Has It Ever Been Harder to Make a Living As An Author?

how are writers making money
Is Being An Author Still a Career?Sarah Kim

In early August, after Andrew Lipstein published The Vegan, his sophomore novel, a handful of loved ones asked if he planned to quit his day job in product design at a large financial technology company. Despite having published two books with the prestigious literary imprint Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, Lipstein didn’t have any plans to quit; he considers product design to be his “career,” and he wouldn’t be able to support his growing family exclusively on the income from writing novels. “I feel disappointed having to tell people that because it sort of seems like a mark of success,” he said. “If I’m not just supporting myself by writing, to those who don't know the reality of it, it seems like it's a failure in some way.”

The myth of The Writer looms large in our cultural consciousness. When most readers picture an author, they imagine an astigmatic, scholarly type who wakes at the crack of dawn in a monastic, book-filled, shockingly affordable house surrounded by nature. The Writer makes coffee and sits down at their special writing desk for their ritualized morning pages. They break for lunch—or perhaps a morning constitution—during which they have an aha! moment about a troublesome plot point. Such a lifestyle aesthetic is “something we’ve long wanted to believe,” said Paul Bogaards, the veteran book publicist who has worked with the likes of Joan Didion, Donna Tartt, and Robert Caro. “For a very small subset of writers, this has been true. And it’s getting harder and harder to do.”

A few years ago, a literary agent told me that “writing books is not a career,” which didn’t quite compute in the moment. Of course writing books is a career! I thought. What this agent meant was: writing books is not the kind of career that’s also a job. Without any other revenue streams, it’s highly unlikely that someone could make ends meet or support a family by writing novels. Most novelists have day jobs, and the majority of those who don’t are either independently wealthy or juggling a handful of projects at once, often in different mediums like film, journalism, and audio.

“Especially after an author sells their first book, we always caution them against quitting their day job, even if it’s a big advance,” said longtime Knopf editor Jenny Jackson, who herself hit the New York Times bestseller list with her debut novel Pineapple Street earlier this year. “It's not necessarily a life-changing amount of money. If you hear somebody gets $300,000 for their book, that sounds amazing. But realistically, did it take them five years to write that book? Do they need to pay off an MFA?”

There are two schools of thought about full-time jobs for writers: the first is to find one that doesn’t drain your creative reserves, Jackson said, citing her author Emily St. John Mandel, who booked corporate travel while writing Station Eleven. “And then the flip side,” she added, “are the writers who teach because they’re engaging all day in something that uses the same bits of their brain as their writing.” Paul Yoon, the author of The Hive and the Honey, teaches at Harvard; he said that classroom discourse allows him to “slip in and out” of his fiction headspace “and to be able to turn it on faster.” Teaching writing at a high level also offers health benefits and a sense of community with other writers who teach. (But of course, those jobs are highly competitive; many academic and publishing-world jobs are poorly paid, making them inherently exclusionary.)

Still, some writers do quit their jobs—like Vanessa Chan, whose novel The Storm We Made is poised to be a breakout debut of 2024. She took a gamble by leaving her role as Senior Director of Communications at Meta in order to give herself two years to write and sell her book. “I had enough savings to be able to fund myself for a year or two before I got this advance that was significant enough for me to write full-time,” she said. If she couldn’t do it in two years, she would have returned to corporate communications.

A book “advance” is an advance against royalties, so that author who receives a $300,000 advance won’t see another check (aside from selling film options or subsidiary rights) until they sell enough copies of the book to “earn out.” For most hardcover books, the royalty is three or four dollars (while ebooks are two dollars and paperbacks are one dollar), so that writer who gets a $300,000 advance—a rarity these days—would have to sell roughly 40,000 copies before royalty checks start landing in their bank accounts. Plus, every subsequent book deal will be measured against their previous books’ selling power. “The vast majority of books do not earn out,” Jackson said. “And so a writer won't be able to get that $300,000 the second time around.”

The myth of The Writer and their comfortable financial life has likely never been the reality for most, according to Dan Sinykin, the author of Big Fiction: How Conglomeration Changed Publishing and American Literature. “There's no Golden Age story here,” he said. In 1907, W. T. Larned wrote a complaint in Life Magazine that the average successful writer might make $20,000 off the book in today's money. And in 1981, per Sinykin, studies showed that most writers in the United States filed taxes below the poverty line. (Today, the vast majority of book advances come in under $50,000.) As for benefits, authors are considered independent contractors (a.k.a. very small businesses), so they are unable to unionize without violating antitrust laws. As a result, The Authors Guild is a professional organization and not a union. “That also means we cannot provide health insurance,” said Authors Guild executive director Mary Rasenberger, because under the Affordable Care Act, associations cannot offer health benefits to members; only unions can. Full-time authors either purchase their health insurance through the Affordable Care Act or receive coverage through their domestic partners.

