“What do you get out of it?” Jeffrey asked me one day, a couple of years ago, when we were correcting his verbs in his basement.
By it he meant writing, and by get he meant money. Surfing the net he had learned that J.K. Rowling was the first author to make a billion dollars just from writing books. Links had led him to other authors cashing huge cheques. What fraction of those riches was coming my way, Jeffrey, who is now a Business major at university, wanted to know; and also, since even a thousandth of a billion is a million dollars, why was I still fixing people’s tenses in their basements? It is a perversity that puzzles my students, at least the ones who know that their tutor has published seven books.
In angelic mode at the time, I did not think the question worth answering in detail. (Though I knew that to a bottom-liner like Jeffrey, “not much” is understood as the floorboard covering a secret trove.) Now, at street level again, I think it interesting enough to attempt a response. It will take some digging, but the calculations are not difficult.
In this section and the ones following, the numbers must be round, in some cases estimates, but they will not be far off the mark. It is likely I will overlook some small payments, but the bigger paydays are memorable, so if I round up the figures can be trusted.
I have been writing things and submitting them to magazine editors for the past thirty-two years. For the first ten years it was almost all poems: 1500 or so of them, which I sent out in batches of eight to ten, some poems as many as ten times (after which I retired the poem as unpublishable, no matter what I thought of it). Somewhere in those several-thousand-poem-submissions, about 125 got published. Many of the magazines offered no cash payment, only a contributor’s copy; the majority paid $10, as I recall; some outliers paid $15, $20, or, in a few heady cases, $25. I think, since I did not keep receipts, the middle figure of $10 a poem would be the best approximation.
(Note: I am leaving out expenses. Just as J.K. Rowling’s billion leaves out what she must pay in expenses, not to mention taxes. But the cost in stamps, envelopes, paper and typewriter ribbons needed to produce a thousand-plus ten-poem packages can be readily imagined.)
I turned to writing stories in my mid-thirties. I wrote and submitted several dozen of them, and published 28. Payment ranged from $50 to $245 (though the last required three years of letters, emails and a threat of small claims court to extract—a story for another time), an average being $100.
In recent years I have written the occasional essay or reflection on a suggested topic. Ten pieces in total, paying on average $150.
And I can’t leave out those magazine pieces that paid me twice, by being printed again in anthologies. Ten stories and poems were kissed twice like this, for an additional $1,500.
Total from magazine sales: $7,050.
I have published seven books: two collections each of poems and short stories, two novels, and a memoir. For four of these I was paid an advance. The advances ranged from $600 to $1200 and total $3400. In three cases I did not earn back the advance and so received no further royalties. For one book, the memoir, I received an additional cheque for $1150; I consider it my one true royalty cheque, representing as it does sales beyond the advance.
For two of the books without an advance, I received cheques on sales for, roughly, $430 and $120.
For my first book, a collection of poems, payment was 50 copies, which I sold for a clear profit of $647.50. Round it to $650.
I bought and sold boxes of the other books too—to friends, at readings—perhaps an average of 40 copies of the other six titles, at an average profit of $7 a book (list price minus author’s 40% discount). 40 x 6 x $7 = $1,680.
(Again, there is a shadow world of loss unilluminated by this profit. About 400 books, bought and not sold, sit in boxes filling a closet in this apartment to eye height, though 300 of them were bought at $1 each to save them from being pulped.)
Total of advances, publishers’ sales, private sales: $7,430.
Readings and other performances
Over the years, I have given perhaps 30 public readings, 3-5 per book publication, participated in several literary conferences, and spent one day talking to high school classes about the writing life. Most of the readings were unpaid, though they offered me the chance to sell a few books from my private stash. The literary conferences—four, I think—had Canada Council funding, which allowed the organizers to pay me (and other participants) $250. There was also a hotel room provided, travel expenses, and some free or discounted meals. For my school visit, I was paid $300 from the Ontario Arts Council’s Writers-in-Schools program.
I recollect now that in a few cases there was a small honorarium attached to the reading, so I think I should say $1,500 (6 x $250) for readings.
Related to these, but different, was the series of public talks I gave after my memoir was published. About a dozen talks, in different venues, at intervals over a year and a half, discussing various aspects of living with chronic mental illness. I was happy to prepare and deliver these talks for nothing, and usually did; but some organizations, five as I recall, paid me. $250, in three cases; $100 and $175 in the other two. $1,025, all in.
The totals to this point give my more or less direct returns from selling writing or from reading and discussing it in public: $7,050 + $7,430 + $2,525 = $17,005.
That works out, over 32 years, to about $530 a year.
The reader will understand, at this point, why I sometimes stammer and hedge when asked if I am a professional writer. The question isn’t all about money, no, but surely in part it is. Though we are out of touch now, two old friends of mine, one a duck carver and the other a darts player—both equally dedicated, carving and throwing for long hours after their day jobs—used to phone to tell me of occasional windfalls, a mallard sold at a crafts fair or a prize won in the weekly tournament at the Legion. I told them of my wins, too. We tended to spend these bonuses in similar ways: dinner at a nice restaurant, a bottle of good wine, or the purchase of a silk shirt or another item normally deemed too extravagant. We all took pride in seeing our skills improve and having them recognized on occasion publicly. But Dan and Josie would have laughed if I called them professionals. I don’t laugh, but I sometimes stammer.
