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18 May 2009 @ 01:06 pm
Writing for money, or what?  

Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Harlan Ellison said, "The amateurs are the ones who give their stories away, because they want to be recognized; and that's fine, I suppose, if they want to be patsies, but then when the time comes for a publisher to pay, the well has been poisoned, and the publisher says, 'Well, everybody else gave us their story. Why do you want a fee?' And I say, 'well, Cowboy, just because everybody else is a simp, jumped off the cliff, and paid you for the privilege, doesn't mean I'm going do it. I'm a pro, mudduhfugguh, and you can prey on the ignorance and hayseed naïveté of these hungry fish, but not me. Pay me!'

nicolagriffith   said, "If you're a writer, stop and think for a minute: who is profiting from the time you're donating? From your name? You can bet someone is. Make sure it's you. . . . I write fiction for the art, for free, for love. For myself. Anyone else who wants access pays."

I sympathize more with Ellison and Griffith than I do with Johnson. Their point is that professionals should be paid for their work and not be exploited.


However, the fact of the matter is -- the fact of the matter has always been -- that only a tiny percentage of writers and artists are able to support themselves on their writing. Even if every publisher, producer, viewer and reader in the world were to consent to pay for every word or moment they produced, published, viewed or read, and that money went directly to the writer and no one else, the great majority of writers would not earn a living wage from their writing. So for those who are good enough, or lucky enough, or just persistent enough to reach that goal, I say that Ellison and Griffith are right on target: get paid for everything you do.

But someone like me is in a different position. I'm 49, I have a full-time job and adult commitments, and am just getting started in the writing. The chance that I will be able to support my family on my writing is nearly zero. The chance that I'll be able to do it on short stories alone is exactly zero. If I'm very, very good at it, work hard, constantly improve, and also luck out, I may earn a few thousand a year. But it will never pay my mortgage, put my kids through college or significantly aid in my retirement. (Middle-class, Western goals? Yeah: I'm a middle-class, Western fellow. Sorry.)

So, okay, why do I want to write? I want to write so that others will read. I want people to see the things I see, imagine the things I imagine, react to them, play with them, fight with them.

Here is my thought-experiment:

  • If someone said, "I will pay you $10 million per year for your writing, on the condition that you give it to me without showing it to anyone else, and that I will lock it away so that no one will ever read it" -- I would refuse. (Okay: I think I would refuse; no one's ever offered me $10 million…)
  • If someone said, "I will guarantee that a million people every year will read what you write, respond to it, care about it, play with it, and communicate back to you about it, on the condition that you never get a dime from it and must earn your bread by some other means" -- I would accept.

Sure, it's an unrealistic set of hypotheticals; no one's going to offer me any such thing. But it's designed to force the issue and highlight what my priorities are.

I don't think I'm a blockhead, or a simp, or a patsy, or a hayseed, or any of the other things Harlan Ellison loves to call people who do things differently than he does.

That is the bottom line. I write so that people will read. I would love to make my living by writing; it would be a fantastic dream. I would be proud and joyful to not have to do anything but writing. But ultimately, that is not why I write. I write so that others will read. Period.
Current Location: Xavier Hall
Current Mood: determined
Current Music: office chatter
girlspell: water flow over rocksgirlspell on May 18th, 2009 05:37 pm (UTC)
Good enough reason. In this day and age, when hardly anyone bothers to read. Instead they read gossip on the internet :(

I want people that have the talent to be payed for writing. Even if publishers get most of the money. But people with out any talent get payed all the time. Look at the acting world. What is hidden are the very talented people doomed to live out lives in local theatre with out ever being found out. Instead we get offsprings of working actors with only garden variety talent. Picked for a role because of their looks. In short, it's who you know. Art is like that. It's something different then making or teaching something. Not a true job.

They're lousy writers making big money. They fall on something (a subject) that caputures the attention of the public and milk it for all it's worth.

So art sometimes is luck, nothing else. They say the cream will rise to the top...but I don't know.

