Friday, January 23, 2009

Writing for a Living: Is It Possible? Does It Have to Be?

The Editors' Note in the recent issue of Narrative speaks to many issues I've blogged about here like the bookstore model of book selling and how online publications can make enough to pay their writers. Now I'm going to throw out a totally radical idea. Is it such a bad thing if most writers can't make a living at what they do?

It's the dream of everyone who puts pen to paper or, today, finger to keyboard, to someday quit the day job and write full-time. It amazes me how many still believe that getting that first novel published will set them on the road to writing for a living if not make them wealthy. Sadly, that is not the case. Yes there are the J.K. Rowlings and the Dan Browns, but every day they become more of an exception. Because publishers put little or nothing into sales and publicity for most of the books they publish, it can be tough to break even, and, for many, writing has become an expensive hobby where they spend more to publicize their books than they make in royalties.

That goes ten times over for those who write mostly short stories and poetry, because hardly any magazines pay beyond a token anymore and those that do lean toward the tried and true. And as more publishing moves online or to reading devices where the costs of production are less, the income is less as well, so pay will become even more meager.

Among writers there is a feeling of something having been lost when they can't sit down and spend most of each day writing, but I've begun to wonder whether writers having other jobs is necessarily such a bad thing. In some ways I think those flat New Yorker stories I criticize so often are the result of writers living cloistered lives. They spend so much time writing or in the company of other writers that they lose touch with what the rest of the world is doing and what they want to read about. They may try to write about Rosey the Waitress or Joey the Factory Worker, but Rosey and Joey come off a lot like Annie the Writer in a different setting.

Most of the writing submitted to online publications is by people who simply can't afford to write full-time and/or don't move in circles where they associate mostly with other writers or would-be writers. This, I think, adds a spark to the writing, a certain experimentation and often a depth of feeling that has been missing from much of the literary writing of the past couple of decades.

There is a problem with this model, though, when it comes to novels. As noted above, those who don't have the time to promote their novels won't be as widely read and while making little or no profit off writing might be acceptable, going into the red for promotion might lead to only well-to-do individuals being able to write and sell their novels. That would be sad.

On the other hand, if the model of book selling became exclusively POD or reading devices, while the profits would be less, promotion costs could be less as well. There are plenty of ways to promote books online like virtual tours, podcasts, websites, and blogs that are far less expensive than the old traditional book tours and signings, not to mention less time consuming.

The truth is people who really want to write will probably do it whether they make money at it or not, and just because writing is a "hobby", by that I mean something that one enjoys doing but from which they make little or no income, doesn't mean that writing has to be amateur in quality.

We may be well past the time when writers can make a living at what they do, but I'm not so sure that's a bad thing. What do you think?

1 comment:

Kathryn Magendie said...

It's true -most people don't realize writers are not rolling in dough after they publish. I was helping out a friend at his business right before I found Bellebooks (who will be published tender graces under bellebridge books), when I told someone about it, they said, "Now you can quit your job..." well, yeah, I was going to quit, but only because I'd never planned on staying there anyway; I was just there temporarily to help my friend until he found staff.

But, I thought about that - about how that person, and others like her, thought that I'd now be "set"....when in reality I have NO idea what kind of money I will make or if I'll break even or what. And I do it anyway -for love and other reasons.

For me, having to do self-promotion and marketing and the like isn't an issue of money as much as of time - time to write, that is. Not that I don't need money - I do....but, all the networking and et cetera takes me from the writing, for now.


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