For most of us, writing novels isn’t lucrative. Only a small percentage are published, and even for those, unless it's a breakout success, economics are modest. About one in ten traditionally published novels earns back its advance so the author gets further royalties—paid only twice a year, and the checks can be tiny. (I have, actually, done the lab work on that.)
Famously, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s royalty statement for 1940 showed that he sold only 40 books that year. (His novel The Great Gatsby was poorly received when it came out in 1925, and only became a hit during WWII, when it was reissued in pocket book format for GIs.)
Anne Lamott says that writers need a critical mass of five published books for a sustainable career, so that each new book bumps up sales of the others. For those of us (like me) who took up writing late in life and who write slowly, that’s a tough prescription.
Hence the side hustle—a side activity, usually for money, because grocers rarely take prose in payment at the checkout stand.
Most of my life, I did this backward: I had a full-time job or study, and a low- or non-paying creative side hustle. When I was in my first year at law school, I wrote game show questions for the lowest-rated daytime television show of the era, Card Sharks. I’d scribble them in the back of property class for the princely sum of $7 for each one the show used.
Later, when I was a law clerk for judges in San Francisco and Sacramento, I did stand-up comedy, which culminated by being third runner-up in the 1983 Sacramento Stand-Up Comedy Competition—which is almost exactly as unimpressive and non-lucrative as it sounds. (During the semi-finals, they made loud blender drinks at the bar during our sets. I still have an irrational dislike for margaritas.)
Then, when I was a law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court, I drew cartoons about the experience and circulated them to the other clerks.
I had to eventually tone those down after a third of the Supreme Court Justices (including my boss) asked to join the distribution list.
When I was a lawyer for 30 years after that, I (sometimes) wrote on the side and gave a dozen presentations a year to trade and bar association groups to bring in business. More importantly, I saved my money. Lawyers benefit from cartel pricing—they must graduate law school and pass the bar exam and pay annual dues and take annual continuing legal education classes. If you don’t do all that, but try to compete by providing legal services to clients, the state will put you in jail.
Jailing people who compete is, in economic terms, a “high barrier to entry.”
So, like a lot of us do, I traded time—decades of works as a lawyer—for money. And saving that money and giving up the practice of law has now given me back, in turn, the time to write novels, my dream job.
I sometimes worry that I waited too long. Yes, there are late starters in writing who do well: James Michener published his first novel at 40, and then managed to publish 40 more. This year’s runaway bestseller in fiction, Where the Crawdads Sing, is by 70-year-old debut novelist Delia Owens.
It’s hard to know when people peak creatively, but there has been lots of research: The average age of novelists who win the Man Booker prize is 49 (with, on average, their seventh published novel.) A study found that 45 was average age at which winners of the Nobel Prize for literature published their “most important” work.
More recent research, though, suggests two kinds of creative approaches, where people peak in very different decades: For conceptual breakthrough artists who reinvent things through out-of-the-box thinking, they typically peak in their 20s. But those who are experimental/experiential—who build their knowledge throughout their careers and ultimately find new ways to analyze and synthesize that knowledge—often peak in their 40s, 50s, 60s or beyond. (For example, historians often publish their award-winning books in their 70s.)
With my fascination for craft, I suspect I’m more of an experiential/experimental writer, and hope that I still have decades of potentially strong writing ahead of me.
In any event, as I think about side hustles, I want to branch out from writing novels in the new year to go back to writing some nonfiction for magazines. In the time ahead, I also hope to put my MFA to work in teaching creative writing.
You often get things from your side hustles besides money. I learned more about public speaking through a year of stand-up comedy than I did in four years of college as a communications major, even though I was there on a competitive speech-and-debate scholarship. And one of the things I’ve learned from blogging here at YA Outside the Lines is that I love writing nonfiction and having monthly deadlines. That's something I’ll have more of, writing some additional nonfiction for money in the year ahead.
Happy New Year, all.
Dean Gloster has an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jesse Andrews's Me and Earl and the Dying Girl.” Dean took up downhill ski racing in his 40s, went back to graduate school for an MFA at 57, and took up Aikido at 58. It’s possible he has some weird issue about aging.
When Dean is not writing, studying Aikido, or downhill ski racing, he’s on Twitter: @deangloster