Thankfully, though, the numbers so far make up less than half the story. Less than a quarter of the story. Perhaps even less than a fifth.For there have been other streams. Trickles from the great tributary of public arts funding, which, for all its inefficiencies and injustices, is great in terms of the number and variety of arts and artists it fosters, not, as its detractors claim, in terms of its expense to taxpayers. The Canada Council’s 2008 appropriation from parliament was 180 million dollars, increased by 20% from the previous year. That covers programs in dance, theatre, music, literature, visual arts, media, interdisciplinary arts and more, dispensing funds to artists and arts programs in all regions of the country. Canada’s defence budget for the same year was $18.2 billion. I don’t think Arts & Culture has bitten off more than its share of the national cookie if it receives one dollar for every hundred dollars received by the military. To hard-liners who say if you can’t sell don’t publish, I say: Imagine a literature where what appeared on the bestseller lists or on the display tables of big box stores really was all the books published, with the iceberg below that tip dissolved. Would the literary scene be better, more vibrant? Not by my lights it wouldn’t.
In the mid-1980s, after I’d been writing for a few years, I applied for a Canada Council grant, and, to my surprise, got one: $4,500, which, with a resourcefulness that has aged better than the novel I wrote, I lived on for six months of daily writing.
It was not to be that easy again. Thereafter I applied for at least one grant most years. Not, as I should have done, to multiple grants every year, as advocated by a grant goddess I met at a conference. She applied to everything she could, spraying proposals and samples like shotgun blasts, most of them missing, but some, enough, of them finding a target. “All part of the job,” as she saw it. An admirable discipline. But hard to maintain. I tended, and tend, to apply in bursts, then, discouraged by three or four turn-downs in succession, give up for a while. Forgetting, in the process, another of the grantmaster’s maxims: A new jury is a fresh chance.
True. Yet for some reason it rarely feels that way.
Nonetheless, over a quarter century of intermittent applications, I have scored some hits. About ten of the OAC Writers’ Reserve grants (sometimes two or, once, three a year), usually for the minimum of $1,500 but a couple of times for $2,000 and once for $3,000. Having a book in the works helps greatly with these, as the publisher-recommender often keeps them in-house. Total: $17,500.
The first Canada Council grant was for Emerging Writers. Twenty or so years later, I got one for Mid-Career Writers: $20,000. Then, two years after that, a Senior Writer’s grant: $20,000.
Total of grants: $62,000.
There’s more. I won a prize for the best first book of English language stories by a Canadian: $5,000. A few years later, I won a Silver Medal for fiction in the National Magazine awards: $250. ($250 seems to be the accepted figure, the last few years, for small prizes and honoraria; just as, in the 1980s, $10 was for a poem.)
Total for grants and prizes: $67,250.
I thought that was it, but it isn’t quite. A day after reckoning the figures so far, I remembered two of my largest and most consistent sources of writing revenue for the last ten years. They might have slipped my mind because they didn’t exist for the first sixteen years I was writing, and even if they had, I had published no books to benefit from them. One of the virtues of this answer to Jeffrey, which I found hard slogging at the start, is the way it reminds me of what I’ve actually received for writing. It’s more than I thought, which makes me feel luckier. It’s come in dribs and drabs, but it’s come.
My cheque from the Public Lending Right Commission, which arrives each February, compensates me, through a program developed by the Writers’ Union, for books of mine that are represented in a sampling of public libraries across the country. The payment varies with the number of books I’ve published, their presence (or not) in the libraries sampled, and the number of authors drawing from the total funds available. Last year (2010) I received $1,489. In 2007 I received $1,034. Since my cheques were much smaller when I had one or two books in the pool, I think $10,00 a year, for a total of $10,000, would be erring well on the high side.
Access Copyright pays authors for reported copying of their work, if this is known, or, if none is reported, for the presence of their works in a pool of published words that might be copied. The cheques come out in October. My cheque for 2010 was $623.88. For 2007, $476.46. This total is harder to determine, since Access Copyright has been changing its rates of payment and what it pays for. Let us say, very roughly, $500 a year for a total of $5,000.
Though I forgot them for a day, these payments are hardly insignificant; in fact, I often think of my financial year in the arts as a spindle turning between these dependable mid-fall and mid-winter cheques totalling approximately $1,500.
Adding all of the totals to this point gives me a reasonably precise answer to Jeffrey’s question. Over the past 32 years, I have been paid $99,255 for writing. (Only a few hundred dollars shy of the more magical hundred grand. It would have been nice, as with a car odometer, to see the six digits roll up, but when in doubt, my estimates have already been on the high side.)
It will have occurred to anyone still reading this to wonder if I feel hard done by. Does the guy think he deserves more? a reader might be asking.
