Eating Air

- by Barbara Keiler

Novelists are envied. I’m not sure why, because while there are certainly a number of enviable things about being a novelist (we can work in jeans, pajamas or the buff; we don’t have to drive through blizzards to reach our offices; we can eat at our desks and write at our kitchen tables; we can set our own hours; we can munch on chocolate while we work; we can talk to ourselves, turn off our phones and listen to anything from Scarlatti to ska while we’re creating), it’s a difficult profession, with a lot of stress and low odds for success. Add to that the fact that for most writers, the pay stinks.

The main reason the pay stinks is that we don’t earn money unless people buy our books, and there are plenty of ways for people to read our books without buying them. And above all else, we want our books to be read. That’s our true motivation and our great weakness. Whether or not people pay to read our books, we desperately want our books to be read.

Far too often, when we tell people we’re novelists, they ask us to give them one of our novels. If we demur, mumbling, “It’s available at the bookstore,” or “You can order a copy on-line,” they promise to look for our books in their local library. We’re supposed to be thrilled and honored simply because they want to read our novels, even though they choose not to pay for the privilege. And because we’re writers, we are thrilled and honored.

When people go to the doctor, they don’t say, “What fulfilling, liberating work dermatology is! You are so lucky! Would you cure my acne for free?” When people go to the hairdresser, they don’t say, “Gosh, you’re so talented. I’m in awe of your skill with a straightening iron. I’d love to receive a cut and blow-dry from you. Don’t expect me to pay for it, though.” In fact, people not only pay their doctors and hairdressers, but they pay them significantly more than the cost of a novel. They wouldn’t dream of requesting the services of a doctor or hairdresser without paying for those services.

Yet they think nothing of requesting the services of novelists without paying for those services. I guess because we’re so ecstatic that someone has actually expressed a desire to read our books, because we’re lucky enough to be blessed with talent and we can munch on chocolate while we work, we aren’t supposed to mind this.

Earning enough money to cover the chocolate bills can be a challenge, however.

Years ago, I was one of fifteen writers accepted into a prestigious graduate program in creative writing at an Ivy League university. When we fifteen writers arrived on campus, we learned that while only two of us had received fellowship money from the English Department, every graduate student in the English Department’s literature program had received free tuition and a monthly stipend. Outraged by this inequity, we stormed the office of the department chair and demanded equal financial support.

The professor gazed at us, astonished. “But you’re creative writers!” he gushed. “You’re geniuses! You don’t need money.”

At which point, I blurted out, “Even geniuses needed to eat. What are we supposed to do, eat air?”

I actually wound up eating a lot of brown rice and yogurt that year (and I paid for that brown rice and yogurt with a fellowship I secured from a private foundation, which to this day has my heartfelt thanks.) But I still frequently encounter the attitude exhibited by the English Department chairman all those years ago: Novelists are so lucky, they don’t really need to be paid for their work.

We novelists are lucky. I’m not sure we’re geniuses, but we like to think we are. We’re so excited about building entire worlds with our words, and then sharing those worlds with readers, that we often do work for free. We write entire novels on spec, with no guarantee that they’ll sell. We give copies of our published novels away as gifts, as promo, in gratitude to people who tell us how lucky we are. We write blogs, just for the joy of stringing words together and using them to communicate with others. And at the end of the day, when we gaze forlornly at our empty wallets and our depressing royalty statements, we often wonder whether we’ll wind up eating air.

Air is good. But I’d rather eat chocolate.


  1. Brava! Beautifully said. Being a vicious old woman, I have fantasies of printing this essay on a card and handing it to everyone who wants a free book or shortchanges writers in any way.

  2. I buy as many new books as I can afford, but by the end of the month I have to frequent the used book store or the library.

  3. Estella: Nothing wrong with using the library. Did you know that in some European countries, authors receive a small royalty every time one of their books is borrowed from the library? Just a few cents each time, but in this way a society honors its authors–and acknowledges that they need to eat more than air.

    I wish we could implement such a system in the U.S.!


  4. I agree with you Barbara, and did not mean to include library users in my diatribe. We all can’t afford all the books we want, and libraries are a great fill in. It’s also a great place to discover new authors for whom you might not have shelled out the money. And every book in a library is a book that has been sold. I also agree that our libraries should enact a system of making some payment – even if it is only a token – to the authors. No one seems to think that without people like us, people who write words and make stories, there wouldn’t be any libraries, but we’re expected to do it for free.

    Mostly my ire is directed to those who pirate books – this is done a great deal with e-books, though I have heard of people scanning print books and selling copies. People seem to have no respect for creation or creators – only for their personal profit, even if they have to steal the product.

    The image of the artist happily starving in his garrett for the freedom of creation is a tenacious one.