Living from Your Words

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Yesterday I spent a couple of hours with a class of students taking a two-year program at a local college to become professional writers. There were about forty of them there in the “Business of Writing” class and my job was to give them some idea of what their prospects might be if they decide to focus on fiction writing. I started by telling them that only one of them was likely to make a decent living from the job – though for some others creative writing might form an important part of their life and income.

They took it pretty well. I suspect they didn’t believe me. When people have a dream it is hard to dissuade them with cold hard facts. Such as the fact that a typical novel makes a Canadian writer in the hundreds of dollars. That’s right. Hundreds of dollars – seldom in the thousands.

Full-time writers can expect an income of perhaps $13,000 a year – once their career is established. In the ten years leading up to that, it will be a lot less. Traditional publishing does no better (or worse) than self-publishing – but at least with the former it doesn’t require any investment on the part of the writer other than time.

Certainly some people make buckets of money from writing. James Patterson made in excess of $85 million last year. He, of course, is an industry unto himself; the second place writer, John Green (The Fault in Our Stars), earned just $26 million. By the time you get to George R. R. Martin who tied for fifteenth place, the take is a mere $12 million – a 46% drop from second. Still sounds pretty good but if the curve were to continue at that angle (it doesn’t) the 120th place writer would be making about $60 thousand dollars. In reality there may be as many as a thousand writers (I’m talking novelists here, not those who make their living writing screenplays or game modules – though the distribution is the same) in the world who make in excess of $250K. Seems like pretty good chances until you realize that roughly 200K books get published in Canada every single year. And we’re a small country.

Information out of Amazon says that exactly forty writers sold at least one million e-books over the last five years. Most of these – though not all by any means – were self-published. At the typical price of a self-published e-book, these writers made $200K or more a year. But there are 1.7 million people who have self-published a book on Amazon. Most of those will be lucky to make $200 in a year. Or a lifetime.

So fame and fortune is for the few; most writers, indeed, most artists, have to make due with much slimmer pickings. Studies in both Canada and England show that – if they relied on their writing income alone – the vast majority (80%) would live below the poverty line. Few would have more than a modest middle-class living. And incomes are falling.

There are options of course to build an artistic life and lifestyle. Marrying well is a good option; I have a couple of friends who have managed to be full-time writers because their wives have good steady jobs and sufficient income to support them both. You can also combine writing with any number of other jobs – government communications or policy writing, commercial work for company reports, teaching and so on. If you have to, you can add telemarketing and bartending to the list – both jobs I did during the six years I was writing ‘full-time.’

And despite all the worries over money, it is still worth it. You get to associate with other writers, some of the brightest, most articulate and, yes, craziest, group of people you will ever meet and you get to do what you love pretty much until the day you die. Robertson Davies, it is said, started a short story on the morning of the day he died. He was 90.

And that’s a little more than ten minutes.

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