Writers and Financial Woes: What’s Going On

An e-mail:

You talk about money and writing a lot, so let me ask you: What is it with writers and money? Lots of them seem to be in financial hot water these days.

Hmmmm. Well, let’s start by pointing out two rather salient points (note this discussion is primarily US-centric, but may have application elsewhere):

1. Things are tough all over. “These days” includes a profound recession, for which employment is a lagging factor, so let’s make sure we factor that not-trivial datum into our mindview. On top of this general employment malaise, writers of all sorts are taking an extra set of lumps: Journalism is losing thousands of full-time writers out of newspapers and magazines, writers in corporate settings are no safer than any other white-collar worker and publishing companies are actively trimming their author rosters and slicing advances. I’d hesitate to suggest that writers are having it worst of all recently, but you know what, they’re not just skating through this recession, either. They’ve got it middlin’ bad.

On top of this:

2. It’s not just writers who make lousy financial choices. There aren’t enough writers in the United States to cover all the bad mortgages out there right now, to make one obvious point. It’s not just writers who push the average consumer debt above $7,000 per card holder. It’s not just writers who save almost none of their income, leaving them vulnerable to sudden, unexpected changes in personal fortune. Writers are often bad with money, but then so are secretaries, and doctors, and teachers, and plumbers, and members of the military and any other group of people you might care to imagine, excepting possibly accountants, and honestly I wouldn’t even put it past them. So when we’re singling out writers for discussion, let’s remember they are not alone out there on the far end of the “wow, we really suck at finances” spectrum.

Having noted the above, here are some additional reasons why writers seem to so often fall face first, financially. Note that not all of these apply equally to every writer; we’re talking in vast generalities, here.

First, some practical issues:

3. Writer pay is generally low and generally inconsistent. And if one writes fiction for some/all of one’s writing output, especially so. I’ve written in detail about writing rates and payment before so it’s not necessary to go into detail again right at the moment. But what it means is that if one is a writer, one does a fair amount of work for not a whole lot of money, and then has to wait for that payment to arrive more or less at the pleasure of the person sending the check. Unfortunately, writers like pretty much everyone else have fixed expenses (mortgage/rent, bills etc), and those people generally do not wait to be paid at the pleasure of the writer; you pay your electric bill regularly or you don’t get electricity. This means writers are often in a situation where despite working prodigiously, they don’t have money in hand to pay regular, fixed monthly expenses.

4. Writers often lack what meager social net actually exists in corporate America. Writers are often self-employed, which means they bear the full brunt of the cost of health insurance or go without, and when they do pay for health insurance, they pay a lot because their individual plans don’t spread out risk like corporate plans do. Since per point three writers don’t get paid a lot (or regularly), very often they go without — as often do their spouses and children, if the spouse does not work for someone who provides health insurance. Which means they are quite susceptible to even incidental medical costs wreaking holy hell with their finances, and my own anecdotal experience with writers is that they are not exactly a hale and hearty group to start.

Self-employed writers don’t get 401(k)s and often don’t get around to funding IRAs, so their ability to save for retirement is made that much more challenging. They are on the hook for their full amount of Social Security taxes and also have to file taxes quarterly, and the IRS keeps a close eye on them (and all self-employed folks) for fraud and so on. Add it all up, and not being formally on the corporate teat makes it easier for writers to find themselves in a compromised financial situation.

5. Writers, like many people (even presumably educated folks), often have rudimentary financial skills. Which means even when they do have money and a desire to save it intelligently, they often don’t know how or have already gotten themselves into a compromised financial situation which makes smart and sane financial practices more difficult. Now, for writers, to some extent we can blame them and their arty-farty educations for this lack. I’m not sure how many MFA or undergrad writing programs out there require a “real world basic finance” class for a degree, but I’m guessing I can count them on one hand and have up to five fingers left over. Likewise, my anecdotal experience with writers suggests that not a whole lot of them have a vibrant love affair with mathematics, even the relatively basic sort that underpins day-to-day financial planning. So there are two strikes against them right there.

