I was reading Nick Mamatas’ interesting take on SFSignal’s posting “MIND MELD: Is the Short Fiction Market in Trouble?” the other day. The long and short of the SFSignal piece concerns the SF short story market, whether anyone can make a living writing short stories any more, and how the payment for short stories hasn’t kept up with inflation. Nick’s look at it is, as always, interesting stuff:
“I’m reminded of the equally old canard that ‘Nobody can make a living writing novels anymore,’ which shares an implicit claim with the short story version of the complaint. When someone complains about making a living writing novels, what they really mean to say, ‘I cannot maintain a bourgeois existence that matches the perceived social status of being a novelist by writing just the novels I would like to and at the rate I’d wish to’. . .While generally not possible to make a living writing short stories for genre magazines and anthologies. . .even when it was possible it was hardly anything more than a miserable existence. The ‘can’t make a living’ crowd makes the same error as a novel crowd: they are ultimately complaining that they cannot make a living writing just those stories they wish to write, at the rate they wish to write them.”
Personally, I’ve never tried to make my sole living from writing; I’ve always had a day job. I’m too soft to try and survive from just writing – I like my Scotch too much, eating out too much, my house too much. I am about as bourgeois as they come and don’t feel too badly about that.
Could I survive just writing? Maybe, depending on what kind of survival I’d be willing to accept. Last year my earnings from writing – including book advances, short story sales, column fees, and, believe it or not, revenues from The Inner Swine (I can’t believe it either!) – put me over the 2006 official U.S. poverty line for an individual. Of course, I’m married, but let’s stay simple for the purposes of mental experiment. Assuming the old saw that housing should not exceed 40% of your income, and assuming I had all my writing monies available either all at once or at least on a steady monthly basis (ridiculous, of course; writing money trickles in like molasses running uphill) AND overlooking my tax bill for the moment, I possibly could find an apartment in Jersey City that would be barely affordable. If I chose to move back in with my Mom, we’re in jackpot-city.
Of course, remove the assumptions and add in my bill to the IRS, and that all kind of falls apart. I might be able to survive, but I don’t think I’d be happy – I am a flabby little man, after all, and quite whiny when my comforts are taken away. Then consider that my writing earnings were twice as much as 2006 and twenty-five times as much as 2005, and that there is little guarantee I will earn the same amount in 2009 (my advance for the third Avery Cates book will probably keep me at a similar level this year), and you see a problem developing. When you consider my problemed-drinking combined with the quality of booze I’d be able to afford on such an income, it becomes obvious I would be dead within two years of embarking on such an experiment. This also includes my book advances in the mix; if we’re talking about just short stories (which is the sole subject of the SFSignal posting), then I earned a whopping $460 last year from story sales. I think I might have to scale back my lifestyle unacceptably to live off of that, to be honest.
I don’t cry about this. Aside from being enormously lucky in most respects, from upbringing to education to having a good job that leaves me time to write at all, I am precisely the sort of author Nick describes: I want to write leisurely and write only what I want to write about. I would love to ‘write for a living’, but I am far too lazy to actually work towards that goal, which would involve pursuing freelance work of any kind to pay the bills. It is, strangely, much easier to have a day job, which pays for my crippling bar tabs while I poke around submitting stories here and there, making a sale now and then. I much prefer to pray for a film rights sale or that Orbit will want a fourth Avery Cates book and then spend some time figuring out how to reduce my whiskey bills without giving up the single malt. This is the literary life I’ve chosen, and it may well sentence me to a life of day jobbing. Oh well.
The thing is, I think writing has become a lifestyle choice, and people have this movie-image of what a writer’s life should be. It should be book signings with big crowds, some inexplicable fame and lunches with your agent, a comfortable life including a nice lake house or something, and long shots of you at your typewriter or computer, pensive and brooding with a glass of wine or cognac or some shit next to you while you contemplate your next brilliancy. When people who have dabbled in writing because of this attractive image do sell their first book, they often (usually) discover that the advance is nothing to write home about and the royalties vanishingly small, if there are any. Of course, some folks do get huge advances from the get-go and possibly lead that movie-writer lifestyle, but I think 99.99% of us do not. Naturally, I state this with the usual level of Somers research and fact-checking, which is to say none. Your mileage may vary when quoting me as an authority on, well, anything, bubba.