The grim economic prospects of being an artist are well-established, but the cold, hard numbers behind writing and publishing — particularly in the digital age — are mystifying even to many of the people who are trying to make a living doing it. Anything that illuminates the financial realities of the writing game becomes a precious commodity; essays featuring frank money talk tear through the internet, g-chats and Slack channels hum, aspiring novelists desperately glean what they can from Publishers Marketplace before their (tax-deductible) $25 runs out.
Enter Manjula Martin, the woman behind Who Pays Writers?, a hugely valuable resource for freelancers trying to figure out the numbers behind bylines. Martin established the site in 2012 to bring transparency to the woefully opaque writing business using crowdsourcing: writers anonymously offer up the rates they were paid by various publications. The following year, Martin expanded the territory with Scratch, a magazine about money and writing co-founded with the writer Jane Friedman. This spring, Scratch the magazine became Scratch the book, an anthology on “Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living,” with contributions from writers including Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Kiese Laymon, and Cheryl Strayed (we excerpted Sari Botton’s fascinating essay on ghostwriting here at the site).
Martin lives in San Francisco, where she writes and edits in addition to her full-time job as Managing Editor of Zoetrope: All Story, the literary magazine founded by Francis Ford Coppola and Adrienne Brodeur. Martin and I are friends — coworkers, too, as all freelancers are coworkers — and she agreed to speak with me about the numbers behind her book and the contradictions of making art under capitalism.
The Millions: You are currently nearing the end of a book tour that has you working a full-time day job during the week and hopping a plane every weekend to a new city. Is this bonkers?
Manjula Martin: Yes. But geographically and plane ticket-wise, it actually made no sense to do the tour dates all in a row. It’s not cheaper.
TM: And you’re paying for this out of pocket.
TM: Is it customary for publishers to not pay for a book tour?
MM: I’m told that it’s common, unless you’re a very big investment for the publisher. But while the publisher has not paid for it, they have been incredibly helpful in terms of booking the gigs — the PR department has surpassed my expectations in that regard.
TM: I guess that’s a form of money.
MM: That is a form of money. That’s labor. A lot of authors don’t get book tour help at all. I was fortunate enough to get some free advice from Lauren Cerand, an amazing (not free) independent publicist. She told me, “Just do a book tour, put it on your credit card if you have to. It’ll be great.” So far, it’s been great. She’s right.
TM: Could you share the numbers of the book as a whole: what you were paid, how the contributors were paid or not paid, and all of that?
MM: I went into the anthology with a really solid table of contents; the book proposal I wrote had pretty much the same table of contents as the book did once it was done. The essays weren’t written, but I had gotten buy-in from most of the contributors, and I had a well-developed topic. I’m convinced that this is what sold the book: the editors could see how the contents would inform the topic, and they could understand that I had access to very high-caliber contributors.
There were a lot of emails right when I was first doing the book proposal along the lines of “Hey, I’m thinking of doing an essay collection. Would you like to sign onto this not knowing any of the details or timing or anything?” People said yes, which was wonderful. My agent sold the book. I got an advance. The advance was $30,000, paid in three different installments. As of this writing I’m still waiting for the last installment, the installment “upon publication.” The way my contract was set up gave me the majority chunk, on signing; a smaller chunk upon delivery and acceptance of the manuscript. (By the way, this is not when you turn in the manuscript, it’s when the manuscript is done. It’s not like, “Hello, editor, here’s the first time you’ve seen it.” It’s like, we’ve been working on it for six months and now it’s done and they’re going to send it into production.) Then the final installment upon publication.
The way my contract is set up is, I am the “Author” of the book. My contract is with the publisher. Then I have basically subcontracted with all of the contributors. The contributors and I have separate contracts. My agent just found me a template for that contract language.
TM: What were you left with after you paid all the subcontractors?
MM: Each of the contributors were paid between $100 and $400 for their essays, depending on whether it was a reprint. Everyone who wrote a new essay got more. The reprints were less and usually between $100 and $200, depending on various situations including whether or not they did additional work on the piece. What anthology contributors get for that few hundred dollars: they’re in the book. They can sell second serial if they want to. That’s basically it. In this particular situation my publisher owns the first serial rights. That’s pretty common. We don’t have a royalty agreement with the contributors.
TM: So how does this all break down in the end, money-wise?
MM: The advance was $30,000. Agents take 15%. That’s $4,500. Contributors were $7,050 total. That leaves $18,000-ish before taxes. For 2015 and 2016, the years that cover that income, I will have paid about $8,500 in taxes. All told I will have paid probably a third of the advance in taxes, but it’s been spread out over a couple of years. I can write off the agent commission and the contributor fees. That should leave me with about $10,000…
TM: That’s not too shabby.
