A Hard Way to Earn a Living

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Writing is a hard way to earn a living.

Don’t get me wrong.  It’s a privileged one, too.  More than thirty years ago I left a marriage of 28 years and began cobbling together a living from writing, teaching and lecturing.  I don’t know how I would have survived—emotionally as well as financially—if that cobbling hadn’t worked.  And I never forget how fortunate I am that it has.

I suspect, though, given the way I see publishing evolving, fewer and fewer writers are going to be able to do what I and many of my contemporaries have done.

That’s because of a number of factors.  The Authors Guild tells us, again and again, that electronic publishing—and the piracy that seems, inevitably, to accompany it—threatens writers’ livelihoods in profound ways.  (As it has long since gobbled up the livelihood of most professional musicians.)

Writers’ income across the board is down by well more than thirty percent.  Long-term writers, those of us accustomed to supporting ourselves with this good work, are down more than anyone.

But there is another factor, at least in the field of children’s and young-adult publishing.  I once ran the statistics about how many children’s books were being published in 1976, when I entered the field, and how many were being published in 2016, forty years later.  Removing young adult books from the mix since those didn’t exist in their present form forty years ago and not counting self-published books or considering publishers’ enormous backlists, six and a half times more books were being published in 2016 than when I entered the field.

It’s hard for us writers to complain about overpublishing.  Would we prefer not to be published at all rather than to have too much competition?

Not much of a choice.

At the same time, the budgets for public and school libraries, the institutional market that in 1976 accounted for 80% of juvenile book purchases, are growing smaller every year.  And the institutional budgets that remain must, of necessity, be divided between paper books and technology of all sorts.  In the last statistics I heard, institutional purchases account for only 20% of juvenile books sold.

I see truly fine books come out, again and again, get lovely reviews, and disappear, because they don’t garner enough attention to survive in that crowded market.

Children’s and young-adult writers, in all the years I’ve been in the field, have been blessed.  We have more opportunities to supplement our income through speaking in schools and at conferences than other writers.  In fact, I know many children’s writers who earn far more traveling and speaking than from royalties.  (Our version of the musicians’ dilemma that keeps them on the road giving concerts instead of staying home creating new music and selling recordings.)

For my part, I have loved what I have received from talking to children in schools, from encountering teachers in large gatherings, but I have run out of energy for such encounters.  Entirely.

So . . . where are we children’s book writers headed?

I think we’re headed for a place where fewer and fewer will be able to devote their lives, fulltime, to creating.  Especially in a world where it’s the unusual family that can live on one income, more writers of all stripes will be doing other work, fulltime, and doing their writing “on the side.”

Is “on the side” good enough for our literary heritage?  It will have to be.  Neither writers nor readers are going to have a choice.

But in these final days of my career, I get up in the morning and settle into whatever writing project is waiting for me with the deepest gratitude.  What a privileged way it has been to spend a life, this spinning out of words and ideas all day long!

What an uncertain, fraught, privileged life it has been!

12 thoughts on “A Hard Way to Earn a Living

  1. sarahsbookreflections

    Interesting post, Marion. I didn’t start writing for publication until I was in my 70s and am lucky enough to have a husband who earned lots of money in his career and supports my efforts. But the stories keep coming and I feel I need to write them. My brother Richard Maury is considered to be one of the worlds best realist painters, but it has always been a struggle to support his family. And our younger son feels he has no other choice than to be a jazz musician. Artists have to feel they have no choice in the matter. Thanks for writing such thought provoking comments.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      Thank you, Sarah. When my daughter considered a career as a singer I found myself saying, “Music is a great hobby!” Any of the arts are a hard way to earn a living, but what a privilege to be part of any of them, paid or not.

