Everything I made on my book, everything I spent

On making $6.86 per hour, plus Poe on how it’s all pay to play

This post was inspired by Elle Griffin’s “The one where writing books is really not a good idea,” as well as Jane Friedman’s “How Much Do Authors Earn? Here’s the Answer No One Likes.” If you’d like a shorter book-deal story from me, less nitty gritty, feel free to read this one instead.

The dark truth of the writing life is that writers generally don’t get paid to write. We pay to write. And I’d argue this is true for most creators, regardless of their disciplines.

You would not believe how many times I typed, then deleted, that paragraph. Even now I’m rushing through the act of typing this, bang bang bang, because I’m afraid you’re going to read this post and dismiss me as jaded and cynical or, worse, just hopelessly obsessed with money.

But really, I want to say it’s more about how, 15 years into freelancing and trying to write books, I’ve stopped kidding myself. I can now, like someone rubbernecking their own gruesome traffic accident, look back on my experience and everything else I’ve noticed about the profession since 2006, the year I got my first byline, and the truth—or at least, my truth—is plain.

Do you remember how, when you were a teenager, you had the impression that famously depressed writers like Sylvia Plath and William Styron (among many others) drew their inspiration and writing ability from their mental illness? And then, later, some life experience and perhaps mental-illness experience of your own under your belt, you realized these writers most likely produced their work despite their depression, not because of it? 

I want to suggest that the dark truth of the writing life functions along the same logical lines.

  • The desire to write (or do any creative work) is far more likely to cause financial problems than solve them.

  • Our day jobs (or main gigs) don’t prevent us from writing and creating. They make it possible for us to participate in the whole creative pay-to-play system at all.

  • The creator economy runs almost the exact same way that our economy has run for like 200 years now.

More on that in a second. First, I want to explain how I got here, illustrating these truths through the example of my own book deal.

Back in 2006, I was 24, broke, starry-eyed and—hmmm, what’s the polite word for not being over yourself? I’d just finished a first draft of my first novel and I was convinced publication lay straight ahead. Surely, within a year or two, I could leave the demoralizing, $11-an-hour temp jobs behind and instead live off my teeny-tiny freelance checks, plus book sales.

Reader, that did not happen. What followed over the next decade was more like one long literary comedown. I couldn’t find an agent interested in my first novel, so I wrote a second, more commercial one. Then I couldn’t find an agent for that novel, so I wrote a third, even more commercial one, and—shocker—no agent wanted it, either.

Looking back to roughly the beginning of this same period, I had $22,000 in student debt from the M.A. I’d gotten in creative writing. My husband carried $5,000 in debt from his undergrad. Our net worth was negative, some 30-grand deep in the red. We didn’t have health insurance. Our checking account hovered around $300, depending on the day, and every time I logged on to the bank website there was this giant sucking sound like a drain clearing a golf ball.

So, while I was writing these unpublishable novels, I also got busy trying to build a corporate career, climbing the ol’ greasy ladder. If I had to work for money, then why not go all-in writing ads, press releases, brochures, sales letters, direct mail?

I got my first full-time copywriting job in early 2008, negotiating their offer of $34,000 up to $38,000, which felt like a fortune after the temp jobs with their crappy hourly wage. Then, six months in, I got laid off. That was painful and frightening, but it kinda served me, too. From there, I kept trading up till I found a place that paid better, where I actually liked the people and the work. We paid down our student debt.

Eventually, I also got interested in finance and investing, and did a year-long training program through my job that included a focus on equities analysis—assessing business models, valuing public companies, modeling their future earnings, that sort of thing. All the Excel work was eye-opening. It was like getting a keyhole view into how the world really operates versus how it purports to operate. Like, wow, there’s this whole realm of trillions of dollars and semi-ruthless capitalist striving that no one ever told us English majors about! Why not, you bastards?? (Probably someone tried, and we ignored them because we were ~two pages from the end of The Mill on the Floss. Or something.)

