Pension Funds for Writers? YESSSSS

By Scott Nicholson

Dean Koontz has made the observation that novels are like annuities, earning income for writers over a lifetime. Well, that’s true for Koontz and a handful of writers who manage to keep books in print and on the shelves.

Given the constraints of shelf space, the product pipeline that requires a 30-day flushing of “out with the old, in with the new,” and the vagaries of sales numbers and warehousing, the publishing-industry model almost guarantees a writer will have NO books on the shelf in their old age, precisely the time when they need income the most and should be enjoying the fruits of their life’s orchard.

I wish I had a dollar to give a sick, starving writer every time I’ve seen an impassioned message-board or tweet feed on a living legend who is facing massive hospital bills and is at risk of losing everything. I’d gladly give that dollar to them. And while it’s beautiful that fans and healthier writers always rise to the challenge, it’s sickening that it is even necessary.

I was chilled at last year’s Dragoncon when I heard fantasy writers Gene Wolfe and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro talking about the tenuous state of their careers, how slowly the money arrived from publishers (“advances” often arrive after a book is actually printed), and how they weren’t even sure if they would get that next book deal.

I won’t embark on an anti-NY screed here. That was so April 2010 and it was fun, but now I wish publishers the best. Reality is, Big Six publishers “license” material but in fact do everything but own it, often for years and years in which the book is not even available for sale or generating income for the writer. There is no insurance and no pension fund for writers, nor any job security or other benefits, and you get to pay your own self-employment taxes.

Let’s celebrate this brave new world where writers are getting money directly in their bank accounts, and regularly. Hopefully, legends have enough control over their backlist–the sum product of a long apprenticeship and decades of personal growth in the craft–to independently release the books or turn them over to caring, fair intermediaries who will fork over the lion’s share of the profits.

Today, there are only two reasons your work can’t generate income on its own–someone else is keeping your own work from you or you have no audience left. Anyone who needlessly keeps a writer’s work out of print today, or paying a 10 percent e-book royalty, is morally a criminal, no matter what the license says.

And as a reader, you no longer have to send in something to a charity auction–you can thank the writer by buying a print-on-demand paper book or e-book, as lucky writers independently release their work. Thank you, all you living legends, and all you writers in the trenches, and all you loyal and passionate readers, and even you publishers, who have laid the foundation for this wonderful new era of writing and reading.



Scott Nicholson is author of 10 novels and four story collections, including Speed Dating with the Dead and The Red Church. He’s also created four comic book series and written six screenplays, and the indie era is the most satisfying period of his creative life. He operates Indie Books Blog, highlighting new books and authors. His multimedia Web site is http://www.hauntedcomputer.com.

  • As I have probably said too many times here, that’s me, Scott. My whole retirement plan since I discovered self publishing in 1985 has been to self-fund a healthy chunk of retirement from the long-dried sweat of my brow. I have every viable book of forty written–at least thirty-seven–doing some form of work for me. Sometimes I self-publish new books, sometimes I figure the advance is worth more in the near term. Sometimes I license older titles, also because I know it will take me longer to earn the amount of the advance on my own and that the rights will revert before the license earns out. I factor in–I =trust= in–the incompetence of publishers, a trust that never fails me.

    In my experience, writers know shit about business, often studiously make crap business decisions as if held in thrall of the stupid notion that business is bad for art. Right now, I am working with an elderly and well-known historian to get many of his books back in print, because he never dreamed it could be done. I estimate he has let many tens of thousands go by because his books have been needlessly fallow for so long. (He’s in awe that one of his long-out-of-print titles goes–actually gets sold–for $500 when a decent enough used copy surfaces on Amazon. He is clueless as to the implications that arise from this being so.)

    Owning a copyright and elevating the business implications of owning that copyright to the same level of art itself is one of the neatest gifts the state has ever fabricated for an artist or even just a hard-working fellow with the requisite skills and attention span.

    Use it or lose it.

  • lindareedgardner

    A lot to think about here. Eric, are you the writer who said you had several friends who were well-known authors, who were being let go by their publishers because their sales were “not large enough,” yet their work was “too big” for smaller publishers to take on? You said they had no idea how to deal with this situation?
    If so, could you say more about this? Why would a small publisher turn down a big seller (in their pond?)
    Can the writers not simply cut back on their (preferred) lifestyle and keep publishing somewhere?
    Is some kind of passable life still possible for people who are not James Patterson? There must be an acceptable middle ground for established writers, even in this economy.

  • Linda, you have to find your own balance and goals. Not everyone can make a living–in fact, supply and demand guarantees that most won’t. Are you still willing to write anyway? Can you NOT write? That’s really the only question that needs to be answered.

    Scott Nicholson

  • The German word for what we call a profession is “Beruf,” which comes from “Berufung,” and goes back to the Biblical “Being called upon by God” to fulfill something or to do something. So, what we call a “job” or a “business” these days used to have a very different meaning. Another possible question we need to ask ourselves might be: Is being a writer or an artist a “business,” a “profession,” or a “calling”?