Between Books: What a writing career is like

from iClipArt
from iClipArt

Through teaching and just meeting people and telling them I’m a writer, I find an astonishing number of misconceptions about what my life might be like. Even moreso when I say I’m a published author. Most people still think this means a glamorous life in which we can live off of book income (they often know the term “royalties”) and flit around from city to city staying in nice hotels on publishers’ dimes on “book tour” (they know this one, too). The reality is that few people I know can live off their book income alone, even people who are successful authors of multiple books. The “advance” we get is really an “advance against royalties,” which means we don’t get royalties until after our publisher breaks even on what they paid us. This is startlingly rare, even with low advances. Publishers make a lot of money on a few humongous books (50 Shades etc.) and lose money on the rest.

Thus, those who write them do not have a steady income. We get part-time jobs at book stores. We take freelance copywriting gigs for pharmaceutical companies (if we are lucky!). We subject ourselves to silly stories in national magazines for $2 a word (also if we are lucky). Or we write what we want to for much lower fees (if we’re lucky in a different way). This is why I teach: Does it make me rich? No, but it pays some bills and it pays regularly and it pays on time. Also, I happen to love it. This is how I am lucky.

And this is all in service of having what has always been my dream job, since I learned the word “freelance” when I was 8 and reading a book about writing. (I was a library geek.) A person can start out similarly to how I did — as a local newspaper reporter, though the equivalent starter job now is probably a low-level blogger — and go in numerous directions. She could move up to an editor position at the same place and settle in there for years. She could move up to a bigger website or, less likely these days, a national magazine, as a writer, or a low-level editor. Eventually she would have to decide between settling in and editing for a decent steady paycheck, a modicum of job security, and benefits, or she could decide to be a Writer, with that capital W, for a living. At which time, the above paragraph kicks in: a life of book proposals and/or novels, filled in with whatever writing-related task someone will pay her for (or maybe even a non-writing-related part-time job). The lucky few will hit the big-time bestseller status associated with “royalties,” or will marry wealthy or encounter a large inheritance, and will focus on books. Then again, I think we’re all lucky. We chose this life, and we wouldn’t do it unless we loved it, for all of its flaws.

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