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).
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