Sunday, October 25, 2009

Will you write even if you’re poorly paid?

by Mike Knowles

James Ellroy posed this question in a recent online interview. Watch it: here. He mused that maybe the current publishing scene is survival of the fittest. Most of those who write in these times are having to do so even though they are underpaid. They are writing because they love to do it, not because it makes them money. This dedication, he says, gives people a leg up on those who are just out for the dollar bill.

Listening to a dude spout off about how he writes for the love of the act and not for the money is always kind of interesting. Everyone loves a badass who does what he wants to do regardless of what anyone thinks, but the words never seem to have as much meaning when the person who says it isn’t really living the struggle.

Ellroy says he’ll write no matter what he gets paid. Good for him, but I don’t think his world will change if he takes a paycut. He is no stranger to being a bestseller. The guy has written around a dozen books and four of those books have been adapted to film. That kind of track record means he’ll make money if he fingerpaints his next book.

That being said, his heart is in the right place. Most of us writer’s, especially crime writers, don’t make the big bucks. Ellroy said he “got” (which I think means made) thirty-five hundred bucks for his first novel. That doesn't sound like much when you think of James Ellroy, but that was in 81. I used the internet and came up with this stat:

In 2007, $1.00 from 1980 is worth:

$2.52 using the Consumer Price Index

That means Ellroy’s first book would have made him something like $ 8, 820 by today's standards.

Up yours, Ellroy, I made $1500. Back in 81 that would have been something like $595.

Even though it kind of annoys me to hear him whine about how tough it was that he made two grand more than me on his first novel almost thirty years ago in a time when Snickers cost thirty-five cents, I do have to admit I agree with him. Publishing is survival of the fittest and those who write for money are the first to go.

If you’re reading this blog and thinking about picking up a pen to make some money in your spare time let me tell you what’s what about writing.

I have written two books that have been published. To date I have made $2, 500. I have another book that will be edited this year, and two with my agent. That is a total of five books. Let’s say for the sake of argument I starting writing novels in October 2006. I spend on average two hours a day working on books seven days a week. That is 14 hours a week 52 weeks a year. That works out to 728 hours. Multiply that by 3 years and you get 2 184 hours. Now if you match that against the money I have made, it works out to about $1.15 per hour.

I pull in a big two bucks everyday for what I do, and payday is annually so there’s no splurging for a cup of tea with my big weeks earnings. Writing is about one thing. Love and dedication. I can’t speak for everybody, but I figure we all feel like we have something to say, and we’re not to bad about saying it on paper. We love creating something out of nothing and seeing it turn into something tangible. But nothing is overnight, everything takes time. Time to think, time to write, and time to re-write. Nothing about writing is cost effective.

When I really think about it writing seems less like a job and more like a way for people to punish themselves without having to put on little leather outfits and dog collars.

Whatever reason I write, I don’t do it for money. I do it because I love it. I’m sure James Ellroy, up in his mansion, feels the same way.


Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

Fuck. Getting poorly paid would be a step up for me. My agent keeps reminding me that advances are way down. No, I can't quit. Been doing this too long to give up over a few pennies (or lack of).

Chris said...

I've made a little here and there writing articles for the local indie paper, and would like to branch that out a little; still haven't made a dime with fiction. Still, the $1500 or so I've managed to scrape up over the last couple years still exceeds what I've made over 20+ years of playing friggin' rock n' roll in dumpy bars, so I consider it an improvement!

Unknown said...

After nearly two years of submitting and publishing stories, I've made a grand total of $135.(I do get free books here and there for writing reviews, so I guess we can add those into the grand total.)But I knew what I was getting into the minute I started writing crime fiction: The pay sucks, the hours are long, the respect level is nonexistent.

My attitude: Who gives a fuck

Dana King said...

$75 total, in several years of submissions. I still write. I can't say I'm one of those who cant live without writing; my family, reading, hockey and baseball fill my time quite nicely, thank you. I like writing, it's never boring, and it keeps me off the streets at night.

Mostly, I'm stubborn.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Maybe about $1000 over "ten" years and half of that from winning a contest early on. What we did for love, clearly.

Cavalieresq said...

You made $1500 for DARWIN'S NIGHTMARE? That's a fuckin crime. Given your total earning, it doesn't sound like you made a killing on THE GRINDER either.

At the same time, I hear that Decaln Burke can't even get CRIME ALWAYS PAYS published.

I've read all three of these books, and in my opinion, they're all outstanding.

So my question is this - unless you're James Patterson, Dan Brown, or write books for socially challenged teen (i.e. an author catering to the lowest common denominator), how in the hell are you supposed to make a living at this?

John McFetridge said...

People only get rich if they set out to get rich in the finance industry. Otherwise, money is always a side effect.

Mike Tyson loved to beat people up - the money was side effect. Hendrix loved to play the guitar. And so on.

I wrote for many, many years before I started making any money at all and I'm still shocked I get anything for what I write.

Sometimes I think maybe if I created a flawed-but-brilliant detective who didn't get along with the other cops but could catch child murderers I'd make more money.

But it's just not me.

I'm very happy to hear you have more books ready, Mike, I'm looking forward to them.

Edith Sitwell said...

At the moment, I would love to see my book in print, but tomorrow when the bills are not paid and I'm stand up in all I own then I may feel a little different.

Happy writing to you all

Great blog

Mike Knowles said...

So Cavaliersq was the guy who bought my book. Thanks for the kind words.

I call dibs on McFetridges flawed detective idea.

It's great to hear from so many other people who are trying to pay the bills while they work a second job writing for the love of it.

I've been thinking about this topic for a few days and I think all the struggle makes the work honest and real and that is what will make it great. It's like a guy who builds a log cabin with his own two hands. Everything will wind up perfect as opposed to a developer who usually builds thousands of homes full of defects. The personal time and effort mean everything.