Das Kapital for Writers: Part One
Note: this post is the first of a four-part series on writing and money.
I’ve been thinking a lot about money.
How to make it, how to save it, how to share it, how to spend it, how to not give a shit about it.
I decided to write an epic post about it in honor of Labor Day and also in honor of the end of my third year sans day job, working as a full-time artist. This also happens to coincide with my three-year anniversary of living in NYC. A quick note: I am writing this in a spirit of generosity, not bitterness or as an excuse to complain. I’ll get into this later, but there is a seriously unhealthy negativity syndrome among writers (I myself am very guilty of contributing to that after too many glasses of wine), and while I think it’s good for us to speak out about our frustrations, it can really bring a girl down. So, have no fear: this is a no-bitch zone. It’s just real talk about something that’s gets a little bit icky sometimes.
In this four-part series, I’ll be getting into the following topics. Some are very nuts-and-bolts while others veer into more soul territory.
• Writing as a career, vocation, and/or hobby
• Bullshit art myths that are trying to bring us down
• Book deals, agents, debut authors, and royalties
• Day Jobs vs Writing Full-Time: The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly
• The expenses writers incur (and a small note on taxes and the MFA)
• What things to do or give away for free and what you should be bloody well paid for
• The culture of publishing and how that relates to you emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and financially
• Negativity Syndrome
I live in New York City and in New York City people talk about money. A lot. The first question any New Yorker will ask you is where you live. This isn’t a casual question, polite small talk. The difference in perception between someone who lives in Williamsburg (Brooklyn) and someone who lives on the Upper East Side (Manhattan) is vast. You tell someone where you live and they’ll have a clear picture in their mind about your paycheck, your politics, your career, and whether or not you have a pet or a vehicle. It’s also the Mecca of American publishing, so if you’re an author, you have to be prepared to be sized up pretty quickly. It’s not like other places, where you tell people you’re an author and they’re nicely impressed. Here, it feels like everyone has a book or ten out and the fact that you write one is no big deal. Seriously, go into any bookstore and tell them you’re an author: you’ll get a polite blank stare that translates as and I should care….why?
It’s very humbling. You meet other authors or publishing folks or bloggers and they want to know who your agent is, what house you’re at, if you’re a lead title or mid-lister, if you have a book coming out soon, if your publisher is sending you on tour or to BEA or ALA, if you got on that list that was posted on Twitter yesterday, if you have a day job or write full time, what foreign publishers picked up your books, and what famous authors are your friends.
At the end of the day, this barrage of questions is all about money. In publishing, it’s usually not time that’s money, it’s placement. And placement can often be determined by how much money the house is willing to put behind your book. This is worthy of a whole other post, but let me just say that there are pros and cons to getting large advances. There are also pros and cons to getting smaller ones. Writers will have different opinions on which is better, but I suspect they’re not being entirely truthful when they say they don’t want a big advance. Because who doesn’t want to make it rain?
In honor of Labor Day, I wanted to break the silence and get into the nitty gritty of getting paid (or not paid) for your art. Yes, I realize this post is coming out long after Labor Day, but I started it on Labor Day, so it counts. I wrote it for the professional writer, the aspiring writer, the curious patron of the arts. It’s for the dreamer who thinks they’ll be that debut author with the two million dollar advance, and the writer who’s certain she won’t make a dime. It’s for those of you who will only consider yourselves legit if you have a book deal (oh, have I been there), and the seemingly happy campers who say they only write for themselves and promise they’re fine if they never see their work on a bookshelf (I don’t believe you, but rock on).
I want to keep it classy, so I won’t be talking specifics in terms of the money I’ve made from my writing, but it is enough to keep me doing it full-time, which is like basically winning the artist lottery. I recognize that I am very, very lucky to have been paid real money I can live off of for writing down all the stuff that happens in my imagination. But we’ll get into why my past three years not having a day job have been some of the most stressful and frustrating of my life (all things being relative, of course).
I also can’t really tell you what to expect if you’re an aspiring writer who’s desperate to know what it’s possible to make, because one thing’s for certain - in publishing, there are no certainties. This can be both a good and a bad thing. Especially if you’re writing kidlit, there’s really no telling what you’ll be offered. So many variables go into the offer your prospective editors give you and many, many people are part of the decision on whether or not to acquire your book. I think it’s a fair assumption that you will not be able to quit your day job, at least not right away. (More thoughts on this later, too).
