At a writer’s conference a lot like AWP, an instructor said to me, pretty ominously, I thought, “Getting your first book published will just be the start of all your troubles.”
I found that unimaginable. Getting published was going to be the glorious start to my writing career. I had taken ten days off out of my busy job as an investment banker—a job I hated but was doing specifically so I could be in New York City, afford to live alone and write in the slivers of spare time I had. I tried not to consider the work that was piling up behind me in New York as I anxiously skulked about in the beautiful hills of Vermont, hoping that the money I paid to attend would be a good investment in my future, a dream I’d had since I was nine years old. I looked to this instructor, a youngish woman who already had a novel out with Knopf and decided she merely had an unusually dry sense of humor.
That moment was 15 years ago.
I am now a published author, with an independent press book and one forthcoming with a big-five publisher. I’ve also published in places like The New York Times and The Atlantic, which I’d long dreamed about.
Even better, AWP is a place where I get to connect and reconnect with peers, people who I have gotten to know as a fellow published author. I talked to a bunch of them to get the pulse of what’s going on with the literary author life.
Being a literary writer was the cause of much “economic anxiety” for a majority of my admittedly unscientific survey. Even as we sat by the pool talking money, someone who passed us lamented on how their drink from the poolside bar was the same price as a book (which has more value probably depends on the needs at the time). Almost everyone was cobbling together extra income by teaching. A few, who already had books out, were attending MFA programs solely to get teaching credentials. Given the adjunctification of the writing programs, very few people had steady benefits-giving jobs.
Health insurance was a constant worry, especially for the benefit-less adjuncts. The writer who moved from the U.S. to live in the U.K. cited that the universal healthcare system’s safety net removed a large cognitive burden that could now be used for writing. Another writer who went to Korea to visit her parents ended up staying there for personal reasons but also noted that Korea’s systems made life a little more financially manageable for her as a writer, including the sliding scale universal healthcare system, which she described as between the U.S.’ and the U.K.’s.
Besides teaching, writers’ writing-adjacent side hustles included ghostwriting, test prep writing, copyediting, manuscript consultation; one writer was able to find a half-time job working for a nonprofit that still provided health insurance. Another runs a successful writers’ workshop business.
Some people’s side-hustles were full-time jobs. Running one’s own business was popular. One person had an esoteric and well-paying job as a “namer” for businesses.
Even people who received a “large” advance (which was characterized in the panel “If Only I’d Known: Advice for Negotiating the Publishing World” as $140,000 and above) found that the money disappeared quickly, especially after agents were paid. Then there’s the independent publicist ($12,000 and up), an expense that published authors felt was becoming almost mandatory.
Many friends were forthright that they weren’t making a living, especially if they were primary caregivers for children. One friend described how she hated feeling like a “hobbyist” given that she wasn’t a breadwinner. At least half the people I interviewed who lived in New York City received help from their parents.
My own story, in brief: I majored in a specialized type of economics in college and through some alumni networks acquired the weirdest amalgam of side hustles: I read submissions for Family Circle, did transcriptions of interviews, started my own editing and word-processing business, wrote advertorials for financial magazines, and, most lucrative, took on freelance banking work—I had no idea such a thing existed as freelance work, but indeed for smaller investment banks, it does.
My writing-related money comes less from my mid-five figure advances; in fact, the fellowship money I received while writing my second novel almost exceeded the advance. The money I used to make for writing nonfiction has probably gone down by half in the last four years with the rise of digital. I am fortunate that the $5,000 I ask for in speaking fees is often honored (but this also means I spend my academic “vacations” traveling, as I will this spring break). My spouse and I both have university jobs—he has tenure and so health insurance is not a worry—although we have a son who is medically fragile and unreimbursed bills for his specialized care do add up.
I’d say my instructor was both rightish and wrongish with her proclamation. I’m overawed that I get paid for doing what I love most. But I do wish “making a living as a writer” wasn’t a phrase that was so laughable. I am truly amazed and admiring at what some of my friends are doing to stay afloat and still manage to produce art.
My friend in Iceland describes how she never has held a job, no less a side-hustle, because she is paid by the government, at a good academic’s salary. It would be an interesting idea to have a culture and a publishing industry that thought of remuneration in terms of writers making a living. But until (if) that happens, writers are creatively finding ways to make it work.
Marie Myung-Ok Lee is a Korean-American author and essayist. Her work has been published in The New York Times, The Atlantic, Witness, TriQuarterly, The Kenyon Review, and Slate. Lee has been a Yaddo, MacDowell Colony, and VCCA fellow has served as a National Book Award judge and has taught fiction writing at Yale University. She is a founder and former Board President of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, and is an adjunct professor at Columbia University, where she teaches creative writing.