But to be fair to writers, once again, it’s not just them. I have a philosophy degree; it didn’t require a real world financial management class either. I don’t believe I actually ever took a class in basic financial planning and management, ever, and I’m guessing I’m not the only one there. This leaves basically everyone to get their financial educations from rah-rah financial bestsellers, fatuous talking heads on CNBC and folks like the sort who recently suckered millions of Americans into buying far more home than they could rationally afford on the basis that hey, the real estate market will never ever go down. This is, basically, an appalling state of affairs, and not just for writers.

Having enumerated some practical issues, here are some (for lack of a better term) “lifestyle” reasons why writers often have money problems:

6. Writers are often flaky. Which can mean (pick one or more) that they have short attentions spans, which penalize them for things like finances; they get bored quickly and therefore make bad economic decisions because they want to stop thinking about them and get on to interesting stuff; because they are clever with words they think that means that they are smart outside of their specific field (and particularly with money), which is common mistake people good in one intellectual area make; they trust people they should not with their money and/or their life situations; they go with their guts rather than with their brains; they prioritize immediate wants over long-term needs; and so on.

We could have a nice fun argument about whether flaky people become writers or whether being a writer makes one flaky, but it’s a discussion that’s not relevant at the moment; the point here is that many authors by their personal nature are not well-composed for the sober, staid and completely boring task of dealing with money.

(Note I’m not simply running down other writers here; ask my wife why it was when we met I had all my utilities on third notice, despite the fact I could afford to pay the bills. It will confirm my own “flaky like a pie crust” nature.)

Related to this:

7. Writers are often irrational risk-takers. Because how can you write about life without experiencing it, etc, which is a convenient rationale for doing stupid things and getting caught in bad situations, up to and including terrible relationships, addictions, impulsive life-changing decisions and so on, all of which end up having a (not in the least) surprising impact on one’s financial life. Hell, even a bog-standard nicotine addiction will set you back $9 per pack in NYC and $5 everywhere else (not counting the cost of one’s lung cancer treatments later). Whether these sorts of irrational risks actually do make one a better writer is of course deeply open to debate, but again, it’s a rationale as opposed to a reason.

Note that in the cases of 6 and 7 above, there’s another potential correlating issue, which is that writers like many creative types appear to have higher incidence of mental illness than your random sample of, say, grocery store managers or bus drivers. Mental illness — particularly illness that goes untreated/undertreated due to financial constraints — will have corresponding effects on one’s financial situation.

8. Writers are often attracted to other creative folks, including other writers. Nothing wrong with this in a general sense, mind you. We all love who we love, and what’s not to love about another witty, smart and talented person? The problem financially speaking, however, is that other writers very often have the same basic financial issues: low, irregular pay, no benefits, poor finance skills, tendencies toward flakiness and risk-taking, and such. Two incomes are theoretically better than one, but two sporadic incomes accompanied by everything else that comes attached to the writing life isn’t necessarily as much better than one would expect. And don’t forget: Kids may happen. They often do.

9. Writing can be expensive. The actual act of writing is not expensive, mind you — if one had to one could do it for free off a library computer, although few do — but everything around it adds up. Typewriters, paper, ribbons and correcting fluid have been replaced by computers, printers, printer ink and internet access, so the sunk cost there is roughly the same as it ever was, as are the costs of sending manuscripts and correspondence, at least to the markets which still require paper submissions. Writers who write in coffee shops and cafes pay “rent” in coffee and pastries; it sounds silly, but those things ain’t cheap when you check the tab. Writers are gregarious and go to things like workshops and conventions and writers’ nights at the local bar; these aren’t required costs but they are desirable activities and they cost money to attend (even if it’s just to get an overpriced beer).

