Fame, Success And Money, Money, Money!

jessica chastain by ellen von unwerth

No one loves the I.R.S. (though I could warm up to them considerably if they’d cut loose with a certain someone’s tax returns), but they do provide sensible parameters to the potentially blurry grey zone between a profession and a hobby. If I understand things correctly, current tax regulations require ‘hobby’ income to be taxed like any other income, though for now, the expenses incurred in the course of pursuing that hobby can’t be deducted unless they exceed 2% of the taxpayer’s adjusted gross income. Example: If you earn money as a writer or artist, you have to claim that income. But you can’t deduct expenses for supplies, fees, etc. unless those add up to at least 2% of your total income. If your day job paid $75K that year, then you’d need at least $1,500 in expenses. I believe that rule will change in 2026 and expenses (under certain limitations, of course) will be deductible, presuming the income is reported.

Compared to artists, photographers or musicians, writers actually get off pretty easy when it comes to out-of-pocket costs. It’s not as if we didn’t all own computers already. But how much income might writers actually be earning, and from what sources?

Writing at The Guardian, Lynn Steger Strong, author of the novel Strong due out in July references a 2018 Author’s Guild study which noted that the participating published authors’ median income for all writing activity was just over $6,000 in 2017, down from $10,500 only eight years earlier. More sobering: median income for all published authors based solely on book-related activity was a mere $3,100…and an approx. 25% of those participants earned no income at all that year. Steger Strong’s article “A Dirty Secret: You Can Only Be A Writer If You Can Afford It” looked at the reality of pursuing a career as a writer, which for all but a select few individuals must be supplemented not only by teaching, grants and fellowships, but quite possibly by generous relatives or – most likely – an employed spouse/significant other as well.

Only a few days ago, Alison Stine, author of Road Out Of Winter, due out this September, wrote at Literary Hub about the “haves and have-nots at America’s biggest writer’s conference” in “The Problem Of Money And Access At AWP”. The Association Of Writing Programs annual event (AWP) is billed as North America’s largest literary conference, with panels on writing, publishing, academic jobs and more. Registration is $250…plus travel, lodging, meals, etc., of course. Stine rightly assumes that a good portion of the 13,000 attendees were there on their MFA/PhD program’s dime. Bottom line: Unless you coincidentally lived down the street from the hotel or convention center, attending a writing/publishing conference or workshop is likely to cost a grand at least, and that still might involve discount travel, doubling up with a roomie and packing some sandwiches (or at least stuffing your backpack at the free buffet…if there is one).

writers digest march 2020

The current March 2020 Writer’s Digest features “The Frugal Writer’s Guide To Everything” by Elizabeth Simms, author of the Lillian Byrd Crime Series. Byrd lists suggestions for getting writing supplies, memberships, software and more without letting go of too much cash. A cynic might argue that the first place to start would be reading writer’s magazines at the library instead of subscribing, but I, for one, would sorely miss WD in my mailbox.

Writing’s never been a meaningful part of my income. My own writing vocation (which is a nice word for a glorified hobby) is divided into two phases, interrupted a while ago by intrusive real-life issues and only recently reignited. During ‘phase one’ I made some money, but a tally of every nickel earned from multiple sources might only be enough to pay cash for a decent new car. A decent new car…not a fancy fully-loaded supercar. I rely on doing a good job at the day job to keep the heat turned on and groceries in the pantry.

In the small press and ‘micro-press’ arenas, compensation may be anemic advances or royalty-only arrangements, per-word rates that would’ve been turned down by the hard-working pulp fiction scribes seventy and eighty years ago, payment-in-copies or even unpaid online publication. Back in the game, I recognize that publishers will pay what their business model allows, but my interest in publication ‘opportunities’ for little or no money has dissipated. For the undergrads, creative writing MFA’s and exponentially growing legions of writer wannabe’s with fewer options, it’s a genuine puzzler and bound to get more vexing as time goes on. The evolving publishing and bookselling marketplaces point to declining earning levels for the creators and ‘content generators’…i.e. the writers. Financial democratization via self/hybrid publishing remains elusive for most in a shockingly overcrowded arena.