      Reply
  2. Uma Krishnaswami

    “…uncertain, fraught, privileged…” indeed. Like you, I wouldn’t trade this work and this life for any other but I do sometimes wonder if it was a matter of being in a certain demographic, back when I began writing in the last century.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      You are absolutely right, Uma. It was a matter of “being in a certain demographic.” While we never had much money–my former husband is a clergyman–he was able to provide financial support for our family, leaving me free to explore a career that didn’t pay or, when I began to publish, paid very little. Without that I would never be where I am today. For the first fifteen years of my career–closer to twenty counting the years before I was published–I had the freedom to work without having to bring in the income that would put food on the table and pay the mortgage. That was the most profound blessing. Most families today need two full-time earners to survive, which doesn’t give either partner the freedom I once had.

      That’s another whole blog, isn’t it?

      Reply
  3. Anna Marie Black

    “final days of your career”? I doubt it, Marion! As one who works in a district public library (20+ years), please know I see many of your varied title in our collection. (My duties do not include book selection and ordering.) As an MFA in Writing grad, I also know that there’s no way I could earn a living by writing or publishing, especially with the new tax laws. Your clarion call is important to all us wordsmiths, though, and the love of story is what must sustain us. And grace.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      Good to hear from you, Anna Marie. You’re absolutely right about being sustained by the love of story. Publication is great. Earning a living through publishing is fantastic. But the bottom, bottom line is the joy I get, every day, out of story, out of simply setting words down, one after another.

      Reply
  4. MIM

    Wonderful post. I’ve been thinking about this very topic, so thank you for your words born of experience.

    I know several professional writers of science fiction, many award-winning and well respected in their genre, and none of them have ever been able to write full time. Most have full time careers well outside of writing, ranging from I.T., accountancy, and insurance companies.

    I earn my crust by working for minimum wage at a bookstore. I’ve always known that, should I be fortunate enough to publish children’s middle-grade novels, I would never be able to support myself solely on that income. (I did illustrate a picture book for a six-figure advance, and was delighted, until I discovered how much of that went to taxes — which I’m happy to pay — and to rent. No trip to Hawaii for me!)

    As I prepare to submit a middle-grade novel next year, I’m not sanguine about my chances, even if I should have what’s considered a marketable manuscript. As much as I still hope to someday live my childhood fantasy of walking into a bookstore and seeing my novel on the shelf, I write for love, not money (recognition would be nice, but I was a public radio Commentator for several years, and the upside of recognition has its limits).

    I just turned 59, with a few health issues, and the prospect of spending years and years trying to get an agent and a publisher doesn’t sit well with me; I’d love people to know my characters before I croak. So I may well abandon all dreams of “legit” publication and simply post my novel on Archive of Our Own, for free, for anyone who wishes tor read it.

    Bless writers like yourself who are able to earn a living by the sweat of your brow and the clack of your keys! But alas, I agree, that very few of us now and in the future will have that chance. As long as we can survive by other means, then, for myself at least, I’m grateful for the ability to write and present my creation to the world, even if it doesn’t end up on a Barnes & Noble shelf.

    Reply
    1. Marion Dane Bauer

      There are so many out there like you who have worked at the writing for a long time and haven’t yet seen their words in print. Don’t despair of finding an agent/publisher, though. These days the agent almost always has to come first. You can often get access to an agent through a writers’ conference. Or you can get names from published writers you know. Or just go onto the internet to find them. Know, though, that self publishing is honorable and no longer horrendously expensive. It’s just that being alone marketing your book afterward is really, really hard.

      Reply
      1. MIM

        Marion, thank you for your kind reply. I’ll definitely seek out an agent (I had one, but unfortunately she no longer reps children’s books). Like many working-poor writers conferences and MFAs are unaffordable. I’ve had more than a few arguments with well-meaning writers/instructors who can’t accept that there is a huge economic gap when it comes to those. Some of us can barely meet the rent each month, let alone $450 for a conference.

        As a bookseller, I turn away a lot of self-published authors. That’s a route I’ll never take. But Archive Of Our Own is a wonderful place, free to writers and readers, so that’s where my book will go if I don’t find a publisher for it.

        Thank you again.

        Reply
        1. Marion Dane Bauer

          I do understand how expensive conferences are. As one of the folks behind LoonSong, I wish with all my heart that they didn’t have to be. But there are other routes and they are worth pursuing. I wish you well in your journey.

          Reply

Leave a comment.