Periscope Depth

living and dying in new york means nothing to me

Two posts on the economics of writing crossed my desk yesterday.

First, this post by Hugo-award winning sci-fi novelist Kameron Hurley: What I Get Paid for My Novels, or Why I’m Not Quitting My Day Job:

You can see the advances there looking pretty grim after the 2008 publishing crash. Prior to the crash, there were a lot more people getting $20k advances and saying, “Hey, yeah, that’s OK,” instead of “Thank GOD.” They became harder to get after 2008.

If you want to know what magical thing happened between MIRROR EMPIRE and THE STARS ARE LEGION to finally get me to what most folks in the industry used to consider a solid mid-lister advance, it’s one word: Hugos.

So when people tell me that Hugos don’t matter, awards don’t matter, and promotion don’t matter, you can imagine the $13,000 face I make.

Second, via Gin and Tacos, a Salon post (sorry for linking to Salon) on writers who don’t cop to the fact that they’re supported by independent sources of wealth:

Example two. A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.

After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.

When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.

I was dumbfounded. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.

(I’d be guilty of disservice if I didn’t point out that friend and writer Sara Faith Alterman also linked to this piece, albeit with umbrage at the implication that hustle wasn’t enough. I don’t want to imply that at all! Alterman hustled to get where she is, and anyone who thinks that her husband’s supporting her didn’t know them while he was in grad school. But I think the world, and aspiring writers, would have a clearer view of the marketplace if the folks who actually did come from money owned up to coming from money)

In the spirit of speaking frankly about writing income: if any of my novels had been offered an advance, they would not have earned it back yet.

In the spirit of speaking frankly about one’s advantages: I grew up in a family that climbed from lower middle class to upper middle class. I went to a couple of writing workshops and summer camps as a child, and got time on the household computer to churn out what adolescents think of as novels. I went to a good college that my parents had saved up enough money to pay for, so I graduated without any student debt. I worked in customer service / supply chain management for a medical supply firm for four years before moving into marketing. Marketing’s my current day job, and, with the exception of a few years in start-ups, has afforded me enough time to crank out half a dozen failed manuscripts and three well-received novels.

The trick is equanimity. You neither anticipate the highs nor dread the lows. You take what blessings you have, keep pressing, and wait for that magical day:


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