Best of the Blog, Personal Ramblings, Uncategorized

Are Words Worth Paying For?

When I was growing up, I fell in love with books. From the moment my mom suggested Harry Potter to me – likely after she grew tired of me devouring a Dolphin Dairies or Magic Tree House chapter book a day – I was hooked by the magic of words. I was thrilled by the worlds I could experience, the lands I could travel, the magic I could wield, all by opening the pages of yet another library book – and for the slightly odd, maybe not neurotypical, nerdy animal lover that I was, those pages were my safe haven. Books became the places that I could slip away to when the world became too much or when those around me deemed me too weird. Books were also my education. Reading taught me to think critically, to engage with others viewpoints, to open my mind and my world to places and people I was not immediately familiar with in my bubble of beach-side youth. I do not exaggerate when I say that Harry Potter got me into university, because without the love of reading that it sparked, I doubt I would have managed as well in school – a big part of which is critical reading and, it’s close cousin, writing.

So why, then, if reading and writing are this important, are authors some of the poorest paid professionals out there?

As of 2022, the average annual income of Australian authors, derived from their books alone (i.e. not speaking engagements, podcasts, etc.), was $18,200 per year. Compare that to the Australian minimum wage of $23.23 per hour, or $45,902.48 (gross wages) per year working full time (38 hours per week) and the fact that we significantly undervalue authors is absurdly clear. Due to this inability to make any sort of a living, even a crappy one, with their writing, most authors juggle what are rather euphemistically called ‘portfolio careers’, aka the decidedly unglamourous and often highly stressful task of managing multiple income pathways, such as their creative work, journalism, speaking, podcasting, and, likely, an entire other career such as a teacher, nurse, or, in my case, public health. Once all those stress-inducing flying balls are counted, the average authorial income rises to a slightly less depressing $64,900, but given you could easily earn that without any sort of higher education in almost any career pathway in Australia (even the average garbage collector salary, $67,775 per year, is higher), it’s still pretty damn sad.

Given the stark state of words these days, it makes sense in hindsight why I was routinely told “you’re too smart to be a starving artist” or “you like biology, you should be a doctor” or “an English major is a waste of money”. My well-meaning, but slightly misunderstanding, family and friends were worried about how I would support myself, hell how I would even feed myself, if I followed my heart into journalism or, god forbid, creative writing, so I listened – after all I did live in America at the time and its less than brilliant social safety net was a significant push towards the more easily marketable skills of medicine.

Alas, I’m a wandering creative at heart and, despite my best efforts, I couldn’t stomach the idea of bartering away at least 8 more years of my life post-university to become a doctor so I switched tacks in my 3rd year into something slightly more interesting to me and, hopefully, more marketable than writing – public health. That was nine years ago and in between there was a master’s degree (in public health because who can afford the sheer luxury of an M.F.A.), more travel (I never said I was logical), a few years of work, two blogs and likely hundreds of thousands of words written.

Despite the world telling me to stop, that it was futile, that no one would ever read my words, let alone pay for them, I’ve kept writing. There have been pauses, yes (grad school, COVID-induced mental health pause, etc.), but I have never managed to stay away from the keyboard for long. The first words I sent out to the world were my rather poor attempts at a travel blog/journal thing that was my first blog (I called it A Post-Bac In Wanderlust and thought I was just too clever…) and then, in 2017, Kane gave me the encouragement needed to really focus on my writing.

“I’d love to write a book before I die,” I mused one day sitting at a campsite somewhere near James Price Point in northwest WA.

“Why not now?” came Kane’s immediate reply.

“I don’t have anything to write about, I haven’t really lived, what could I have to say?”

“What does anyone who writes a book have to say? They make it up as they go. You’re better than most of the big travel bloggers, anyway, write about our travels.”

Now, I’m not sure if he was right or if he was just kind, but in that moment, he gave me permission to try, to not care that I wasn’t perfect yet and do it anyway (…okay I still care a little bit that I wasn’t perfect, but that’s a work in progress).

So, in the shadow of those blood red cliffs, I wrote the first chapter of the book I’ve now been working on for six years.

Maybe one day, when my book is done – and hopefully published – I’ll look back on these cliffs and remember where it all began.

It was crap.

But then, I wrote chapter two, and chapter three, and chapter four!

…and they were still crap, but the crap was improving, so I carried on.

Then, with his ever necessary, always kind, encouragement, I flashed up my little WordPress blog into a real blog – with a .com at the end! Now, only the bloggers among you will know how exciting it is to have your own domain. For all of two days you believe you’ve arrived, that you’re a real writer now! Then, after hours and hours of writing and fighting with WordPress, you realise two things: one, that you are not now, and should never be, a website developer, and two, that your mom and best friend are the entirety of your website traffic.

