by S. E. Roberts
Writing is not a career that has ever paid enough money. Now, I’m not talking about bloggers or journalists, who could certainly stand to make more but don’t necessarily have to. I’m talking about novelists, poets, and short story writers, those artists who are self-advertising on social media, submitting to literary magazines, and publishing books of their work, all in the hope of being recognized and well-compensated for their work.
Right now, the writers who can support themselves on writing alone are few and far between. Authors such as Suzanne Collins, Stephen King, and Danielle Steel are the anomalies, not the norm. Most writers don’t stand to make thousands (or millions) of dollars off one book, though they can certainly hope. Writers can make anything from about $15,000 to $128,000 per year, according to a study by Indeed, depending on their experience, the subject matter of their work, the contract terms they agree to, and the book sales they make. Of course, this number can vary widely outside of this range, primarily based on book sales. More sales equals more money, so authors such as those mentioned above who have sold some 350 million books are going to be doing much better for themselves financially.
Of course, variations on the high end mean there can be variations on the low end, as well. Some authors might be lucky to see several hundred dollars of sales per year. That isn’t even enough money to support one person, let alone multiple, if you happen to have a family. Those writers are not living on their writing alone—it just isn’t possible for them. “According to a 2018 Author’s Guild Study the median income of all published authors for all writing related activity was $6,080 in 2017...Roughly 25% of authors earned $0 in income in 2017” (Strong). This is a pretty grim outlook, but also (unfortunately) a pretty realistic one. Most writers, because of these numbers, must have either a second or third job in order to sustain themselves, or a wealthy enough family member to not need to worry financially. If you do not come from a family/household that can support you financially, writing does not provide enough income to support yourself.
"According to a 2018 Author's Guild Study the median income of all published authors for all writing related activity was $6,080 in 2017... Roughly 25% of authors earned 0% income..." -Lynn Steger Strong, The Guardian
Basically, writing comes down to a need for money and time, and unfortunately a lot of people aren’t in possession of either. You either need financial security (money), or you need to balance writing with another job (time). Though this form of elitism is likely not the one most people think of when they consider writing, it may be the most important as it is a root cause of other problems. For example, most of the literature studied in school was written by (at least) a middle-class (time and money) white person (privilege), because they were the people who could afford to be writers. As a result, there exists a gap between the classic literature that we do study, and the classic literature many argue we should study—that is, literature written by the poor, by people of color, by “outsiders” to society, so to speak.
Literature should not just encompass those writers who have money: they present a very limited view of the world, and nobody wants to read Hemingway forever.
Right now, writing professionally doesn’t pay enough money—which means it’s an act reserved for the upper classes of society. Writing needs to be enough of a financial benefit on its own, without help from other jobs or people, so it's an option for anyone to be a writer, regardless of social class and background. This would open the door for diversity. If it’s not only middle-class white people who can afford to write, then they won’t be the only voices to read.
The problem is obviously enacting, in any way, the changes that would allow more people to have a voice. Writers have to be noticed to sell more books, to be noticed they have to have compelling work, to have compelling work they need time to create, and to have time they need the benefits of money they would get by being noticed. It’s a giant cycle, and obviously not one that can be solved by just giving every writer money until they make enough to support themselves. So unfortunately, I’m not sure how we, as a society, would be able to start fixing this socio-economic disparity.
There are some smaller things readers can do, if they’re interested in supporting a more diverse range of authors. Firstly, they can seek out writers working with small publishers. Visiting local bookstores, rather than a seller like Barnes & Noble, is a great way to discover less popular authors, who likely don’t have any critical acclaim yet. Secondly, if you are a writer, try to break the mentality that not writing every day, or not publishing work, is because of laziness. It costs money to write, and sometimes that’s money you can’t afford to lose, regardless of your passion. It’s great that some people can find time to write every day—they are not the rule. Third, if you are someone who works in the writing field as any sort of publisher, recognize that writing which is published somewhere that doesn’t charge you to read (i.e. fanfiction websites) still has value—but nobody is a fanfiction author full time, because money makes the world go round. If someone wants to live as a writer, they need to be paid for that writing. It's insulting, more than anything else, when companies offer writers jobs that will merely result in exposure, or in “possible future payment.” Understand, and demand, that writers be paid for their work.
Writing is a career, and it needs to be treated as a legitimate one. That means that writers who venture outside the fields of journalism and blogging need to make more money than they currently do. Until that happens, it will be impossible for literature to become more diverse.