MM: … before book tour costs, which will probably be around $3,500, I’m guessing. So I think I’m going to end up with $6,000-$7,000 for two years of work. Plus the prior two years of unpaid work I did on Scratch mag and Who Pays Writers?.
TM: That’s not a living wage.
MM: No. But I also don’t know what the P&L for Scratch looks like, so I don’t know how much money Simon & Schuster is going to make off of it.
TM: What’s P&L?
MM: Profit and loss statement. It’s what an editor at a publishing house does to figure out how much to pay for a book, what it’s worth, what they think it’ll make. It’s how an editor pitches a book to the rest of the team; a P&L is the way they figure out, “If we pay the advance this much and then the royalties are this much, and it costs this much for the book, this is how many books we have to sell to make a profit.” Actually, Scratch just went to a second printing.
TM: So you should get royalties soon!
MM: [laughs] That doesn’t mean that it’s earned out the advance. It’s a highly relative statement.
TM: I went to one of your readings, where three contributors spoke. That reading became a conversation about workers’ rights and empowering women writers — there was a lot of counsel from participants not to write for free, that you should always be paid for your work. But then [our mutual friend] Caille Millner gave advice along the lines of, “If you want to be a writer, you should expect to have a day job,” which in some ways obviates the other elements of the discussion. I mean, both pieces of advice can be correct, but her comment was a tacit acknowledgment that even when you are paid for your work, it’s not enough. I don’t know many writers who don’t have a day job.
MM: Particularly writers who don’t have other support.
TM: And from freelancing myself, and particularly from my years with The Millions, I have confronted the harsh truth that your/my/our work often has very little or no market value as it is assigned by our cultural and economic system, particularly as it plays out online. It certainly does not usually translate to a robust income (or big revenue for this website, for example).
MM: And there’s no meaningful correlation between monetary value and quality.
TM: One of the contributors to the Scratch anthology, who wasn’t present at that reading, talks about this problem, and describes how she wrote for free…
MM: Yes, Nina MacLaughlin.
TM: …and then got a book deal as a result.
MM: Directly from that free piece. Yeah, there’s not really an answer to these contradictions, but I do think we should start airing these financial realities. And to your larger point, it’s perhaps as it should be that great writing is not necessarily something that someone wants to click on and pay for. I don’t know. As you were saying before the interview, the kinds of essays that I want to write, the kinds of novels I love to read, are probably the kinds of things that are not going to be viral hits or whatever. A small number of people will read them, but they are still valuable, because they will really fucking matter to that small number of people. And hence to humanity.
They way I’ve been thinking about it is that art doesn’t necessarily fit into capitalism. There’s no real profit motive in literature, even great literature. I think what we discover when we all start talking about this is that, first of all, there are tons of contradictions, as you just stated. But what concerns me is that the position of art in capitalism typically means that people, myself included, with slightly (or vastly) more economic privilege, are the only people who are writing. I am middle class (although right now in San Francisco, where I live, I am probably the very bottom of the lower middle class, but San Francisco is crazytown). I can work on a book for two years and only make $7,000 from it, because I also have a job that I work at all the time. I’m not exactly rolling in it, but I’m okay. I’m not going hungry. I don’t have to stagger which utility bill to pay every month. Not everyone is like that. Some people cannot afford to work for free, and so it becomes a real problem when an entire industry is set up that way. This works across art forms, by the way — you see the same thing when you talk with painters. It’s maybe even harder for painters, because they have to have a physical studio and expensive equipment.
So on the one hand I’m like yeah, people who do work should be paid. On the other hand…there is a way in which artistic value cannot be quantified. These two things can be true at the same time. But I think where things become far less ambivalent is when it comes to writing for publications and companies that make a lot of money off your work while you’re not making money off your work.
MM: Exploitation is a lot more clear-cut, and that’s why I encourage people to understand where the money comes from in media and publishing (which is not to say that I myself entirely understand the deep economics of both those industries!). That’s why I think Choire Sicha’s essay in the book is really great, because it breaks down the way websites actually make money. We should know this. We work for them.
When I started doing Who Pays Writers?, people said “Yay, everyone’s naming numbers.” But I wanted more context. Why did you only get paid this much? What was the situation? Did you pitch, or did they approach you? That need for context evolved into Scratch mag. Then again, I also hear the flip side a lot, which is that freelancers just want numbers to figure out how to conduct their business.
Naming numbers is a radical act and it is important to have transparency, particularly in a business where nobody knows how it works because it doesn’t really work any one way for any one person, and there isn’t a set career path. But I realized pretty early on that if we restrict the conversation to just the numbers, there’s a lot that we’re ignoring. If you only talk about numbers, you’re not talking about all of the cultural and historical, and economic, and emotional issues around money that actually really do affect how — and whether — people make money.
