t have a lawyer, their lawyer didn’t have anybody to fight with, and I bought the house. I think the fact that I was really quite confident about the whole thing had a lot to do with its outcome.
10. Let Financial Need Be a Spur, Not a Sledgehammer
Mickey Spillane has told of the time when he was living on an offshore island, spending a lot of time on the beach and generally taking life easy. “I decided it would be fun to write a story,” he recalls, “but I couldn’t get an idea. I took long walks, I sat at the typewriter, but I couldn’t seem to come up with an idea. Then one day I got a call from my accountant. He said the money was starting to run short. And you know what? All of a sudden I started getting one idea after the other.”
I love that story, and I can believe it. Financial need can very well be necessary to goad the unconscious to come up with story ideas. But when the need is too great, when it weighs too heavily upon the mind, it can have the opposite effect, serving not as a spur in the horse’s flank but as a sledgehammer blow between his eyes that stops him dead in his tracks.
I try to avoid this by divorcing myself from financial matters as far as I possibly can. I have an accountant, and for a couple of years now all my income has gone directly from my agent to him. Similarly, all my bills go straight to him as well. Sometimes there’s a lot of money in my account and sometimes there’s not, but unless matters are very urgent, I don’t know how high the stack of bills is, and that’s fine with me. I can forget all that and concentrate on writing.
Not everyone would be comfortable turning over financial management to another party. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t handle this aspect of my life myself. But all in all I like things as they are.
11. Remember, It’s Only Money
According to Dr. Johnson, no man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money. Now, you can read that line in more than one way, and I prefer to believe that Johnson meant that one is not justified in writing in the expectation of anything but financial gain, that he who writes hoping to be rewarded by fame, or to change the world, is unrealistic in his expectations.
I write for money, and if I struck oil in my backyard I can’t be certain I’d ever write another line. All the same, I try to remember that it’s only money and that money is just not all that important. I didn’t get into this business for money and I don’t stay in it for money. If I write something I don’t want to write, I’m giving up some personal freedom. Perhaps more important, if financial considerations induce me to forego writing something I would really like to write, I’m giving up a large measure of freedom and defeating my own purpose in having become a writer in the first place.
I have come to believe that freedom is ultimately the chief attraction of the writing life. I believe, too, that we are about as free as we recognize ourselves to be. The more I realize that material possessions have little to do with my happiness and that money is accordingly of rather little importance, the freer I am to enjoy this life and to fulfill whatever potential I have.
And that’s as much as I have to say on the subject of living on a writer’s income. Now that I’ve said it, they’d better pay me for it. And fast.
Whew. Long for a blog post, isn’t it? Now for the hard sell. Here are Amazon links for my writing books:
and these, not mentioned above:
Writing the Novel from Plot to Print
(which is, duh, a book focusing on the novel)
Write For Your Life
(a home seminar centered on the inner game of writing)
(a writer’s piecemeal memoir consisting of afterwords to my books)
And here are Barnes & Noble links for the same: