Why Doesn’t Writing Pay Anymore?

We live in a time when content has to be created in ever larger quantities to meet the growing demands of a literate world.  It’s also proven that quality content sells very well and makes money.  Yet content creators can’t make money. Here’s a post from Vox Popoli.


Vox is referencing Kameron Hurley’s post, here.

So How Many Books Do You Sell?

I’ve posted about this before.


Contrast the numbers now with this from Robert Heinlein about his early writing career:


I had always planned to quit the writing business as soon as that mortgage was paid off. I had never had any literary ambitions, no training for it, no interest in itbacked into it by accident and stuck with it to pay off debt, I being always firmly resolved to quit the silly business once I had my chart squared away.

At a meeting of the Mariana Literary Societyan amorphous disorganization having as its avowed purpose to permit young writers to talk out their stories to each other in order to get them off their minds and thereby save themselves the trouble of writing them down“—at a gathering of this noble group I was expounding my determination to retire from writing once my bills were paidin a few weeks, during 1940, if the tripe continued to sell.

William A. P. White (Anthony Boucher“) gave me a sour look. Do you know any retired writers?

How could I? All the writers I’ve ever met are in this room.

Irrelevant. You know retired school teachers, retired naval officers, retired policemen, retired farmers. Why don’t you know at least one retired writer?

What are you driving at?

Robert, there are no retired writers. There are writers who have stopped selling . . . but they have not stopped writing.

I pooh-poohed Bill’s remarks—possibly what he said applied to writers in general . . . but I wasn’t really a writer; I was just a chap who needed money and happened to discover that pulp writing offered an easy way to grab some without stealing and without honest work. (Honest work“—a euphemism for underpaid bodily exertion, done standing up or on your knees, often in bad weather or other nasty circumstances, and frequently involving shovels, picks, hoes, assembly lines, tractors, and unsympathetic supervisors. It has never appealed to me.Sitting at a typewriter in a nice warm room, with no boss, cannot possibly be described as honest work.“)

“Blowups Happen” sold and I gave a mortgage-burning party. But I did not quit writing at once (24 Feb. 1940) because, while I had the Old Man of the Sea (that damned mortgage) off my back, there were still some other items. I needed a new car; the house needed paint and some repairs; I wanted to make a trip to New York; and it would not hurt to have a couple of hundred extra in the bank as a cushionand I had a dozen-odd stories in file, planned and ready to write.

So I wrote Magic, Incorporated and started east on the proceeds, and wrote “They” and Sixth Column while I was on that trip. The latter was the only story of mine ever influenced to any marked degree by John W. Campbell, Jr. He had in file an unsold story he had written some years earlier. JWCdid not show me his manuscript; instead he told me the story line orally and stated that, if I would write it, he would buy it.

He needed a serial; I needed an automobile. I took the brass check. 

Writing Sixth Column was a job I sweated over. I had to reslant it to remove racist aspects of the original story line. And I didn’t really believe the pseudoscientific rationale of Campbell’s three spectra—so I worked especially hard to make it sound realistic.

It worked out all right. The check for the serial, plus 35¢ in cash, bought me that new car . . . and the book editions continue to sell and sell and sell, and have earned more than forty times as much as I was paid for the serial. So it was a financial success . . . but I do not consider it to be an artistic success. 

While I was back east I told Campbell of my plans to quit writing later that year. He was not pleased as I was then his largest supplier of copy. I finally said, John, I am not going to write any more stories against deadlines. But I do have a few more stories on tap that I could write. I’ll send you a story from time to time . . . until the daycomes when you bounce one. At that point we’re through. Now that I know you personally, having a story rejected by you would be too traumatic.

So I went back to California and sold him “Crooked House” and “Logic of Empire and “Universe” and “Solution Unsatisfactory” and “Methuselah’s Children” and “By His Bootstraps” and “Common Sense” and “Goldfish Bowl” and Beyond “This Horizon” and “Waldo” and “The Unpleasant Profession of Jonathan Hoag”—which brings us smack up against World War II. 

Campbell did bounce one of the above (and I shan’t say which one) and I promptly retiredput in a new irrigation systembuilt a garden terraceresumed serious photography, etc. This went on for about a month when I found that I was beginning to be vaguely ill: poor appetite, loss of weight, insomnia, jittery, absent-mindedmuch like the early symptoms of pulmonary tuberculosis, and I thought, Damn it, am I going to have still a third attack?

Campbell dropped me a note and asked why he hadn’t heard from meI reminded him of our conversation months past: He had rejected one of my stories and that marked my retirement from an occupation that I had never planned to pursue permanently.

He wrote back and asked for another look at the story he had bounced. I sent it to him, he returned it promptly with the recommendation that I take out this comma, speed up the 1st half of page umpteen, delete that adjectivefiddle changes that Katie Tarrant would have done if told to.

I sat down at my typewriter to make the suggested changes . . . and suddenly realized that I felt good for the first time in weeks.

Bill Tony BoucherWhite had been dead right. Once you get the monkey on your back there is no cure short of the grave. I can leave the typewriter alone for weeks, even months, by going to sea. I can hold off for any necessary time if I am strenuously engaged in some other full-time,worthwhile occupation such as a construction job, a political campaign, or (damn it!) recovering from illness.

From Expanded Universe.


Look at the details here.  Heinlein was able to Pay off his house and buy a car from the earnings that John W. Campbell paid him for maybe a dozen stories the total content of which was about 500,000 words. That’s a real living.

As Vox points out, that doesn’t happen any more, especially for authors publishing for traditional publishers.  Somehow, in the last twenty years the ability of authors to make a living has essentially disappeared. As has the content, to a large degree.  If you can’t make a living at something, why do it.  Sure, you get the narcissists, mostly female, like Ms, Hurley writing to see their name on the shelves, but getting content from people expecting to make a living at it, or as a replacement living, like Heinlein doesn’t happen.  Yet it’s writing from real life in all it’s diversity that  makes writing great.  As Mark Twain put it better to get war stories from people who’ve been to war than moon stories from people who haven’t been to the moon.  Being a science fiction fan I want stories from people that have been to the moon, at least figuratively.

The problem is that the Ivy trained nonreaders who run the big five seem to think that it doesn’t matter if they don’t pay decent rates because there will always be more suckers.  And that they can use marketing and push to dump stuff on the peasants who will buy anything.  So they buy stuff written by narcissistic crazy cat ladies and think that’s what people will buy and are dismayed when the audience to crazy cat stuff just isn’t very large.

This is just another case of not be able to see the diversity that we all lose because of the stuff that doesn’t happen.  There’s a reason that traditional publishing is dying and that’s because it’s lost the diversity of having people varied backgrounds being able to write and sell enough to make a living. Killing the midlist had consequences and  all that’s left is ongoing downward spiral and the reduction of good books.  At least if you are not a crazy cat lady.


One comment

  1. John Van Stry · April 3, 2016

    I think a big part of the problem, is that none of the publishers today founded their businesses, but inherited them. So they really don’t know all that much about it. They were just handed it and took all of that ivy school stupidity put in their heads and ran with it. I also think that they’re incredibly greedy.

    I have a friend who has sold more books then probably all the hugo winners in the last several years combined. Hundreds of thousands of copies. Yet they’re dirt poor now, and I make more money as an indy than I think they ever made. I don’t think they ever saw a royalty check that was even five figures. But their publisher has a mansion within commuting distance of NYC. I think the only real skill publishers have is making the writers think that they care. But they sure don’t pay them enough money to prove it.


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