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Writing for money, or what?

Samuel Johnson said, "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money."

Harlan Ellison said, "The amateurs are the ones who give their stories away, because they want to be recognized; and that’s fine, I suppose, if they want to be patsies, but then when the time comes for a publisher to pay, the well has been poisoned, and the publisher says, ‘Well, everybody else gave us their story. Why do you want a fee?’ And I say, ‘well, Cowboy, just because everybody else is a simp, jumped off the cliff, and paid you for the privilege, doesn’t mean I’m going do it. I’m a pro, mudduhfugguh, and you can prey on the ignorance and hayseed naïveté of these hungry fish, but not me. Pay me!’

   said, "If you’re a writer, stop and think for a minute: who is profiting from the time you’re donating? From your name? You can bet someone is. Make sure it’s you. . . . I write fiction for the art, for free, for love. For myself. Anyone else who wants access pays."

I sympathize more with Ellison and Griffith than I do with Johnson. Their point is that professionals should be paid for their work and not be exploited.


However, the fact of the matter is — the fact of the matter has always been — that only a tiny percentage of writers and artists are able to support themselves on their writing. Even if every publisher, producer, viewer and reader in the world were to consent to pay for every word or moment they produced, published, viewed or read, and that money went directly to the writer and no one else, the great majority of writers would not earn a living wage from their writing. So for those who are good enough, or lucky enough, or just persistent enough to reach that goal, I say that Ellison and Griffith are right on target: get paid for everything you do.

But someone like me is in a different position. I’m 49, I have a full-time job and adult commitments, and am just getting started in the writing. The chance that I will be able to support my family on my writing is nearly zero. The chance that I’ll be able to do it on short stories alone is exactly zero. If I’m very, very good at it, work hard, constantly improve, and also luck out, I may earn a few thousand a year. But it will never pay my mortgage, put my kids through college or significantly aid in my retirement. (Middle-class, Western goals? Yeah: I’m a middle-class, Western fellow. Sorry.)

So, okay, why do I want to write? I want to write so that others will read. I want people to see the things I see, imagine the things I imagine, react to them, play with them, fight with them.

Here is my thought-experiment:

  • If someone said, "I will pay you $10 million per year for your writing, on the condition that you give it to me without showing it to anyone else, and that I will lock it away so that no one will ever read it" — I would refuse. (Okay: I think I would refuse; no one’s ever offered me $10 million…)
  • If someone said, "I will guarantee that a million people every year will read what you write, respond to it, care about it, play with it, and communicate back to you about it, on the condition that you never get a dime from it and must earn your bread by some other means" — I would accept.

Sure, it’s an unrealistic set of hypotheticals; no one’s going to offer me any such thing. But it’s designed to force the issue and highlight what my priorities are.

I don’t think I’m a blockhead, or a simp, or a patsy, or a hayseed, or any of the other things Harlan Ellison loves to call people who do things differently than he does.

That is the bottom line. I write so that people will read. I would love to make my living by writing; it would be a fantastic dream. I would be proud and joyful to not have to do anything but writing. But ultimately, that is not why I write. I write so that others will read. Period.

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