These days, it seems the only way for a full-time novelist to ensure financial stability and a comfortable life is to write a Big Book—a reality that’s almost entirely outside their control.

Today’s Big Books are gigantic. The sales impact of an Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, Good Morning America, or Jenna Bush Hager book club selection ranges from the thousands to the hundreds of thousands. Sometimes, the impact approaches the millions when audio, ebooks, and paperbacks are taken into account. (During the 2022 Penguin Random House vs. Department of Justice trial, it became public knowledge that 4% of books earn 60% of profits.) Still, although overall book sales ticked up in 2020—and are still sky-high—the increased costs of printing, shipping, and paper are crushing publishers. So, while there’s a massive public appetite for books, many imprints are operating at a deficit.

This returns us to today’s business climate, where most titles, according to Sinykin, sell less than 5,000 copies. “Depending on who's doing the counting, only somewhere between 2% and 12% of books, as of today, sell 5,000 copies,” he said.

Amid these budgetary issues, with publishing houses devoting the bulk of publicity muscle to a handful of titles, writers are now expected to become the spokespeople for their books. Jackson estimates that the full-time authors on her roster spend 20 hours per week writing op-eds, doing panels, communicating with their fans on social media, participating in PR campaigns, and taking meetings with Hollywood execs. That’s why the ones who have day jobs—the industry majority—must treat publishing their book like a second job. And it’s also partly why someone like Chan (who has a background in public relations in addition to writing beautifully) is so well-positioned to break out.

When the department heads of a publishing imprint meet to discuss a submission, Bogaards explained, one word is top-of-mind: platform. “That's a seismic difference in the world today, this question of platform: What is the author going to bring to the table?” he pointed out. Remembering when he started working in publishing in the 1980s, he said, “You know what the author brought to the table? The work itself.” As Bogaards remembers that era of publishing, more writers supported themselves from writing alone. Authors didn’t have the added job of self-promotion, either; for instance, he recalls that John Updike “was generally a reticent participant in the arena of public relations.” Other writers like Cormac McCarthy shunned new media altogether. “I don't know that you can be Cormac McCarthy in the world that we live in today,” Bogaards said. To be clear, he added, “The absence of a platform will not preclude publishers from acquiring good books.” Still, platform is an inevitable part of the conversation today in a way that it was not during the 1970s and 1980s.

During that time, writers reached readers through more conventional means. According to Sinykin, the 1970s and 1980s saw chain bookstores and shopping centers sprout up in the suburbs, effectively boosting book sales. (Before the 1970s, most Americans consumed fiction in magazines like Harper’s, The New Yorker, Esquire, The Saturday Evening Post, and The Atlantic.) “In the 1950s and 1960s, you had writers like Norman Mailer, James Baldwin, and Truman Capote being cultural figures in a way that's hard to imagine now,” Sinykin said. Even in the 1980s and 1990s, writers could become national celebrities via magazine covers and talk show appearances. Today, with the attention economy increasingly splintered, novelists must compete for eyeballs on our small screens, in the hope that some of those eyeballs will buy their book. Now, authors primarily reach readers by way of social media, where email newsletters and retail promotions are the primary drivers of book sales.

The last 50 years have brought writers the same structural stresses as every other laborer in America, Sinykin said, namely “the combination of inflation and wage stagnation.” So how is it that so many writers seem to be living comfortably?

They’re moonlighting as screenwriters, bylined or not. For decades, Hollywood has been the place where fiction writers could not only make a living, but receive healthcare and benefits through the WGA. Even screenwriters who’ve never had scripts produced have Writers Guild of America health insurance and own homes in Silver Lake or the Hollywood Hills. “Unless you have a big, huge hit play or a lucky best-selling novel, you’re probably paying your bills with a TV or movie gig,” said Lowell Peterson, the executive director of the Writers Guild of America East.

