Doing the math: writing for blockheads

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money."—Samuel Johnson

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

Some people think I’m rich because I’ve published a book—four books, in fact—and in the minds of many people, to publish a book is to snatch the brass ring, entitling the lucky writer to a privileged ride on the carousel of fame and fortune.

I, too, grew up with the notion that writers were, ipso facto, pretty well off. In those long-ago days, writing not only looked glamorous, but also looked like the only way I might avoid a lifetime of working in one of the factories that employed most of the people in my hometown.

There weren’t too many avenues that led away from such a life if you were a lower-class kid. My buddies and I used to stand under the streetlights on summer nights, smoking cigarettes and listening to the crickets as we crafted schemes that might spare us the fate our fathers knew, of hard, mind-numbing work.

None of us had prospects, or much of a shot at college, so we figured that getting rich was going to be a matter of pitting our cleverness against the forces that sought to consign us to those factories. Cleverness translated into either crime or creativity. Far into those summer nights, we constructed elaborate plans of robbing banks, or of jewelry-store heists that would net us enough money to flee to Mexico, where desperadoes of our sort could live like kings.

The crime aspiration always ended with the image of a future prison cellmate named Spike, a guy we imagined as hairy, tattooed and possessed of a super-sized sex drive. Spike, far more than any other aspect of incarceration, kept us to the straight and narrow. If punishment had meant only being locked up while being served three meals a day, we could have accepted the risk rather happily. After all, it would have given us the time we needed for those creative pursuits that, ultimately, would make us wildly celebrated authors, like Jack Kerouac or one of those other guys who’d sprung from nowhere into the big time, scruffy guys like us who’d run down the American dream and wrestled it into submission.

By our reckoning, if a book got published and sold a million copies (which we figured was an average sale for a book), and if the writer got half the cover price (half the cover price, we figured, was about right, since it was our brilliant imaginations that had provided the publisher with the product in the first place), then we would never have to work again. Women, we figured, would be attracted to successful writers, so all our worries would be dissolved in this single verbal vault onto Easy Street.

The only flaw in this plan was that none of us knew much about writing. Mostly, we seemed to think it had to do with just coming up with a really great idea. The writing part would take care of itself. But, when we actually sat down to do it, writing tended to get lonely, frustrating and boring rather quickly. Plus, it came to seem a great deal like work, the very activity we were trying to avoid. So we’d quickly leave our scribbling to reconvene under the streetlights to carry on the urgent discussion about how we were going to manage our great creative successes without selling out our artistic integrity. Though we were surely in it for the money, we would never do anything to sacrifice the purity of our artistic vision, when and if we got one.

There still may be dreamers of this dream out there in the American night, and to those dreamers, I say, it ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Let’s start with the money. My first book sold 80,000 copies, a number far removed from the million copies I’d once assumed was the virtual birthright of anyone who managed to elbow a book into print. My agent managed to get me an advance of $37,500, a sum significantly higher than that offered for most first books; advances tend to come in at around $5,000, or even less. The $37,500 was to be paid in two installments: half when the contract was signed and half when the book was finished. My first installment was $18,750 minus the agent’s 15-percent commission and also minus the 28 percent the Internal Revenue Service was in on from the get-go. That brought my share down to a little less than $12,000.

Fortunately, my day job as a teacher paid my health-insurance costs and other benefits. If I’d had to pay for those out of pocket, I would have been in deficit rather quickly.

The book required almost a year to write. I took a partial leave of absence from teaching that allowed me to keep my insurance, but my pay, of course, was cut accordingly. Once the second half of my advance was paid, my book income would average just under $2,000 a month. Once I factored in the reduction in my teaching salary, my income was about the same as if I’d never taken on the work of a book at all.

A book “earns out” by repaying the advance out of the writer’s commission. In my case, I was entitled to 8 percent of the cover price of each book sold. My book, a trade paperback, retailed for $9.95. That meant I was to earn back the advance at about 80 cents a book. If my book sold, let’s say, 12 million copies, I would have in the neighborhood of $4 million dollars free and clear—once the advance was repaid, the agent got her 15 percent, and the IRS took its hit.

What I didn’t know at the time was that no book short of the Bible sells 12 million copies. Damn few sell a million copies, or anything like a million copies. The big sellers—the Kings and the Grishams—sell in the numbers they do only because of name recognition wedded to massive promotional campaigns no unknown writer will ever see.

So, the $4 million was out.

But let’s say I managed to hit one out of the park and came up with a book that caught a breeze to sail over the fence and sell 500,000 copies. It could happen. That amount of books would return me $360,000 after the advance was paid off but before my agent was paid and before the IRS and the state of California took their respective bites. Subtract their share, and I’d be down to less than $250,000, which, a decade or so ago, would have bought me a rather nice house, if I didn’t hanker for a view of water or have any other too tony expectations.

Alas, I didn’t sell half a million books. My book “earned out” after the sale of the 54,000th copy. After that, I was raking in my 80 cents per copy, minus 15 percent and minus 28 percent. The book went through a whole bunch of printings, but its sales finally sputtered to a halt after I’d made a few thousand more dollars. And that was that.

My take? About $26,000 net.

Still, the fact that writing seldom spins up a jackpot shouldn’t discourage anyone from dreaming. We’re Americans, after all; dreaming is what we do best. The dream of literary largesse is as fine a dream as we have going—the dream of making something out of nothing, of taking the raw material of creativity and native wit and cooking up a golden goose. The fact that the goose is more often closer to a goose egg shouldn’t stop you, if you’re going to bother with dreaming. After all, as someone once observed: “If you’re going to dream, dream big, because when your dreams are realized, you’re through.”