Heather Demetrios
The MFA’s Approach To Livelihood Needs To Be Revised

There are four types of writers that don’t like to talk about money:

  • The ones who are uncomfortable having made good coin off their work.
  • The ones who are afraid that, in being one of the chosen few to actually be published, it’s the height of ingratitude to complain — EVER — about how little or unfairly they’re paid for it.
  • The ones who are broke and ashamed about it.
  • The ones who are afraid that divulging anything about their finances will hurt their reputation — and future livelihood — as a writer.

Writing is an apprenticeship craft that depends on mentorship at every level. We value this for craft, why not for livelihood? Why is it that mentors will spend hours going over the minutia of a sentence’s construction with a writer and zero time telling them how to safely navigate the actual, physical world those sentences are going to live in? It’s possible writers are hobbled by the same social discomfort that plague many Westerners: it’s not polite to talk about money. And yet, if you listen, personal finance and its related topics are the bulk of what many people want to get into. Especially writers. We skirt around it, but we are DYING to jam on how to make a healthy go of a livelihood built on our creativity.

I don’t think it’s rude to talk money: I think it’s rude NOT to.

We keep ourselves down, and we keep one another down, with our fear of transparency.

If people know you’re broke, then you must not be a very good writer. And if you’re not broke, then that ALSO means you must not be a very good writer.

The writing community has all but bestowed sainthood upon the icon of the Starving Artist, perpetuating a culture in which it’s seen as a virtue to suffer for your art. If you get lucky enough to make a living off of your work, the collective chip on everyone’s shoulder is quick to knock you down a peg or two. Hack! Sell-out! You are — gasp! — COMMERCIAL. And if no one makes you feel bad about it, you’ll feel bad anyway. Either you’ve bought into the lie that good art equals suffering (a mathematical recipe for unhappiness if I ever heard one) or you feel guilty. How do you celebrate your six-figure advance when your fellow writer friends are still getting rejection emails? How do you navigate being one of the only people you know who loves going to work each day? It’s easier to shrug, say you don’t do it for the money and maybe complain about how crappy your publisher is treating you or that you’re creatively blocked. You think you’re throwing them all a bone, but you’re not. Diminishing the joy of your good fortune is even more insulting to your peers.

They’d kill their grandma for what you have and you’re making it sound like something you stepped in outside a shady bar.

When you say you really DON’T write for the money, you might just mean you’d do it anyway. Any honest to goodness word-loving scribe would say the same, myself included. But that’s not what I’m talking about. What I’m talking about is the people who wave a hand at their paychecks, then deliver Shakespearean monologues on Pure Art. Perhaps they even believe what they’re saying: it’s easier to only care about the art when all your bills are paid, your bank account has a potbelly, and your retirement is robust. (Of course, it’s entirely possible these writers who appear well-cared-for are just very good paupers in disguise. Social media has taught us hard lessons about image curation).

The second group of writers who don’t want to talk money — the ones who worry they’re being ungrateful by complaining — have bought into the idea that since they have been invited into the club, they should just shut up and be grateful to be there.

Traditionally published authors know that millions of people would trade places with them in a heartbeat. They want our #firstworldproblems. This knowledge silences us, shames us into thinking we’re terrible people for wanting a little frosting on our cake, and less sawdust in the mix. What this does is enable unhealthy and unfair practices in the industry to continue, ones that rely on the felt powerlessness of the writer. Don’t like how your publisher is treating you? Well, honey, there are plenty of fish in the sea, so you can just take your suitcase full of words and sail away, we don’t need you anyway. Sound familiar? In short, these writers don’t want to rock the boat because they’re so grateful to be in it — and the alternative is to be back in that big pond with all the other hopeful writers.

The third group of writers who don’t want to talk about money — the ones who are broke and ashamed — feel like they’re not entitled to the conversation. Either they’ve yet to be paid for their work (perhaps they’re aspiring writers or being taken advantage of by a market that doesn’t value creatives) or they have been paid, but the amount is embarrassingly low. These are the writers who got tiny advances, or none at all, but go out for drinks with friends who are on the list. Some are writers who had their Icarus moment — big advance, touch the sun! — then plummeted to Earth when their publisher didn’t buy their next book due to the low sales of the debut book (there are many incarnations of this sort of disappointment). These writers don’t get sent on tour, don’t get marketing swag, and have rarely seen their book in a bookstore they walk into, despite being published by a Big Five publisher. They’re filled with confusion, despair, and, often, desperation — if they could just crack the social media code or figure out how to get an income stream from school visits, they’d be fine! Or so they think.

Our culture exacerbates these writers’ suffering because not only is there a stigma to talking about money, their challenges dovetail with those of the fourth group — writers who are afraid of divulging anything about money because they’re afraid it will hurt their reputation.

These writers may or may not have deep financial concerns or questions. Regardless of their status in publishing and the size of their bank accounts, this group of writers believes — and not entirely incorrectly— that in talking about money they could affect their brand. I would argue that all four groups of writers have this concern, and it’s not unfounded. In a culture where even my kid nephew is trying to build a brand, it’s no wonder we’re terrified of revealing anything that suggests people aren’t reading our work. We don’t want publishers or agents or fellow writers — and especially not readers — to think we’re not contenders. (Cue Brando).