What I do want to get into is the psychology of payment for one’s art, looking at both what society wants us to believe, what the art myths tell us to believe, and what the real deal is. Also: how to keep your head on straight through it all. But before we can even get into that, some of you aren’t even sure if you are a writer. Let’s find out, shall we?
VOCATION, CAREER, OR HOBBY
You do not have to have a book deal, an agent, an MFA, or have been paid for your writing to call yourself a Writer. Let me say that again, because it bears repeating: you do not have to have a book deal, an agent, and MFA, or have been paid for your writing to call yourself a Writer. This is a job where you might work for free for years. Or get paid the big bucks right out of the gate. You don’t get “hired” and no one is your boss (well, your characters might have something to say about that).
You are a writer if you identify as such and actually, you know, write. Fiction or non-fiction. Novel or poems or screenplays or songs. If you put words on a page because you must, because there is no option, because words are bleeding from your soul and demand a home, then you, my friend, are probably a writer. This also means you have a vocation—a soul calling to a certain kind of work.
A vocation can be a career, but you have to look at it with a different set of glasses. Not rose colored ones, though! If writing is your career, I’d say that this means you write full time or publish regularly (as in once every year or two). This my highly subjective opinion that I reserve the right to change, by the way. If writing is your career, it’s your job and you either get paid to do it, or someone is supporting you to do it full-time. Doesn’t matter what or if you get paid, or what you write. A career as a writer involves more than just your vocation (living out your vocation is the act and art of writing and creatively engaging your soul in order to do so to the best of your ability). The career part comes in with all the business associated with writing: social media outreach, blogging, teaching (which can also be a vocation), dealing with your agent and publishers and readers. It may involve making or ordering swag, setting up various events, being visible at festivals and conferences, networking with other writers and people in publishing…you get the idea.
Whether or not you write full-time, the fact is that if you want stability and a steady paycheck, then writing is not the career for you. I like what one of my favorite writers, Elizabeth Gilbert says about it in her fabulous book on creativity, Big Magic:
…with rare exceptions, creative fields make for crap careers…Even if things work out for you in the arts, parts of your career will likely always remain crap…But creative living can be an amazing vocation, if you have the love and courage and persistence to see it that way. I suggest that this may be the only sanity-preserving way to approach creativity. Because nobody ever told us it would be easy, and uncertainty is what we sign up for when we say that we want to live creative lives.
Yeah, it’s hard. But it’s a beautiful struggle, my friends. A beautiful struggle.
Real talk: if you simply want to write (but never do) or have all the lovely accoutrements of writers, but never use them (A fancy Mac! A Moleskine notebook! Pretty Kate Spade pens! Notebooks with ironic covers!), then, in my humble opinion, you are not a writer. That’s okay!! For you, writing is a hobby and a damn fine one to have. You might think writing is cool, or fantasize about having your name on a book cover—you even might have story ideas. But, dear one, if you don’t actually write, then you are not a writer. YET. You can always change this. For a long time I considered myself a yogini, even after an injury had me off the yoga mat for years. Even though I didn’t practice any form of yoga. Even though I had a really expensive mat and loved wearing yoga pants and listened to Indian classical music. Even though I chanted Om when shit got real. Finally, my husband broke the news: Baby, you don’t actually DO yoga. So…you’re not a yogini. Ouch. But so true. I’d always considered that a part of my identity and it was actually really surprising to recognize that, somewhere along the way, I’d become a poseur. That’s not to say it won’t be a part of my life in the future. But even if I take the occasional class, I couldn’t identify as a yogini without feeling that I was putting that on. It would only be after having a dedicated practice that I could maybe start to think yoga was a part of who I am.
I have MANY thoughts about what it means to call yourself a writer. Some of you think you need permission (you don’t). Some of you are embarrassed to call yourself one because you haven’t made money yet (fuck that, if you’re writing, then own that shit because stories are snowflakes and no one’s ever written the ones you’ve written, or the ones you’ll write). If you’re up for a dose of some seriously tough love, then check out this post.
Now, let’s talk $$$$$$.
MYTHS ABOUT ART-MAKING THAT YOU SHOULD GIVE THE MIDDLE FINGER TO
The Man tells us that what we do (and, by extension, who we are) can be financially appraised and that the appraisal—your salary, your book deal, how many initials go after your name—is what you are worth. It is your value in the world.