And while I realize how pat this may sound, it was this training, plus the paychecks, that helped me finally realize my literary dreams, right down to the trite dumb details I’d pictured as a 20-something. I’d always been interested in literature, then I got interested in business cases, and then I slowly figured out how to make a literary business case. That is, I wrote a nonfiction book proposal about, of all things, reading Edgar Allan Poe for self-help, using his massive fan base to suggest my book would sell.

In late 2019, that proposal launched a minor bidding war. The minute I got off the phone with my agent—after we’d decided which offer to accept and hoorayed a little bit—my best friend Lizzie and I legged it to a French place on Sunset Boulevard to glug champagne, and not even the cheapest, but the second cheapest on the menu.

At the risk of sounding all earnest and cheesy, it felt, yes, like all my stupid hopes coming true at once, down to our sidewalk table.

Picture the vaguely euro striped awning flapping overhead, the ridiculous cars whizzing by. Picture the waitress, who was the most beautiful girl I’d seen in my life, owing to the local ordinance which says that, in L.A., every new waitress you meet must be even more gorgeous than the last.

I was not, however, celebrating a financial windfall. Net of time and expenses, I already knew that I’d probably never break even, much less realize a monetary gain.

Some book-deal math

Okay, let’s not count the years I spent writing unpublishable novels. Let’s just start the count in late 2016, when for disappointed-writer reasons and other reasons, I felt so depressed that, most days, I could only read Poe and cry mutely in my bathtub. About that time, a conversation with a historian friend led me to start writing my book proposal. It took me a solid year of messing around with the .doc to feel like I could show it to anyone. I started querying agents in early 2018, and signed with my first agent in ~February of that year.

At this point, my proposal was very Serious, and the agent’s vision for the book was, correspondingly, what is known in my native South Carolina as “high faluting.” She sent the proposal out to some very, very big-name imprints, expecting a bidding war. Once, we were discussing hypotheticals, and she used a million-dollar advance as an example. It really seemed that my most ambitious literary dreams were about to come true, like I’d not only get a deal but a FONCY deal.

You know what? Every single imprint rejected it, with one extremely FONCY editor at—I wish I could tell you the name but I’d better not torch that bridge, just in case; think FSG though it was not actually FSG—coming back to say that my view of Poe as an existential hero “is not legitimate.”

Okay but the French have viewed him in just this way for the last 150 years!!!!, I could’ve said.

But I knew I was beaten, and frankly, I just no longer had the confidence or the chutzpah or whatever to continue to pursue the high-brow path. Those rejections hit me hard. They confirmed my ancient bone-deep suspicions about my personal worthlessness. My background is not super posh. I grew up eating from giant bags of generic cereal called things like “Fruitee Rings” and watching a lot of television. There is no way to spin my resume to suggest the FSGs of the world should roll out the red carpet. I’m not really a FONCY person, the FONCY people themselves confirmed this by rejecting me, and I felt ashamed for even trying. It was like they could smell the state university wafting off me.

Over the next few months, I scraped myself off the laminate and, taking my cue from Poe himself, decided to move slightly down-market, try to make my book more of a mass-market title. I’d go swimming in a pond in which my middle-class background and credentials wouldn’t matter so much, I thought.

This is when I spent $2,100 paying consultants to read my new version of the proposal. I didn’t want to take the chance that I hadn’t pulled off the mass-market switch, so I shelled out.

  • The first consultant read and critiqued the proposal for $600.

  • The second read it and for an hour-long phone call to discuss it—not line edits, a phone call—charged me $1,500.

MONEY WELL SPENT, in both cases. I cannot recommend either party enough. (I’d say DM me for names, except both are more or less out of the business now.)

I also signed with a different agent during this time, and in late 2019, we went back out on submission, with this go-round really leading to a modest bidding war, or at least an auction.

And still? My book sold for $20,000.

Believe me, I am not complaining. It was my dream to publish “Big Five.” I have cherished the experience of working with my publisher’s in-house team, and every time I see an email from my editor, I smile and mouth the words “my editor” to myself like a goof.

You may recall, at the same time, how it took me three years to write a version of the proposal that would sell. I spent $2,100 on consulting, too. Then, from there, it took me another year to write the book itself.