No is the simple answer. Or, in expanded form: I wish is not the same as I deserve or even I need. It would be nice, possibly very nice, to write books that sold better, but only if they were also better books (or at least no worse). There’s the rub. When I think of what connection there might be between greater material success and greater artistic success, the signs seem to point both ways. Feeling sure that there are readers out there waiting for your work could spur you to write well, to meet or surpass the level they expect of you. It could as easily beguile you into believing you had already done what they said you had done, and need only do again, like breathing.
Every book that is published falls into one of four categories: good books that sell, bad books that sell, good books that don’t sell, bad books that don’t sell. All observers agree on this, though of course every observer will slot the books she meets into different categories. Similarities between the books in a category will present themselves, from time to time, to any thinking brain; in my experience, these similarities cluster and rise, balloon-like, toward a general theory; but they pop before they can reach it, yielding no firm calculus that would unite quality with saleability.
Selling people things, it seems to me, is at once a very complex business and a very simple one. It depends on convincing them that they need what you are selling. The convincing can come about in many ways, for many reasons, but always, with every kind of product, there is much more failing to convince than succeeding. Need in general may be limitless, but it migrates here and there, tries one channel then another. There is only so much local need available.Another question that might occur—to Jeffrey or anyone else—is how my experience of remuneration compares to that of other writers. How typical are my earnings for a writer in Canada over the last thirty years? I really have no clue. There are obviously writers vastly more successful; I’m sure there are others doing far less well. You hear most about the fires that pop and crackle, far less about all the damp tinder that won’t catch. I have an impression that average literary financial success is a little above my head, but it is no more than a dim intuition, an apartment-dweller’s sense of how many times his ceiling becomes someone else’s floor. It’s only a guess, but if Canadian writerly income were a ten-storey building, I think my elevator stop might be 3.
Or is it? The question nagged, as Jeffrey’s question nagged. I decided to do some research online to see how I actually stack up to other writers in the earnings department. And so I click about, and…oops. That ellipsis is the whoosh as I drop from my hypothesized third-floor suite to a room deep in the basement, with a long climb to the lobby let alone the penthouse. You see, a 1996 survey by the Professional Writers Association of Canada (PWAC) puts the average freelance writer’s income at $26,000; and a Statistics Canada survey in 2000 pegs the average annual income for writers at $31,911 (just $300 behind the national average for all jobs). Vexing my downward mobility, however, is again that troublesome word “professional”, with “freelance”—another floater of a term—added to it. A freelancer is a self-employed person selling pieces to publishers—as Dickens did, and as I, less spectacularly, do; as someone at this moment, with a fresh page and a stamp, is trying to do—but in normal usage it implies someone with a more regular relationship with periodical editors; someone who writes frequent columns or articles, commissioned or on spec, rather than the poet who takes Third Place and $35 ($50 minus $15 entry fee) for Alleycat’s “First Homes” contest. After some more mousing and clicking about, I find a more relevant figure in a current—dated today, in fact, July 12, 2011—submission by the Writers’ Union in response to a government consultation paper on the digital economy, which gives an average annual income for book authors of $12,000. Now, that is still four times my annual average of $3,102 from all writing sources (with grants making up more than two thirds of that). I don’t know where I’m at in Casa Dinero. Not underground, it seems, but the third floor may be too high. I’m going to settle for now on a new mental picture of a clean and reasonably well-furnished studio on the ground floor, near the Courtesy Desk.
Once you’ve organized the numbers as I have, you can play with them of course. Assigning an hourly wage is tempting, and fun. My writing schedule, like everything else in my life, goes markedly up and down. Some days I put in 10 or 12 hours. For other stretches of days, nothing is possible. Six-week windows of steady productivity—4-6 hours every day—open up two or three times a year. I think my daily average would easily be three hours spent on writing. Call it 1,000 hours a year (a low estimate). Dividing the $99,255 by 32,000 hours gives a wage of $3.10 per hour.
Is that risible? Insulting? I’ve heard many artists describe their earnings that way.
It’s hard for me to see it like that, or, at any rate, to sustain the vision.
$3.10 means, after all, that year in year out, someone out there has been willing to stake me to the equivalent of a premium coffee, or a chocolate croissant, or a so-so coffee and a plain croissant, for every hour that I have been willing to try to “dirty paper,” as someone once put it. Paying even if my hour’s dirt is gibberish, or the paper stays blank (though if the gibberish or the blankness persists, the payment will begin to dwindle).
That seems remarkably generous. As remarkable, and as generous, as the creative process itself, which once prompted my dad, after surveying an early page I had dirtied in a literary magazine, to ask with a frown of genuine bafflement, “Do you just think this stuff up?”
Well, yes. And to be paid anything at all for doing so is to be paid for the involuntary as well as the incalculable, since I would do it whether I was paid or not.
On all but my most twisted days, I am sane enough to be grateful for that.
—From CNQ 83, Who Killed CanLit?, Summer/Fall 2011