As many followers of ScienceThrillers.com know, I run a very small, boutique independent publishing company that specializes in stories with science (ScienceThrillers Media). I’m also very involved in my local Sacramento writers’ community. Therefore when I heard about Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living edited by Manjula Martin, I immediately went to my library’s website to request a copy. In the publishing business, money is like an STD: some people definitely have it, but no one wants to talk about it. Writers have little or no idea how much income other writers actually earn from selling books. In this vacuum of ignorance, expectations inflate. No, you won’t earn much money even if you get a “big” advance (typically spread out over several years, and diminished by taxes and agent fees), nor even if your book makes a best seller list.
According to the cover, Scratch aspires “to confront the age-old question: How do creative people make money?” A highlighted quote claims, “Manjula Martin…has done more than perhaps anyone else to shed light on the financial nitty-gritty of the writing profession.”
Well, I don’t know what Manjula Martin has done in general, but I can tell you that in this particular book, the only light that was shed came from a flashlight in your dad’s glove compartment powered by a couple of five-year-old C cells.
In other words, the cover copy lied. In this collection of essays, there’s no financial nitty-gritty. Actual numbers are as rare as snow in July. Instead, the essayists tiptoe around pragmatic questions of money to instead navel-gaze about issues of privilege and class. Several of them explicitly repeat the problem this book was supposed to solve: they flatly refuse to discuss specific financial details.
Now, I understand why a person wants to keep her income information private. But then don’t write an essay for a book that purports to reveal data about income or advance money.
Part of the problem is the working writers chosen to contribute to this collection are pretty much all traditionally published writers of literary fiction. The Iowa-NYC-MFA crowd. None are scrappy indies of the kind who are sweeping the amazon Kindle bestseller lists. And almost none of them write genre fiction, which is where the money, such as it is in the novel-writing business, can be found. They share a proud disdain for money, acknowledging it as a necessary evil but definitely unclean. As you might expect, this makes it rather difficult to have an honest, open conversation about “the financial nitty-gritty of the writing profession.” These people write beautiful essays, I’ll give them that. But they’re not essays that are of any use–and that (I thought) was the point of this book.
Compounding my dissatisfaction, the essayists in general make some of the most titanically bad financial decisions that parts of the book could be re-issued as a cautionary tale in poor personal financial planning. I’d rather take medical advice from Huck Finn with his dead-cat-in-a-graveyard therapy than take financial advice from these folks. Is it because these people are creatives? Is it because they’re living in an MFA bubble? I don’t know. Plenty of indie writers have embraced the practical side of the writing business. The fact that many of the essayists are also Park Slope-dwelling millennials, a group not known for its get-up-and-go tenacity, does not help.
So unfortunately I will not be recommending Scratch to my fellow authors in Sacramento, nor will I give it to the authors I sign at ScienceThrillers Media. I’ll give them straight talk about the likelihood of very small royalty payments, and a copy of a book that they can actually use (Online Marketing for Busy Authors by Fauzia Burke for business, and Troubleshooting Your Novel by Steven James for craft).