Tag Archives: business of writing

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  Would we prefer not to be published at all rather than to have too much competition?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

SOME Return on the Investment

money treeLast week, I proposed that being published is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of every effort at writing, that most people engage in the other arts without expectation of being paid for whatever they create. And why shouldn’t writing be the same? I also pointed out that a drive to publish may, in fact, divert especially developing writers from their best efforts.

A reader responded this way:

This is a tough one for me, I have to say. Writing and kidlit are my passion. Yes, I would want to be involved with it even if I didn’t want to be published. For me, though, it is my only true option as far as something I can pursue as a vocation … so getting published (though a long shot, especially as a financial resource) is something I don’t just want, it’s something I need. Sure, I love to write … but all the years AND money I’ve spent in the effort to get published simply pushes me further into debt… . I need SOME return on the investment, so, although I do believe it’s the journey that matters, sometimes the goal has to be achieved. … This writing life is definitely not an easy one in this way.

I’m with her, with all of you who would say something similar. And I’m very aware that the argument I make comes too easily from one who is publishing, has been publishing, for many years. But I haven’t forgotten. This writing life is definitely not an easy one. And the difficulty of it is compounded when you are spending much of your time and resources on writing and have not yet published and need to publish to survive financially.

On My HonorMy writing career has been good to me in that way, though it took a long time to develop. I spent the first fifteen years writing full-time before I ever once earned enough to live on in even a modest way. The balance was finally changed only by the serendipity of having On My Honor win a Newbery Honor Award. And I do mean serendipity. There is so much luck involved in any award. There must have been scores of other books out there in 1987 that were equally deserving, but they, for whatever reason, didn’t catch the eye of the committee. I have always watched for the new opportunity, have supplemented my income with part-time teaching and lecturing, and have worked hard and consistently, but still I know that much of my financial success, such as it is, is due to happenstance as much as to my efforts. Not an encouraging message, I’m afraid, but an honest one.

Killing Miss KittyAnd a further admission, with the exception of On My Honor, my books that bring in the most income are often not my best work. They are ones that happen to capture some market niche or to be combined with the right popular artist or to be picked up by mass retailers, all simply luck. Truth be told, sometimes the books I’ve been most passionate about—Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins being the most glaring example—don’t do particularly well in the market. Killing Miss Kitty and Other Sins, in fact, was a colossal failure. When it was emerging it got a lot of buzz, an unusual number of books went out even before the publication date, and when folks got a look at the challenging contents, those books returned to the publisher in a flood.

So … am I saying if you’re hoping to make a career out of writing, to make it your work, it’s time to give up? Not at all. But I am serving warning. I suppose “Don’t give up the day job” is as succinct a way to put it as any.

Yet I will return to the point of my last week’s blog. Despite the vagaries of an unpredictable market, despite the fact that commercial and even cynical sometimes comes out on top, the shortest road to success for most of us remains the road to our own hearts. When we write what we uniquely care about, we offer the world something no one else can give.

And then, whether our work sells well or poorly or not at all, we will have fed our own souls.  And that matters!

P.S. Another reader responded to this topic and sent me this link to a blog which many of you might be interested in.  Here it is:

Marion, I understand this one all too well and just wrote about it for Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo Writing Challenge. I’m sending the link because some of your readers might not know about her blog and will find true support here. — Karen Henry Clark