Before the film adaptation of Election changed his life, Tom Perrotta was a “classic version” of his generation of writers, he said, graduating with a master’s degree in creative writing from Syracuse in 1988, when he was in his mid-twenties. In the decade following, he taught as an adjunct professor at Yale, Harvard, and Brooklyn College; worked as proofreader and advertising copywriter; and ghost-wrote a teenage horror novel. In 1999, after Election became a smash big-screen hit, everything changed for Perrotta. “I got the opportunity to write some TV pilots, because people were really interested in the voice of Election,” he said. “I got paid to learn how to become a screenwriter. I got paid three times what I was making as an expository writing instructor at Harvard.”

There was a moment in the 2010s when pedigreed writers from fiction MFA programs would graduate directly into television writers’ rooms. “When we were working on The Leftovers, by the third season, half of our writers had come from MFA fiction writing programs,” said Perrotta, who was at once novelist, screenwriter, and showrunner. “It felt like a really interesting moment of these two literary cultures that had been separate for a long time converging.”

But in the late 2010s, when streaming shortened the length of television seasons, writers suddenly faced shorter periods of employment, longer periods of unemployment, and fewer opportunities to climb the career ladder. As it stands now, members of the WGA East can maintain active membership if they do any Guild-covered work in a year, but they must earn a certain amount of money to qualify for a year of healthcare coverage. In recent years, some writers have struggled to meet that minimum, given the way that writers’ rooms have changed with streaming.

“I'm so aware now of how much being in that union saved me as a writer,” Perrotta said. He cited how the Writers Guild provided healthcare, contributed toward a pension, and set salary minimums for certain kinds of work.

Ayad Akhtar, the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and President of PEN America, believes the idea that writers must spread themselves increasingly thin to make ends meet “speaks to the lack of value that we place on the arts, in general, in our culture.” While there are advantages to the “intense, competitive nature” of the arts, “fueled by American capitalism, there are also significant disadvantages,” he said. Ultimately, because writers are juggling so many projects at once, they learn to treat stories as commodities. According to Akhtar, this affects which stories are told in Hollywood. “Writers are figuring out how to fit into a system where executives who are ultimately non-creative—and I don’t mean that as a pejorative, just as an observation of fact—are making determinations about what’s going to work on a platform,” he said.

In the years and months preceding this summer’s writers’ strike, creative executives at streaming companies were increasingly replaced by tech executives, who drove the industry toward making production decisions based on data sets about the kinds of stories that hold audiences’ attention. Akhtar has a close friend (a creative executive) who has been using artificial intelligence to write scripts for the last six months. “I read a script they had outputted about two and a half months ago. It was hands-down the most compelling TV script I’ve read in a long time,” he said. Not because it was good, but because, he said, “It had my number in the same way that the iPhone has my number. I was turning the pages even though I had no real understanding of why I cared.”

The Writers Guild agreement reached on September 27th addresses the use of artificial intelligence and other concerns about the viability of screenwriting as a job. “If anything, this is a sort of future-proofing strike and contract,” Peterson said. The protections regarding artificial intelligence (but also minimums, benefits, development rooms, and episodic employment) will remain in effect through 2026, and “they’re going to be the foundation on which we negotiate more.” Writers making the transition from novel-writing or playwriting to television are “among the main beneficiaries of this contract,” Peterson added. “Maybe not immediately, but the idea is to preserve this as a viable career going forward.” He hopes that the WGA has “shored up” screenwriting as a viable career. However, he continued, “I hope that book writing and journalism and playwriting get more viable so that people can express themselves in all these ways.”

As for the Authors Guild, which cannot bargain collectively because it is not a union, Rasenberger said it’s exploring ways for members to take collective action within their rights as independent contractors in book publishing, as covered by the The Norris-LaGuardia Act and the Clayton Act. “We don’t want to push the boundaries too much because we don’t want to get sued,” she said, “but we do believe that gives us the right to take certain types of actions without forming a union. Unlike the Writers Guild, we can’t have a collective bargaining agreement.”

Many authors have made peace with the idea that writing novels is a “career” but not a “job.” Yoon defines writing as “this vocational thing that I do,” while “teaching is my job.” Chan defined a “job” as “the thing that you do to survive, the thing to make money and to make rent.” But, she continued, “The career is where you find the sense of fulfillment, and hopefully achievement, and then the money is nice to have.”

Lipstein, meanwhile, considers writing an art; as he described it, “It's a form of expression, and it's something that I feel compelled to do.” He wrote not one, not two, but five manuscripts before getting published, and he didn’t see a dime for any of them. “If you're going to make it as a writer today, you have to be compelled to write regardless of how much money it's going to earn you,” he said, “because it's probably not going to earn you enough to only do that.”

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