Hey writers, you’re one in a million! Literally!

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Working for peanuts

For writers, the subject of remuneration for our humble services is always a subject of endless fascination, at least for us.  So I was naturally intrigued by an interesting article in on the McSweeney’s website, written by a young colleague.

The article reminds me of what a great career I might have made by, say, becoming an airline stewardess.  Or perhaps an insurance actuary.  Or even an aromatherapist.  The upshot:  writers don’t make much money.  As the article reminds us, “never have, never will.”

The statistics it cites make me wonder:  Do the numbers mean anything?  And who collects these little suckers anyway?

The witness in the dock appears to be the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  And they get their numbers … where?  Nobody talked to me.  One obvious source might be IRS reports.  But the professional identifications on the IRS forms are not supported by anyone else:  for example, are there any penalties for identifying yourself as a writer on your IRS form if 75 percent of your income in fact comes from waitressing tips?  And does the bureau’s statistics for writers include, say, advertising copywriters?  Does the category for authors include faculty members, who constitute a substantial percentage of today’s authors, yet are likely to list their profession as “professor” rather than author?  In any case “authors and writers” are not interchangeable – many writers are not authors, and vice versa (cookbook authors, for one).

According to the bureau, as of 2005, 185,276 out of 216.3 million American adults claimed those titles.  That makes us less than one out of a million.  I can’t believe that.  I, personally, believe I know more than 185,276 writers.  Look at my Facebook page.

Here’s another reason why I question what the bureau’s numbers:

In May 2009, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found the median annual wage for authors and writers had risen to $53,900, up $3,100 from the medium income average for the past decade. In 2008, 70 percent of writers and authors were self-employed and in 2009, the upper quartile of writers earned $75,740 or more.

But technical writers might be making a whole lot more than this; a starving poet considerably less.  For every Dan Brown there’s a hundred self-published authors writing on their lunch breaks at Costco.  Again, who calls themselves a writer?  Who an author?

Moreover, many, many writers are supported by a spouse or a family income.  A low level of income may not reflect their penury, but rather that they have the freedom to write what they please on their own timing.

The Census Bureau also has  some dismaying news:  it estimates the number of writers and authors will increase by 20,000 by 2018.  With reservations, I concur with Nicolás Gómez Dávila that “literature does not die because nobody writes, but when everybody writes.”

In any case, when everyone writes, no one will make any money doing it. Tim Rutten has already panicked about the influence of the HuffPo/AOL acquisition and the effect that “the merger will push more journalists more deeply into the tragically expanding low-wage sector of our increasingly brutal economy.” As Frank Wilson writes over at Books Inc., what we really need are plumbers.  Really.

As for John Milton’s famous £5 for the first edition of Paradise Lost, I remember that there’s a story behind that.  Can’t recall what it is.  Martin Evans told me, and perhaps I will check back with him.

In any case, check out the intriguing article at McSweeney’s here.


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4 Responses to “Hey writers, you’re one in a million! Literally!”

  1. Tweets that mention The Book Haven » Blog Archive » Hey writers, you’re one in a million! Literally! -- Topsy.com Says:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by EnglewoodReviewOfBks and chaven, Elizabeth Skoglund. Elizabeth Skoglund said: RT @ERBks: RT @chaven Hey, writers! You're one in a million. Literally. Statistics on writers: http://bu.tt/hei [...]

  2. Elena Danielson Says:

    A good piece on the economics of writing by Scott Turow, Paul Aiken and James Shapiro appeared in a NYT op-ed Feb. 15. Archeologists have found the smashed earthenware money boxes used to collect entrance fees at the walls of Elizabethan theaters. Because of these boxes “For the first time ever, it was possible to earn a living writing for the public.” Eventually the regime smashed the walls, and the “greatest explosion of playwriting talent the modern world has ever seen ended.” They contend that we need well constructed walls or carefully thought-out rules to provide for the culture and progress we want to foster. Seems obvious to me, but widely forgotten by techno-libertarians.

  3. Rhonda Says:

    Haha, I particularly enjoy the caption “working for peanuts” underneath the picture. Well done.

  4. For Indie Authors, Where’s the Money? | Kristin King Author Says:

    [...] “According to the bureau, as of 2005, 185,276 out of 216.3 million American adults claimed those titles.  That makes us less than one out of a million.  I can’t believe that.  I, personally, believe I know more than 185,276 writers.  Look at my Facebook page.” The Book Haven [...]

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