I have been writing all my life in some form or another, but I didn’t become a fully professional writer, meaning someone who gets paid to do it, until the beginning of 2017. I was unemployed, living at home with my parents, and looking for ways to fund the Master’s degree I had applied for, mostly as a means to get out of the house and be a real adult. I worked for a pretty big site that paid pennies, penning one or two pieces a week for money that barely would have covered my bus fares, but it was still an utter thrill. The strange sensation of legitimacy that accompanied this paltry paycheque fueled me more than I could have possibly imagined. What I did not expect, however, were people’s responses to my newfound career, especially as it expanded into a full-time occupation that I could wholly support myself with. Total strangers, upon hearing what I did for a living, would demand to know how much money I made, or they would talk with curious grandeur about how wealthy I must be. Even a few members of my own family seemed to be under the impression that I was pulling in the kind of big bucks that would set me up for life. Others would ask if I planned to write a book and assured me that they would help me spend my millions once I signed the contracts. To this day, my family still joke (sort-of) that I can make my fortune through penning The Great British Novel.
I am something of a rarity in my field: I am a full-time freelance writer who lives comfortably off my earnings and is able to have a nest-egg for emergencies. I don’t live lavishly but I’m not obsessively frugal either. I’m extremely fortunate to be doing this with a small degree of security, something that seems dishearteningly out of reach for many colleagues and friends. I’m not rich, and few writers are, so why the hell do I have to keep convincing people that I’m not pulling in Stephen King levels of cash?
Culturally speaking, we are curiously wed to the idea that art is either a wondrous calling free of the constraints of capitalism or the kind of path to easy street that guarantees a seven-figure bank account. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve seen on social media claim that one day they’ll pack in their day job, spend all day writing, and they’ll somehow make more money than they ever had before. This conundrum is especially potent for authors, who must contend with the Catch-22 assumptions that they are either all making the kind of money that J.K. Rowling has or that they should never even deign to ask for financial compensation because the work itself is reward enough. I’ve experienced this too and all I do is write about sexy monsters and Meghan Markle all day. Too many people hear the phrase ‘I’m a writer’ and assume the best/worst.
Ultimately, it’s a harmful assumption, one that negatively impacts the work and the workers themselves (because, yes, this is work.) This week, a group called The Knowledge Foundation sent out an infographic that made a lot of writers laugh and cry in equal measure. They bragged that authors like Rowling were earning millions per word and insinuated that this was the norm across the field. It’s a hell of a lot easier to sell the lie to people of a world of endlessly rich authors rather than the smothering reality of poverty and societal scorn.
I get sent a lot of junk, but this by The Knowledge Foundation enraged me. Once more it implies authors are rich. That's a lie. The scandal is the poverty rates *most* working writers earn for their work. @ALCS_UK @Soc_of_Authors #publishing #PublishingPaidMe pic.twitter.com/qITAz6q2Ws— Danuta Kean #BlackLivesMatter (@Danoosha) September 8, 2020
In the U.K. the average full-time author is earning around £10,000 a year for their work. That’s well below the minimum wage, and many of your favorite writers are in that pay bracket. They may have tons of books out, some that have sold well or even been optioned for film and TV, but that doesn’t mean they’re swimming in cash. Most literary advances are about four or five figures, which is split into three parts: one part on signing the contract, another upon release of the hardback; and the final part upon release of the paperback edition. Royalties, which seldom go above 15 or 13% the sale price of a book, are only paid out once that advance has been paid back in full. That can take years. When royalties eventually do come in, those numbers can often be shockingly small.
The work of writers in all fields is consistently devalued. Many sites will pay pennies or insist that exposure is the greatest reward of all, and many will take the bait because what else is there to do? When cuts are made in journalism, it’s arts coverage that often gets the boot first because it’s deemed a frivolity that we can all do without. I’ve given up counting how many fights I’ve gotten into with people over their use of AdBlock and grown weary with how proudly unconcerned so many seem with the ways this will impact the writers they claim to love. Many friends who are authors have been deemed snobby or uncaring towards lower-income fans because they took a stand against pirating.
And then there are simply those who think that what you do isn’t work. Oh, I could do that. Why are you so greedy? Try getting a real job. Learn to code. You should be thankful you even get to write at all. Clearly, you’re lying about your wages because I know a guy who knew someone who got $5 a word for his film reviews. It’s a strange and exhausting bind to be in. I’m either a secret multi-millionaire who gets paid thousands of dollars for 1200 words on the new Batman movie or I’m typing out screeds from my family’s non-existent basement.
I’ve long grown bored of justifying my own job to people who think that work isn’t work unless it meets their hyper-specific and deeply out-of-date specifications. Now, on top of that, I must contend with the Wealthy Writer lie. It seems that nobody wants to acknowledge the terrible ways that we devalue the written word because doing so would open a squirming can of worms that few want to understand. These issues are not unique to writers but the ways that arts are undermined and reduced to either hobbies or the denizens of the independently wealthy and connected is something that impacts us all, whether we want to admit it or not. The Wealthy Writer myth is an embarrassing trap to be caught in, one that makes it harder for those in need to ask for help. It makes it easier for others to diminish their work, both creatively and financially, which further exacerbates already-toxic tensions in the field.
So, please, I beseech you: If there is a writer out there who you love, please support them. Buy their books or turn off your AdBlock to read their work. Maybe donate to their Ko-Fi page or support them on Patreon. The last thing we want is for writing in all its many glorious forms to become utterly impenetrable to those who aren’t already rich or famous or from the ‘right’ families. We all suffer when that happens.
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