Living Like Fitzgerald

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.

38 thoughts on “Living Like Fitzgerald

  1. “Aside from the fact that I’d have less than four years left on my life…”

    Or, as Tom Lehrer put it about Mozart, “It is sobering to think that when he was my age, he’d been dead for seven years.”

  2. Yet another of the many sad stories of authors and how rather poor their lives were.

    With the likes of Fitzgerald, Poe and Faulkner all suffering through life like they did, it certainly makes one glad for what one has.

    If I manage to afford a small house where I could support a small family off of writing, I’d be a very happy man.

  3. Sad t think that had helived today, F. Scott Fitzgerald would be forced by TSA and computers more generally to be Francis S. K. Fitzgerald. I suspect that would have cut his sales and revenues. ( For fifty+ years I could be Scott Hauger, as my Mom and Dad labeled me. But increasingly I am forced to be James S. Hauger. I believe I would have had an ally in F. Scott

    J. Scott

  4. As any number of authors currently both write under pen names and get through TSA lines without a cavity search each time, I suspect this issue would be less problematic than you assume. One’s name on a book and one’s name on government-approved ID don’t have to be the same.

  5. Scott @ 3

    Spooky! I’m a reluctant “James S.” too. It usually means introducing myself as “It-says-James-but-call-me-Scott-I-go-by-my-middle-name.” If my new friends’ aren’t quick on their feet, they my also get to hear the story of why I go by my middle name. It’s profoundly mundane, but it does manage to spread around that “Why do you keep calling me by the wrong name?” frustration.

    John @ 4

    I see from a previous post that you have a room in your house called “The Formal Dining Room.” In a small, happier and not-so-alcoholic way, you’re already living a small part of the F. Scott Fitzgerald dream.

  6. I’d wish him Peace of Mind too, but it looks like he could have done with both.

    Do we have any information on what what % of writers for Amazing Stories were paid, and how much they were supposed to be paid?

  7. Poor ol’ F. Scott didn’t get to enjoy the riches from the millions sold after his death. Unlike Harper Lee. Apparently 30,000,000 copies sold now. My battered old 1979 edition has a big 11,000,000 copies sold plastered over the cover. Pity she didn’t turn TKAM into a series…

  8. From the last paragraph, the thought springs up that it’s very weird how so many people, living a life in which they’re not happy, think that making scads of “rock star” money will make a happy life for them, when in many cases it’s demonstrably untrue. The most blatant poster-child for that is Axl Rose, IMO.

    Making a reasonable living seems much more reasonable.

    However, getting paid 1/20 of what used to be a “going rate” for writing doesn’t sound too pleasant. :\

    What’s the per-word rate for more “mainstream” fiction writing?

  9. Now I’m trying to think of what authors today are making about $500,000/year. The really big names like JK Rowling and Stephen King would be way over that. Our illustrious host has posted his financials before and it was under $100,000 if I recall correctly.

    I’m guessing maybe the people who are big enough to get on talk shows, but not big enough to refuse to appear on them would be in about the right range.

  10. “Our illustrious host has posted his financials before and it was under $100,000 if I recall correctly.”

    Your memory is incorrect. However, I do not come close to $500,000, either.

  11. Been thinking Deep Thoughts and Counting Your Blessings, John?

    Recently, I’ve been doing the same thing. I work for a large mortgage company (on the servicing, not origination side). I have been working on our company’s portion of the national mortgage recovery. (Home Affordable Mortgage Program, or HAMP) People submit a Hardship Letter as part of their application, along with their financial details.

    Hardships include illness, injury, loss of a spouse (through death *or* divorce), child, parent, job, and often more than two of the above. I tell ya, reading the letters breaks your heart, but is uplifting to know we are helping people, too.

    Parts of my life the past few years have been crap (including the end of a 20+ year relationship), but at least I have a decent job & my health (which is much improved – thanks to my awesome doctors and my health insurance). I have some debt, but *don’t* have tens (or hundreds!) of thousands of dollars of credit card debt.

  12. You’d be losing it too if you kept getting kidnapped and had to be rescued by some elf kid.

    lol. Shigeru Miyamoto named the first Zelda game after Mrs. Fitzgerald, actually. He remembered hearing about her and thought it was a great name.

    As for old F., I’ve actually never read The Great Gatsby, but I’ve read both This Side of Paradise and Tender is the Night.

  13. Ah, but everyone here has lost track of what the true question for John should be! John, if you were to acquire a “debilitating addiction”, what would it be? YOu can choose two if you get stuck, it’s OK… :)

  14. Shigeru Miyamoto named the first Zelda game after Mrs. Fitzgerald, actually. He remembered hearing about her and thought it was a great name.

    Ah, okay. I kept thinking, “I know plenty of people with a Zelda addiction.”

  15. “he doesn’t seem to have been very happy in his life while he lived it,”

    Fitzgerald wasn’t doing too badly in the final years of his life. He was in a happy relationship with Sheila Graham, he was working on his magnum opus The Last Tycoon, and he had a circle of devoted friends and fans. Who knows how his life would have gone if he’d managed to live longer.