Not. Fucking. True.
Your value in this world has nothing to do with your paycheck. It doesn’t even necessarily have to do with your smarts or your talent. You are inherently valuable because you’ve been given the grace to walk this earth. Don’t let anyone take that away from you. Dignity is a human right. Having worth simply for being human is a human right. I wish we could all use the restroom right after our artistic and intellectual heroes took a shit. Try keeping them on a pedestal while you hold your nose.
If you are called to be an artist (and I do think it’s a calling, though we all have the capacity to be wonderfully creative), then your value as an artist is the fact that you are literally the only person in the history of humanity who can make what you make. No one else has written a Heather Demetrios novel. And that’s pretty fucking cool.
HOWEVER, because we live in the real world, we know that regardless of your inherent value as an art maker, not everyone will want to put up some cash for you to do it. That’s just business. I know people who have gotten teeny tiny book deals and had bad sales who wrote gorgeous books. One writer I know in particular is the best writer I’ve ever read, but not many people know that because she hasn’t gotten a book deal yet. But when she does, watch out world. I hope this woman knows that her lack of payment doesn’t mean she’s not good enough or that her story doesn’t need to be read by thousands. Because we all know writers who’ve gotten some serious green for books that are (insert expletive-soaked criticism here). I was reading a book a couple years ago and turned to my husband and said, This is literally the worst thing I’ve ever read in my life. It’s not just bad, it’s downright criminal that this writer is getting all this attention, that someone actually felt it was okay to put this shit out in the world. Said writer is a New York Times bestseller.
I know, I feel your pain—no one said the universe was fair. Just ask Vincent van Gogh. He sold, like, two paintings in his lifetime. Can you imagine if he’d said he wasn’t an artist because his work didn’t have monetary value? What if he’d stopped painting and believed all the reasons people turned down his work?
Here’s another art myth, this one perpetrated by artists themselves: if you do make money—real, livable income—from your art, then you’re not a real artist. You’re a sell-out, a commercial whore, an entertainer. Dude, that is just straight-up bullshit perpetrated by bitter artists who are broke and jealous and having a serious existential crisis. Some art is embraced by the public, can be sold more easily, is more accessible, more fun, more whatever people want right now. Harry Potter is art. So is War and Peace. Guess what: they are both equally art. Graham Greene worked on thrillers, which he called his “entertainments.” Those babies paid the bills and made sure his family was taken care of. When he wasn’t being James Bond—you do know he was also a spy, right?—he worked on what he considered his literary masterpiece, The Power and the Glory. Glory is a gorgeous book, a deep meditation on the human condition. But I would argue that his thrillers could, in some ways, be just as important. Ask any reader who’s worked a hard day how much they value that book they’re looking forward to reading when they go home. Ask any kidlit author why they write for children and teens. One of the greatest things about art is that it has many purposes. The whole debate about high art and low art is a topic for another post entirely, but just get what I’m saying: you have inherent value and your work is art whether it’s a picture book or a door-stopping classic. (Side note: I don’t have to think your work is art, though. What I think is irrelevant, unless you’re seeking my opinion. That crappy book I talked about earlier? Not art, in my opinion. It’s a book. It’s a story. But it’s not art, not to me. Many would disagree and that’s why America rocks—to each their own).
Me, signing my first book contract
This section isn’t a how-to on how to get a book deal or submit to agents or publishers. It’s about what happens after you get them. So, you’ve written an awesome book and have an agent (who’s going to take 15% of your income) and that agent submitted it to a bunch of editors. Some want the book, some don’t. If more than one wants your book, it might go to auction, meaning that they will give offers back and forth until the one you like best wins out. In order to avoid an auction, some houses will do a pre-empt, which means that they give you an advance that’s better than the usual offer in order to get you to take it off the table and go with them. When either of those things happen, that’s pretty cool, regardless of the payout you get. It means people are really excited about your book.
If you don’t have auctions or pre-empts, that’s okay too, don’t feel bad about it. (You sold a book, yo! You are officially one of the luckiest artists that ever lived. Go drink up a margarita—you deserve it!) Sometimes you take a deal even though you haven’t submitted to everyone on your list because you like the editor and house and it’s all good. Sometimes you take the deal because it was the only one offered (plenty of classics got tons of rejections: this is not a harbinger of lifelong unhappiness). It’s stressful to be on sub and important to go with your gut—dragging it out can get complicated and maybe you just want it sold so you don’t have to freak out anymore. Your agent, if they’re worth their salt, will be able to advise you on all this (yes, you need an agent). Some deals will be a two-book, which is a nice thing to have because it gives you a little security and enables you to plan for the future. Some will be for just the one and that’s totally fine, too. I actually turned down a recent two-book and opted for one for various reasons. Up to you!
