They don’t pay us to write books. They could not pay us enough to write books, and even though they do pay us a cash sum that arrives just in time so we can avoid the late penalties on our delinquencies, in relative terms we write for free. What they pay us for is to sell books. Once I grasped this I understood a lot. Writing has almost nothing to do with the life of a book. Nowadays this does not trouble me. Giving yourself away is a good and necessary practice if you want to have a book to sell. And for that matter, if you want to have a life to share. Giving yourself away is how to enrich your life.
I toss this out to recalibrate certain conversations and events. My bemused husband looked up from filing taxes last week to tell me my yearly net income had fallen into four figures. I hear the steady lament of a first-time author struggling under the hidden cost of a late manuscript that keeps her from taking other work. I read this poignant realization by a successful memoirist that the brass ring is not only brass, it’s got a hole in the middle. Then I read this post by a writer who repaid her advance and canceled her contract, accepting that her life, her passion, her family and the money no longer fit. And all of this occurs against the incessant chirps of would-be writers chronicling every joyous step on a career ascent to heights as yet unforeseeable, but in which real money and tangible consequences are clearly expected.
To be sure, there must be some authors for whom my take on this scenario is patently false. The kind of authors who earn substantial living wages and repay the faith of publishers many times over.
Sometimes I feel like a crone listening to a young woman in her first pregnancy revel in every stage demarcated in the What to Expect book: Pink stick! Sleepy! Sick! Still sick! A bump! A kick! A name! Another name! And so on. I understand the enthusiasm, both for gestating a book and a baby. Here we think we are accomplishing something, that we are on the way to finishing something, and what we arrive at is simply the end of our expectations and the beginning of everything else. We are in no way finished; we are only finished with the easy part.
They pay us to sell books, which means they pay us to locate readers, which no one has any earthly idea how to do. In other words, they pay us to save souls. It is a noble calling, and I would do it for free. Turns out most of us who do it do it for free.
Last week I participated in a book festival for the first time. It was nearby at a quaint liberal arts college. I was on the roster with several vastly more accomplished and celebrated authors, although I didn’t quite realize that in advance, and I wouldn’t have been able to discern it from the experience itself. Each of us was treated so solicitously by our hosts, introduced and paraded, and assigned a table with our name on it, and there we waited for someone to approach with a book in hand to sign. Some authors, of course, had more takers than others. But each of us bore this slight ignominy, because this is what we do. We are the clergy, and these are the rites we perform for the faithful, who can seem at times quite few. We writers bring a light, a single flimsy light, set it on an empty folding table, and when even one reader emerges from the shadows to come close and listen, to take the truth in hand as their own, well then . . . we are paid in full. There is nothing more rewarding than a solitary reader, and I bow in reverence to every single one of you. I feel as though I know your name. We share a life.
But these days, I really need a job.