Mind you, there’s no whining or “Woe is me” here, and shame on the creatives who wallow in that sort of self-pity. Griping about the hardships artistic types endure may be a time-honored Boho pastime, but no one forced me – or any other writer – to pursue endeavors offering worse odds than winning Lotto. Hopefully, we do it because we want to (or if feeling heroic, because we’re driven to).

Fame, success and money, money, money? As always, they’re available for a select few, with smaller portions parceled out for still a few more, but little left over for the rest. Sucks? Maybe, but that doesn’t mean that I – and most artists, musicians, actors, dancers…and writers – won’t keep at it anyway.

Photo: Jessica Chastain by Ellen non Unwerth

Order Up.

Lit Hub Screen Grab

Katie Yee’s 11.8.19 Literary Hub piece “Here’s Why You Should Preorder All Your Books From Independent Bookstores” opens by asking “Who doesn’t love an independent bookshop?” and reminds us about charming bookstores from popular films like You’ve Got Mail, Notting Hill and Funny Face. Yee’s article (link below) directs us to Andrea Bartz’ recent Twitter on this very topic as well as Celeste Ng’s 2018 “Bookstores Are The Center of The Literary Ecosystem”, both strongly encouraging (or even admonishing) book buyers to make their purchases from independent booksellers, preordering forthcoming titles in particular, since preorder data can impact booksellers’ ordering choices and even bestseller lists. For those who shrug and point out that they simply don’t have an indie bookseller nearby (which I’m certain comprises a lot of people) there are still alternatives like Indiebound.

Booksotre 2

There was a time not so long ago when you couldn’t pass an urban shopping strip or suburban mall without a chain bookstore. At their peak (if I’ve read accurate sources), there were over 3,200 chain bookstore locations in the U.S. Now there are fewer than a thousand, those being some 600+ Barnes & Noble and 250+ Books-A-Million locations.

B. Dalton (a B&N subsidiary), Borders, its Waldenbooks subsidiary, Crown, and Hastings have vanished. The book distribution arena has also changed, with consolidation among some smaller and regional distributors, and most notably, Baker & Taylor departing the trade book business altogether. Until quite recently, there wasn’t a single independent bookstore near me. I now have one very close by, and a charming store it is. There’s another not too far away, part of a small local chain, though neither of these can boast superstore level title selections. I do have three Barnes & Noble locations reasonably close to home or work.

Support local independent booksellers? I do, and encourage you to do so too. But I won’t hiss at anyone who also shops Barnes & Noble and/or Amazon.

Bookstore 3

I don’t go along with the anti-superstore attitude. Like it or not, Barnes & Noble (under new ownership itself now) is the only standalone operation with enough muscle to pose any credible opposition to Amazon’s complete takeover of the bookselling marketplace. And while I never chase discounts, I do buy from Amazon as well, though typically oddities or OOP titles unavailable elsewhere. Friends and family members in remote rural regions rely on Amazon for books and more, and I suppose if I resided elsewhere, I would too.

I’ll continue to pester bookstore clerks with my screen-cap printouts and scribbled notes to order/preorder books, some few that they’ll be getting anyway, some others that require deep digging to locate. But I won’t feel guilty strolling the aisles at Barnes & Noble, particularly the sprawling magazine racks. And if I can only get some smaller-than-small press title or ancient used book from the behemoth in Seattle, I’ll be glad Amazon exists. Where I get my books isn’t my problem.

Where the hell to keep them all at home is the real challenge.

https://lithub.com/heres-why-you-should-preorder-all-your-books-from-independent-bookstores/

Where Do The Dead Girls Live?

lily james by cuneyt akeroglu

There is no dry erase board hanging on my writing lair’s wall, and no tally maintained for my in-progress projects’ body counts. But if there was, the completed manuscript for The Stiletto Gumshoe currently making the rounds in the querying process would show eight: Five men and three women. None could be labeled innocent victims, though two of the women might be considered ‘collateral damage’ of the novel’s primary crimes, while the last of the three ought to ignite some cheers when she finally goes down.

