Friday, November 23, 2007

The writer's strike and the larger economics of writing

Douglas McGrath has a very good piece at Newsweek (found via John August, who is blogging the strike) that puts writing into perspective for those who do not understand the reality of it:

When video came into being, a new accommodation was made, allowing a small residual for tapes and then DVDs. I am not being hyperbolic when I say "small." For a DVD sold for $19.99, we are paid 4 cents. To put that in perspective, that means that to pay for one tank of gas, a writer needs to sell 1,500 DVDs. To put it another way, it's a penny less than if we returned an empty can of Coke.


Right now, if you go online and watch a streaming version of a TV show, the company that owns that property is getting paid by the advertisers whose commercials appear at the top of it. Just like TV, but with one difference: the writers are paid no residual, not even the four cents. The companies say they don't need to pay us for this: it's "promotional." By that I suppose they mean that it promotes the size of their earnings from smaller to larger.

I've been thinking about this all morning, because it's something that impacts all writers.

Why is it so difficult for writers to get paid?

I lie. I actually started thinking about this last night, when I was looking through Echoes of Valor II, edited by Karl Edward Wagner. In his introduction to several stories by C.L. Moore, Wagner writes:

She practiced her typing skills by writing down some of these adventures and submitting them for publication to the pulp markets. This wasn't a bad idea, since her first sale netted her a neat $100.00 - equal to a month's salary a the bank. This story was "Shambleau", published in the November 1933 issue of Weird Tales....

I lie again. I really started thinking about this when I read John Scalzi's piece on Making Robert Heinlein Money.

According to the same calculator Scalzi used, Moore's first story sale netted her the equivalent of $1586.92.

Once upon a time, a speculative fiction writer could make a living.

OK. Of course that isn't fair, as many writers do earn a living from their writing. But as a new writer looking at paying markets, the numbers are daunting. A prospective author who dreams of making a living from her writing would be better off taking a job at McDonald's, it appears.

But that isn't what this post is about.

What I cannot fathom is why writing is such a marginalized vocation, why the writer's compensation is so minimal compared to the actual work involved. Furthermore, what is it about writing that allows us to forge ahead despite the pittance returns?

What are some ways to boost a writer's income? At this point in time, is it possible for a writer to begin from base 0 and build a lucrative writing career commensurate with the work involved?

These are some of the questions that have been floating around in my post-Thanksgiving-torpor head.

Harlan Ellison says "Pay the writer."

[Full Disclosure: To date, I have earned nothing from the Amazon Associates account for this blog. On the other hand, I have now earned exactly $0.01 from Google Ads. I have now earned $0.01 from my writing. I'm on my way!]

1 comment:

S.M.D. said...

Well, actually I don't have any logical reason why writers are not paid more...wait, not I do, but it's probably a bad reason.
I think because we are publishing more books now than we were 100 years ago, or 70 years ago at least, it is more difficult for publisher to pay substantially more. They should pay more, but you also have to remember that every manuscript that an editor buys he or she is taking a risk on. There's no guarantee that of the 300,000 books published that year that the one he or she picked for publication will earn the publisher any amount of money. Few authors sell well enough to bring substantial profit to the publisher. Not all of us are Stephen King, or ever will be. That could account for lower payment. You also have to remember that readership has dwindled some while the cost of things like gas, delivery, etc. have gone up. We have 300,000,000 people in this country (the US), but only a fraction of those actually read regularly. Readership isn't dying, but it's certainly not going up in vast numbers, which puts strain on publishers because they spend a lot of money on a book only to see it never earn out its advance.
The only solution I can see to this is if all the publishers reduced the amount of books they published each year and passed the earnings on to the writer in greater amounts. The downside of that idea is that many writers who otherwise would have been published now aren't being published. That makes the market doubly hard to sell to.
Should writers be paid more? Sure. Will it happen? Maybe, but probably not. If more people start really reading, then perhaps more money will be passed to the writer...