Crime doesn’t pay; Neither does writing

 

I’ve known a lot of writers over the years. Many dreamed of making big money from their writing. But of all the writers I’ve known, only one or two have made any significant amount of money.

But I know plenty of writers who have spent lots of money trying to reach the level where the payoff comes. I know writers now who spend thousands every year to sell hundreds of dollars in books. They spend big bucks on conferences, travel, writers’ swag (gifts you give away to induce readers to buy your books), book doctors, contest fees, reading fees, postage, and books and magazines to improve their writing.

There’s a whole industry out there devoted to separating hopeful writers from their money and ninety-nine percent plus of all those writers will never make any real money off their writing. That’s the harsh reality of the economics of the writing business.

Just like in most businesses, but especially in the arts, a few lucky souls at the top reap huge rewards while millions at the bottom get a pittance at best. J.K. Rowling is a billlionaire. All the writers I know are thousandaires, but those thousands came from something other than their writing.

If I sound bitter, it’s because the system sucks. It’s another instance of income inequality. Instead of taking all the money from book sales and divvying it up in some kind of equitable way, the distribution of the money is extremely skewed to reward a few lavishly and deny the rest of the writers. J.K. Rowling doesn’t need or deserve a billion dollars. She would be adequately compensated with a small fraction of that, and many excellent writers producing fine work deserve way more than they’re getting.

One editor told Emily Dickinson her work was not poetic.

One editor told Emily Dickinson her work was not poetic.

Yeah, I know life isn’t fair. Capitalism is flawed. All that crap. But it’s not easy to see people dream their life away, devote themselves to producing good art, and go almost totally without financial reward.

It gets worse. The two writers I know who have made some money from writing aren’t even very good writers. What they are is good promoters, smoozers, back slappers, snake oil salesmen. Their sales skills are a lot better than their writing ability. They crank out mediocre books, and then huckster the hell out of them. They don’t deserve to be the successes they are, but they still get lots of adoration from writers who dream of fortune from their work. Somehow, lots of aspiring writers are blind to the pedestrian quality because they are dazzled by the money these somewhat financially successful writers have made.

Herman Melville's Moby Dick was a publishing flop.

Herman Melville’s Moby Dick was a publishing flop.

Writers who dream the dream of big money would be well informed to consider some fine writers who made little or no money from their scribblings during their lifetimes. Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Henry David Thoreau may be writing icons today, but during their lifetimes they had limited success. Getting money from your art is a lot like chasing a rainbow. Van Gogh paintings go for hundreds of millions today, but during his life, he sold a total of two.

Here’s another harsh fact writers should know: The average ebook or on-demand book sells less than 200 copies in its lifetime. And for POD books the largest portion of those sales are to the writer of the book, who then takes it out to readings and conferences and tries to hawk it to the public. Lots of those books end up sitting in a box in some closet. That means that the average book produces, over many years, a few hundred dollars. The phrase “starving writer” would be an understatement if most writers had to live on the income from their writing. They wouldn’t be starving; they’d be dead from starvation. Maybe you’ve heard of places in the third world where people live on a dollar a day? Most writers don’t earn that much.

If money is your goal in life, buy a lottery ticket. Become a doctor, stock broker or a CPA. Rob a bank. Start a Ponzi scheme. But don’t expect big bucks from your writing.

Am I saying that writers should just give up and quit because the odds of  earning any real money are almost hopeless? Definitely not. Thankfully, there are other rewards that have nothing to do with money. Excuse me for a moment while I transition from cynic to hopeless Polyanna.

Recently a really fine local poet named Miller Williams left this world. Though he achieved about as much as a modern poet could– awards, publication, and the respect of other artists –I don’t think he was wealthy in terms of dollars. An excellent article on his life that was just published quoted him as saying that he would be fulfilled by the prospect that someone might read one of his poems a thousand years from now and be moved by it.

So maybe a better goal for a writer is a form of immortality. Most people are forgotten just decades after their death. But writers, along with other creative types, leave something behind that enriches humanity while memorializing the creator. That’s the kind of thing money can’t buy.

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