And on the bright side…

Writers are indeed a lucky bunch.  We do what we love, and we get paid for it. 

Although the topics of my most recent blogposts have focused on the down-side of the business, I’m well aware that I’m fortunate to be living my dreams.  Still, this is a writer’s blog, and where else are you going to see those problems addressed?  If I were only to give you the sweetness-and-light aspects of being a writer, this blog would become boring in a hurry.  All I’m trying to get across is that all writers suffer from the same anxieties.  That no writer is immune to the demons of self-doubt, no matter where they are in their careers. 

Yes, I have the greatest job in the world.  But it wasn’t always this way.  And here’s where I take issue with people who say that writers have no right to whine because they don’t have the same concerns of other working stiffs. 

When you’re just starting out as a writer, you’re working completely on spec.  You’re pouring long hours and your genius into a manuscript that may never sell.  You’re working for nothing, plus you’re probably holding down a regular job at the same time.  Any other worker can at least expect to get paid for his labors, but for a new writer, nothing is assured.  He may have to write two, three, even ten unpublished manuscripts before he gets “the call.”

Then let’s suppose — oh joy! — he finally sells his manuscript.  What’s the pay-off?  If he signs an average first-time paperback original deal, he’ll probably get an advance of under $10,000.  (And many first-time deals are far less, more like $5,000)  He’ll probably get half of that advance when he signs the contract, and the other half when the book gets published.  Now, I don’t know how quickly other writers work, but it takes me about ten months of full-time writing and revising to produce a 400-page manuscript.  How many of you would work ten months for a starting salary of $10,000?  With no health benefits and no retirement plan, plus having to pay self-employment taxes?  (And remember — you also have to pay 15% of that ten grand to your literary agent.)  How many of you would devote years to doing spec work, with no assurance that you’ll ever get paid for it? 

If the writer’s blessed, and that book sells well, and he manages to write other books that also sell well, he’ll go on to earn more with each successive contract.  And while it’s natural to envy his eventual success, you must also factor in the years of unpaid labor that he devoted to his craft.  He had to pay his dues.  He may have spent years barely making a living with his writing, so when success finally comes to him ten years down the line, it’s not as if he suddenly woke up one day and won the lottery.  Very few writers hit the big-time.  Even writers who work hard and write great books. There’s an unpredictability about this business that confounds even the most brilliant publishing professionals and drives all the rest of us insane.

So I count my lucky stars that, after twenty books and twenty years, I’ve reached this point in my career.   But it required taking a lot of risks, a lot of unpaid years of work, and a lot of sleepless nights. 


And here’s an interesting item I found in Nicholas Kristof’s column in today’s New York Times:

“In one common experiment, the ‘Goldberg paradigm,’ people are asked to evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man.  Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman.  Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are rated higher coming from a man.”

Rather depressing, isn’t it?



13 replies
  1. Dan Williams
    Dan Williams says:

    Of course, you are right, and I was just kidding about the whining. The work is often out of all proportion to the financial returns, while the act of writing is out of all proportion more energizing and joyful than all other professions and pursuits, provided the writer works at a reasonable pace and knows the craft (and isn’t just banging their head against the keyboard trying to force it day after day.)

    But are you sure about the results of “the Goldberg paradigm”? Because, with me, it depends on the subject. Sometimes my mother knows best, sometimes my father. Sometimes it’s neither, sometimes I’ve got more experience and deeper insight. It’s the quality and depth of the insight that reasonates with me. Some of your blogs have been really so right on, but others don’t match my own experience. The fact that you are woman really, really doesn’t come into it. If the insight is intelligent, that’s what matters, not the gender of the speaker.

    Anyway, for sure, writers are special persons full of talent and always interesting.

  2. BernardL
    BernardL says:

    Writers have as much right to whine as anyone, and you’ve detailed the drawbacks in the profession very well, Tess. I greatly appreciate your insights into the profession. I would point out most everyday workers struggled through long apprenticeships for next to nothing until they broke into their craft. This is in addition to supplemental education required with no pay. Is it actually possible to pursue a writing career in this day and age without a day job until the writer sells something profitable?

  3. mysteryfan
    mysteryfan says:

    I don’t mind if authors complain. Everyone has a right to complain. If people think authors have it great, they should try writing a book of their own. But I am concerned about PLBW.

  4. tuttle
    tuttle says:

    On the other hand….most ‘regular’ people who have ‘normal day jobs’ where they GET a ‘regular weekly paycheck’, at times feel like they too, are underpaid.

    You factor in gas, car maintenance, children, eating regularly, some form of weekly entertainment (from the Playstation to a night out at the movies) etc….

    and of course taxes….

    On the bright side–Writers do seem to have more fun at their job and when you mention you are a writer you can see people’s faces light up and they move closer- eager to hear more from you. So there is a (still) bit of glamour and envy attached to being a writer.

    I (finally) have 2 little stories online and my friends continue to encourage me to continue even though I have told them that that first book sale would mean a paltry few thousadn bucks and yet MORE waiting for
    at least another year while I wait for it to see print. And through all of that year of counting down the days to publication…I would still have to work, eat, put gas in the car and pray I don’t get seriously sick or injured because health care in Ohio (as with many lovely states in this ‘great’ country of ours…) at times doesn’t seem worth the trouble.

    If anything, my daily scribblings give me an escape from the daily grind of my day job whereas all my friends who do not have the same outlet have to go through the same days without.

