Hard Truths About the Writing Profession

Lou Cove
Judy Davis as Sybylla in My Brilliant Career (1979).

I am about to make a very public complaint about one of the best things that ever happened to me. This, I think it fair to say, is something very few authors would do. The risk of biting the hand that doesn’t feed you is not worth it for most, and the journey to actually being published is so arduous that writers will do virtually anything to appear grateful and willing.
 
Believe me, I am a grateful and willing author with many more books in me. But I also have a day job, which insulates me somewhat—I’m not reliant on publishing to feed my family. And my job is dedicated to championing and supporting the creativity of others, so I feel an obligation to tell this story, for their sake.
 
The commercial realities I have experienced firsthand as an author have given me insights that impact me not just as an artist, but as a funder of the arts. Those insights reveal a painful truth: we may never know the full potential of the creative writers and artists among us because there is no viable way for them to do their work without taking on some other kind of work. 
 
In our culture, being an artist is rarely a job. Yet we depend on artists to give meaning to our lives every day. The disconnect, not unlike the disconnect between the importance of teachers in our lives and the low wages we tolerate for them, is profound.
 
So here is a peek behind the curtain. It’s revealing in a way that is not entirely comfortable for me. But I hope, in sharing, that it will ring true for working creatives, and motivate those who read it to consider all the ways, large and small, we can support them.

Reading for Pleasure (But Not for Pay)

Not long before the pandemic struck, I was on a book tour that took me to more than a dozen cities. The idea of touring to promote one’s book is a dream for most authors—at least the extroverted ones—and it was a dream for me. 
 
Among the readings and signings I did for Man of the Year, my coming-of-age memoir, was a visit to one of the wealthiest communities in America. I was taken to lunch by some very generous patrons of the local book festival and welcomed warmly in every way. When I stepped out on stage later, I was shocked to see roughly 200 people in the seats—an embarrassment of audience riches for any author. 
 
The event felt like a success: I read passages from two different chapters, and I prepared a slideshow of late-70s photographs, including scenes from my adventures with the book’s titular hero, Howie Gordon, Playgirl Magazine’s 1979 Man of the Year.
 
The crowd laughed in the right places, were scandalized by the shocking bits, and sighed empathetically at the emotional turns. There was applause and a long Q&A. I was ushered to a signing table…and I needed an usher because I was stopped over and over on the way to the main hall by curious folks asking about my unusual upbringing, my writing habits, my thoughts on memoir. The line at the signing table was long and the Sharpie I brought for the occasion was ready for action. 
 
It got very little. 
 
I was greeted by people eager to keep talking and learn more, but virtually none of them had purchased a book. 
 
Again, it’s very hard to complain about a reading with 200 people in attendance or even having the opportunity to do a book tour, which most authors don’t get. (A book tour, even when a major imprint publishes your book, is very rare these days.) But what audiences don’t realize—and book festival audiences are typically paying audiences—is that the authors don’t get paid to read. Unlike musicians or other performers, authors are not paid to present their work. The “compensation” an author receives on tour is commonly referred to now as “exposure.” 
 
So while I remain deeply grateful for getting the opportunity to tour, I have to point out that when an author promotes their book, they are unpaid twice: once for the reading, and again for the lost time at their day job. 
 
Financially, book writing is a net-loss activity. Authors get an advance on sales, which rarely covers the time spent completing a manuscript. So the author sees no additional money unless the book sales cover the advance. If that happens (which is a big if) the writers then gets a tiny royalty, maybe a dollar a book. 
 
If this story were a one-off, I would have forgotten all this. I would still be glowing from the fact that anyone besides my children wanted to hear me read to them from a book. But this event was repeated a dozen times with the same outcome. People came for the show, the nosh, and the schmooze. But they didn’t come to buy books.

“In our culture, being an artist is rarely a job. Yet we depend on artists to give meaning to our lives. It’s not unlike the disconnect between the importance of teachers in our lives and the low wages we tolerate for them.”

$40 for a Week of Work

 The fact is, readers may not know the author needs their support.
 
“This isn’t something we do for money anymore,” Joel Stein, a former columnist and staff writer for TIME for 20 years, told me recently. “There was a time when saying you wanted to be a poet, that was a job. When we were kids, that wasn’t a viable job any more, but you could be a professor and a poet. In our 20s, Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer were on TV and debating issues. Then, being a novelist was a job. But now novelist is poet. And journalist is quickly becoming like poet, too.”
 
How did we get here? 
 
The 21st century has given us virtually unlimited choices when it comes to culture and entertainment. Why pay to get through any kind of “paywall” when there’s another service offering something similar for free? And thanks to the internet, there always is.
 
The effect is so pervasive, even authors themselves succumb. I was interviewed by another writer for a publication for authors who began the interview by saying: “I haven’t read your book, but I read the first chapter on Amazon.” 
 
In March, I was contacted by a journalist who runs a popular website and newsletter asking if, in my capacity as CANVAS founder, I could suggest any Jewish artists who might contribute to their publication.
 
Of course, I did. But first, I had to ask: Are you paying for reproductions? I should clarify that we don’t promote non-paying work for artists.
 
