Luxury, beggary, scant comfort

Posted: March 7, 2014 in Random wifflings
Tags: , , ,

Here’s an article about how tough it is to make good money as a writer published by The Guardian a few days ago. Obviously I have a vested interest in such things. As I read it however, it became abundantly clear that my definition of a reasonable amount of money and their idea of a reasonable amount of money are worlds apart. When I got to the part about Joanna Kavenna’s advance for The Ice Museum (non-fiction, sounds intriguing. I’m going to have to read that) my jaw sagged open. And there was me thinking “jaw dropping” was a just one of those idioms that make useful linguistic shorthand.

Over £100,000 advance for a book. £100,000! To put this into perspective, my advances are less than 5% of this, it’s why I write the equivalent of four books a year.

This is not one of those complaining, “why not me, it’s not fair” posts. Writers are paid entertainers who are rewarded for the quality of their work and the appeal it has to a particular audience (not necessarily in that order). If I get disappointed, there’s no point being dispirited. The only way to correct failure is to address those two factors. Tricky, as there’s a sizeable element of, not luck exactly, but “right book, right place, right time” to success, but perseverance is still essential.

The article begs the question of what is the extrinsic worth of an art if it only appeals to a small elite? (Let’s say all art is intrinsically valuable, if only for the satisfaction it gives the artist). The article focusses on literary fiction. No doubt literary fiction, like all kinds of fiction, is being produced in unprecedented abundance. The article talks too of leaving art (capital “A”) to the cruel vagaries of hyper-capitalism, but I think in a case of oversupply like we see now in fiction, ordinary capitalism will do the job of regulating production just fine.

These surely are the writers Damien G. Walter takes aim at. Walter’s a keen proponent of the digital revolution, and although he gets carried away, as many evangelists do, there’s a lot to what he says about the upheaval publishing is undergoing. Point is, there’s as much opportunity as there is catastrophic change, something that The Guardian article neglects. Damien’s post on self-publishing and this one viral marketing are particularly interesting. Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds is another fine place to get an overview of modern publishing, from a writer’s perspective.

Most of all, this article highlights the sense of entitlement I see all around us in the modern western world. It gives the impression that these people expect an upper middle class standard of living from writing, and are rather put out they are not getting it. Besides the rapid evolution the information revolution is inflicting on publishing, there are wider changes at play. As the world economy rebalances itself, there’s no guarantee, looking at historical precedent, that the west will stay as rich as it has been for the last three centuries, nor that society within the west will manage to retain the unprecedented level of equality (as terribly unequal as that was) we’ve enjoyed for fifty years or so. Indeed, I rather suspect it won’t. As a society, I fear we’re living on past glories, expecting our historically very new model of society to last forever. Most people think this way, I know I do. I’m constantly surprised by the fact my living standards are not as high as my parents’ were.

In retrospect, the collapse of Communism looks like an inevitability. To our successors, the failure of liberal capitalism might also be thus regarded. (I talk about this kind of stuff in Crash), a brief aberration to be crushed by the inevitable laws of human hierarchy. We’d be wise to keep in mind nothing lasts forever. In this context, as the world changes radically, large rewards for a privileged subsection of a privileged profession look unsustainable.

Writers have been living through a golden age, when the top rank were able to turn out one book every couple of years and live very well. But the fact is for most professional writers, writing is and always has been a means to make a modest living, no matter how driven we are by the writing bug or a desire to create “Art”. We’re very fortunate to turn our compulsion into cold, hard cash, and there have to be elements of compromise.

I am not suggesting that I do not enjoy writing my books, or that some have more value than others. Each presents their own rewarding technical challenges, each provides entertainment to me as I uncover the story myself. They are all important, albeit in different ways. My own fiction allows me greater freedom to articulate my own ideas. This is important to me. The shared worlds I work on reach a wider audience and provide me with the lion’s share of my living. This is also important. But really, which is most important? In any case, both demand the same level of attention, experience, and competence to produce.

Writing is a great privilege. I love what I do, but my time must be filled by writing so that I can afford to write. Penning something as ambitious as The Ice Palace, which doubtlessly required months if not years of research and travel, is beyond my resources. For this at least, “artistically significant” work requires higher pay. However, does it justify that size of advance? Can the market bear it? The answer seems to be no. And who the hell gets to decide what is “Art” anyway? It’s entirely culturally subjective, specific to a time and place and the caprices of that era’s elite.

My favourite quote from the article concerns writers of the past:

“They knew luxury, and they knew beggary, but they never knew comfort.”

This, sadly, sounds like the future state of the writer. Poor us. But entertainment is not essential to survival. If all the writers died the world would not end. Therefore, our profession is a fragile one.

I read literary fiction, but the workings of that part of publishing remain opaque to me. The advances look marvellous, even though they are diminished. For my part I’m happy to work as the pulp writers of old did, like Robert E. Howard* or Michael Moorcock; finding an audience and attempting to meet both our needs by writing what the market demands, in my own way.