  5. knaster
    knaster says:

    Hi Tess,

    I may only have a menia job where I work long hours for little pay, plus having a wife and 2 kids, but I alway envy the author. They also struggle and hope to be published, and they sometimes work 24/7 and only manage a few pages of script. Don’t get me wron. I’m not comparing here. By no means. Authors have every right to complain. I have pity on them because some of them want to give up because when writer’s block sets in, they feel compelled to throw in the towel. If that was so, we wouldn’t have suck notable writers as Tess, Jon Grisham, Nora Robers, Steven King, Sue Grafton, or even William Shakespeare.
    I hope the publishing companies out there have a little compassion for these hard working, underpaid, no-sleep, caffein drinkinkin, pencil chewing authors who only have a certain amount of word in them. Back off a little bit. You’ll get your money.
    Tess, more power to you. Go on…kick ass!

  6. knaster
    knaster says:

    this is why we should proofread. I meant to say “such” instead of “suck” above. My apologies.

  7. lwidmer
    lwidmer says:

    AMEN. I’m sick to death of people assuming I have time to sit at Starbucks and discuss writing and writers. No, that’s where the hobbyists go. I’m too busy putting in long days to make the income goals for the month.

    I’ve heard too many people say that writers are lucky to make their own hours. Uh, no. Writers are lucky if they CAN make their own hours. I work 9-to-5 as a rule, but that’s my client hours. Beyond that, I’m still here, typing, researching and busting my tail. I love this job. And I’ve more than earned the right to whine about it!

  8. ec
    ec says:

    I’ve heard too many people say that writers are lucky to make their own hours.

    But it’s true. Writers can work any 60-80 hours we like.

  9. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    LOL, thanks for this Tess, it stuff that Ive mentioned in previous post in previous blogs. The other thing that youve forgotten to mention is that getting the book published isnt the end of the process, the writer also has to act as a marketing team to push thier title as well.

    Why? Well publishers have a finite budget a year. (Well DUH!!! I hear a number of you say.) But lets sit down and face the truth, as a first time writer (in the UK a first book author in the fantasy genre generally gets £3,000 up front which is paid back out of sales) has to face up to the realism that if there publisher also prints Stephen King then the serious funds are going to get spent on him. What will they get? If lucky maybe some posters. Thats it.

    Wheres that big push to get you known? Well thats back with the Generals who are waiting to see what the other “enemy” houses are launching thier way before commitment. So as the author, that £3k up front is starting to look smaller. If youre lucky and that first novel is released in the first 12 months (and not involved in some in house politics that delays it even more) then as well as working on your next one, you have to go out and sell, sell, sell. Youre your own team of consultant marketeers. Some authors revel in this and come up with some great schemes to get spotted. Others just leave it. Guess who gets the most sales.

    The point is you have to know your demographics. For example, if its a kids book, contact your local schools and see if they have a book fair. If so, ask if you can go and have a spot to sell your book. Ask if they want an author to talk about writing either to thier English class or in a general assembly. This will generate interest. Youve got to sell your soul baby, and yep, that Faustian Contract is looking damn handy about now. Hell lets face the facts, you never really liked your firstborn anyway so what the hay youve signed them into the pact as a sweetner.

    Other things that you have to do is contact local media, your newspaper, your free newspaper (you’d be surprised at how many look at this type of thing), your local radio to see if they have a locals of interest feature, and then you have Satans mightiest tool, the Internet, you have to get some webspace, make it interesting, fun and full of stuff all about you, your book and future products, you have to make it look so sweet Willy Wonka is the equivalent Brussel Sprouts.

    So youve sat down, written the book, worked on a marketing strategy and implemented it and hey, as opposed to a 12 month pay off, youre now near enough 24 months in and still only just getting paid for that initial £3k. Think its worth it?

    Its a hard time but very rewarding spiritually, some writers are just lucky tht they manage to be in the right place (or Write Place, lol) at the right time.

  10. Susan Kelley
    Susan Kelley says:

    The hours!! And for those of us working a full time job while we start our career, it’s like having two jobs. I love my day job, but I’d rather write full time. With four children, two in college, I can’t make that financial move. I do envy those that write full time, and I have a four year plan to join them. I know many of my friends who gave up their day job to write full time are working with tight budgets even though they have numerous published books. It’s a tough business for strong people. And even though I’m a woman, I hope you all find some quality in my words

  11. drosdelnoch
    drosdelnoch says:

    What a strange expression Susan:
    “And even though I’m a woman, I hope you all find some quality in my words.”

    Was Elizabeth 1st just a woman? Was Marie Curie just a woman? Theres no such thing as just a (insert word of choice.) Everyone has opinions on all things and the fact that youre trying to live that dream is the key. You write because you have the passion and love to play with words, they haunt, tempt and dare I even say it, caress you whilst you sleep. Many’s the night Ive woken to a mini speech for part of a book going around in my head.

    Never look down at yourself (thats the critics jobs, lol and yes Im joking), flap those wings, learn the joy of the skies and have fun thats all any of us can ask for, the fact that you have a plan of action also speaks volumes. Viva La Revolution.

  12. Roberto Nogueira
    Roberto Nogueira says:

    In my first personal e-mail to TG, because I’ve read her many previous posts about ‘deadlines’ and ‘pressure’ for the deliver of the book, I told her that she should have more respect from her editors and be able to write in peace.
    Being a reader and an admirer of her work, I would not ‘replace’ her for another writer – she is one (and a very good one) of many authors that I keep track of, so I can wait for her next little ‘piece of art’.
    But I’m not North-American, so I cant say for sure, but I think the issue here is really the American-way-of-life.
    I think – and I dont mean to be offensive, only state a thought that I have – America is for the money rather than the human being. “Produce or drop dead”, could be the American moto.

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