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 Would we prefer not to be published at all rather than to have too much competition?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!