With a hat tip to the estimable Walter Jon Williams, I point you in the direction of this article, which examines the tax returns of one F. Scott Fitzgerald, of whom you may have heard, over the length of his writing career from 1919 through 1940. It turns out that during those years, Fitzgerald more or less consistently clocked $24,000 in writing income, which the author of the article, employing a 20:1 ratio of money values then to money values now, offers as the equivalent of making $500,000 a year in today’s dollars. This is a nice income if you can get it, and Fitzgerald got it in an era in which his tax rate was something on the order of 8%.
What’s interesting for modern writers, however, are the little tidbits that let you know how much things have changed — and how much, alas, things have stayed the same.
For example, here’s one fun fact: The engine of Fitzgerald’s income (at least until he went to Hollywood) was not his novels but his short stories. He considered them his “day job,” a thing to be endured because writing them would allow him the financial wherewithal to write the novels he preferred to do. And how much did he make for these short stories? Well, in 1920, he sold eleven of them to various magazines for $3,975. This averages to about $360 per story, and (assuming an average length of about 6,000 words) roughly six cents a word.
To flag my own genre here, “Six cents a word,” should sound vaguely familiar to science fiction and fantasy writers, as that’s the current going rate at the “Big Three” science fiction magazines here in the US: Analog (which pays six to eight cents a word), Asimov’s (six cents a word “for beginners”) and Fantasy & Science Fiction (six to nine cents a word). So, sf/f writers, in one sense you can truly say you’re getting paid just as well as F. Scott Fitzgerald did; but in another, more relevant, “adjusted for inflation” sense, you’re making five cents to every one of Fitzy’s dollars. Which basically sucks. This is just one reason why making a living writing short fiction is not something you should be counting on these days.
(Mind you, science fiction writers of the 1920s weren’t making what Fitzgerald did, either — indeed, if they were writing for Amazing Stories (the first SF magazine, which debuted in 1926), it was an open question as to whether they’d get paid at all; publisher Hugo Gernsback loved his “scientifiction” but he had liquidity problems, which is why he lost control of the magazine in 1929.)
In 1920, Fitzgerald also had his first novel published: This Side of Paradise. He made $6,200 on it for the year, from a royalty rate of 10% (later bumped up to 15%), on a cover price of $1.75. Using the 20:1 multiplier, we can say hardcovers in the US, at least, have gotten a lot cheaper, but that royalty rates for authors are essentially unchanged 90 years later; I myself make a 10% – 15% royalty on my books.
It’s also interesting to note that Paradise was Fitzgerald’s bestselling book while he was still alive, and that it sold less than 50,000 copies at the time. This would be similar to someone selling 150,000 copies of their book today: A solid seller, to be sure (I wouldn’t turn down sales like that) but no Twilight, or even The Secret History. It’s also a reminder that the main portion of Fitzgerald’s literary fame had to wait until he was dead and unable to appreciate it — The Great Gatsby regularly sells in excess of 200,000 copies a year these days (hello, high school reading lists!), but sold only 25,000 copies while Fitzgerald was alive. I’m sure Fitzgerald would be happy being considered a writer for the ages — he was somewhat embittered at the end of his life that his literary star had fallen so dramatically — but I also suspect he wouldn’t have minded all those yearly sales happening today occurring while he was still alive and having use of the money. He certainly could have used it.
Which is of course the other thing; in this era or the 1920s, a half million dollars (or its real money equivalent) is not an inconsiderable sum — and yet Fitzgerald had a hard time keeping it. Much of that was due the cost of tending to Zelda, his increasingly mentally erratic wife, who was frequently in psychiatric hospitals — yes! Health care was expensive then, too! — but some of it was just money just leaking out all over the place, as money seems to do around those creative types. And then there was Fitzgerald’s desire to live well, with servants and nice houses and such, and his wee problem with alcohol. Eventually Fitzgerald’s financial issues became significant enough that he felt obliged to work in Hollywood — Hollywood! of all places — which he found remunerative but degrading.
The lessons here: Do keep track of your money, try to live within your means, avoid debilitating addictions if at all possible and, for the nonce at least, try to have decent health insurance. That’ll help you keep your cash as a writer, whether you’re making $24,000 a year from your writing, or $500,000.
On my end of things, while I wouldn’t mind getting paid like Fitzgerald (in the “half a million” sense, not the “$24,000” sense), I don’t think I’d want to live like him. Aside from the fact that I’d have less than four years left on my life, he doesn’t seem to have been very happy in his life while he lived it, and that wasn’t something that having a significant income was going to fix. I might have wished for him a little less money (and the need to acquire it), and a little more peace of mind.