I was once talking to a friend, who’s a NYT Bestseller and quite popular. We had the same publisher, but she had loads of beautiful marketing assets — gorgeous things she posted on social. She was also going on tour and had all the legit marketing to boot. I just assumed the publisher had done that for her, including the tour. This would have meant she was a lead title, important, probably got a huge advance. This is absolutely how she presented. But then: she had the generosity and vulnerability to admit to me that she had done it all herself! The relief I felt was enormous: here I thought my publisher cared way more about her book than mine, and I was feeling a bit devastated by my failure. (It wasn’t a failure of mine, of course, but it can land that way). I learned two things that day: first, that a normal gal could mimic the marketing of a major corporation and get away with it, and also that there was so much I didn’t know about how to get my books out into the world. She opened a door for me and helped me walk through it.

This interaction highlights a major problem in our industry: There is no structure in place for helping writers navigate the nuts and bolts of an author’s livelihood and few authors who position themselves to mentor up and coming writers.

We have no union and therefore no regulations in place for how we’re paid. We might complain about publishing with our fellow writers, but no wants to grab a megaphone and really get into the unfair practices in publishing (who wants to upset the people in control of our livelihoods?) Case in point: In Hollywood, a manager or agent’s commission is on TOP of whatever the actor is paid, whereas in publishing, our agents get a fifteen-percent commission out of our advance. This means the publisher doesn’t have to pay those fees themselves, plus they’re only giving the writer less than ten percent (give or take a bit) of the sales price of a book to begin with.

I smell a rat.

There is no transparency about what authors should and are paid for in regards to speaking engagements. If a publisher pays for an author to go to an event, it seems like the whim of a god. Some authors are sent all over the country, while others can’t even get reimbursed for a train across town. There is no orientation from publishers or most agents on how to read a royalty statement or explanation of how acquisitions work once you’re published (hint: they base your advance off your previous books’ sales). If a book fails despite critical success (which means the author did her job well), it’s not the marketing director or promotional team that gets a pay cut — it’s the author. These are just a few of the areas most authors are kept in the dark about — even once they’ve published multiple titles.

And it’s because no one wants to talk about money.

This can result in deep financial strain on a writer, and many missed opportunities. Female writers especially struggle with asking for fair pay and treatment because of social conditioning: many are afraid of seeming pushy or demanding. We’re also working against a culture that expects artists to work for free.

I am forever receiving emails asking me to, at my own expense, fly to another state and give presentations to students. And when schools, libraries, or other organizations are actually willing to pay, the author is in a state because they have no idea what to charge. There’s no industry standard for public speaking fees — a librarian had to take me aside once to tell me she would have paid me more than double for my visit. I’d charged $500 and she usually pays writers upwards of $1500. I’d asked my agent and publisher and no one would or could give me a straight answer and many of my fellow writers either refused to tell me or had no idea themselves or didn’t care to answer my emails about it. One author pointed me toward a speaker’s agency (I didn’t even know those existed!), but they never got back to me after I’d sent them — at my own expense, of course — a box of my books, since they required a copy of every book to consider you. (Personally? I think they just wanted to stuff their library).

There are a few refreshing moments when well-heeled authors help a sister out. One writer, a highly successful Texan gal, generously shared what she charges for school visits with a small table of her fellow authors at an event. “People think it’s rude to talk about money, but I don’t care. How else are you gonna know what to do?” Bless her heart. You should have seen how relieved those authors were to finally get some advice. The questions were flying.

Being a writer is like playing the stock market.

If just ONE published writer (or my agent) had told me that my first advance was no indication of what my next advance from that publisher would be, I would have made much more sound financial decisions, ones that would have supported me and my creativity for the long run. I’m embarrassed to admit I STILL don’t know how to read a royalty statement — why wasn’t that part of my MFA program? I’ve met with financial planners, but they have no idea how to advise on such an uncertain career path. (This is an ongoing process and I’ll report back with my findings). Many coaches want you to TRUST THE UNIVERSE more to bring you the abundance you desire. Supposedly I just don’t want to pay my bills badly enough.

There are some communities where more seasoned writers aid aspiring ones (#pitchwars on Twitter comes to mind), but few writers are guided to these watering holes and many so-called writing coaches are inexperienced and predatory.

A few organizations try to open up these conversations, notably the Authors Guild. Part of why I love the Guild so much is that they’ve taken some of the responsibility of educating writers about their rights and about the industry at large. I had NO IDEA this amazing organization was out there. I stumbled upon it last year, when I’d already published seven books, reading an old bio of my agent on the Internet. She was an active member! Why wasn’t I told there was a place where I could learn more about the business and get legal aid? If you’re a writer and you’re not a member, I highly urge you to join. While you’re at it, get The Hot Sheet, which is the best industry insider resource I’ve found for both published, aspiring, and self-published writers.

We are bankrupting ourselves when we buy into a culture that doesn’t value the livelihood of its community. When writers are financially strapped, then making good work is that much harder. And since so many of us struggle with mental health issues, we exacerbate the situation further. What’s called for is a sense of stewardship among more experienced writers and industry professionals — faculty members of MFA programs, published authors, agents, publishers, and the like.

When you turn over the rock of the writer’s life, there are a lot of gnarly, creepy crawlers under there. And until MFA programs, agents, publishers and more seasoned writers like myself start preparing new authors and educating them about the writing career, we’ll continue to see the increase in anxiety that is plaguing our community and enabling writers to get taken advantage of in the gig economy.

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