Writing As Labor: Doing More With Less, Together

The following is the fifth installment of a six-part collaboration with Dirt about “The Myth of the Middle Class” writer. Check back here throughout the week for more on the increasingly difficult prospect of making a living as a full-time writer, or subscribe to Dirt to get the series in your inbox.


“It’s money I want, or rather the things money will buy; and I can never possibly have too much… More money means more life to me. The habit of spending money, ah God! I shall always be its victim. If cash comes with fame, come fame; if cash comes without fame, then come cash.”

This passage is from a letter written by Jack London, most famous for Call of the Wild, in a response to a letter from one of his fans in 1899, a postal employee from California. London spent his life writing everything from novels to short stories to reported newspaper features: a committed freelancer. He also frequently wrote about workers, their lives, their struggle as a class, and the systems that exploited them.

Despite being enough of a success to have fans writing him letters from post offices, the fact is he never earned much money himself. In fact, he actually tried to get on as a postal worker at one point in his freelancing career. If he had been hired, he would have joined William Faulkner, Charles Bukowski, and Richard Wright as postal workers who became successful writers.

The post office makes sense as a pit stop for aspiring writers and lunchpail freelancers. At least at one point in history the work came with a lot of down time, so you could write on the clock. More importantly, however, the job came with a fair wage and decent benefits. It’s tough to do your best work when you’re constantly worried about money. It’s even tougher when, like London, you are the victim of the habit of spending it.

I started writing around 2011, not long after my dad died of cancer. I had just had my first kid. I was living in a hotel in Selma, Alabama, trying to help some autoworkers organize a union with the UAW and found out my wife was pregnant back in New York with our second child. I had been working as a union organizer for more than a decade at that point. I had dropped out of college in 1999 to go on the road with the clothing workers union stirring up shit everywhere from Gun Barrel, Texas to Gun Hill Road in the Bronx. I did that work pretty much non-stop, living out of a suitcase about 200 or more days a year.

After a difficult day of driving around the sticks and visiting with autoworkers in their homes, I would sit up late at night in the Waffle House near my hotel and write.

By my early thirties, I had grown weary of life on the road, and life as an organizer. It was an exciting life, but also stressful; a life of constant conflict. Sometimes to decompress after a difficult day of driving around the sticks and visiting with autoworkers in their homes, I would sit up late at night in the Waffle House near my hotel and write. Once I knew another kid was on the way, I started thinking writing could be a way out.

As a kid I always wanted to be a writer, though it never felt like something I could realistically do. Writers were important people, I reckoned. They went to fancy schools and got MFAs. They interned or spent a year abroad or some other such alien nonsense. They all hung out with each other at oaky taverns or in collegiate libraries with those green and brass lamps. I didn’t know any writers. It was all just a fantasy.

But now as a young adult starting a family, the romance of toting my suitcase from one motel to the next trying to foment revolution was wearing thin. I revisited my adolescent passion, and would daydream about a life sitting in a study surrounded by books, hard at work on my own, probably on a typewriter, patches on my blazer’s elbows, all that shit.

I sent a bunch of stuff I wrote at Waffle House out. I won a writing contest. Some things I wrote went viral-ish. The Awl sent me $50 for an essay. Things started happening! Before I knew it I had a lunch date with an editor at a publishing company, and soon after that something the publishing people called a “good deal” and more money than I had ever seen in my bank account in my life. I quit my union organizing job because I had a book deal and was on the precipice of an honest to God life of letters.

Five years later I was still working on that book and we were flat broke. As I sat in the library, surrounded by books, hard at work on my own, I would daydream of going back to work for the union. Or maybe the post office.

Back in 1981 some researchers at Columbia University’s Center for the Social Sciences published the findings of perhaps the single most extensive survey of American writers. They interviewed over 2,000 writers who had published at least one book, held no other job, and spent more than 25 hours a week writing. Two thirds of them didn’t earn $20,000 a year, which in today’s dollars would be roughly $67,000. That may sound like a lot, but it is the minimum salary for an entry-level writer in the Writers Guild of America East’s union contract with Hearst. A third of those full time writers didn’t earn $5,000 a year, which would be about $16,000 today. They estimated that about half of the authors in America at that time held other jobs or depended on their spouse’s incomes. Only about 10% of writers were making over what today would be a six figure salary.

For many freelance writers, $1 a word is the highest they will ever be paid.

This survey was put together for the Author’s Guild, a professional organization that represents writers of books, and they have conducted their own (though far less academically rigorous) survey every year since. It always says the same thing: the vast majority of writers don’t earn enough from writing to make a decent living.

The same year the Columbia study was published, The Nation magazine held the American Writers Congress at the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City. The meeting was modeled on  similar ones held in the 1930s and early 40s. Thousands of writers came from all over the country to attend, so many in fact the organizers had to bar the doors and keep some hopeful attendees outside. The attendees included James Baldwin, Kurt Vonnegut, Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, and Denise Levertov, among many other notable names. They bemoaned the fact that there were fewer opportunities for writers to earn a living than ever, that advances and pay and grant money were dwindling, and that writers had less control over their working lives than ever before. On the last day of the Congress they passed a resolution calling for a union for writers and formed the Organizing Committee for a National Writers Union, which would establish the National Writers Union for freelance writers that same year.

At the time the NWU was founded, $1 a word was considered a bare-minimum rate for freelance writing. One of their earliest campaigns was to try to raise these rates at alt-weeklies and magazines around the country. By the end of the 1990s, the union was maintaining a public list of places that still paid $1 a word as a service to writers. Today it is no longer considered the floor, but a ceiling. For many freelance writers, $1 a word is the highest they will ever be paid. The fledgling union won some mighty battles over the years, but ultimately were powerless to stop the tidal wave of the internet that created more opportunities to publish writing than ever before, but erased all of the ways writers used to make even a piddling amount of money at it in the past.

