I’m all for candidness. Yet I find it strange when, upon learning I’m a writer, a stranger asks “You make a living at that?” It’s a valid question, of course, but it seems rather personal for a person meeting me for the first time. (In any case, I do give a candid answer.)
Viewed another way, I find this question not only strange but also surprising. I would not have expected so many laypeople to know how hard it is to make a living as a writer. Before I tried it, I sure didn’t! That’s not to say I naïvely expected to earn a certain amount. It simply means I didn’t think about it one way or another.
In my humble experience, kids tend to think that all authors (even ones they’ve never heard of) rake it in. Many adults, however, develop a more accurate sense of the reality.
Once I read an article claiming that of the untold thousands of people who write books, only 200 make a living at it. In my estimation, it’s far more who survive on their craft (and I’m not talking only about the household names).
One reason is that many full-time writers don’t earn solely from writing. I recently read that Mark Twain made more from speaking than from advances and royalties, and I know many writers today can say the same. (Hey, words is words, though presentation is king.)
I’ve heard a perception that some writers become writers because they don’t want to interact with people. Writing is typically a solitary endeavor. And surely some writers do tense up at the thought of standing before a crowd, even a small one. But other writers love the speaking aspect of the job.
This thought stream prompted me to look up the definition for a term batted around quite a bit in my arena: “honorarium.” Merriam-Webster describes it as “a payment for a service (such as making a speech) on which custom or propriety forbids a price to be set.” Macmillan is a bit more explicit: “an amount of money that someone receives for work that would normally not be paid.”
This shocked me. Not be paid?
In any given industry, time committed + expertise rendered = service deserving of compensation. It’s bad enough that some people expect writers to write “for exposure” (meaning instead of payment), but some also believe that writers should speak publicly about their work as a courtesy (or as a cultural obligation) rather than a source of income.
A common defense of parties who don’t wish to pay authors to speak: “But you earn money from book sales.”
However, first of all, sometimes we don’t. Some books don’t sell enough copies to plunk even a single dime beyond the advance into a writer’s account.
Second, I for one don’t require books to be sold in conjunction with my speaking engagements because that can involve quite a bit of extra work. Therefore, when a paying venue is willing to also run a book sale, I’m all the more grateful; besides, I have found that when a sale accompanies a speech, both the venue and the speaker usually make out better anyway.
Yet writers charge speaking fees because generally speaking, speaking—no matter how well—doesn’t guarantee book sales. (And if I speak at an event where books are not sold, I will never even know if that translates into any books sales.) So if people get something out of one of my talks and I am paid for my efforts, that, to me, is time well spent.
We don’t question when others—from rock stars to televangelists—get paid to perform in front of an audience, so why should writers be any different?
So yes, I make a living at this. And it’s a bonus when others understand what it takes to do so.