they don’t pay us to write books

April 11th, 2010

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.


  1. What you do is a calling. As a single reader (and a trumpeter of your grace-filled words) I honor you. You change lives one page at at time. What a shame you don’t get to see that, but if you did it would probably be overwhelming. I hope you keep writing, I will definitely keep reading and paraphrasing you.

    Comment by Kim — April 11, 2010 @ 12:55 am

  2. You may feel like you’re throwing your words and soul adrift but we’re here (me, my friends) eagerly awaiting each new blog, each new book with enthusiasm. Thank you.

    Comment by Natasha — April 11, 2010 @ 1:55 am

  3. Were your ears burning? I was just talking about you at the big annual conference for creative writers and teachers (AWP), as an example of someone who seems to market her books without losing her soul and who brings in authentic readers and audience that way.

    Comment by C — April 11, 2010 @ 4:18 am

  4. My agent Ted Weinstein helped me to see my books as simply another mechanism for teaching, which they are. That helps to see them as a means and not an end, since there is no end anyway. Thank you for remembering me to others. That is all I ask of my readers and far more than I can expect.

    Comment by Karen Maezen Miller — April 11, 2010 @ 4:34 am

  5. I wholeheartedly agree with Natasha! And I have ordered your books over here in the Netherlands (which will take some time, but I don’t mind waiting for your new and undoubtedly beautiful words!).
    Not only do you have the gift to express your wisdom in an exceptional way, with this website as a source of your collected writings, you have also created a ‘home’ for your readers to return to over and over again. Thank you.

    Comment by Rose — April 11, 2010 @ 6:48 am


    Comment by Swirly — April 11, 2010 @ 6:47 pm

  7. Thank you both as a faithful reader and as one whose muse is calling to her to write. Your light has certainly touched my own…there are no words – published or not – that can express my gratitude for that.

    Comment by Lisa — April 12, 2010 @ 12:59 am

  8. A copy of your book is making a journey here to Thailand right now! (thanks to

    I’m sorry to think that your cut of the $10 price is probably not very big . . . anyway, glad to hear you’re being ‘rewarded’ in kind so much from your readers and students.

    Looking forward to hours of reading pleasure!

    Comment by Lana — April 12, 2010 @ 11:59 am

  9. Karen, Thank you for the gift that is your book, Hand Wash Cold. It was read in two days, leaving the feeling of such refreshment and peace.

    Comment by Carrie Matson — April 12, 2010 @ 2:04 pm

  10. Your book has arrived in my mail box like a ray of light. Thank you.

    Comment by Mary Castillo — April 12, 2010 @ 3:57 pm

  11. I’ve read your blog for years. I’ve quoted it back to you when I met you in person. I can’t stop giving away copies of your first book. I’m almost a groupie. That being said I want to extend a virtual hug to a woman who has made a difference in my life.

    Comment by Joan — April 12, 2010 @ 4:24 pm

  12. Thank you for giving yourself away to us!

    Comment by Eva @ Eva Evolving — April 12, 2010 @ 7:41 pm

  13. “Empty handed and paid in full”– may we all be so blessed or rather, so aware of our blessing. Beautifully said, as always.

    Comment by Katrina Kenison — April 13, 2010 @ 3:00 am

  14. Thank you for your generosity, may it be more powerful than money.

    Comment by 6512 and growing — April 19, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  15. Oh Karen!
    How I wish I could see you at Grace Cathedral! I’m a San Francisco resident but have an obligation I can’t get out of on Saturday.

    Will there be a podcast or some other way for us to hear your important and beautiful words?

    Thank you for this blog and for your books. They mean a lot to me.

    Comment by Robin — April 12, 2011 @ 7:45 am

  16. I hate your voice.
    It’s always so stark and real.
    Keep writing.

    ps. Katrina Keninson linked to your post in her comment on my post years ago, so I came back to read it again.

    Comment by Kelly Salasin — January 11, 2012 @ 10:27 am

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