Q&A: Top Writers On the Last Taboo -- How they Make a Living (or Try to)

The relationship between art and money can be a fraught one, and the inherent tensions and complications inspired Manjula Martin to create the blog Who Pays Writers, a crowd-sourced database that listed —and demystified — freelance writing rates. The blog spawned a magazine, Scratch, a year later, and now it has birthed a book, Scratch: Writers, Money and the Art of Making a Living (Simon & Schuster, 292 pp.).

Martin collected essays from writers about the theory and practice of earning a living by writing, and added some well-crafted interviews. There are stories of struggle, both artistic and economic, and perseverance, from famous writers like Cheryl Strayed, Jonathan Franzen, and Roxane Gay, and from writers who should be famous, like Alexander Chee, Yiyun Li, and Leslie Jamison. As writers navigate their way through the craft of writing, the world of old-line publishing, and the newly emerging digital landscape “the art of making a living,” Martin notes, “is always evolving.”  

It’s a balancing act, unique for every writer -- and it is not all about following one's muse.  “The reality is, more and more and more,” New Yorker writer Susan Orlean observes in an interview, “being a writer is running your own business.”

Martin answered questions from The National about Scratch, writing, and commerce.

Q: How did you come up with the idea of Who Pays Writers? and Scratch?

A: I started Who Pays Writers? in 2012 because I was freelancing full-time and I realized I needed a list of which publications paid what. And it turned out other writers needed that too. After people began asking for more context around the numbers, the idea for Scratch evolved from there.

Q: How did you go about commissioning essays? Did you seek writers or did they find you?

A: Most of the essays were by people whom I sought out, either through mutual acquaintances or cold calls. One great thing about editing an anthology is that you get to ask your favorite writers to work with you!

Q: And within this context, another question seems appropriate: Did writers write essays without financial compensation?

A: Ha, yes, everyone got paid. Except the people who were interview subjects, of course, as journalistic ethics dictate.

Q: In your own essay (“The Best Work in Literature”) in this collection, you write that the “conversation about work is also a conversation about class.” Can you elaborate on the that?

A: There’s no way you can talk about work, labor, money, or ambition, without talking about class. Those things are deeply intertwined in our society, and the way that class interacts with literature in particular has a huge impact the art form—on writers, readers, and the work itself.

And when it comes to the publishing business, how can one expect to understand issues of labor and compensation without acknowledging that people from different class backgrounds have different experiences of that industry?

Susan Orlean talks about this in our interview in the book—artistic people are in a weird sort of class, because some of us might make a lot of money and some might make nothing. And yet we all come from somewhere, and our socioeconomic backgrounds affect our behavior, expectations, and access.

Q: How does a writer’s social media brand fit into all this? Are we living in an age in which one’s huge Twitter following translates into a paycheck or big advance?

A: I’m going to go with “no.” While it’s true that social media can help build a writer’s audience, and — importantly — Twitter has been a great way for marginalized writers to find community and spaces online, there’s still no proof that the act of tweeting has ever actually sold a book.

That said, there’s also no proof that readings or radio appearances have ever sold books either! And as Twitter grows to be an increasingly harassment-prone place, the writers I know have grown increasingly disillusioned with it. It’s important for writers in particular to remember that Twitter is also free labor – it’s a company, and writers are giving that company free content. It might behoove us to examine the terms of that relationship a bit more closely.

Q: You reject the binary of absolutes:  Never quit your day job. Writers should be paid for everything they write. Writing is an art. Writing is a business.

A: Absolutes can certainly be true – sometimes you should quit your day job, maybe art should be free from the pressures of commerce — but all the in-betweens are also sometimes true. That’s what Scratch is interested in – the messy, ever-shifting reality of what it means to be an author and make a living. This isn’t something you can condense into a list of tips. There are no easy rules. That said, here’s an absolute I stand by: it’s not okay to exploit people for labor, even when that labor is creative.

Q: The essays in this collection represent a wide range of writers making a living, but the majority seem to mix it up – from teaching and writing books to different sorts of journalism.  Is the gig economy the way of the future?

A: The so-called “gig” economy is not the way of the future, it’s the way of right now! I don’t know anyone, myself included, who has just one job anymore. But for writers, it’s a dangerous balance. It’s hard to make time to make art when everything you do is work. Job security is a great thing for artists. Freelancing provides a certain amount of freedom and flexibility, which I’ve experienced myself, but it only works when it’s by choice. Most creative professionals I know are just doing multiple jobs to get by, not because they prefer it. Not to mention the taxes!