The response was a common one: Well that is a good question. My hope was that this promotes their work. 
 
I replied: The challenge is, artists are paid with the offer of promotion the majority of the time. So we decided to draw a line for them. But here’s a thought: you could apply for a grant from CANVAS to pay for original art. If it’s a genuine value for the publication, there should be support for it, too.
 
The journalist was gracious: Wow! That is a fabulous idea. Just, wow. I admire your policy on this. Thank you for explaining it to me.
 
Nothing ever came of this exchange. 
 
I was literally offering the prospect of funding to an organization to pay artists and they wouldn’t take me up on it.
 
Why?
 
Before I answer, I should say that I spent more than a decade as an editor and publisher, so I understand the plight of the journalistic enterprise. Any attempt at providing quality reporting or professional “content” (as it is regrettably now called) is an uphill climb. User-generated content (i.e. social media), advertorial content (articles paid for by sponsors who exert editorial control) dominate, and they are strengthened by an ever-shrinking standard of pay.
 
Authors regularly settle for $.04 per word for their work. That’s $40 for a 1,000-word piece. 
 
“There used to be magazines that paid $4 per word,” Stein reminded me. “I don’t think there are any left.”
 
Try to write a thousand words right now. See how long it takes you. Then see how long it takes you to edit and refine that work, pitch it to a few dozen publications, and—if you’re lucky—navigate an editorial process that hopefully doesn’t demolish your message or style.
 
Now collect your $40.
 
So back to the question: why won’t publications pay writers decently? Why wouldn’t the publication I mentioned take money to pay artists and writers?
 
It’s actually a complicated answer. We could go back to when Craigslist devastated the newspaper industry by taking away their classified ad revenue. Or to when corporate media mergers changed priorities for publishers from creativity and inventiveness to synergy and cross-promotion. Or to when the explosion of online media leveled the playing field for creative writing and journalism—and also leveled the revenue model. 
 
The short answer is that publishers no longer pay writers and artists much, or at all, because they don’t have to. 
 
I suspect it has to do with precedent. If they say yes, and start paying, it would be very hard (and potentially risky from a PR perspective) to stop. And what guarantee do they have that any other funding source besides ours will step in if we disappear or change our minds?
 
It’s a fair business question, and one that no smart publisher should ignore. 
 
Very few media outlets can count on paid subscribers, so they need to rely on advertising and/or charitable grants.
 
Which brings us to more important question: what, if anything, can we do to help?

“I don’t begrudge anyone their advantages; my concern is for the voices we’ll never hear from because they simply can’t afford the time and space to create.”

The Distrest Poet. William Hogarth, 1841.

Strategies and Values

How to approach the problem? As always, we at CANVAS look for trends, identify gaps, and try to coordinate strategically to address them. As usual, we emphasize coordination and leverage. Funders working in concert to pledge support for this kind of work over the long haul would be the best chance for impact and sustainability.

For any group that seeks to move the needle here, we would encourage you to consider:

1. Provide dedicated, long-term support for paying creatives a living wage.
ARTISTS AT WORK (AAW), an initiative inspired by the Depression-era Works Progress Administration, is one of a number of examples currently exploring this model. Artists are paired with organizations and focus on artistic civic engagement.

On a grander scale, the Creative Economy Revitalization Act (CERA), a recent proposal for $300 million federal grants and commissions program for art workers, is also gaining bi-partisan traction. The Department of Labor, in consultation with the National Endowment for the Arts, will award select individuals and organizations with payments dependent on required labor, with a 5% cap on administrative costs. 

2. Support grantees’ budget lines for artists.
Whether you are supporting the local book fair, the JCC, your synagogue or Federation, be sure to ask: do you have a budget line for the speakers you engage? For enlisting artists and designers and other creatives to help you reach new constituencies or reimagine ways to convey your message or make a greater impact on tour community? If not, those lines need to be instituted and underwritten.

3. Advocate for arts and culture philanthropy.
Strategic giving is always step one. Step two is leveraging your impact and that means sharing your experience and championing the work of your grantees. Launched a prize for playwrights? Instituted a residency for working artists? Don’t be shy about spreading the word, particularly to other philanthropists. This newsletter is just one of the ways we do this.  

Not all writers and artists suffer. J.K. Rowling is worth $1 billion. The digital artist known as Beeple sold an NFT of his work—a digital work you could easily duplicate on your home computer—for $69 million.  

But they are the one percent of the one percent. The overwhelming majority of working writers and artists have a day job. The ones that don’t often have family money or a higher-earning spouse. I don’t begrudge anyone their advantages; my concern is for the voices we’ll never hear from because they simply can’t afford the time and space to create.

Jewish tradition has much to say about economic justice. In the Mishneh Torah, Maimonides lists his Eight Levels of Giving. Top among them? Forming a partnership with a person in need; giving a grant to a person in need; finding a job for a person in need, so long as that loan, grant, partnership, or job results in the person no longer living by relying upon others.

While we maintain that grants to artists are critical instruments for philanthropists to consider, we agree with Maimonides: a grant that results in jobs that make the work of the artist possible may be the highest form of giving.


Lou Cove
Founder, CANVAS

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