What if writers were paid for their effort instead of their product? Many skilled professions involve more labor than monetary reward, but writers seem particularly short-changed. Inventions, fine pieces of art, these can still command appropriate prices. Authors cannot negotiate book sales, cannot hold out for the highest bidder. Not only are print editions on the wane, digital copies are continuing to lose value: ninety-nine cents has become the norm, and many authors are compelled to promote their books by giving them away.
What are writers worth? What would be a fair wage? A landscaper friend of mine told me last week that he always charges by the hour, not the job, as unforeseen problems can cause delays. This makes sense, and I admire him for his business acumen, for insisting that he be treated fairly. SURVIVAL SKILLS, my short story collection, includes stories that were written over several years, and some of these pieces took months to write. One of the stories actually started out as a novel that grew flabby; I wound up scrapping about forty thousand words. Untold hours went into the making of SURVIVAL SKILLS. Even if authors earned minimum wages, most would be rich beyond measure. Writers would rule the world.
Hard labor, that’s what good writing is. A dedicated writer is a slave to herself. Unlike inventors, who achieve their goals by fixing failures, writers continue on faith, not knowing if their revisions are improvements. No one can help them. Sentences are paths, and writers must blunder down one after another, hoping they have made the right turns and will not wind up lost. The journey is loaded with trip hazards, and writers must avoid them all: the pitfalls of clichés, the slopes of sentimentality, the sloughs of despair. If an author is lucky enough to arrive at her goal, to finish a story she is pleased with, she must then work to acquire readers. For authors, marketing is far more onerous than writing: It is not a labor of love, and there is no end to it.
Writing is a three-step process: seizing an idea, putting this idea into words, and then into the right words. Of course, the right words for one author may be, will be, the wrong words for another—there are any number of ways to write, and mediocre writing can result in stunning sales. Writers must work to please themselves, knowing their stories may never be appreciated or even read.
I will work on one sentence for hours if need be, shuffling the words around and around until they fall where I believe they should, until they are as precise and as beautiful as I can make them. As I struggle with words, I often think of Raymond Carver, who considered himself not a minimalist but a “precisionist”—what an apt term to describe the love he brought to his craft. Carver knew he’d never achieve perfection, but he kept reaching for it anyway, sacrificing year after year in search of his best.
You can’t put a price on a good book, but you can buy one for under a buck. If you think that’s a deterrent, you’re probably not a writer.