Do all these things mean writers are more susceptible than other trades/professions to encounter serious financial issues? Not necessarily; folks in other creative fields (acting, music, art, dance) have the same set of practical and lifestyle challenges, and while the challenges of other lines of work will vary, they’re still there – hell, even doctors and lawyers find themselves saddled first with huge amounts of debt and then with some impressive overhead to keep their practices going. Pick a profession — there’s lots of ways to get yourself in financial hot water doing it.

However, there is one thing that can make it appear that writers as a class are in more financial trouble than other folks, regardless of whether or not it’s true:

10. Writers write about their situations. Because they’re writers, you see. Writing is what they do. And lots of writers feel the need to share their financial situations with an audience, to a greater or lesser degree. Why? Because (again, pick one or more) writing helps writers think through their situation; writing is therapy; writers feel an obligation to share; writers are hoping for sympathy, encouragement and possibly solutions or even help. Whatever their reasons, it shouldn’t be very surprising that you’ll more than occasionally read an author lay out his or her financial woes, and (yes) do it in an interesting and engaging style that sticks in your head more than, say, a similar blog post by a janitor might. It’s an interesting curse, you might say.

So those are some reasons writers might be having a hard time of it right now — and why it might seem they’re having a harder time than some others.


Me on Humor and Science Fiction

Whilst at Worldcon in Montreal this year, I was interviewed for a Canadian TV series called The Electric Playground on the subject of humor and science fiction. They’ve uploaded the interview to their Web site and it is here. Some irony for you: I make a crack about jocks in the interview, whilst wearing a football jersey (this one, in fact). But it does have my name on it, so that’s all right.


On the Sending of Books to Athena

I’ve gotten e-mails from a number of YA authors asking whether it would be okay (and if it’s appropriate) to send copies of their books to Athena for her potential reading pleasure. So as to address this once and thereafter have something to point these folks to, here’s the ruling on that:

1. I certainly have no objection to people sending books to Athena. She’s an avid book reader, and likes all sorts of books. Send away.

2. However, if you (or your publisher/publicist/editor/whomever) are already sending me the book for consideration for The Big Idea or a mention on Whatever, you are also sending it to Athena, since I share books with her and she delights in coming into the office and looking to see what’s new.

3. So the best thing is probably to send it to me directly, via the process outlined in my Publicity Guidelines. Trust me, Athena will see it, too.

I should also note that if you were wanting to send your work to Athena in the hopes of getting a review from her that goes up here, don’t get your hopes up, as her time is at a premium (school, friends, video games, reading) and she doesn’t spend a huge amount of it online. Moreover, I generally disapprove of people wanting to use my daughter as part of their publicity apparatus, however innocent these folks are in their intent. If Athena wants to saying something publicly about a book she enjoys, that’s one thing, but I’m not going to suggest it to her as something she should do. That said, if she likes what she reads, you might get a fan letter from her. I do encourage her to let authors know she liked a book.


Child’s Play Up for 2009

One of my favorite charities is back once again: Child’s Play, which helps distribute toys and video games to children’s hospitals all over the US and the world, is now open to receive your charitable donations. Go to the site, click on the map for a children’s hospital near you, and you’ll be taken to an Amazon wish list for that particular hospital, where you can buy toys and games that the hospital has chosen (For example, here’s the Amazon Wish List for the Children’s Medical Center in Dayton, which is the one I donated to). You can also or alternately donate cash to Child’s Play directly, via PayPal or through the mail.

Child’s Play is run by the folks at Penny Arcade, who originally did it to make the point that video gamers aren’t disengaged shut-ins zapping things on phosphor screens, and to point out that video games themselves could make a difficult situation — being a kid in a hospital — slightly more bearable. In both cases the charity has overachieved, with Child’s Play bringing in literally millions in contributions since it began a few years ago. And they’ve made it amazingly easy to be involved. It’s a model of how charitable giving can and should work online. Check it out and if you are of a mind to, give.


Still Life With Cat and Books

Because what is life without cats and books? Catless and bookless, that’s what.

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