(*Er, let’s leave aside the fact that Howard struggled to extract his money from his publishers, a fact that probably contributed to his suicide).

  1. Greg Smith says:

    It’s weird isn’t it, that as much as we tend to scoff at those who declare that they ‘want to be a writer’ because they see it as the quick route to fame and riches, there still seems to be a significsant proportion of people WITHIN the industry who think the same way. I’m lucky enough that I have been in communication with various genre authors for a few years now as I slowly (incrementally one might say) stick my toe into the great big pond that is a writing career, and if there is one thing guaranteed to give you a level-headed and realistic view of the literary world it is talking to genre writers. Funnily enough, it was that very thing that attracted me to writing for money even more – the thought of doing the same thing for the next fifty years terrifies me, the thought of doing dozens of different things at any one time, writing in dozens of different formats and outlets, makes me a happy chappy, and as long as I make enough out of it that I can live, then so much the better 🙂

  2. tsuhelm says:

    Funny that the Guardian readers comments pick up the same.. I really think they ‘missed’ with this article…the majority of comments were pointing out the same points you have made… I get it…I even get get Harlan Ellison’s rant…
    But as you rightly point out those days are numbered…the world is changing.
    A don’t really think a period of hardship will do most writers any damage…indeed may sharpen the quill a bit!
    We (non artists too) are all suffering a bit at the moment.

  3. Michael Grey says:

    China Mieville raised an interesting point at last year’s (or perhaps the year before) Edinburgh Festival about the future of the writer. Any quick google will bring up the video on YouTube and is well worth a watch. He raises the elephant in the room that pretty soon everyone in the world will be in a stage where if they don’t want to pay for a book they don’t have to. Where does that leave us, as writers? Up a particular creek minus paddle mostly. At least in today’s world.

    He briefly floats the idea of a national wage for writers, which is something I would love. I’ve making some grocery money from short stories now, and my hope is one day I’ll be able to go down to part time at a ‘real job’ to focus on writing a few days a week. But the financial uncertainty scares the bejeesus out of me. but here’s the thing about his proposal; it’s not inconceivable. Argentina for on already gives state pensions to retired artists, and they’re not alone. The advancement of such a scheme to jobbing artists is a logical step for a progressive society.

    But not our current society. The erosion of community-focused largess of the last 40 years in the west is no firmly established in what you identified as today’s ‘me me me’ zeitgesit, and most major western countries are in the grip of conservative governments whose focus is on further concentrating the money in the hands of the people who already have most of it. I truly think the elestic is stretching however, and it ca only go so far…. much like this comment, sorry, I appear to have hijacked your blog 😉

    • tsuhelm says:

      Hi Michael…wish you all the best in your writing endeavours but any/all art forms are a luxury of sorts and of course all societies need to preserve their culture in some shape or form… the oral tradition has died and the printed word is dying… it reminds me of a book I read about language where the anthropologist maintains that ALL languages need preserving. Language: (The Cultural Tool – Daniel Everett) Whereas within his book he defines that language is a product of culture. My conclusion being if a culture dies out there is no is no point of preserving a dead language. But to maintain that cosy writers life subsidised by the state while others are below poverty line is frankly a bit ridiculous.

      Like in any work, do what you like or love and pay for it any way you can, for most that is hard work, its the way of the world and it will only be changing for the worse in the future (oh there is my crystal ball :)) Now that is an interesting alternate future SF theme…where all writers get paid like football stars!

      Final note: Argentinian pension funds have been raided of late, by the state! I live in Argentina. so I wonder in the future how those impoverished Argentinian writers will survive…oh they work, hard, past pensionable age!

      • Michael Grey says:

        I wasn’t suggesting writers should get paid and everyone else go hang, but to list everything which would be feasible to make a modern society fair would take more than a blog comment post.

        That’s a shame about the Argentinian arts pensions… although I had wondered where Robert Maxwell had washed up.

  4. Laura Green says:

    I’ve just read this article really thoroughly. and enjoyed your post.
    First thing: the advance you mention was 100,000 for two books not one. So 50,000 per book. That is for non fiction you say. So I’m calculating it as minus 15% for agent’s fee. Then whatever the author pays out in Tax. So then I’m thinking, that’s not bad, about 30,000 or something, pretty nice! However, having googled The Ice Museum it’s an Arctic travelogue and Kavenna goes through about 8 remote countries while she’s writing it. So she will have paid all research and travel expenses. And presumably she must have taken a few years to write it. So the deal is not a lump sum you get straight off – she will have had the money in dribs and drabs over these many years. Probably in the end enough to cover her costs.
    Anyway isn’t the point this author is making that this was a big deal for her? Around the time of this 50,000 deal Zadie Smith got something like 250,000 so clearly it was not the biggest deal in the draw. But clearly as well advances have dropped as she also says. I have a friend who was offered 10,000 to write a non fiction book the other day and he had to say no. Because like you he couldn’t afford the commitment.
    As you say writers deserve to get paid.
    Thanks for your great post.

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