Musings by Mamatas: Professional Writers

by Nick Mamatas

As it’s tax time in the US, my mind has turned to what slot writers fit into in the web of work and capitalism and such. Of course, most writers are fundamentally members of the precariat—“the precarious proletariat” that have no property and also no security. Most writers don’t actually even own intellectual property: the average writer these days blogs for pennies or writes listicles for websites and copy for apps. No copyright claims to be had there, but of course we still don’t think of the author of “Five Tweets About Beyoncé I Found In Ten Minutes For Four Dollars” as a writer, which is unfortunate.

It’s not as though the writers we all understand to be writers—novelists, essayists, journalists—are better off. The Author’s Guild recently released a report entitled The Profession of Author in the 21st Century, which found that among Guild members, who must publish fairly well in order to qualify for membership:

  • …more than half (54%) of full-time authors surveyed earned less than the federal poverty threshold of $12,488 from their writing. 
  • …23% of full-time authors reported earning zero income from books in 2017. 
  • Literary authors saw a 46% drop in their book-related income in just four years…

Further, writing is a “superstar system” along the lines of professional sports. Few baseball players make millions in the major leagues, some more make poverty wages in the minor leagues, and most just involve themselves otherwise—coaching kids and the like. So few writers make so much money that the survey didn’t bother computing average incomes for writers, as one Stephen King would throw everyone off, but the median incomes. And oh boy were those medians low.

Unsurprisingly, given the superstar system, author identities are fraught. As we’re all good Marxists here (aren’t we?) we might consider the sort of writer who retains copyright and thus manages and sells property to be petit-bourgeois, a small business person, albeit one who needs to hustle constantly to keep the pots boiling. Surely, no small businessperson has the right to be a working-class activist and a rampaging Communist seeking to overthrow the government and take over the economy. But then again, what was Marx’s job? Oh yeah, freelance writer! It’s a pickle.

Some writers claim to be “professional” writers, and some claim to be “blue-collar” writers. Not that writing isn’t a profession—it’s mental work with plenty of cultural capital, at least for writers who don’t publish their essays in an anarchist chapbook series.  More importantly, writers often do profess, or make a vow, to write. They need to as it takes years to gain any sort of foothold in publishing.

Not that writing isn’t a kind of labor—it’s definitely not just fun, and there are often outlines to follow, strict deadlines to ignore, and the intense scrutiny of editors, publishers, and marketing simpletons under which writers sweat.

But professional writing is so broad as to be meaningless: does it mean someone who gets paid occasionally, or writes to a certain consistent level, or someone who writes for a living, or someone who writes for a living to the exclusion of all else (not even occasional speech-making or teaching), or someone who writes for a living to the exclusion of all else and lives a bourgeois lifestyle? It means all of these things, and none of them, and it also means something else—I’m not a very interesting writer, but you must take me seriously.

Blue-collar writer is so narrow as to be meaningless: surely it doesn’t refer to manual, unskilled labor; nor does it refer to writing about the labor movement, or fiction about proletarian subjects, or writing without having earned an MFA or other credential, or work written for consumption by the working class; it cannot refer simply to income either, since the blue-collar workforce has widely varying incomes depending on whether or not a workplace is organized. It definitely doesn’t mean writers who come from blue-collar families, as anyone from a blue-collar family would be embarrassed to make such a declaration. It can mean none of these things, and thus means nothing at all, except, yes—I’m not a very interesting writer, but you must take me seriously.

I am not a professional writer. I’ve published broadly, and even made some money. I’ve lived off the proceeds of my writing and nothing else for years—of course, much of that time was spent writing term papers for college students, a gig which doesn’t pay well at all except when compared to writing science fiction short stories. I’ll give publishing advice now and again. I’ve even met some of my deadlines. But I don’t care whether my publishers are happy with me or make money; I feel no pride in being fairly prolific. I couldn’t even tell you what my agent looks like. I hope he doesn’t sneak up on me one day.

I am not a professional writer because I am not interested in writing to meet requirements. 

I am not a blue-collar writer either. There is no such thing. I do come from a working-class background (father a longshoreman and an immigrant, first in my family to go to college and then at the local state university) and like to imagine that my readers, the handful of them, are autodidacts who got into reading thanks to being passed the right dog-eared and busted-spine paperback by the right hippie at the right moment in their lives. 

I have written terrible things to keep the lights on; term papers were the least of it, really. And I’ve had the lights go off anyway. But I don’t just crank out what I think “the people” want; I don’t see myself as competing with Anheuser-Busch for my readers’ disposable cash, and I don’t look askance at actual good writing. The so-called “blue collar” writer is often very suspicious of “flowery language” or mythical “beret-wearing” authors who write “in a garret.” That is to say, they’re homophobic in the classic sense—there is contagion that makes men (almost always men) gay and that contagion is any sort of interest in aesthetics.

I am not a blue-collar writer because I am interested in aesthetics.

Surely, the greatest joy of the writing life is not having a boss, but the professionals decide that they are the bosses of some small business with demanding vendors (my agent! my editor! my loving fans!), and blue-collar writers have quit their jobs (they’re famous! they sell lots of books!) and replaced their foreman with twenty thousand bosses who pay their favorite authors $1 a year each.

Nick Mamatas is the author of several novels, including I Am Providence and Sabbath, and has published short fiction in Best American Mystery StoriesYear’s Best Science Fiction and FantasyNew Haven Review, Tor.com, and many other venues. Nick’s reportage and essays have appeared in the Village VoicePoets & WritersIn These TimesThe Smart Set, and dozens of other places. As an anthologist, Nick co-edited the Bram Stoker Award-winning Haunted Legends with Ellen Datlow, the Locus Award nominees The Future is Japanese and Hanzai Japan with Masumi Washington, and the hybrid cocktail recipe/short fiction title Mixed Up with Molly Tanzer.

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