‘It’s okay’, you tell yourself. ‘Everyone starts small, you’ve just got to keep writing, and maybe learn something about SEO.’

Alas, you’ve never really be interested in the non-writing parts of writing and while the blog posts piled up, so too did the broken plugins and the ever-growing list of to dos that you never got around to (number one of that list, learn SEO, which I still, to this day, have not learned). But the chapters also began to pile up…and the re-writes and the re-starts…and slowly, but surely a book began to take shape. Characters came alive. Settings were born…but then life got in the way a million times and “the end” never did get typed, so you find yourself sitting on a yacht, writing about writing, with a half-fixed blog and a half-written book, trying to get to the bloody point already…

…but it’s hard to get to the point, because at the end of the day this post is about something I’ve been wrestling with for years…how to make money (or at least not lose money) writing.

See, it costs me about $300 a year to keep this website alive in some hard drive somewhere so all you beautiful people (or just Laura and mom) can read my wandering words and I have never made a cent off it. I have refused to put ads up, because they are annoying and this blog isn’t about selling things, it’s about stories. However, I’ve been giving my words away for free for 8 years now and while that made sense in the beginning, when, let’s be honest, they weren’t very good, I’ve decided now is the time to stop de-valuing myself and my work.

How do I plan to do that you ask? Well, by stopping blogging and finally focusing my creative efforts on the long term, long shot dream of becoming a traditionally published author.

This blog has given me so much. It’s given me a platform to improve, to practise, and to place my personal travel stories for safe keeping…but it’s time to let it go.

What I’ve realised is that I only have so much time and creative energy, so that when I spend it on one endeavour – like a blog post – I have less leftover for the book. I also have this horrible, also maybe not neurotypical, time blindness where I constantly underestimate how long things will take and how many things I can realistically do in a day or a week or a year. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve said, “I’ll finish the book when…X” and then added in another gigantic life goal to the to do list, subsequently not managed to finish the book and felt like a complete and utter failure. I have spent hours beating myself up because I didn’t make my self-imposed deadline. I didn’t write ‘the end’ while going to grad school or planning a wedding or immigrating to a new country or learning to sail and what I’ve realised is that I never will finish the book while there is an X.

So, instead of letting my perfectionist brain self-flagellate, I have decided to remove the extraneous things, especially the extraneous creative things that take my energy away from my larger goal, things like this blog. It also helps that this feels like a natural end to the blog – a decade on from my first blog post, 37 countries and one sailboat later. Now, I know life will continue to carry on and try its best to get in the way of my words. I also know that just getting traditionally published, let alone becoming successful enough to only write, is about as likely as winning lotto, but I want to try, and I want to give myself the best shot possible, so that means saying goodbye when we sell Avalon. Don’t worry, I will record the trials, tribulations, and adventures until then, until we say goodbye to our girl, but once she is in new hands, I will say goodbye here as well.

Until then, I encourage you to think about the arts, about creative work, and how we value it, or not, as a society. I know I am not starving. I live a privileged life that enables me to support myself in other ways while I try to see if my words are worth paying for, but the fact of the matter is I believe that we, as a society, should value creative work and stop demanding that creatives create for free. After all, you wouldn’t tell a chef that just because they love the act of creating great food that your burger should be free, would you?

So why is it different for words?


How to Support Creatives:

  1. Buy books, especially from independent bookstores, but even if you must buy from Amazon, it is better than nothing. Hardcovers in particular give authors the best royalties, so if you have an author you really want to support, buy their hardcover.
  2. Do not use AI “art” generators or ChatGPT, as these technologies are trained on currently available creative works without any compensation to the creator (aka they steal creative’s current intellectual property at the same time as stealing their jobs). Let the machines do grunt work and leave the creative work to humans, after all I don’t want to live in a world where humans pick up garbage while robots write poems.
  3. Pay creatives for creative work. If you are an indie author that needs a book cover, pay an actual artist to create one. If you are a children’s book illustrator who’s words are not their medium, then pay an author to write your story.
  4. Go to author talks, buy tickets to their workshops, show up to book signings. These things will sometimes cost and sometimes not, but at the end of the day they do a key thing for authors – they create a community, a following of loyal people who will support them and their work throughout their careers.
  5. Read. Above all else, enjoy books, read books, talk about books, let the world know that words are not dead, that the TV did not kill the book, that readers are still here and thus, writers are still here. So, if your financial situation means that you can’t buy a hardcover, that’s okay, get a library card, keep reading, and support your creative community with your time, it’s just as valuable as your money.

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