Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living

by Manjula Martin


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A collection of essays from today’s most acclaimed authors—from Cheryl Strayed to Roxane Gay to Jennifer Weiner, Alexander Chee, Nick Hornby, and Jonathan Franzen—on the realities of making a living in the writing world.

In the literary world, the debate around writing and commerce often begs us to take sides: either writers should be paid for everything they do or writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job, but your ultimate goal should be to quit your day job. It’s an endless, confusing, and often controversial conversation that, despite our bare-it-all culture, still remains taboo. In Scratch, Manjula Martin has gathered interviews and essays from established and rising authors to confront the age-old question: how do creative people make money?

As contributors including Jonathan Franzen, Cheryl Strayed, Roxane Gay, Nick Hornby, Susan Orlean, Alexander Chee, Daniel Jose Older, Jennifer Weiner, and Yiyun Li candidly and emotionally discuss money, MFA programs, teaching fellowships, finally getting published, and what success really means to them, Scratch honestly addresses the tensions between writing and money, work and life, literature and commerce. The result is an entertaining and inspiring book that helps readers and writers understand what it’s really like to make art in a world that runs on money—and why it matters. Essential reading for aspiring and experienced writers, and for anyone interested in the future of literature, Scratch is the perfect bookshelf companion to On Writing, Never Can Say Goodbye, and MFA vs. NYC.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781501134579
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Publication date: 01/03/2017
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 625,058
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Manjula Martin is a writer and editor with more than a decade of experience in print and online publishing. She founded and edited Scratch magazine (2013-2015), an online journal of interviews and information about writing and money, and created the blog Who Pays Writers? Her pieces have appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Aeon Magazine, Pacific Standard, Oyster Review, and SF Weekly. She writes “The Dough,” a series about women and money, for The Toast and is the managing editor of Zoetrope: All-Story. She is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and a graduate of Mills College. Scratch is her first book.

Read an Excerpt



    Manjula Martin




    1. To scrape the surface of something.

    2. To assemble a desired result through hard work and perseverance.

    “scratch out a living”

    3. To make something out of whatever is at hand.

    “made from scratch”

    “a scratch crew”


    Writing that is extemporaneous or hurried, usually by hand.

    “she wrote so passionately that it was difficult to read the resulting chicken scratch”


    Slang for “money.”

    True or false: Writers should be paid for everything they write. Writers should just pay their dues and count themselves lucky to be published. You should never quit your day job. You’ll know you’re successful when you can quit your day job. Writing is an art, not a business. Writers should be entrepreneurs. Digital technology has destroyed the market for writing. The Internet will set us all free.

    Sound familiar?

    In every stage of their careers, working writers are in a constant state of negotiation: work and life, art and commerce, writing and publishing. In the public eye and within our communities, authors are said to practice a calling, an art form, a passion—but rarely a job. We are often told by more successful writers to “do it for the love,” but we are rarely told how to turn love into a living.

    That’s where this book comes in.

    Scratch magazine was initially developed out of a need for greater transparency in the discussion about work and money within the community of writers. This book deepens that discussion. The interviews and essays that make up this edition come from some of today’s most prominent and promising voices, offering candid and informative stories about their experiences at different stages in their careers. In newspapers and on social media, through blogs and informal networks, writers are just now starting to break the silence about what it’s really like to be working writers. New York Times cultural critic A. O. Scott writes, “Nobody would argue against the idea that art has a social value, and yet almost nobody will assert that society therefore has an obligation to protect that value by acknowledging, and compensating, the labor of the people who produce it.” In Salon, an author’s confession that she is “sponsored” by her husband unleashed a torrent of think pieces. On Medium, online lightning rod Emily Gould published a frequently shared essay describing how she spent most of a $200,000 advance (spoiler alert: unwisely). And in the New Yorker—which itself is perhaps the reigning symbol of opacity in publishing—Junot Díaz wrote a scathing takedown of racism in MFA programs and barriers to inclusive access in the publishing business. In my own experience as the founder of Scratch and Who Pays Writers?, a crowdsourced database of freelance writing rates, I’ve heard time and again from writers who are yearning for any scrap of information they can find about how their own profession functions economically. These heated discussions speak to a need for more openness about how, exactly, literature and the people who make it are valued.

    There are stories of artistic and economic struggle in this collection, sure, but more so these are stories of inspiration, empathy, and perseverance. And a few are even pretty damn funny. Taken as a whole, this book is by and for writers who are building careers that deftly encompass all we are: a little bit artist, a little bit hawker, and a whole lot of love. We don’t deny that the dream—the drive and ambition and imagination that make a person decide to do a ridiculous thing like be a writer—is important. The love is real. But so is real life. We all need to make a living, whether we “make it” or not.

    If I’ve learned one thing while working with these amazing authors on this difficult topic, it’s that the art of making a living is always evolving; the economics of literature are diverse. Some writers choose to freelance—journalism, copywriting, editing. Some teach and fit in their creative work around their class schedules. Some do a combination of both. Many writers have means of income that have nothing to do with the publishing world—paramedic, law clerk, carpenter. What the authors in Scratch have in common is that they are creative professionals navigating and expanding the relationship between art and commerce every day.

    Within this spectrum of authors are those who haven’t always taken the usual paths to a writing career. It’s particularly easy for people with economic and social privileges to say, “Do what you love and the money will follow.” But it’s not always so simple for the rest—the people without prestigious degrees or parents standing ready to help with a loan. Scratch’s vision of a thriving literary community includes authors writing from the margins, people who may have additional obstacles to crafting careers that enable their artistic work but also pay the rent.

