Writers, Let’s Talk About Money

talk about money

When it comes to money talk, the general advice is not to talk about it at all. No good can come of sharing financial information with family, employers, and friends who don’t have a damn good reason to know your details. But there is a circumstance where I think it’s okay to discuss money, at least in general terms, and that’s where we writers are concerned.

See, there’s a perception out there in the world that all writers are rich, or at least doing well financially. Especially those who are traditionally published. The thinking goes that a publishing contract automatically confers enough money to make someone at least comfortable, if not disgustingly wealthy. Once you land that contract, it’s like landing a decent job. You can quit scraping by and live a decent life.

Those of us who live in this profession, though, know that this is rarely true. Yes, there is a tier of authors that make enough money to live off of. And there is a tier that is very wealthy. The rest… Not so much. It varies greatly, from those who can get by with just a part time job (or supportive working partner)  to supplement their writing income, to those who can’t even think about giving up the income of a regular job.

Then, of course (at least in the US), there’s the question of whether or not you can give up the health insurance offered by a regular job. If you’re not making enough money to pay for your own health insurance and cover your bills, you’re still tied to that day job. The number of writers who can quit some form of employment and write full time is small. Tiny, even.

Yet this myth of riches persists. I don’t know why. I can only assume it’s because writing itself has always been shrouded in an air of mystery. Even today, in a world where information is freely available, people still believe that all writers make money. I routinely have aspiring authors saying, “If I can just get published, all my financial worries will go away.” As if a published novel is a winning lottery ticket.

Certainly it can be. There are novels that hit the stratosphere of earnings. But it’s best to think of it as a lottery ticket. You may hit it big, but the odds aren’t great. They’re pretty tiny, in fact. Best to have a Plan B.

But this brings me back to the reason why writers need to talk about money. We need to show new writers what reality is likely to look like. Not to discourage their aspirations… but to prepare them. Educate. It’s sad when you see a newly published writer rush to quit their day job, certain that money is now taken care of, only to see them return to work in a year because reality didn’t match the dream.

Even a huge advance will only take you so far and is no guarantee. If the book doesn’t sell, that advance is all you’ll have. The roads of publishing are littered with writers who didn’t “earn out” their advances and ended up back at real jobs.

Talking about money is also the only way to drive change in the industry. It’s not the job of publishers or retailers to ensure that writers make a living wage. Their job is secure their profits. If that means you make money, fine. But you are not their first priority. It’s our job to ensure that we are treated fairly.

If that means calling out retailers for predatory pricing programs, or publishers for unfair contracts, then let’s have that conversation. If it means drawing attention to the price of piracy, or the dangers of “free,” then let’s have that conversation, too. The need for affordable health insurance is another conversation for writers to have, especially in the US. There are organizations that support writers (like SCBWI, RWA, and SFWA) that encourage these conversations among members, as well. Join in. Look for solutions. Conversations can lead to change, but only if we get over the notion that money talk is taboo.

Obviously having these hard conversations isn’t going to make everyone rich. There will always be some who make more than others. But it’s impossible to deny that, right now, the number of writers who cannot make it without a day job (or two) is embarrassingly large. The reasons are many and varied. Certainly some of it goes to quality of work or “hustle” on the part of the author, but for many the problems stem from flaws in the system. And it’s absolutely okay to talk about those things.

No, you don’t have to give every gory detail of your financial situation. No one needs your exact numbers. But it’s okay to talk about money. You don’t have to hide under a rock, thinking somehow that you have to perpetuate the myth of “financially secure writer.” If things aren’t okay, it’s all right to say so and seek solutions.

(Photo courtesy of pefertig)

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