In 2012, a month after the publication of her memoir, Wild, Cheryl Strayed was on a book tour, soaking up the wonder of her first big success as an author, when her husband texted her to say that their rent check had bounced. “We couldn’t complain to anyone,” Strayed told Manjula Martin, editor of the new anthology Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living: “My book is on the New York Times best-seller list right now and we do not have any money in our checking account.”
Few connections are more mysterious than the one between writing books and making money. Strayed most definitely did make money on Wild,which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film with Reese Witherspoon, but she didn’t get her first royalty check for it until 2013, “so it was almost a year before my life actually changed.” Yes, there was that $400,000 advance—an amount to make any aspiring memoirist’s eyes go dreamily unfocused—but Strayed and her husband had run up so much credit card debt that almost all of the money went to paying it off and supporting her family while she finished writing the book.
Book advances, which are advances against the royalties that will be earned after the book is published, aren’t forked out in one lump sum, either. The payments come parceled out in (typically) three or four checks paid on signing the contract, on delivery of the manuscript, and on publication. The writer’s literary agent then takes a percentage of that. When Strayed sold her first novel a few years earlier for the seemingly handsome sum of $100,000, the advance amounted to, as she puts it, “about $21,000 a year over the course of four years, and I paid a third of that to the IRS … it was like getting a grant every year for four years. But it wasn’t enough to live off.”
It’s worth leading with all these numbers because, as Scratch repeatedly demonstrates, the nitty-gritty on this stuff is in short supply in the wider writerly imagination, while fantasy, evasion, and envious brooding runneth over. Strayed is among the few prospering contributors to this collection of essays and interviews who speaks so explicitly. (“We’re only hurting ourselves as writers by being so secretive about money,” she told Martin.) Another is Roxane Gay—author, columnist, editor, publisher, professor, public speaker—who reports that she made approximately $150,000 in 2014.
That’s a good income by almost any standard, but does it match your sense of Gay’s prominence and productivity? (Surely there are plenty of professors who make that much, or more, from their academic work alone.) Depending on your media diet, Gay may or may not constitute a “famous writer” in your eyes, and depending on how much you think famous writers must earn, her income may strike you as surprisingly modest. Or perhaps this entire topic offends you. There are still a few idealists out there cherishing the belief that writing, as art, mustn’t be contaminated by filthy lucre.
Like most anthologies, Scratch is uneven; not every contributor is equally talented and none is able to drill very deeply into the relationship between work and money in writers’ lives. The book originated with a (now defunct) online magazine of the same title, developed—as Martin, who edited both, explains—“out of a need for greater transparency in the discussion about work and money within the community of writers.” But if the mission statement of this anthology is to demystify “how, exactly, literature and the people who make it are valued,” many of the pieces here seem to deflect away from transparency as if repelled by a magnetic field.
If their authors set out to write about money, they end up spinning their wheels on the more formulaic and far less interesting subjects of self-discovery, dream-following, and “career”—a label given, often by wooly-headed Brooklynites, to an amorphous blend of personal reputation and public persona. Writers know so little about how other writers make ends meet that it’s difficult for them to have much perspective on their own ability to do so. But even when you find out that Strayed nearly sunk under her debts while Yiyun Li enjoyed a relatively stress-free transition from pre-med to fiction writing—three years after making the jump, she’d published in both the Paris Review and the New Yorker—the sum of both their stories still doesn’t offer a stable picture of how most writers make a living.