TM: There are so many things about the digital economy that seem to invite exploitation, but then you also hear that many books never earn back their advance. As if the publishers are doing some sort of charity work.
MM: Ha. Well, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. And, much like nonprofits, the publishing industry tends to attract people who already have financial resources. If you don’t happen to come from the middle or upper classes, or an Ivy League-adjacent school, and you’d like to work in publishing — or start out as a full-time writer — you’re fucked. Because the pay is awful. And I’m very interested in how all that affects the stories we end up reading, with journalism as well as with books.
This was very much on my mind as I was doing the anthology, obviously. I wanted to make sure that I was compensating people enough for their work. I’ve been told that $400 is actually a really high amount to pay for an anthology essay, which is horrible and sad.
TM: You’re now the “writers and money” person. Is that your forever beat?
MM: Maybe? I’m not sure how I feel about that! I’m writing a novel! This wasn’t a topic I set out to be an “Expert” in, or really focus on. This project evolved very organically in different ways. A lot of it was just based on me noticing that people really wanted to talk about it, and going, all right, let’s roll with that and see what happens
TM: You followed the market!
MM: Ha. I remember when I had first had the idea to do Scratch magazine and was talking about it with Jane Friedman, who co-founded it with me, I actually thought of doing an anthology. Then I thought, No, that seems like a lot of work for no money. What if we made it a paid subscription thing and it was a magazine? There were enough stories to have it be a periodical. Then cut to a year and a half later. [laughs]
I suppose for me this project could be chalked up to that cheesy “say yes” thing. While I think it can also be very powerful to say no, for me, this whole experience was very much an exercise in saying, “Well this isn’t really the thing I set out to do, but it seems to be that I have a take on it that people value. Sure!” Not like, the masses are clamoring, but there was obvious interest.
In terms of my expertise, all it takes to be an expert is experience. And confidence. I’ve always felt like writing is my hobby, but I have in fact made my living as a writer for many, many years — copywriting, journalism, freelance essays — up until now, when I’m working as an editor. At some point recently I was bemoaning my lack of Expertise to my partner, and he said, “You’ve been making a living as a writer for 10 years. You are an expert in this.” I was like, “Oh, right. Yeah, I guess I am.”
TM: You didn’t think of yourself necessarily as a capital-W writer.
MM: Exactly. I like to tell that story because there is no capital-W writer when you’re in it. Few people think they’re a capital-W writer. There are so many different ways of doing it.
TM: And now you’re writing a novel that takes place in Santa Cruz.
MM: Yes, in the dystopian near past, also known as the late 1980s.
MM: And doing a second book.
MM: Yes! A seemingly random topical departure: I am writing a gardening book with my dad, who is an expert on organic gardening and farming. We’re writing a guide to growing fruit trees for Ten Speed Press. Alice Waters is writing the foreword! It will be in stores in 2019.
TM: I know that we’ve just talked about contradictions, but is there one major thing that you wish were different about the writing economy?
MM: I think it’s pretty clear that writers should be paid more. I don’t know where that money comes from, because I don’t know how much money publishers are making off of books. But, as I said, publishing isn’t a charity; someone must be making money. It’s just not always us.
TM: And now there’s probably no more National Endowment for the Arts.
MM: I feel that increasingly there’s no concept of how art is important in this society, even without the funding. I think that’s really scary and I think that it makes it even harder to break down some of those access barriers that we already have.
TM: Your day job’s model is basically one of patronage. Is that our best worst option at this point?
MM: I would say it’s not an option to rule out. You know, every model has its flaws and patronage is no more flawed than other models. It certainly is a long-lasting model, which Colin Dickey talks about a little bit in his essay in Scratch, where he looks into the Greek patronage system and the first Greek poet to ask to be paid by the word. But we’ve seen recently with places like Medium that even if you have a benefactor, the benefactor can withdraw their goodwill at any moment. That happens all the time with media companies that have venture capital funding. We need the guys who have no profit motive and want to replace the NEA out of the goodness of their rich bastard hearts.
There’s also the reality of writers who are funded by their spouses, and that gets into a whole other level of micro patronage, I guess you would call it. Right now my boyfriend is doing the laundry, and it was my turn to do the laundry this week, but I was like, “I have this interview.”
My partner and I are also beneficiaries of a government patronage system called rent control. That’s a big deal. I think about that a lot at this political moment too, that there are a few benefits left that self-employed people get from the government. And they didn’t get many in the first place! At our recent Scratch event in Texas, contributor Austin Kleon talked about having his entire family on the ACA and being really freaked out about what will happen. And he makes royalties.
I guess while I think that everyone should get the money — go get the money, please get the money — I do fundamentally think that the arts are not necessarily a thing that should be profitable. That’s not why the arts exist in our society. Part of a healthy society is one that understands that and finds ways to support its artists. With money.