If you've ever wondered how writers make a living, join the club. Writers wonder the same thing.
In "Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living," edited by Manjula Martin, writers discuss their financial lives in essays and interviews. Turns out their bank accounts vary as widely as their books.
"There is such an enormous difference between being the kind of writer who has a steady full-time job and minimal debt and no student loans versus the kind of writer who goes without health insurance and can't make rent and all the varieties of writers in between that generalities here are impossible," writes author Mallory Ortberg.
Even success doesn't always meet expectations, reports Cheryl Strayed, who grew up in Minnesota and is best known for "Wild," her 2012 memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
Strayed received a $100,000 advance for her 2006 debut novel, "Torch." That sounds like a writer's dream come true until you learn that the checks were spread over four years, minus agent's fees, leaving her earning $21,000 a year. By the time she sold "Wild," her family was on the verge of losing their house. But her advance on "Wild" was $400,000. The book spent a year on the New York Times bestseller list, inspired Oprah to re-establish her book club and was made into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon. These days, Strayed says, she "can buy boots not in thrift stores."
But even a bestseller does not guarantee riches. "People hear 'NYT bestseller' and they think 'Oh, he's a millionaire or something,' which is just ridiculous, as anyone who's been on that list can tell you," says New York Times-bestselling author Austin Kleon.
A handful of writers, including novelists Jonathan Franzen, Nick Hornby and Jennifer Weiner, enjoyed early financial bounty. Others may forever rely on alternate sources of income — teaching, public speaking, higher-earning spouses.
And sometimes money isn't enough. Weiner grew up poor after her father disappeared and ran up bills he failed to pay. As her family was hounded by creditors, Weiner longed for financial security. She writes novels that are beloved by legions of readers who relate to her heroines' problems. But they don't win much critical praise.
Now Weiner has expensive clothes and cars, a summer house on Cape Cod. But she likens her fate to a fairy tale in which good fairies gather around a baby and grant lovely wishes, while the bad fairy says, "Critics will revile you and say you're a terrible writer … you'll have all the money you could ever want but absolutely no respect."
Rich as she is, Weiner is still longing for security in the form of that literary respect.
Katy Read is a writer for the Star Tribune.