Writers and money have been on the internet this week, notably in an essay by a young woman writer, Merritt Tierce, who published a novel to high acclaim. In the article, she described her despair at being unable to make money as a writer. Plaintively she wrote, “I would, right now, sign in blood a contract that would pay me $40,000 a year for the rest of my life. No advances. No royalties. No freelance checks, no honoraria, no prize money, no film or TV options. At this stage in my vocational life, $40,000 is probably well below my earning capacity.”
The essay irritated me, became a pebble in my shoe. I wanted to just walk away, forget about it, but every time I took a step, there it was, gouging my instep. So why the irritation? I wasn’t sure. I mean, I actually agree with her: it’s damned hard to make an actual living as a writer, even when you’re doing well. Even when you’re award- winning and/or critically acclaimed or get a lot of rights abroad and a bunch of translations or movie deals. The money comes in giant chunks at unreliable intervals at vast distances from each other, or it comes in drips and drabs or not at all.
I get it. The money part of a writing life is not the easy part.
And yet, that pebble in my shoe would not shake out. I poked around the internet to see what I could read about writing and money. I found another essay written by another young woman, Emily Gould, who made a big money deal for her first book, which then failed (8000 copies on a $200,000 advance) and couldn’t sell another. That’s enough money, and a big enough failure, that it really does cause problems for a writer—trouble that will be difficult to overcome.
In contrast, Tierce sold 12000 copies of a hardcover book and was paid a rather modest advance of somewhere between $50-99,000 according to Publishers Marketplace. No way she’d earn out the advance on those numbers, and probably her publisher considers that a failure, too, but they are not as challenging as Gould’s.
Both women talked about selling one book and then struggling to make a go of a career. But Gould’s essay didn’t irritate me in the slightest. She was panicked and poor and doing writing conferences on a shoestring, shamed into buying an admirer’s coffee even though she barely had any cash of her own. Any writer without some other means of support has probably been there. I know I have, many times. But instead of howling about the circumstances, she dove back into the work, trying to write something else, find her voice, live somewhere cheaper than Brooklyn.
Then she zeroes in on this:
“Or maybe the problem—well, a problem—was that I felt entitled to several different lives. In one of these lives, my book has made me famous as a pundit and wit, the kind of person who’s constantly consulted on everything from what feminists should be enraged about to what jeans to buy. This person writes a great book every few years and travels and whips up impressionistic little essays for classy magazines when she feels like it, not because she has to. She’s single, or maybe she has a glamorous artist boyfriend. She is beautiful, but not professionally beautiful—beautiful like a French person. Like Charlotte Gainsbourg.
In another of these lives, my writing has given me the wherewithal to live within a bourgeois coziness I’ve fantasized about for years (my feminist, socialist education making me feel guilty all the while). In this fantasy I’m married to my true love Keith, we own a brownstone and my books pay the mortgage, we have children, and I write novels while they’re at school and cook delicious meals every night and the importance of the world’s approval recedes into insignificance because I have the much more solid and gratifying love of my family. But I still have it—the approval. Of course. Like Jennifer Egan (though I don’t know if she cooks). Like Laurie Colwin, but not dead.” [Read more…]