No, I didn’t track my body count, much less categorized by gender, and the ‘dead girl’ trope wasn’t even on my radar when work on that novel began. But by the time it was deep in revisions and I’d also started its sequel (for a hoped-for hard-boiled crime fiction series, that one still in-progress), there was no ignoring an expanding dialog about the dismissive and disturbing reliance on murdered women — often anonymous victims — deployed in the mystery/crime fiction genre and pop culture/entertainment in general as convenient plot devices, all too often for voyeuristic thrills and with fetishistic relish, and customarily used as prompts for male protagonists’ stories.

So, updating that imaginary dry erase board for The Stiletto Gumshoe’s in-progress sequel might still show a relatively benign body count, the story including the demise of two women at this point (once again, far from innocent bystanders) and several bad guys getting their just desserts, their final tally still undetermined. (It is a work-in-progress, after all, so we’ll let creativity and writerly caprice lead where it will, already-discarded outlines aside.) Still, I know all too well that one of the women who dies near the beginning of this novel does so in a grisly manner (though ‘off-camera’, so to speak), doesn’t even merit a line of dialog before her demise, and may fit the profile of the dreaded ‘dead girl’ trope closer than I’d like. Nothing intentional, just how the story worked out.

dead girl book

I’d already finished Alice Bolin’s Dead Girls: Essays On Surviving An American Obsession (2018) at the time the sequel was underway, and could hardly plead ignorance about the issue. To be fair, the title of Bolin’s book, which earned its share of accolades (NYT Notable Book of 2018, NYT Editor’s Choice, Edgar Nominee, etc.) is a bit misleading, being more personal memoir, and only the first fourth (if that) actually dealt with the ‘dead girl’ trope. Still…the topic was already out there for discussion elsewhere.

For example, last week’s first Literary Hub e-newsletter included a CrimeReads link to “Inverting – And Avoiding – The ‘Dead Girl’ Trope”, its subhead: “Writers Carolyn Murnick And Alex Segura Discuss The Dangers And Pitfalls Of The Crime Genre’s Most Problematic Trend” (Link Below). Please give it a look. Here are writers themselves grappling with the issue, just as we’ve seen others do recently in roundtables, essays and posts. The question: Why does so much crime genre material rely on male investigators (private eyes, cops, the FBI, whomever) solving the murders of more or less anonymous women? Further, why does so much crime genre material (novels, stories, film, TV series, comics, art) use the stalking, assault, abduction, rape, torture and murder of women for entertainment? Why do writers choose to write this, and why do readers seem to gobble it up?

Dead Girl Trope

Don’t look for answers here. It’ll take a more widely read authority than me (not being an authority on anything, really) to plumb the psyches of writers or readers, and a much smarter observer to analyze the drives, impulses and interests of modern American society. That the ‘dead girl’ trope is very much alive and well (so to speak) and even thriving in entertainment is apparent. But as this piece’s title asks, precisely where do the ‘dead girls’ live? Where is the ‘dead girl’ trope most prevalent, and is it really in the crime genre?

Genre may be no more than a convenient publishing industry term, something writers use to steer submissions to the proper agent, those agents use to pitch editors, publishers use to organize lists, booksellers (and librarians) use for merchandising and readers use to navigate bookstore aisles. After all, charming sweet shoppe and kitty-cat cozies are shelved in the same mystery genre section as hard-boiled P.I. series and grisly shoot ‘em ups. But they have as much in common as dystopian sci-fi and a Regency romance.

