The Slow-Cooked Sentence

When words are free as the air we breathe, a writer’s belly is empty

Rachael Conlin Levy

“When everyone’s an artist and no one spends much money on art, art is denuded of economic value and most artists can’t earn a living,” wrote literary critic William Giraldi in “American Audacity: In Defense of Literary Daring” (2018).

“Most writers and musicians won’t earn a living online until we, the users, finally come around to the idea that we should buy what we read and hear on our computers.”

The internet has democratized publishing even as it has devalued writing to the point that most authors can no longer earn a living wage, according the 2018 national survey of more than 5,000 authors.

The economic challenge threatens the future of our literary heritage—of books that teach, inspire, and make us think and empathize, according to The Authors Guild, the nation’s oldest and largest professional writers association, which sponsored the survey.

The median income of all published authors and their writing-related activities (18 in all, including speaking engagements, ghost writing, freelance journalism, and copy editing) was $6,080, a 3 percent drop from 2014.

Unable to earn an adequate wage could trigger a paradoxical relationship between the number of books written and their literary caliber, The Authors Guild warned.

“Pulled away from book projects to focus on paying gigs means literary authors are writing and publishing less often,” the survey concluded. “It takes writers longer to research and write books since they have to do it between other money-earning ventures. The quality of books written by authors holding down other jobs may be affected since their attention is divided and writing is often pushed to what spare free time is left.”

Yet, more than 1 million books were published in the United States in 2017, (up from 300,000 in 2009). Of those, two-thirds of those books were self-published.

“Creativity is a human right and necessary to life,” wrote writer-illustrator Colleen Tighe in her essay “Design is Not Neutral,” published in January-February issue of The Baffler. “Art is communal. It has always been for communication, with other people, with the sublime, with ourselves. Creativity does not belong to Google, to Ad Week, to graphic design, to capitalism.

When we raise our children in new, loving, creative ways, when we cook a communal meal, when we teach a skill, when we build communities where there were none before, when we dance with our friends, when we write in the dark, hoping someone will understand us, we are reclaiming what is ours. Art is for the people.”

More people are writing and publishing books than ever before, largely due to self-publishing platforms like Amazon, which owns 72 percent of the online retail market, and is responsible for half of all new book sales, nationwide, according to Codex’s November 2018 National Book Buyer survey. (Full disclosure: My husband is employed by Amazon; I use Amazon Prime and Video, but not its publishing platform.)

Self-published authors were the only group to experience a significant increase in book-related income. The 95-percent increase from 2013 to 2017 is impressive until one scratches the surface: At the genre level, the highest-earning median income for self-published writers is $10,050 for romance and romantic suspense books; second highest-earner goes to the self-published writer of mysteries and thrillers at $1,900.

But I will not let the statistics, nor the conflicting views of Giraldi and Tighe, gum the gears of my brain. Instead, I chew over the ideas and information, and spit out a question: How does a writer stay afloat–financially and motivationally–right now? This authorial “crisis of epic proportion” does not have to be a destructive wheel of despair, but an opportunity.

What do you think?

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