$20,000 net of agent’s fees (15%) = $17,000 before taxes.

Deduct the $2,100 I spent on critiques and you get = $14,900.

Taxes are roughly 30%. So, $14,900 times 0.7 = $10,430.

When I got my first check for $8,500, months after the auction, I wrote my parents a check for $500, a token thank-you gift that I hope they blew on one fancy dinner, and then I made around $500 in charitable donations, again, as a token. That probably falls under discretionary spending, so I’ll leave it out of the math here.

Roughly estimating, I spent probably 6 hours a week on my book proposal over about three years, which would equal approximately 1,000 hours.

Again roughly estimating, writing my book took me about 10 hours a week on average for a year, or 520 hours. (The book is 55,000 words long, in 29 total parts each roughly equal to the length of an article, or about 1,800 words long, and I was averaging a finished part every 10 days to two weeks because, of course, I have a full-time job, and then in the middle of the whole shebang, I had a baby.)

Total time spent on the project, then, not including promotional efforts or even edits, would be about 1,500 hours over four years, for an after-tax rate hourly rate of about $6.86.

That’s pretty much equal to the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour. I made more when I was temping back in the mid-aughts. But that thought actually, yeah, does put matters in perspective for me. Writing this book, even when it proved painful, hard going, was still some of the greatest fun I’ve ever had. I loved being up early, the house still dark, my big pregnant belly pushing at the edge of the desk, the baby sometimes kicking at that edge from the womb, and just cackling to myself at some joke.

The book is a comedy about the darkest realities of life, not least among them how little we may earn for our creative efforts and how difficult it is in general to scrape together a living. Poe—and I’ll get into this more in just a minute—is an amazing lens for looking at those realities, and the fact that my experience of writing a book about him was itself Poe-like, because I was working on it during the weirdest, darkest year in memory, the whole world all Masque of the Red Death, with my body changing in constant, bizarre ways because it was literally true that I was being possessed by another person who planned to live through me?

Without being in any way glad for how people everywhere suffered during 2020, and wishing for no repeat of such, I would take that bargain again any friggin’ day.

Another reason I’m not complaining, beyond the fact that I never did this for money, is because I know I’m fortunate just to be able to compete in this world at all.

I work my corporate day job (that I actually like and am grateful for) so that I can write books. That’s my reality. I work in marketing in part so I can write stuff on the side for free. And the privilege of this leaves me feeling a kind of seasick Millennial Survivors’ Guilt.

Maybe (???) from here I could try to make it via freelancing and book income, but I have a family, a son to support. Life is expensive. It wouldn’t just be me who suffered if I forced my husband and son to underwrite my creative ambitions. My husband’s a web designer and does fine, so it’s not like we’d be surviving on shrimp-flavor ramen and off-brand teething crackers, but I care about being financially independent. So, even as I hope to write a dozen more books, I know I’m always going to need a day job as long as I am working for money.

Should we all be outraged at an economic system—what gets called, lazily I think, “late capitalism”—that makes this the case? I don’t know. When I look around, I see millions of much more terrible injustices. Outrages that should offend any human being.

One reason Poe’s life feels so relevant to our lives today is how he struggled within a profoundly unequal and unjust market economy, too. You just have to look back far enough.

When nowadays people lament what society pays for art, they’re generally using an extremely short timeframe for comparison—thinking back to the economic heyday of America in the 1950s and 1960s, during which, whatever you think of the politics, economic policy really did favor workers more, while taxes were higher on the extremely rich, and oh yeah, most competing economies were still on their knees from WW2, and also there were no streaming services to compete with books for folks’ dollars and eyeballs.

But take a longer context, and you’ll understand that that heyday was the merest blip, created by staggeringly unique conditions that most people wouldn’t wish to recreate even if such a thing were possible. Over the longer term, we can see that the economic model of art-making basically turns on:

  • Inherited wealth

  • Patronage

  • Day jobs and/or abject poverty

Take Poe’s own time (antebellum America, 1830s, 1840s) and the era that immediately preceded it (the Romanticism of the late 1700s, early 1800s, mostly European for our purposes here).

