Many people believe that the writer’s life is an enviable one. In some ways it is. In other ways, it is also a bitch. To be able to set your own hours, work at your own pace, answer to no boss but yourself is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing for obvious reasons, but a curse because one must be totally self-motivated. If I linger in bed so that I am not at my desk on time, if I don’t work a reasonable number of hours each day, if I am not stern with myself–any of this and the page on my computer stands like an insurmountable white wall. With dismay, I realize that I will never finish whatever is my goal for that day. Total engagement is required and I am the only one who can create that.
And then there is the problem of money. Everyone needs to earn enough to support him or herself. To be paid for all the work one does seems reasonable enough, but these days income is scarce for many writers. For my last memoir, my advance was far less than the one I received for my very first novel, published back in 1979, nearly forty years ago. Even an established writer, (if he or she is not lucky enough to be Stephen King or J.K. Rowling), often works for free–especially for on-line venues like Salon or Lit-Hub or The Huffington Post, where one writes for the dubious privilege of simply being published. And these are the outlets where one is most likely to find acceptance.
If you are lucky enough to get a contract for a novel or a biography or a memoir with a regular publishing house, no longer do they send you on a book tour wherein they pay for the airfare or hotels, taxis or food, or least likely, an escort to guide you from one venue to another. Once, I had a luxury such as this, but now all those expenses come out of my own pocket.
Lest you think that a writer makes money off royalties, consider that the generally accepted royalty rate is 10% of the wholesale cost of the book. If your hardback (difficult to sell in the days of e-books) is published for $28.00, then the publisher receives $14.00, and you are at the tag end of the equation with $1.40 for each book sold. That figure does not take into account some of the deep discounts booksellers also often receive, which could take the writer’s net down to a figure as low as $.46 per book. E-book royalties work in a different way, but usually you earn far far less, as the e-book publisher is cut in along the way, before the original publisher. You get to pay the piper twice for an e-book.
If you are fortunate enough even to have a book tour where you hawk your wares–usually arranged for on your own–you must sell at least one hundred hardbacks to make $140.00, a figure which doesn’t even begin to cover your city-to-city airfare and other related expenses. Most authors consider it a stroke of good luck to sell fifteen or so books per event, thus netting $21.00.
In any given year, I am “in the red” as far as my writing goes. My income is derived from my consulting work–which I also enjoy tremendously, but which I don’t consider to be my main mission. Why am I being so candid? Because a majority of readers think a writer is easily able to earn a living by merely writing to one’s heart’s content. How inaccurate this is–a mere fantasy that has nothing to do with reality.
But then, of course, there is also the other side of the writing life: the feeling in your gut when you have turned in a good day’s work and the page is filled with words. I get to my desk at nine, take a lunch break at noon, and am back to it an hour later, if I am having a good day. I follow inspiration with my nose, pounding out the story, creating and revising and having a wonderful time of it. The tremendous fulfillment that comes from this process makes the business of publishing fade, at least far enough that I can continue to write, despite the drawbacks.
Maya Angelou wrote a poem called “Caged Bird,” which is not really about my situation as a writer caught between practicality and pleasure–but rather about a topic more historical and political and, in reality, more important. Still, I find its truths speak to me in my hours of insecurity and need regardless of the meaning she undoubtedly intended. I identify with her birds–both the one who is free to ride the currents and the one who is caged but sings regardless of his clipped wings.
Within “the cage” of my privileged writer’s world, I sing too: of the freedom to express myself. I work hard to make this happen, even though there are no guarantees or pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. I am lucky that I have the opportunity to do so, and to recognize that the door to my cage opens occasionally. I can only hope that the song I sing is heard as I ride the currents overhead.