Are We Writing For Chump Change?
Roundup#5 wrestles with the raw economic realities of writing for a living
Thank you to everyone who answered my call for Write On! questions. I conceived of MFA Lore as a support zone for serious creative writers, and I need you to tell me where you’re struggling, so I can try to help. My goal now will be to post a Roundup each week to address each of your questions in turn.
First up, the thorny issue of writing for money.
I recently intercepted a post on Medium that took my breath away. A writer was announcing with great delight that her monthly Medium earnings had shot up to $181! Okay, I thought. That’s nice — as long as she only posts a story every few weeks. Otherwise, it’s chump change. Alas, a few lines later, this writer revealed that she posts a story on Medium every day. My heart sank.
I debated whether to comment. Writers have to start somewhere, and creative writers spend an inordinate amount of time submitting and contributing to publications that pay $0 monthly, or ever. We’re accustomed to giving our words (and time and passion) away. But this writer’s mention of Medium’s “$100 club,” as if it were a major benchmark of success, got to me. So did all her readers’ mindless “Attagirl” congratulations. I felt like Cher in Moonstruck, compelled to tell her spellbound lover to “snap out of it!”
So I did the equivalent. I posted:
Not to rain on anyone's parade, but if you publish daily, that's a full-time job. For the equivalent of an uncertain "salary" of $181 a month. What's wrong with this picture? I love posting on Medium, and yet I think all these platforms, including Substack, are turning us content creators into their trained monkeys, delighting at the few crumbs we’re thrown, urging us to produce more and more and never look up to notice that we are working for them for less than pennies per hour. I don’t see how this is sustainable except as a minimal side hustle or as a promotional offshoot of a larger personal enterprise.
I was relieved that the writer took my note graciously. She responded:
I guess I got used to it and don’t really mind the earnings right now. I may think about the publishing schedule though.
Which is fine. If she doesn’t need the earnings and just wants to write and post, more power to her. In all honesty, I’m in that camp. I post on Medium and here on Substack for a variety of reasons, AND making my living directly from these platforms is not one of them. The money I do earn is welcome, but it’s purely supplemental to my primary income as an author, teacher, and ghostwriter.
I was prepared to leave this issue right there. But when I put out the call for this Roundup,asked:
What are your thoughts about getting paid for doing creative writing in general, and for getting paid on Substack specifically? Are the odds stacked against those of us who have never published a book before (but have had lots of writing experience elsewhere--as in, writing to make a buck and therefore not "creative")?
So let me jump back into this sticky pot and tell you what I really think about writing for money— after more than 40 years earning my living as a writer. It all boils down to a few pretty simple observations.
We all have pockets of knowledge that are valuable, regardless of our publication track record.
1. In the long run, humility is more remunerative than hubris.
This principle may not hold true in other professions. I wouldn’t know, since I haven’t spent much time in other professions, but for writers, grandiosity is a gift that rarely keeps on giving.
There was a time when I was pretty pleased with my own success, proud of my six-figure book contracts, confident I’d earned a reserved spot in airport bookshops. Then shit happened. My third novel, Flash House, came out in the middle of Shock & Awe. People were too busy watching America blow up Baghdad to care about a story of adventure, love, and intrigue set in Central Asia in the Cold War. These circumstances had nothing to do with my talent or tenacity or the quality of my book, but my six-figure days were over. In publishing, once you have a book that fails to live up to its advance, you’re unlikely ever to see anything close to that advance again.
But others will, and if you’re humble enough to help them as an editor, researcher, or ghostwriter, you might catch a financial ride with them. If you’re humble enough to teach them what you know when they’re starting out, you can earn a salary for that. And if you share your skills and intel with them on Substack, Medium, et al, they might reward you by subscribing.
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