Back in the day, it was common for debut authors to get about $15K as an advance on a YA. But then the Kidlit Golden Age hit post Harry Potter and Twilight and there were people who were getting wonderfully high advances—six figures or more. Based on what I’m hearing around the industry, we’re at the end of that period now: there isn’t the buying frenzy of the early aughts where a debut could really clean up. Your agent will be able to give you a better idea of what to expect, but sometimes you just don’t know. The cooler your agent is, the better chance you have at a big deal, but having a big agent doesn’t guarantee that. Likewise, a small-time agent could hit big with you. Someone had to give Jerry Maguire his start.
Pro Tip: don’t ask your friends what they got for their advance. Don’t tell them what you got. This isn’t because you don’t trust each other. It’s because this is a very easy way to fuck with your serenity and feel like shit if you’re the one with the lower advance. Sometimes you’re hot and sometimes you’re not. Gambling and publishing have more in common than any of us are comfortable with.
Note to non-writing family and friends: Just because your loved one sold a book doesn’t mean that they are now a millionaire and they’ll be hanging out with Oprah and walking the red carpet. Most advances are modest and most careers are run like a marathon, not a sprint.
THE DEBUT AUTHOR
There is something to be said for how you start out of the gate, though. You may never have the chance to get the kind of book deal you dream of after you’re published because once your book is on the shelves, publishers will start looking at BookScan, which (very inaccurately) reports your sales. If your sales aren’t stellar (and this is not your fault, btw—your job is to write the book, not sell it), they will likely offer a commensurate advance for your next book. This is a land of mindfuckery none of us have the map for and it makes for weary traveling, indeed. When you’re a debut, you’re a clean slate, all promise. For all they know, you’re the next J.K. Rowling.
So my advice is this: before you jump into the life of the professional writer, write the very best book you can write, find the very best agent you can, and have a decent online presence. Don’t rush. It really is a once in a lifetime opportunity for most writers to get a baller advance. That being said, there are all kinds of reasons you might get a big or small advance for your future books and you’ll never really know exactly why you got what you got. There are loads of factors, many of which have nothing at all to do with you or your book. So try not to take it personally. At any rate, there’s very little you can control once you sign that contract—and even before then, publishers will often be very firm on their deal. Sometimes, baby, you gotta take it or leave it. Also: there’s always the chance that one of your later books will blow up and that will carry your backlist (the books you’ve already written) and put you in a nice position for your future contracts.
A lot of people have this idea that they’re going to be getting checks in the mail all the time. Sorry, honey, that’s not going to happen. There are exceptions, of course, but most of the writers I know haven’t earned out any of their advances. This means that when they get their royalty statements (which, by the way, are incredibly confusing and come once, maybe twice a year), they will have a negative number (first, you have to earn the total of your advance—royalties come after that). Best to just reach for the closest bottle of wine and drink up.
The money you make on your book will be your advance. It will likely be the only money you make from it, regardless of whether or not your book goes into paperback. Foreign book deals are another good way to make money on your book—try to sign with an agent that has a good foreign agent on staff or is a rockstar in her own right when she’s abroad at international conferences for agents and editors like Frankfurt and Bologna. Some foreign advances are big, some small. They often come out of the blue, which can be a very nice surprise for a broke-ass writer. Then there are always film options (which are rarely big bucks, so don’t get too excited. Also, a film option doesn’t guarantee the film itself will get made). Other ways to pick up some scratch is if your book gets awards or you’re invited to paid speaking gigs. Both of which are very hard to come by. So this is kinda why I don’t buy it when people say they don’t want a big advance.
The royalties in your contract are going to be pretty standard percentages and this is something you will have very little say in. I’m speaking as a YA writer, so this might be different in the romance or other lit worlds. Another thing to remember is that, for the rest of your book’s life, your agent will get 15% of everything you make. It’s not just on the initial deal.
Okay, run and get a margarita before reading the next post. Make mine shaken, with salt. Ready? Here it is.
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