Why Writers Don’t Make As Much Money As They Think They Should


“We can always make ourselves liked provided we act likable, but we cannot always make ourselves esteemed, no matter what our merits are.” – Nicolas Malebranche (Traité de la Morale, 1867)

Why don’t writers get any respect? Screenwriters. Novelists. Short-story writers. Magazine writers. Journalists. You ask them, they’ll tell you.

I had a conversation this morning with a writer — a colleague and friend I’d hired to edit a newsletter I consult on. It was contract time, and I had promised him “the best deal possible” — which is exactly what he got. He wasn’t satisfied. “Let’s face it,” he told me, “The success or failure of the renewals depends on me — and my writing is good.”

“I agree that your writing is good,” I told him, “but in this business of newsletter publishing, my opinion doesn’t count.”

What does? As JDG, a colleague of mine, likes to say, there are three sacred letters when you are in business — ROI (return on investment) — and they are the jury when it comes to determining the quality of writing.

Writers — screenwriters, novelists, magazine writers, and advertising writers — are valuable in business if and to the extent that they can generate positive ROI.

Writers who understand that can become very skilled very quickly and make a ton of money. Writers who refuse to believe that are doomed to spending the rest of their careers unhappy and underpaid.

But it’s hard to explain this to a beginning writer. He feels, understandably, that since he’s smart and clever and works so hard, his writing is — or has to be — supernal.

Most writers I know — including yours truly — would like to think themselves equal to the greats: H.L. Mencken, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ernest Hemingway, etc. And given the time, energy, sweat, and blood they put into their writing, why shouldn’t they get paid a ton of money?

That’s what Stephen Gaghan used to think. But when he became a director, he had an important revelation: “Decisions, actual decisions, upon which money would be spent and movies created, were happening in flurries. The studio and producers were no longer impenetrable, implacable forces aligned in the cause of movie prevention but well-tuned, experienced machines for the production of movies. Suddenly, everyone seemed to be pulling together and they were looking to me to help them do it. In fact, as far as I could tell, the moment you remove the screenwriter, things actually begin to happen.

“I don’t completely agree with this system, but there is a reason nobody listens to the screenwriter: He isn’t accountable. The screenwriter is like an economist or political commentator who says, ‘If you don’t cut interest rates right now, there will be a 3% decline in housing starts next April.’ But nobody checks back next April. Nobody remembers or cares. Because you don’t have to act on the decision, you aren’t responsible for the fallout. You are an adviser, not a builder. And if ‘real housing starts’ decline by 20% and the construction industry lays off thousands — well, you still have your comfy chair and nice view out the window.

“For the director, it is the exact opposite. The time for theorizing is over. It is yes or no, and pretty soon you have an aesthetic. Period.”

The same holds true for other advisory professions: accountants, artists, architects, attorneys, IT specialists, customer-service managers — basically anyone on staff or hired to help. The number of exceptions are few:

* CEOs

* profit-center managers

* salespeople

* anyone whose compensation is primarily (not incidentally) based on the success of the end product

If you want to make a good living, be good at what you do. Accountants and artists and screenwriters who are good will be recognized as good. If they promote themselves and shop around for the best compensation, they can make very good, very steady, and relatively low-stress incomes. And if you want to take that route, you can still build wealth — slowly and carefully — by following the advice we’ve been giving you in ETR about investing and saving.

But if you are not satisfied with that and want to get cut in on the bigger money, you have to step up to the line and do what the big-money people do. You have to be willing to risk not only your time but also your financial safety. This is a hard lesson for most people to learn. And if you see no sense in it, I can’t imagine you’ll be persuaded by this little story about Stephen Gaghan’s conversion. You may choose to spend the rest of your life feeling under-appreciated and under-compensated, just as so many writers do.

That won’t get you what you want. But you will have the feeling that you’re getting screwed to warm you up at night.

My friend, the newsletter writer, is a smart guy. He’s going to argue his case as hard as he can and get as much as he can to do the job. But he’s doing something else too. He’s learning how to write copy. He’s learning the principles of selling. And he’s studying the marketing business as closely as he can. Some day in the future, he’ll step over to the other side and be fully accountable for the financial success or failure of his literary output. When that happens, he’ll be negotiating contracts with writers who may want more than he is willing to give them. Then he’ll come to his own conclusions about this age-old debate. I’ll be interested in seeing what he does then.