Some Truth About Money and Writing

This week, we’re tackling the financial realities of being a writer. As I thought about what to say, Karen’s post from January kept popping into my head. She wrote it during our “biggest challenge of being a writer” week, but it could be cut-and-pasted right here. I recommend you read that piece first. It’ll tell you that it’s almost impossible to make a living as a writer.

That’s true for almost everyone. For my part, I’m going to be as honest as I can about money and writing and privilege:

I’m incredibly lucky, and I began composing a piece of commercial fiction in 2015 that melded with the cultural zeitgeist in 2018 when it was acquired.

I got a six-figure, two-book deal with a Big 5 publisher.

After that, I got an impressive marketing and publicity push. Barring a major catastrophic global event (ahem), my book was set up to be as successful as any debut.

And, even better: after my agent’s commission, I’m making enough money from my advances to equal my teaching salary. In June, I quit my more-than-full-time job and have spent the last eight months writing my second book. The “first” draft (let’s be honest, it was at least the fourth or fifth by then) was due to my editor in January, and we’ll finish edits in May. I have received the first of three advance payments on that book. The second payment will arrive in my bank account when my editor accepts my revisions, and the third will come on publication day in 2021. None of those dates are set in stone, and the timing of the payments can swing by months.

I couldn’t have finished my second book by January if I’d kept my teaching job, so the plan to leave it made sense. Also, I have a ridiculously large safety net (more on that later), and it didn’t really feel like a risk.

And so? I’m nearing the end of my two-book contract. Am I rich? Do I have job security as a fiction writer?

I mean, yes, in many ways I am rich. With unemployment rolls swelling and our economy set to lag in an unprecedented capacity, it feels weird to complain even a little about money while I’m sitting in my heated home drinking my matcha latte.

But, I’ll tell you this: I’m going back to teaching in the fall because I need a more reliable, sustainable living, especially in the midst of this global catastrophic event. I don’t know if I’ll get another book contract, and if I do, I don’t know what the advance will be. My teaching job came with health insurance and a 401K match and an every-other-week paycheck. Even in the absence of the pandemic, I could never have even considered leaving my job unless I had always been the lesser-earning partner in a two-income household. I easily transitioned to my husband’s health plan. We’d amassed considerable savings in our 18 years together. I’m an experienced, successful English teacher, and I knew I’d be even more employable after I took some time off to write and publish a couple of novels with Penguin Random House.

I’m white and straight, and so I’ve benefitted from an unfair system. The ways in which my parents paid for their higher educations, bought property, socked money away in my college fund–and then the ways I’ve been able to do that for myself and my kids–all of this financial security was available to me because I was born into a system that gave me an incredible head start. As Glennon Doyle says in Untamed, which I just finished, I was born on third base. I didn’t hit a triple.

So. This is kind of a rambling missive, but what I’m trying to say is: Write to write. Write because you love it, and because you have a story to tell. Think about ways to support the art-making of people who might not have access to the systems you enjoy. Work to uncover and dismantle those systems.  And, don’t imagine, even if everything goes perfectly, that you’ll be able to just write. Almost nobody can.

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Kathleen West

Kathleen West is the author of the forthcoming novel, Minor Dramas & Other Catastrophes, out 2/4/20 from Berkley. She lives in Minneapolis with her family.