I’m not convinced that the ‘dead girl’ trope is deployed by mystery/crime fiction writers as ruthlessly and dismissively as we might naturally assume. I’d suggest that where ‘the dead girls live’ — that is, where the ‘dead girl’ trope is most prevalent – is actually in aligned categories like ‘Thrillers’, ‘Suspense’, ‘Psychological Suspense’ and many other similar labels that dustjacket copywriters concoct.  I just finished one myself this week, albeit a comparatively tame novel. Still, it was just one of the the many, many, many novels where the dead girls reside in the company of an army of stalkers and serial killers. These novels often adhere to very successful formulas which seem to pit writers in competition with one another to dream up ever increasing levels of sadistic torture and cruelly sex-ified deaths. If the cover art doesn’t give it away, the opening pages will, inevitably featuring a woman abducted, restrained, enduring some unimaginable horror and then finally being murdered (or about to be). There are oodles of these books, many by incredibly successful and popular writers, and while some are shelved in the ‘Mystery’ section, just as often (if not more so) they’re in ‘Fiction & Literature’. In fact, I’ve read my share of author interviews in which the writers distance themselves from the mystery/crime fiction ‘genre’ altogether, presumably leery of the perceived ghettoization a genre label can lead to.

Admittedly, my own reading tastes lean towards mid-twentieth century crime fiction from the 1930’s – 1950’s pulp shorts to the postwar paperback originals and series, along with contemporary material that revives, honors and reimagines their tropes, whether noir pastiche or hard-boiled homage. Not surprisingly, my own work attempts to do the same. Oh, all that material’s brimming with violence and bloodshed, full of brawls and gunplay, yet seems to feature as many (if not more) mobsters, thieves, muggers, blackmailers, drug dealers, embezzlers, pimps, femmes fatales and rogue cops duking it out with private eyes, detectives, reporters, attorneys and sundry investigators as it does ‘dead girls’ used only as triggers for hard-boiled dicks’ heroic quests, with victims reduced to mere props. In the mystery/crime fiction genre, women definitely die. And men die. Lots of them. Good ones and bad ones and various in-betweeners. But as for inhumanly crafty serial killers and the endless horror-show of women in bondage and sexualized torture that populate the pages of so many ‘thrillers’? Maybe not as much as you might suppose, or so it seems to me, and at least in my own reading.

isebelle huppert guy bourdin 1988 copy

My point is only this: The ‘dead girl’ trope is indeed very real, much more than a trend, and it’s something each and every mystery/crime fiction writer needs to confront when outlining, plotting and eventually pounding the keys. Further, it’s something readers might want to consider when choosing their next books. We’re bound to encounter no shortage of squirm-worthy sexism, racism and politics in a lot of classic mystery/crime fiction, even in works by cherished legends. Each of us can compartmentalize that in the way we choose. Or not. But before we paint the entire mystery/crime fiction genre with too broad a brush of complicity – intended or not — let’s think about where the ‘dead girl’ trope prevails. Is it in the ‘crime genre’? Well, yes…some, to be sure. But perhaps, it thrives much more visibly among the innumerable ‘thrillers’ on the drug store, supermarket and mass-merchandiser bestseller racks and in the bookstores’ Fiction & Literature sections. My observation tells me that it’s where the ‘dead girls’ really live.

Top photo: Lily James by Cuneyt Akeroglu; above: Isabelle Huppert by Guy Bourdin, 1988

https://crimereads.com/inverting-and-avoiding-the-dead-girl-trope/

 

Crime Reads: The State Of The Mystery

The State Of The Mystery

Linked from Crime Reads (crimereads.com) via Literary Hub: Part One of a must-read roundtable discussion among twenty mystery writers — specifically, the 2019 Edgar Award nominees — on everything from topics like genre ghettoization to publisher consolidation, their own earliest influences and some sage advice to newbie writers. The second part of this dialog will be posted tomorrow, 4.25.19. If you’re a mystery/crime fiction fan or writer (which I’m guessing you might be if you’re reading this) or not, it’s a lively and informative read, with interesting comments from Lisa Black, John Lutz, Leslie Klinger, Lori Rader-Day, Jacqueline Winspear, Lisa Unger and others. A link is below for the first part…you can follow up on Part Two on your own, I’m sure! But do check it out.

https://crimereads.com/the-state-of-the-mystery-a-roundtable/

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