I'm afraid reading (books) will be a lost art. There are people like you that are trying to change that. They need the time to produce their work. Getting paid would help a lot.
Kenken_schneyer on May 19th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)
Hey Rachel,

Yeah, getting paid would help. Someday I hope it will happen!
Tiffanienggirl on May 18th, 2009 07:05 pm (UTC)
See, I don't look at it as the either/or you've set up here (and perhaps I'm being too simple and missing a point here). Sure, making a living on your fiction writing is up there with winning the lottery: not terribly likely. But I don't think that means that you should give up on getting paid. Sure, you want people to read what you've written and, hopefully, enjoy it, think about it, start up a conversation with you that hits on particular aspects of the work and perhaps evolves into a talk about bigger ideas and themes, etc. But I don't think any of us should sell ourselves short. And it's too bad that many of us do just that.

I used to teach at a university as an adjunct, and the pay for the amount of work was abysmal. The attitude of certain faculty (esp. certain members of the admin staff)? "Well, you have to love it." I call BS on that one. Lots of people love their jobs and get paid handsomely for it. So I don't buy the argument that certain things--writing, teaching, insert-another-here--pay you in "love" or "fulfillment" or a supersize bag of M&Ms. Writing should be just as respected as designing the next innovation in green energy or what have you.

I don't know how to solve this society-wide problem of writing as often free entertainment, but I think the first step might be for those of us who do it to say, "You know, I don't expect to make a lot for this story or novel or poem, but it does have value and I expect to get something in return for it." The more we insist that our time and energy and creativity is as valuable as those of any CEO or scientist, the more we can change this idea that writing is just a hobby and not an important pursuit unless you're King or Gaiman or Brown or Patterson or Evanovich, etc., etc.

I think my point is: Doesn't matter where you're starting. Don't sell yourself short. Don't give it away. It's a business. Treat it like one.

OK, I guess I'm just ranting. I'm sure you get my point!
Tiffanienggirl on May 18th, 2009 08:08 pm (UTC)
To add: I write non-fiction for a living. So that likely informs much of my outlook on writing as a business. So take what I say with that particular grain of salt.
Kenken_schneyer on May 18th, 2009 09:11 pm (UTC)
I do get your point, Tiffani, but I'm not sure you got mine.

I don't sell myself short. If anyone offers me money for my writing, I'm taking it. I have taken it.

But the ethic of Ellison and Johnson seems to be, "If you're not paid for it, don't publish it." Or even, "If you're not paid for it, don't write it."

That makes perfect sense for someone, like you, who writes for her bread and butter. I wouldn't teach for free, nor draft a contract for free, nor design software for free. It makes sense for you to say, "I get paid for that." And further, if I'm ever in a position where people are regularly paying me for my fiction writing, I'll happily conclude that any story for which I can't get paid probably isn't good enough.

But right now, I'm an unknown author. That means that my work has to be better than what Schmidt and Williams are alrady getting from Kress, Reed, Doctorow et. al. to get out of the slush pile and be published at all. I'm sure that my work isn't better than theirs now, nor is likely to be so anytime soon. But it is good enough, I think, for people to see, read and enjoy. So I submit to markets that pay very little.

Niteblade pays only a token amount for stories. Should I have declined to submit to it?
Tiffanienggirl on May 18th, 2009 10:48 pm (UTC)
Aw, hell. I didn't mean to offend. And I did get your point--I was mostly responding to the dichotomy that you set up and the idea of writing as a devalued pursuit. So I'm sorry if I came off all snotty.

As far as submitting to markets that pay very little because you feel that your writing doesn't come close to that of the authors that you listed, I'll tell you what we were trained (for lack of a better word) to believe when "graduating" from VP: "lesser" markets take good writing as quickly as "better" markets. Start at the top and work your way down the list. I have rejections from F&SF, Lone Star Stories, ChiZine, etc., to show for it. But I also have a sale to Strange Horizons because I followed that advice.

Writing and the quality of each piece is so damn subjective. I get to the point where I can't stand to look at my stories anymore, but that doesn't mean that they aren't as good as someone else's. I lose the ability to even think I can look at them subjectively. And I'm sure that Doctorow, et. al. have days when they write utter shit like the rest of us.

So no, I'm not saying that you shouldn't have subbed your story, but I might be offering the opinion that you should shoot for the stars when subbing (and I have no idea whether you did or not, so again you can tell me to go hang). :)
Kenken_schneyer on May 19th, 2009 12:20 am (UTC)
Not offended!
I'm not offended in the slightest. You made good points.

(See private e-mail for a fuller explanation.) ;)