On the Writing Life
By Richard Peabody
(Note: I read this on Richard’s Facebook page the other day and just had to share it with a larger audience.)
Saw all of these threads today about “I gotta get paid” for my writing, when I get published. Naïve egotistic daydreams about the writer’s life. Like that old commercial 15 years ago where an unseen narrator for an insurance company asked—what can you depend on? And a woman writer says, “My royalties.”
There are no royalties for 80% of the people writing books. (Journalism is a different animal.) But the writing world has been just as impacted by the Net as the music world. Nobody wants to do this forever for free.
That is when I usually speak up and say things like—they’re still paying writers the same amount of money they did when F. Scott was writing in the 1920s. Most people I know who do sell books to the corporate NY bigs get somewhere between 2 to 10 thou for an advance. The newbies don’t seem to realize that an advance is actually an advance on sales. You don’t have to pay them back if you don’t make the $ back. But the bigs do tend to lose interest in you as a possible meal ticket.
So how do you make money in the arts? What is success in the arts? Two questions I’ve seen a lot in the Trump era.
First of all there’s no $ in the arts. And there’s no $ in poetry fer sure. That’s why most poets and writers teach for a living.
Could you make more $ self-publishing? Maybe. A lot of writers I know have started selling individual stories online at a couple bucks a crack. And they make a bit of $ that way. There are the what—1% of stories where somebody breaks huge like the Twilight and 50 Shades of Gray authors, whose fanfiction was free on the internet in the early days.
So, should AWP have panels on how to actually handle $ as a writer? How to develop a business sense? Yeah.
There are some big lit mags that pay for work. There are some indie publishers who do. This is when I mention that I’ve been publishing people for 40 years and lose about $5 thou per project. I can’t pay people. I can’t even produce the magazine without other starving artists willing to do web work, desktop work, or editing work, for “Art Rates.” Because we are a tribe and take care of each other in ways that we can so the project materializes.
When people tell me they’re starting a lit mag I always tell them not to. If they’re word addicts (like most of us) then they can’t not do it. But when they say, I have to make money on it. That’s when I turn off. Cuz nobody does. Cuz that’s such a rare thing I can count the number of litmags or indie presses who make money (sans grants or university support) on two hands. Which is why most mags or presses have the lifespan of Mayflies.
Even friends ask why I bother if all I do is lose money?
Because keeping this going for 40 years has been something I know how to do. Because it’s satisfying to throw a lifeline to struggling writers, forgotten writers, to shoot the bird to the powers that be even in the lit world or the academic world.
You want to make it? Well, drop into B&N (who are also near death) and see what’s on the fiction shelves. Nothing by people I consider the masters of 21st Century Fiction. No Kathy Acker, No Lance Olsen, No Harry Mathews, No Jeanette Winterson, either.
So, you could write NF, or YA and make $. Maybe. But I think the genre writers in mystery and SciFi and Romance have the right idea—whip out a book a year. Don’t screw around trying to write the Great American Novel. You have to have product in the pipeline. It’s like Lucy and Ethel with the conveyor belt. That’s how it works. If one of them hits, they reprint the past. If you last long enough, you’re back in print. The corporations just need product to make into movies.
Beyond that? Why continue? A question I ask myself every day as both writer and publisher.
Because it’s all I know how to do. Because it’s not about publication, or $, or reviews. It’s about making/doing. And if you don’t see that. If you’re like the rare bad eggs I’ve encountered in some of my classes during 25 years of teaching fiction, who just want to be Stephen King by tomorrow, then bag it now before you break your heart.
It’s like being a tuba player. Every year the graduate music programs graduate what--another 100 tuba players? And they enter a job market where fewer and fewer orchestras can make it. A limited niche. Do orchestras even have more than one tuba player?
“Show me the money.” Yeah. Good luck with that.
I heard recently that the boyfriend of somebody I published said I’d ripped off her story and was keeping all of the money. How naïve can you be?Might have been her first or second ever publication and she was in great company. The book sold okay.
Did I break even? Not even close.
Well, then you must be nonprofit?
Nope. Well, yes of course, but not officially. We’re supposedly for profit.
But then you can’t get grants?
Well, at least you get to write losses off on your taxes.
Err, for the first 3 years and then after that the IRS considers your press a hobby. Nothing to be taken seriously.
Well, you could go public?
Sure, and get kicked off your governing board, which also happens all of the time in the art, movie, music, and literary world.
Which brings me to Allen Ginsberg who didn’t make any $ until the end of his life. That’s how it happens. Same for Paul Bowles. You last long enough and they notice. Slip you some change. Kind of like being the George Blanda of literature. And then off into the sunset.
So what is literary success? Some think it’s about Tenure, editorial positions, the blockbuster movie deal, hanging with who knows?
I think it’s about heart and soul. I think it’s tribal. I think it’s keeping poets and writers afloat. Giving them hope. Something rare these days. I believe that good writing has horizontal success and lasts through the years. People who make $ tend to achieve vertical success. I mean does anybody bother reading Jaws any longer?
Maybe people should ask different questions? Like why do some lit mags take 2 years to make a decision on your work?
Or maybe Rimbaud was right. Maybe we should all just run guns.
ABOUT RICHARD PEABODY
Richard Peabody is the founder and co-editor of Gargoyle Magazine and editor (or co-editor) of 23 anthologies including A Different Beat: Writings by Women of the Beat Generation. Peabody taught at Johns Hopkins University for 15 years. His new book is The Richard Peabody Reader (Alan Squire Publishers, 2015).