  16. shaneon @ 8: “Poor ol’ F. Scott didn’t get to enjoy the riches from the millions sold after his death. Unlike Harper Lee. Apparently 30,000,000 copies sold now. My battered old 1979 edition has a big 11,000,000 copies sold plastered over the cover. Pity she didn’t turn TKAM into a series…”

    [shudder] It’s a damn shame she didn’t publish any more fiction after that, but I think TKAM stands better on its own. I think a series would’ve been extremely hard to do without effectively watering down the impact of the original.

    For anyone who has never read “To Kill A Mockingbird” or seen the movie, I can’t recommend either highly enough. They are each intensely beautiful works of art.

    The way Heinlein inspired a whole passel of scientists and engineers, Harper Lee inspired people to become lawyers. (Good lawyers, who — contrary to understandable common opinion — do exist and are worth their weight in platinum.)

  17. John, I’m not sure where you got your 20:1 ratio for money value from 1920 to today, but the first inflation calculator I found with google gives only about 10:1 from 1920 to 2008, or 12:1 for 1924 to 2008.

    I happened to read Fitzgerald’s letters a year or two ago, and I was pretty surprised by the money he was making on individual stories. The published letters do frequently discuss his negotiations for publishing contracts. Part of the reason he could pull in rates that still sound reasonable today was he was selling to Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post, magazines with circulation in the millions.

  18. Matt:

    “John, I’m not sure where you got your 20:1 ratio for money value from 1920 to today”

    It’s in the article. The author notes his formula is adjusted a bit off a straight inflation calculator.

  19. Matt @ 22 – the 20:1 ratio comes from the article itself. In the 6th paragraph the author notes that the Comsumer Price Index would give a ratio of 12:1, but rejects this on the grounds that although conventional household purchases have increased in price by this ratio, luxury goods have gone up by more over the same time period. Since Fitzgerald was living a wealthy lifestyle, he thinks it more appropriate to consider the increase in luxury goods. After considering several, he picks on 20:1 because that’s by how much a cadillac has increased in price. I’ve got to admit, it’s a rather arbitrary line of reasoning to my way of thinking, but that’s where the number comes from.

  20. I vaguely recall from Asimov’s autobiography that the going rate for SF magazines at the beginning was half a cent a word. I remember him being uncharacteristically frank about how much he earned until the mid-sixties (at which point he felt it would be bragging) and it is probably of some historical interest as far as the industry goes. I read this nearly thirty years ago though, so I can’t say much concrete about what it said.

    Part of Fitzgerald’s problem was that he was trying to maintain a high-class lifestyle in a city that was as expensive now as it was then. It just goes to show that living on what you earn is often more important than earning more.

  21. One other reason that Mr Scalzi should not attempt to emulate FSG’s life:

    That would require putting Krissy in an inpatient mental health facility to parallel Zelda. Not only would that be inappropriate (she’s obviously the saner of the two), she’d resist. Probably with a baseball bat (remember the photo). Which, come to think of it, might actually undermine her claim to sanity…

  22. I know from first-hand experience that whenever Hugo Gernsback received a note from an author that mentioned that that author did not get paid for a contribution some time in the past, he would immediately issue a check === and this was in the 1950’s — long after Hugo was out of Sci-Fi Business.

    For more information on Hugo Gernsback check out a new biography available on Amazon.

    The document was found by me when we closed down Gernsback Publications in 2003. It was an old ms that I edited and produced as a book.

    Follow the link and you can go to the book and thanks to Amazon’s “look inside” feature, you can even get an idea of what it covers.

    Hope you find it interesting.

    For more information feel free to contact me, Larry Steckler, at PoptronixInc@aol.com

  23. In terms of authors making mid-6-figures …

    Plenty of speculative fiction authors are showing up on the NY Times and other top 10 or top 50 hardcover bestseller lists… They are probably at or above that range in good years.

    Terry Pratchett consistently sells about half what JK Rowling does per year – which is pretty darn good numbers, and he’s been doing it for longer.

    I believe that Baen’s David Webber and John Ringo are selling in that range, but someone with one of the books statistics publications would do better at this analysis.

  24. Damon Runyon, in the 30s, was getting a dollar a word from the Saturday Evening Post and other short story markets; at the same time, he was Hearst’s best paid reporter and he was raking it in with screen plays of some of the most popular movies of his day.

    No need for a multiplier to put him in the upper reaches of top-earning writers today.

    (This is based on biographies by Jimmy Breslin and Tom Clark.)

  25. It seems to me that the difference in income is caused entirely by the reading public. If people no longer buy short fiction in droves, then authors can no longer make a living selling it. Fitzgerald’s short stories may have supported him but they aren’t what has maintained his reputation. The simple fact is that people aren’t reading them anymore.

    Which is not to say the short story is dead; it’s rather like the cockroach, which was much bigger in prehistoric times but shrank to survive and is, buy all accounts, doing just fine.

  26. Daryl @17, Our Gracious Host’s addiction is obviously the Internet, but fortunately it’s a career-enhancing one rather than a debilitating one. (Twitter, however…)

  27. Short story payments have kept pace with inflation. Of course, they’ve also kept pace with circulation!

    As far as ol’ Fitzy, could be worse. He could have been Nathanael West.

  28. I was just thinking that I wish I had such a way with words when I wrote my high school history report on F. Scott in 1980. I got a C. It was pretty lame. Yours would definitely have gotten an A. ^_^

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