Strauss was honest about what a hit-and-miss career writing is and how the vast majority of pro writers do not make a lot of money. Her respondee did not take kindly to the truth and wrote to Strauss to tell her that he was
not worried about your discouragement. I understand, the history of the human race is but a brief spot in time, and its first lesson is modesty, but some people are better than others. I wouldn’t discourage anybody from having high ambitions, because the good of their success outweighs the bad of their failure. The successful ones always tell everybody to be more ambitious, which is why I think you’re biased and your judgement cannot altogether be respected.
Aside from this being a breathtakingly rude response to someone who’s gone out of their way to give an honest answer the layers of delusions are breathtaking. How is telling someone the truth discouraging someone from being ambitious? If you want to be a writer the odds are that you will not make much money. Best to know that straight away because if that’s your main motivation then you’d be better off playing the stock market or getting a law degree or becoming a plumber or finding a rich spouse.
I’ve been asked the money question by aspiring writers many times during my brief career (I’ve been a full-time writer only four years) and like Victoria Strauss’s correspondent they really don’t want to hear the truth. They want success stories. They want to be told that they will sell their first novel for six figures.
They might. I know one first timer who did. But the vast majority of first-novel advances I’ve heard of have been under twenty grand. Way under. Mine was. Scott’s was. Garth Nix’s was. So was J. K. Rowling’s.
If you don’t believe me subscribe to Publisher’s Lunch. Start counting how many of those debut novel deals are anything other than “nice” deals ($1-$49,000). Make sure to check how many books are in the deal. A “good” deal ($100,000 – $250,000) sounds fabulous but often those deals are for at least three books. I’ve seen a six-book “nice” deal which means the author got at most $8,000 a book.
Strauss’s questioner ends by telling her:
And if you don’t get it, maybe that’s why you’re not very successful. Write until your words bleed. I don’t see that color in your prose.
His notion of success is all tied up with money and he has the hide to hell Strauss that she’s not a success? He hasn’t sold a book; she’s published many. The only thing Strauss is not a success at is telling him what he wants to hear: you, sir, are the chosen one who will earn gazillions.
Hard work has a lot to do with success (though bleeding really isn’t necessary) but I know plenty of hardworking writers who don’t earn enough to support themselves, not to mention all the hard workers who’ve never made it into print. Talent and hard work are very necessary, but to make the big bucks luck is essential.
You can be a very successful writer—well reviewed, award winning, decent sales—and earn only 30 thou or less a year. The majority of pro writers would be over the moon to be earning that much year in and year out. Money for writers is low and erratic. It’s August and I’ve been paid about $4,000 for my writing this year. I’m owed more but who knows when it will come? That’s the writer’s life right there. Just like any other freelancer.
Besides what is a successful writer? There are many genius writers who made bugger-all writing during their lifetimes. You can’t tell me that Joseph Conrad and Emily Dickinson and Philip K. Dick weren’t successes. They’re still in print and they’re still read unlike gazillions of best sellers over the years. Who’s reading Coningsby Dawson and Warwick Deeping now?