If you want to be a writer, don’t quit your day job

The East African - - BOOKS -

Writ­ing has never been a lu­cra­tive ca­reer choice, but a re­cent study by Us-based The Au­thors Guild, a pro­fes­sional or­gan­i­sa­tion for book writ­ers, shows that it may not even be a live­able one any­more. Ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey re­sults, the me­dian pay for full-time writ­ers was $20,300 in 2017, and that num­ber de­creased to $6,080 when part-time writ­ers were con­sid­ered. The lat­ter fig­ure re­flects a 42 per cent drop since 2009, when the me­dian was $10,500. These find­ings are the re­sult of an ex­pan­sive 2018 study of more than 5,000 pub­lished book au­thors, across gen­res and in­clud­ing both tra­di­tional and self-pub­lished writ­ers.

“In the 20th cen­tury, a good lit­er­ary writer could earn a mid­dle-class liv­ing just writ­ing,” said Mary Rasen­berger, ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor of the Guild, cit­ing William Faulkner, Ernest Hem­ing­way and John Cheever. Now, most writ­ers need to sup­ple­ment their in­come with speak­ing en­gage­ments or teach­ing. Strictly book-re­lated in­come — which is to say roy­al­ties and ad­vances — is also down, al­most 30 per cent for full-time writ­ers since 2009.

Writ­ing for mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers was once a solid source of ad­di­tional in­come for pro­fes­sional writ­ers, but the de­cline in free­lance jour­nal­ism and pay has meant less op­por­tu­nity for au­thors to write for pay. Many print pub­li­ca­tions, which of­fered the high­est rate, have been closed.

In some ways, these changes are in line with a gen­eral shift to­ward a gig econ­omy or “hus­tling,” in which peo­ple jug­gle an as­sort­ment of jobs to make up for the lack of a sta­ble in­come. But the writ­ing in­dus­try as a whole has al­ways eluded stan­dard­i­s­a­tion in pay. In a con­ver­sa­tion with Man­jula Martin in the book

Ch­eryl Strayed said, “There’s no other job in the world where you get your mas­ter’s de­gree in that field and you’re like, ‘Well, I might make zero or I might make $5 mil­lion!’”

“Ev­ery­one thinks they can write, be­cause ev­ery­body writes,” said Rasen­berger, re­fer­ring to the pro­lif­er­a­tion of ca­sual tex­ting, e-mail­ing and tweet­ing. But she dis­tin­guishes these from pro­fes­sional writ­ers “who have been work­ing on their craft and art of writ­ing for years.”

“What a pro­fes­sional writer can con­vey in writ­ten word is far su­pe­rior to what the rest of us can do,” Rasen­berger said. “As a so­ci­ety we need that, be­cause it’s a way to crys­tallise ideas, make us see things in a new way and cre­ate un­der­stand­ing of who we are as a peo­ple, where we are to­day and where we’re go­ing.”

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