The Numbers Game

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17 April 2009

NPR has reported on the phenomenon of gimongous book deals.  Celebrity comedians Tina Fey and Kathy Griffin, and writers Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants) and Audrey Niffenegger (The Time Traveler’s Wife) have reportedly landed hefty advances ($2-6 million) of late.  Click here for the full story.

Money.  I’ve decided to add this as a post category, in defiance of the notion that one shouldn’t speak of such things.  In recognition of the fact that most writers and artists spend more time and energy struggling with the lack of it than they would care to admit.  And to acknowledge that, yes, literature is bought and sold in the marketplace, evaluated numerically by corporate executives. 

I’m not sure who originally came up with the “advance” system.  Writers are paid up front, and they keep the money regardless of the book’s sales.  This is good for writers who receive smaller advances — I think a writer should at the least be paid a living wage for his time value in creating the work.  (I am likely in the minority on this — what a crusty, old-fashioned idea — and the majority of literary writers don’t receive anywhere near their time-value — in advance, or ever.)  On the downside, authors whose books don’t sell well often get their desserts on the second or third book, i.e. it’s like reincarnation: if you don’t deliver sales the first time around, you pay for it in the next go around — with a decreased advance, or no contract at all.

But back to the mega-advances… in this economy, folks seem to be questioning the business-sense of the seven-figure advance.  HarperStudio, an imprint of HarperCollins, is experimenting with a new structure: they publish two books per month, with  no advances above $100,000, and instead of the traditional royalties arrangement (usually 10-15%), they will split any profits 50-50 with the author.

Not until recently, as my livelihood depends increasingly on my writing life, have I worried too much about all this.  I’ve never had to consider my “worth” in dollars in quite this way.  And I should say that, unfortunately, it’s often not even the literature which is evaluated numerically, but the author.  Is the author appealing, charismatic, sellable; does the author have a sensational story to tell.

Wednesday was tax day, the men in suits may be knocking soon.  The summer is looking bleak for teaching work.  These worries simmer daily, most people these days can relate I’m sure .  But it wasn’t until I received an email from a longtime friend that I realized how much these money-for-art issues have been troubling me.  She wrote, with such plain sincerity: “I’m so sorry about your financial struggles.  I wish we were wealthy so we could give you a stipend or something.”  And she meant it.  

You deserve to be paid for your work is what I heard.  And it became painfully clear to me in that moment just how much I needed to hear it.

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