    When preparing this book for publication, I was often asked by potential writers and readers alike, “So, which side are you on: commerce or literature?” But to be honest, if this is a contest, I don’t much care who wins; I’m more interested in how we all got here, and where we’ll go next. Literature and commerce will always be (and have always been) somewhat at odds with each other, uneasy bedfellows—an odd couple. For authors, the path to success is not always one of hardship. Nor is it always a direct route.

    The authors in Scratch are looking beyond binaries to seek greater truths about writing, work, money, and publishing. In the business and art of literature there are no rules, no surefire steps to success, no amount of “tips” or lists that can guarantee you will increase your income or readership. Ultimately, for each and every writer, the answer to the question “how do you sell a thing like love?” has to be found within their own practice, within the context of their life and work, their resources and desires.

    What if each writer could learn to navigate the balance between art and commerce for themselves, making choices according to their means and temperament and finding the best way to put their work—their own, specific, beautiful work—into the marketplace? What if, instead of parachuting into whatever flame war about publishing and pay is happening at the moment and then forgetting we were ever there, those who make literature and those who buy and fund literature sat down and listened to each other’s stories?

    I realize that “it’s complicated” may not be what you wanted to hear when you picked up a book about how writers make a living. I realize it’s hard when we’re all thirsty for answers. But, as you’ll see in the more than two dozen perspectives represented here, there really are no easy answers. There is experience and example and wisdom and luck, and it’s up to each writer to put them all together into something shaped like a career, to develop a balance between art and commerce that leaves them nurtured enough to keep writing. Besides, we wouldn’t be true to our profession if we went for the quick fix, would we? Show me a writer who goes for easy answers and I’ll show you a person who is uncurious, uninteresting, too thirsty to make it to the next shimmering oasis. The authors in the following pages are right there in the weeds along with readers, navigating the complex relationships among art, life, and work at different stages in their careers—and revealing the heart of American literature in the process.

    Care to join us?

  • Table of Contents

    Introduction Manjula Martin xi

    Early Days

    Owning This Julia Fierro 3

    With Compliments Nina MacLaughlin 9

    Faith, Hope, and Credit Cheryl Strayed Manjula Martin 14

    On Staying Hungry Rachael Maddux 23

    Portrait of the Artist as a Debut Novelist Porochista Khakpour 29

    The Mercenary Muse Colin Dickey 41

    Running the Widget Factory Susan Orlean Manjula Martin 50

    The Wizard Alexander Chee 59

    You Are the Second Person Kiese Laymon 69

    Five Years in the Wilderness Cart Luna 84

    Freedom Richard Rodriguez Caille Millner 89

    Word Hard, Read Dead Yiyun Li Manjula Martin 96

    Write to Suffer, Publish to Starve J. Robert Lennon 104

    The Daily Grind

    The Best Work in Literature Manjula Martin 111

    The Insider Kate McKean 120

    Against "Vs." Leslie Jamison 126

    Love for Sale Harmony Holiday 136

    Unlikeable Emily Gould 143

    Sad Birth Lady™ Meaghan O'Connell 148

    Ghost Stories Sari Botton 156

    Economies 101 Susie Cagle 162

    Security Roxane Gay Manjula Martin 170

    Monetization Choire Sicha 174

    Not a Complaint Nell Boeschenstein 184

    The Jump Sarah Smarsh 192


    Selling Out Austin Kleon Manjula Martin 205

    A Sort of Fairy Tale Malinda Lo 214

    Growing Up Nick Hornby Manjula Martin 222

    FAQ: How to Buy a Home Mallory Ortberg 228

    Diversity is Not Enough: Race, Power, Publishing Daniel José Older 235

    Worth Jennifer Weiner 243

    Like a Fish in a Tweed Suit Jonathan Franzen Manjula Martin 258

    The If of It: Lunatic Independence in Nine Easy Steps Laura Goode 270

    Contributors 279

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    Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
    AvaJae More than 1 year ago
    4.5/5 stars So I've seen some people say they found the book depressing, but maybe my expectations for making a living as a writer are super low or something because I actually found it encouraging. While not all of the essays focus exactly on making a living, the ones that did were frank and honest and most importantly to me—though most of them struggled at first, they did eventually reach the point where they were comfortably making ends meet, often through multiple streams of income. Some were more open about numbers than others, but they all ultimately talked about their own experiences and how they got to where they are today. The interviews and essays reveal many different options out there for writers—everything from writers living solely off their fiction, writers living off several writing income streams, writers with full time jobs, writers with part time jobs, and writers dependent on someone else's income. To me, it was an encouraging reminder that one way or the other, writers figure this stuff out, and so can you. While there were a couple essays/interviews that I didn't particularly care for—especially one interview that was pretty literary elitist and eyeroll-worthy, to say the least (looking at the lineup, I'm sure you can probably guess which contributor it's from)—I found most of the essays and interviews to be enlightening, interesting, and even entertaining. All in all, if you're looking for some frank talk on a writer's income from a variety of professional writers, I definitely recommend picking up SCRATCH. Whether you find it encouraging or depressing will probably depend on what you're expecting in terms of how writers make a living, but either way it's an eye-opening read that I'm definitely glad arrived in my lap at the time that it did.