Sabrina Fedel’s debut novel, Leaving Kent State, is the recipient of a 2017 Gold Medal in the Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards for Young Adult Historical Fiction, and a Mom’s Choice Gold Medal. Her prose and poetry appear in various journals, and her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and a Storysouth Million Writers Award. Sabrina teaches English at Robert Morris University. You may find her at www.sabrinafedel.com or on instagram, twitter, and Facebook.
The Realities of Being Creative in a Profit-Driven World
by Sabrina Fedel
I had been writing for a while when I finally took the leap to get my MFA in Creative Writing. I hesitated, because I had already tried to reinvent myself as a writer on my own after leaving my job as an environmental lawyer to be a stay-at-home mom. I had a critique group, I attended workshops, I practiced. I was getting personal rejections, which everyone will tell you means you are really, really close to being published. At the time, I was the exception which proved the rule. I was always the bridesmaid, never the bride. I figured that had to change eventually.
There was one thing that an MFA could give me that I didn’t have, though, and that was some level of teaching credentials. I have never had the expectation that I could become the next J.K. Rowling. But I did believe that, by supplementing my income as a teacher, I could be a full-time writer who made a living at it. Not a fly-first-class-and-hob-nob-with-Newbery-winners living, but a pay-the-bills-and-not-eat-spaghetti-every-night living. Because of this—and that I qualified for some school benefits thanks to my husband fighting in a war that I hadn’t approved of that was started by a guy I hadn’t voted for—I applied to Lesley.
When the director called to welcome me to the program, he promised me that I was coming to a program that would change my life, and that I would leave with friendships that would last a lifetime. Being a ridiculously shy introvert, I didn’t believe him. My husband’s instructions to me before my first residency were: “don’t go up there and not talk to anyone.”
In the spirit of fresh beginnings, I emailed the only other Writing for Young People candidate coming into the program that semester to introduce myself. She has since become one of those lifelong friends the director had promised me.
Lesley gave me everything it promised. I became a better writer. I found a broader community of kindred spirits, as Anne Shirley would say, than I could have imagined. I made lifelong friends. I have seen my words in print, been nominated for awards, and received some awards. I have even been paid for my work. I just haven’t been paid much. Even though I am traditionally published and my debut novel has won two awards, I still haven’t broken even on it. Because when you are published by a small press, even one with a good reputation like mine, the burden of marketing falls largely, if not entirely, on the author. I only earn about a dollar on books sold through traditional markets, so that means that even a $25 Facebook advertisement takes me twenty-five sales to recoup. It sounds easy enough: your Facebook ad is seen by lots of people. But most of those people are not willing to shell out the high price point that comes with a traditionally published small press title by someone they’ve never heard of and who doesn’t have a splashy YouTube channel.
The sad reality of being creative in a profit-driven world is that, unless you are able to strike it really, really big, such as a six-figure, two-book deal your first time out, and unless you justify the advances you get for those books, or you are able to leverage some celebrity of some sort, then you probably aren’t going to be making a living as a writer.
I know a writer who has had five picture books published with large houses in the last five years, with several more in production. She said at a conference I attended last month that she’s not making a living at being a writer.
Another writer friend, a midlist author at a big house, self-published his latest title because he wasn’t getting the support he needed from his big house to make his books successful enough to make it work for both of them. “We only exist to fund the bestsellers,” he lamented to me one night at a bookstore promotion I did where he was the only person who bought a copy of my book. He had gotten me the gig and was scheduled to appear a couple of weeks later. He fared better than I did, but probably not enough to have made it worth his or the bookstore’s time. We’ve done conferences and book festivals together. I can assure you that young adult historical fiction does not fly off the table. Forget “write the book you want to write.” Write fantasy or sci-fi. You will at least get your gas money back even if you don’t recoup your table fee.
If I’ve totally depressed you by now, don’t fear. There’s more. Those teaching credentials I was going to use to supplement my income? They did get me a job. As an adjunct professor at a private, top-five business school. The pay was abysmal, but I found out my first semester that there were efforts to unionize. All of the schools in our area that were unionized were making twice what I was making. If I could double my salary and teach the maximum three courses per semester, I’d actually be making a decent amount of money for a part-time job. The school desperately tried to convince us not to unionize. They told us that it would be unpatriotic, that we didn’t need a union because they cared about us so much, and that we would be destroying the kids because the school wouldn’t be able to afford it without hiking tuition. We unionized anyway. Conditions at work have greatly improved. As for my salary, it didn’t double. My raise this semester was $40, not even enough to let me get a regular Starbucks before I head to class. Because my MFA is a terminal degree, I’m at the top of the adjunct pay scale. Without a Ph.D., I don’t qualify for a full-time position, at least teaching English. Surprisingly, there are not a lot of full-time jobs to teach creative writing.
