Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin
Why do we write? Why do so many school kids say they are going to be writers? What causes the disconnect between that desire and its actual execution? We write to learn, to communicate, to earn money. All are valid reasons, but it is the last which concerns us here. When I tell people that I review books, they inevitably want to know how much money I make for each review. I am not sure if they are satisfied with my assertion that receiving a book is sufficient recompense.
Manjula Martin’s informative collection of essays and interviews Scratch is based on the online magazine of the same name (Martin is the founder). The book discusses how would-be and successful writers approach money, how the work of writing affects their lives, and the line between literature and business. She examines these topics in three sections: Early Days, The Daily Grind, and Someday. The one constant, she explains in her introduction, is that the finances of literature are diverse.
Susan Orlean, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen are among the collection’s nearly three dozen contributors. In one essay, Cheryl Strayed, author of Wild, discusses the economics of an advance of $100,000 for her first book, the novel Torch. $25,000 checks came incrementally between 2003 and 2007. The agent took 15% and the IRS took about a third, and the rest paid off debt. Wild was finally sold in 2009 for $400,000. After the usual takings, she was able to pay off more credit card and student loan debt. Her first royalty checks did not arrive until 2013. It is a tough world.
Martin details her journey towards becoming a writer in “The Best Work in Literature.” Her story is familiar: she graduated from being a reader who wanted to become a famous writer to someone who held a variety of jobs with a cornucopia of fellow workers. She became a listener and observer, only later recognizing that she had been accumulating the stories and experiences that would form the bedrock on which her writing now stands.
Writers exist in a world that keeps count in a variety of ways. James Patterson’s bio says he has written more New York Times number one bestsellers than anyone. Paulo Coelho lays claim to being the most translated living author in the world. Pat Conroy loved to tell the story of his first book signing, in which he was paired with two very popular writers: his line was so short and theirs so long that he helped prepare their books for signatures. He always told the story with a gleam in his eye, knowing that his lines were now long and happy, his place in literature secure. He always knew the count. In “A Sort of Fairy Tale,” Malinda Lo speaks directly to the “idea that the size of your salary is a sign of your worth.” While she acknowledges that her writing income is a fraction of the income provided by her attorney wife, they both recognize that value is not a reflection of monetary gain.
Scratch is an essential book for aspiring writers, as it presents an unvarnished view of what it takes to achieve one’s dream in a difficult and demanding world. It provides readers insight into the book business through the experiences of experienced authors as they explore the art of writing in a world that measures success by sales figures.