“Print is dead” c. 1984
The best rate I ever got paid as a professional writer was for my third piece, a feature written at the ripe old age of 20. It was 75 cents per word and I made around 400 bucks for my efforts. Nearly ten years later and many of the major online publications pay somewhere between ten and 40 cents per word for the work of writers far more talented than my 20-year-old self (and if we’re being perfectly candid, more so than my 29-year-old self as well). More impressive rates still exist for the most recognizable magazines and outlets, but they’ve dwindled to a slight foam atop a deep and murky concoction.
The 21st century has been a buyer’s market for writing talent in which print publications have withered, giving way to low-overhead online operations whose profits are tied to laughable advertising revenues. It has, in short, made it more difficult for a decent writer to make a living doing it without having a sizable safety net (or nest egg), or exploring other jobs on the side. You know this. Anecdotally, nearly every friend I know who writes fiction or poetry has a different full-time job, and many of my erstwhile journalist friends have moved to more steady if less fulfilling jobs in marketing, copywriting, etc., because we’ve all got to eat.
There was a sobering article on NPR last month about how few books most of the author’s on this year’s Man Booker Prize shortlist had sold: “A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James and A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara had sales between 15,000 and 20,000. Tom McCarthy’s Satin Island sold 3,600 copies. Nigerian writer Chigozie Obioma’s debut novel, The Fishermen, sold just under 3,000 copies.”
At least shortlisted books tend to see a nice sales bump as a result of the nod. According to this year’s Author’s Guild survey, there’s been a 30 percent crash in author income since 2009 and most authors make less than the federal poverty line from their writing.
“Author incomes are down, hybrid authorship is up, and authors are spending more time marketing than ever before,” the Author’s Guild writes. “In short, the business of authorship is both more varied and less profitable than just six years ago.”
Yikes. And yet, writing has never been a hugely profitable profession, except for a select few, and it’s possible that today’s ceiling is higher than ever before: Charles Dickens was a beloved literary giant who died with around $11 million (in today’s money) in his name, and while that’s impressive, it pales in comparison to JK Rowling’s billion-dollar empire.
Dickens didn’t have movie options either, but that’s part of the point. We were lulled into thinking so because of the few decades where print media did not have to compete with the eyeballs and attention spans of the communications era and the shifting nature of media itself. For journos, the heyday of newspapers and magazines was eroded first by cable news and whittled to the nub by the internet. But a similar scenario is true for my musician friends: there is now more choice, more volume, and more good music as a result—but smaller pieces of the fiscal pie to go around. For every Andy Weir turning a free eBook into a New York Times bestseller, there’s the fact that most self-published authors earn less than $500 from their work.
How to maximize your invoice in cents per word
But wasn’t it always thus? How many famous poets and writers came from the patrician class, or from wealthy middle class families, or had patrons supporting their work? Historically, writing has largely been the domain of the privileged, and the 20th century was a period of great democratization of that creative art. Even so, at the height of the pulp era, Astounding Science-Fiction paid a whopping inflation-adjusted 17 cents per word. Today, the much less circulated Asimov’s Science Fiction pays between eight to ten cents per word, which while certainly representing a large cut, is impressive given how much more niche the market has become.
I’m excited about the time we’re living in as writers. Yes, things have been bleak, and yes, the plate tectonics of the entire writing industry have shifted, but so have the possibilities that technology has afforded us. Is having a patron really better than having a Patreon? At least in the latter case, you know your art is being supported by a community. Yes, you are expected to self-market now instead of relying on a publisher, which can be a drag for introverts, but what the digital space affords is a great sense of play and experimentation, so I do think it’s possible to carve out a self-marketing self that’s both comfortable and authentic to you—but I digress.
State shifts are always messy for both the people holding the purse strings and those actually creating content, but there are signs we’re emerging from that and figuring out new channels and alleyways to be successful creatives. Publishing is now a low overhead/no overhead proposition, and while that means there’s a whole lot more bad out there, there’s also a whole lot more good. Not that this is a strict meritocracy, mind you: for every self-published The Martian serial-turned-blockbuster, there’s a 50 Shades of Strict Heteronormativity (plus Light BDSM). But that’s capitalism for you. Great writers will go unnoticed; bad writers will become Oprah’s Book Club nominees. The wheel turns. At least now there’s a better chance for artists to find their audience and make a decent living off of a loyal niche.
Print isn’t coming back, but it isn’t going away, either. As dead tree sales erode, they’ll find a new place of equilibrium. Books will become vinyl records, prized for their artifact and sensory qualities as much as the content therein. In the meantime, genre-spanning radio stories have made a resurgence in the form of podcasts (some successes then even turn into bestselling books), while it seems like Kindles, iPads, and other eReader tech could bring back serial fiction to something resembling its heyday. Dare we hope short stories might find a newly engaged audience if they are properly packaged for the modern bite-sized viewing habit? Then there are non-fiction outlets like The Atavist trying something bold and new yet entirely familiar, using the best modern tools available to push an entirely old-fashioned form of storytelling—and paying their writers a solid rate to boot.
Writing for a living has always been a tenuous proposition, and I can’t say for certain that we’re out of the woods, but I do see a break in the trees. There was only ever one thing we can do about it anyway, which is keep writing. Keep playing with form and content and publishing. Take your shots into the howling void and hope the howling void subscribes to your feed.
Chris Curley is a writer, editor, and Creative Director based out of New Orleans, LA. His work has appeared in The Onion, A.V. Club, The Invader’s Guide to New Orleans, and his woefully outdated flavors.me site, among others. Find him on Twitter; we dare you.