And what about that holy grail—the advance? Even the smallest advance can be justified to death as the ticket out of your office job or bartending gig. But is the money that publishers pay most writers enough to make the suffering worth it?
That money, of course, isn’t just for rent and ham sandwiches and Oreos. It’s also for the sky-high freelance taxes (about 37 percent of any untaxed income will be commandeered by Uncle Sam), agent’s fees, fax and copy tabs at the library, travel for research trips and any other number of things. Think about it: $100,000 is actually more like $65,000 after taxes—not bad. But then there’s the 15 percent agent’s cut (another $15,000), leaving you about $50,000. For a year, that’s a livable salary. But once other book expenses are taken into account—like permissions, travel, copies and the like—you’re looking at a modest pile rather than a mountain. There’s really not much left to enjoy—especially if your work stretches on for years.
“When I hear a book deal, I think, ‘Oh, that person made a 100 grand.’ When I have a low-five-figure advance, I call it, like, a small gift, I suppose,” said Ms. Holmes.
She also learned that her publisher wouldn’t pay for the rights to print the breakup letters she wanted to include in the collection. “The advance I got was not money that I could live on; it was money that had to be used to pay permissions for the book,” she said.
Although Mr. Smith said he was able to survive on his advance, he admits that those six-figure deals can quickly dwindle away over the three or four years it takes to write a book. “You’re basically making 30 or 40 grand a year, and that’s not that great of a salary …. It’s really not as much as it seems. These numbers can be very deceptive.”
Yet, still, the dreamers dream. Brendan Sullivan, 25, moved to New York after studying creative writing at Kenyon College in Ohio.
He hasn’t landed a book deal for his novel, but is determined to find a publisher. “Writing has ruined my life and cost me many, many girlfriends,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I have thrown away several careers and one college degree to spend my time working in bars, D.J.’ing in bars and drinking my rejection letters away. I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, and I’ve made many of them since I started …. I also abandoned my agent with words harsher than those I’ve saved for lost loves.”
Mr. Sullivan has held 27 jobs to support his writing career, from selling chapstick on the street to being a night guard in an art gallery (“That was my favorite job ever, because I just sat in a chair and read novels all day,” Mr. Sullivan added.)
He is currently working on his second novel. His first one, well, “There are eight drafts of it—they’re in my basement right now,” he said in a phone interview from his Fort Greene apartment. He trashed the novel after he got into a public fight with his first agent and decided to start anew. “You have to learn how to suppress your gag reflex in order to get anything out. Like in love, you make a lot of mistakes and you learn from them.”
Indeed, despite the heartbreak, the loneliness, the trashed drafts, the rejected proposals, writers will continue to reach for the golden ticket, the fulfillment of their American dream.
“In terms of the most joyous life to have in the world, in terms of pleasure receptors, it might be like being a heroin addict: It’s the most pleasurable thing that you could choose, if you have that constant access,” said Mr. Englander, before hanging up to head to the coffee shop and write. “I’ll say, ‘Oh, yeah, it almost killed me,’ but I’m saying that in the most positive way, because it’s all I want to do.”