No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money. — Samuel Johnson
Nothing written for pay is worth printing. Only what has been written against the market. — Ezra Pound
The debate about money and writing—and all art for that matter—continues to rage.
In 1746 Samuel Johnson, or Dr. Johnson as he preferred to be called, secured a remarkable paid writing contract to produce the first Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson’s formidable facility with language made him an obvious choice to lead the project and he embraced it with relish. He was likely a victim of Tourette Syndrome; consequently his social inadequacies created barriers of all kinds. Earning his livelihood by writing—taping into his deep vein of talent—enabled him to establish social eminence and a living wage.
Johnson had been desperate for money before, and at the age of 25 he married Tetty Porter, aged 46 and mother of three children—which provided access to her considerable savings at a time when he was in dire need. At the time, he might well have said, “No man but a blockhead ever married, except for money.”
Ezra Pound, on the other hand, fancied himself a revolutionary. As a poet and editor, he hoped to make a complete break with the literary traditions of the past. He was a central figure of the avant garde in Paris and London in the 1920s. T.S. Eliot and Hemingway acknowledged his influence. To Pound, money was irrelevant to ideas, art, and social transformation.
But Pound found himself on the wrong side of history. He put in with the fascists during World War II and broadcast radio propaganda against the Allies until he was arrested for treason in Italy by the Americans in 1945. Ultimately he spent twelve years in a psychiatric ward and returned to Italy a broken man.
Like most writers, I’ve pondered the tension between money and writing. While there are a lot of ways to make money in this world (and certainly more ways to lose it), writers have limited options. They can try their hand at journalism, technical writing, publishing, or take on more lucrative corporate work like web copy-writing, advertising and media relations (where they are known as ‘flak writers’).
As far as writing fiction is concerned, money is almost always a secondary consideration. Only the rare publisher will pay you by the word, and unless you’ve already established your credentials as a best-selling author, few publishers can gamble their dwindling resources on substantial advances for a new book. Most will offer a token advance based on anticipated sales and pencil in a 15% cut of additional sales after their advance has been paid out—which rarely occurs (do the math: the average books sells about 200 copies).
And so be it. If you’re writing fiction, or creative non-fiction, you’ll almost certainly create a better book if you work without any constraints. Don’t limit your imagination with illusions about public taste, reading trends, best-sellers and mega-bucks. It’s all poison. Consider the work for its own sake and let it find its own place in this world. Allow the novel to dictate the narrative of its arrival in this world. I guarantee you, this uncompromised form of art will be unique.
And that is the text you want to sell to publishers. Let them establish its monetary value. Once they commit to publication, they will want to maximize their investment. Hopefully they are better at this sort of thing than you. Let them have at it. While they are schlepping from book fair to retail store to media event, go about your business: begin your next story, pay attention to its wants and needs, nurture this precious gift in its embryonic form, give daily thanks to your muse.