Poe and the pay-to-play system

Those of you who read my last post know that Edgar Allan Poe grew up idolizing big-name Romantic writers including Lord Byron and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, both of whom enjoyed either ancestral wealth (Byron) or relatively hands-off patronage (STC).

Byron disdained making any money off his books, even as sales boomed. His sexy, boundary-pushing work and the life that inspired it—hundreds of male and female lovers, so much travel, adventure and fun, casual purchases of the odd Venetian palazzo—were possible because he’d inherited not just an estate but also vast income-producing lands and properties. That Byron managed to go into debt anyway was just Byron being Byron. Delightfully lustful. Attractively irresponsible.

Coleridge enjoyed hours of idleness, too. With generous gifts from admirers plus various 18th-century GoFundMe equivalents, he could do things like take a year off from his wife and babies to go ponder philosophy in Germany, and/or get high and pass out in a barn, only to have the opium-haze vision that led to half-baked masterpieces such as “Kubla Khan.”

It’s hard to know what exactly Poe understood of his heroes’ finances beyond the well-known basics, but we can know what he observed: dudes leading glamorous, freewheeling lives while publishing works of undeniable genius. His own reality would turn out so different that the difference became a key source of grief, the sea salt in the wound.

No travel to speak of, not past his plush childhood. And worse, sometimes no food to speak of. Poe and his family sometimes had nothing to eat, for weeks on end, except bread and molasses. His letters are so packed with begging requests for money—to cousins, to neighbors, to a rich guy he’d met 30 years before—that you pick up vicarious shame just reading them. Brother, can you spare a dime?

The most Poe ever earned in a single year was the inflation-adjusted equivalent of around $24,000 today.

When he didn’t have a full-time job, he was stuck picking up $371 here, or $608 there (both in 2021 dollars), in freelance payments for his own works of genius. And while he published several books in his lifetime, including poetry, collections of short stories as well as one completed novel, he received almost nothing for them.

For The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket—his seafaring, cannibalism-and-shipwreck novel—he took home only a few copies of the book itself. The most he earned off a book in his own lifetime was probably $50 ($1,400 today) for a manual on mollusk seashells that, as a money-hungry favor to a friend, he plagiarized and put his own name on.

Yet nowadays you can go into any Barnes & Noble and find Poe’s work on the shelf. His fame and influence are so vast, some 170 years after his death, that I could capitalize on that fame to sell my own book for far more money than Poe ever made on any book he published. How strange, and sad, and unfair.

But that’s also the point. Dude, despite the direst circumstances—pressing challenges across the board, financial, professional, familial, psycho-sexual—still strived to touch the face of eternity. And he managed it.

There was a time in my life—and maybe it’s still true for you, which is fine—when I would’ve seen a phrase like “a timeless message of artistic perseverance, come what may” and rolled my eyes, hard. I don’t do that anymore. Having spent years now reading Poe’s work and having written my own not-super-serious biography, I come away inspired, unable to sneer even if I wanted to because my awe and admiration loom so large.

We would all be lucky to have that kind of courage, arrogance, hubris and arguable megalomania in the face of what we’re up against. It’s an example to us all, and I think when we ponder it, we land somewhere more interesting, someplace richer, if not in the strict money sense.

A Good Link

No one will read your book (and other truths about publishing). Literary novelist Elle Griffin delves into The New York Times Best Seller list—and why your book won't make it—in this excerpt from her weekly newsletter about writing called The Novelleist.

As always, if you’re enjoying this newsletter, I hope you’ll forward and share, or subscribe if it’s new to you. Doing so won’t even set you back $6.86 because it’s free.

Thanks for reading, and all best,

Cat

P.S. If you’re wanting to preorder my Poe book, here’s the link. Email me a receipt at catbaabmuguira@gmail.com, and I’ll send you a juicy deleted chapter, “Rules for Rebounds,” about how Poe’s later romantic relationships (circa 1848) were weirder, somehow even more delirious than his early ones, plus the deluded lessons you and I might glean today.