I don’t regret my time at Lesley. I loved it. I loved being around people who cared about books and writing the way I do. I loved the flood of inspiration I got with every single residency. I love my lifelong friends and my various Lesley Facebook groups. But every day, I find myself angry at a world that makes being a creative person a liability.
The reality is that being with a small press is only nominally better than being self-published. People do notice and do take your work more seriously, but even winning an award, unless it’s a top award, doesn’t sell books. You will struggle to get reviews, and unless they are from the major reviewers and starred (which they won’t be), they aren’t going to help you. I couldn’t get a single review from a major reviewer, but an established author I know had multiple reviews for his book six months before his book was published (some starred, of course).
Independent bookstores, which are supposed to be the place where the voiceless sing, won’t take a chance on stocking a book without major reviews from an unknown author. They may be willing, if you bring them coffee and donuts, to keep a couple of copies on consignment. They won’t do anything to hand sell them, though, and you’ll be losing money because consignment means you are paying them forty percent you don’t have after you buy the book from your publisher. You also don’t get royalties on these books. This isn’t meant to bash independent bookstores. They have really tight margins and you should buy from them. Just understand that, as a writer, you need to be at least a midlist author with a big house for them to take a chance on you. If you fit this slot, then they are a place where you might sing.
So how does someone change this dynamic so that they can make a living at being a writer? I don’t know, I haven’t discovered this secret yet. Having YouTube celebrity helps. Starting out at least as a midlist author might help. Winning a major award might help, although your chances of being considered as a small press author for a major award are pretty slim. If you don’t believe me, pick any major award you’ve dreamed of winning and then look at the books that have won and where they’ve been published. If there is a publisher name you don’t know (other than an imprint), I’ll tweet your book release to my myriad of twitter followers.
I’ve grown increasingly frustrated that I can’t live my dream (which would be to make enough money to justify not doing anything for a living but being a writer). I don’t understand a world that values creativity so little when it seems that everyone wants to be creative. I would think maybe it was just me, except that I know a lot of talented writers who are in the same place, wishing they could make a living doing what they love. That’s the real dream, not being published or winning awards, but having the space to just do.
So, if it’s so impossible to make a living at writing, why do so many of us try? Why do I feel guilty every day because my husband, who stuck with law, makes more than 200% of what I can scrape up indulging my creativity? Why do I subject myself to criticism and rejection and almost? I think it’s because the real dream is to be seen. To create something that someone else will find value in.
Recently, I did a school visit with a group of gifted and talented teens from a local public school in a working-class school district. Their teacher read the book before she hired me and loved it, but I wasn’t sure how my actual demographic would feel. I’d only had limited feedback from teen readers. I was really nervous. The shy me, the one my husband had to instruct to talk to my fellow students at Lesley, was pretty sure they weren’t going to like my book very much. I didn’t expect them to pummel me with bad fruit or anything, but I didn’t expect them to actually care.
Except, they did. When I signed their copies, they would look at me with admiration and tell me how much they loved my book. One boy told me, “You’re the first author I’ve ever met,” as if that was something to aspire to be. Another girl told me, “I read it in one night over Christmas break. I couldn’t put it down.” Even more important to me than these words was the way they would look at me, as if I had given them something that mattered to them, an unexpected gift. A gift they treasured.
This is the reason we write, even before we even know what it feels like. I still think that we deserve to be paid more for what we do, and I understand those who argue that you should never give your words away for free because then it just enables the gatekeepers to cheapen what we do even more. There is a truth in that, and I don’t know how to solve that problem because most of us are giving our words away even if we are traditionally published by a paying publisher. The truth is, making a decent living at being a fiction writer or poet is nearly impossible. There really needs to be a union for fiction writers and poets (one that is better at increasing salaries than my union is). But if you’ve stayed to read all of this, I’m pretty sure I’ll see you at Starbucks banging away on your computer as you pay for your latte with a day job.