For the last decade I have served on the board of the National Writers Union, and I have met hundreds of writers in every discipline you can think of, from poetry to technical writing. It is rare that I meet anyone who makes their living solely from writing books. The few that stand out were people who worked in genre: a romance novelist who self published three books a year and sold roughly 1,000 copies of each $10 book to her adoring fans; a sci-fi writer who serialized his novel to his 800 Patreon subscribers for $10 a month.

The same can be said about journalism. Print magazines, once the top of the market for freelancers, are disappearing. Once-vaunted names in publishing like Sports Illustrated have been cannibalized by venture capital and private equity, purchased for their “brand” rather than their “content,” and one major digital media property after another is folding up shop now as they struggle to figure out how to make money on the internet. Hundreds of talented writers are left in the wake, scrambling to find a new place to sell their work to. There are at once fewer places to write for decent money and more capable freelance writers than ever before.

Looking back on it now, the idea that a life as a writer would be a path to stability and comfort for myself and my young family was utterly absurd. The concept of a writer that I and most non-writers held in our collective consciousness was a myth, a cultural construction informed by a small number of relatively famous writers. The truth is, few people can earn a full time living simply writing books. Books take a long time to write, and they don’t sell as well as they maybe once did, so the money isn’t great. The majority of deals are under $50,000 (“nice” in publishing parlance), and only around 10% of books sell more than 5,000 copies. Most of the profits in publishing come from a small number of books (and authors). So where do most writers earn a living, if not from the fruits of their creative labor? Well, it depends.

The concept of a writer that I and most non-writers held in our collective consciousness was a myth, a cultural construction informed by a small number of relatively famous writers.

In my case I toiled part time as the director of a small arts non profit for a while in order to support my family while my wife took a year-long leave of absence after our third child was born. But when she went back to work (a union job with incredible health benefits) I was able to freelance full time to make up my share of the family bills, all while still struggling to finish the book I had already spent all the advance money from. I wrote everything I could get paid for, and I mean everything: essays, longform journalism, screenplays, short fiction, monologue jokes, advertising copy, marketing emails, even tweets. I wrote maybe the best thing I’ve ever written in my life and sold it (and all rights in perpetuity) to Vice for $100. I did an episode of This American Life for $5,000. A guy paid me $500 cash to write his acceptance speech when he won an award. Most of what kept us afloat during those years was a contract I was very fortunate to sign that paid me every month to write mindless copy for a sports website.

A lot of writers I know have scraped together a living this way, cobbling together dozens of small paychecks throughout the year. Most people, like me, either spread themselves out as thinly as possible to afford the writing life, or, also like me, rely on a partner’s income and steady paycheck with benefits.

Over the years I’ve seen a lot of my writer friends throw in the towel on freelancing. They would take a job as a staff editor somewhere, or they’d leave for L.A. to join the scrum for lucrative TV writing jobs, or they’d go back to graduate school, or they’d find a job teaching. Usually these jobs didn’t preclude them from continuing to write books, or to freelance on the side. But it was a sign that maybe that was a possibility, because day jobs require a lot of your bandwidth, and writing a book requires focus. I’d feel some sense of shameful pride as friends would leave the freelance rat race for a regular-type job, because it meant I hadn’t yet reached that point, and it meant there was still hope I may never have to.

Eventually my wife needed to quit her job in a hurry, and we were put in a tough spot. I needed a job with health insurance, and I went hat-in-hand to every editor I had ever written for, every person who had ever complimented my work, everyone I knew who was in a position to maybe get me an interview. I interviewed for staff writer positions at newspapers, magazines, websites. I interviewed for copy writing jobs, content farms, teaching gigs. I abandoned all pretensions and was willing to do anything I could so long as there was health insurance provided. Nobody offered me a job. I ended up signing a contract to ghostwrite a book for someone that paid well enough that I could buy some overpriced garbage insurance on the exchange and still pay the bills. I was lucky to find that. The person who hooked me up with it was an old friend from my union organizing days, strangely enough.

I was pretty sure this was going to be the end of the road for my writing life. I had three kids. We were renting a place that had mold that I was pretty sure was making us all sick. I drove a 2010 Ford Escape (that I bought when I had a car allowance from the UAW) that had 150,000 miles on it and leaked when it rained. My partner was encouraging, but I knew that the things we wanted but lacked were my fault. I was making about $35,000 a year before expenses or taxes as a freelancer.

Then the book finally came out. It did well enough, and I was pleased with the response. But I soon learned the lesson that so many other writers before me have learned: all the real money is out in California. The book was optioned for television in an auction, and even the option money was more than I had made from the book. That’s how wild the money in film and TV was compared to the rest of the arts. Just the money I was paid for an option on the rights was enough to live on. I was unbelievably lucky.

We bought a house and a new car, figuring this kind of thing doesn’t happen to people like us more than once. Now it’s been a few years and that money has run out, too. I’m working on another book. It’s taking a lot longer than I thought it would. The bills are much higher now that we bought that stupid house and car, so I need to sell even more writing than before. On days where I can’t seem to find any inspiration to write, I scan the job postings, looking for a way out.

Writers come in all shapes and sizes, in many and multiple disciplines, and at various points along the ladder of economic and social class. Writing is work, like anything else, and as such it can provide riches for some, and peanuts for most. Freelance writing, which I suppose is the purest form of the writing life, where one can simply write whatever interests them and sell it to whomever will publish it, is a life of precarity. Just as I fell for the romance of a life as a swashbuckling labor agitator in my twenties, I had fallen for a similar bullshit idea about the romance of the life of letters. The freelance writer is no different than any other gig worker in our fractured, dystopian modern economy. We only eat what we kill.

David Hill

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