Unless they’re Ernest Hemingway. In this edition of “Why did I major in English?” or, “Why did I go to a liberal arts college?” The New York Times‘ Concepción de León presents us with this bit of news: “‘In the 20th century, a good literary writer could earn a middle-class living just writing,’ said Mary Rasenberger, executive director of the Authors Guild, citing William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway and John Cheever.” John Cheever? It’s not like he was a bellhop to supplement his income. Moving on … “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 shuttered altogether.” Print publications have closed? Well, spank my butt and call me D.H. Lawrence, because I needed that wake-up call.
Then, the statistics: “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 percent 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.” I’m terrible in math (see above: “Why did I major in English?”), but why combine part-time writers’ statistics with full-time writers’? They’re very different business models, e.g. cost per word vs book advance.
Amazon, the evilest empire since the one in Star Wars, is held largely responsible for this sudden decline in pay scale. (The article’s accompanying photo of a brick-and-mortar Amazon store underscores this assessment.) But Cheryl Strayed, author of the memoir, “Wild,” that was turned into a Hollywood blockbuster produced by and starring Reese Witherspoon, is quoted as saying, “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!’” (Strayed has such literary street cred that her cred isn’t even mentioned; she’s just linked to a year-old Vulture article with the quote.) So, it seems, your best bet for financial success as a writer is to write a book and have Reese Witherspoon read it.