For Writers: Get Off Your Ass (Whether You Want To Get Paid or Not)

This post, from Jennifer Topper, originally appeared on her Don’t Publish Me! blog on 11/10/09 and is reprinted here in its entirety with her permission.

If it takes an hour to write 1000 good, solid words, at let’s say, $35 per hour, and we’re talking about a 75,000 word novel, that novel should net you $2625. It’s valued at a literal price of $2625. Ok, you can bump it up, what with revisions and all. 

Or is $35 per hour too low? You think your writing is worth more?

Partners at major New York law firms list their hourly rates at $750-1100 per hour. Paralegals, though they don’t get paid this much, are billed to clients at about $200 per hour. You think a good novelist is worth more than $35 per hour?

Shrinks cost about $200-350 per hour, with or without insurance.

Getting your car fixed is about $70 per hour for the labor. Parts are separate.

What about a clogged toilet or other plumbing problem? Expect a baseline of $150 for the plumber to come to your home, and then about $200 per hour in labor costs thereafter.

I’m sorry, did you say you think your writing should be valued at more than $35 per hour?

Because you can go down the street and get raped at McDonald’s for $7 per hour of ballbusting work.

Or you could be a cook, like I did, and work 18-hour days and take home $120.

Maybe we can bump that writer’s rate up a notch, to include the marketing we must do for ourselves to get our books on shelves, and to get people to know who we are. How many hours will that cost? We can build it into our overhead.

So what I’m getting at is this price versus value argument we’ve seen so much about. Why is it important? Because as we (writers) agonize over who’s going to publish our work and what are we going to get out of it, the form and medium must come into play. If going to e-readers is going to lower the cost of production and therefore more dollars go into our pockets, then great, I guess?

But does that mean fewer books sold and more money? Yeah, kinda. In the indie record business, my argument to sign bands on my independent squat of a label as opposed to their signing with the big boy labels was that they’d get a better split with me– 50/50 versus the bigboy’s convoluted royalty-advance formula, which left little-to-nothing for the bands after recouping "costs" of production and marketing. (Well, the trustee appointed by the United States Bankruptcy Court of the Eastern District of New York-Brooklyn "valued" my surplus CDs at $0 so that I could seamlessly file a Chapter 7 (no liquidation) bankruptcy, hence the dumping of CDs in the East River on a dark night.) So it depends what you think you’re in the business of writing for: selling books for money or spreading your gospel. The two objectives are not mutually exclusive.

Are independent bands’ objectives that much different than writers’? I guess it depends–sure, we would all like a few extra bucks in our pockets. Doing it for the ahhrt? Please. Doing it because we HAVE to? In a metaphorical kind of way I would buy that argument.

Here’s where the bands and the writers diverge, though. Every band knows that to get a following they need to tour. They need to tour like crazy and do shows in every nasty corner of every bumfuck city. Are writers doing the equivalent of that? Or are they waiting for their publisher to hook them up with a few readings near where they live on the weekends between 2pm-4pm but no Sunday because my kid has soccer practice? See where I’m going with this? Every writer must be pounding the pavement and knocking on doors to get their books on shelves, whether that book is released digitally or otherwise, the work must be done at the grassroots level to cultivate a following. Readings, doing posters and handing them out at stores, crafts fairs, schools, universities, senior centers, homeless shelters: get your ass out and READ to the people whom you ostensibly wrote for. How the hell else are people supposed to know about your work–by the cover of your book? (guffaw, guffaw)

We value our work because we think there is enormous intellectual value. But without an audience, that value cannot be quantified. Writing without an audience is therapy. Last week I posted about offering advertising space on my book. I don’t see anything wrong with that. I mean, I do, but really, we’re in business, let’s face it, we need to earn a buck. And maybe someone who places the ad will be interested in reading your book. (just one, is all it takes.)

With that said, I can’t WAIT to get going on it. I’m going to self-pub 29 Jobs and a Million Lies and get it in everywhere I can. Then I’ll adapt it to a screenplay and whore myself to indie film production houses with a copy of the book and get the damned movie made. And so on and so forth, with Getting the Gang Back Together (working title to be completed by 12/1/09), and the Intuitive Cookbook (completed, just need photos…anyone?). DIY style.


Jennifer Topper is the author of 29 Jobs and a Million Lies, and member of the Year Zero Writers Collective.