I GREW up in Washington, D.C., a few doors down from Rowland Evans, a widely syndicated newspaper columnist. One day Mr. Evans dropped off a book he had written. I remember my father examining the front and back covers, skeptically.
“There’s no money in books,” my father said.
All my life I have wondered: How did he know?
Everyone wants to be a writer; maybe they should meet one before it’s too late. Most good writers tend to be rich in amusing tales and anecdotes, but less well-endowed with the lucre-lubricant that makes the world go round.
Theodore Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris spoke at Harvard’s Houghton Library last month, and recalled arriving on Harvard’s doorstep on Feb. 2, 1976 — the day of the tumultuous Groundhog Day Blizzard. “At the time, I was just an impecunious writer,” Morris said. After a pause, he added: “Still am.”
“Dollars damn me,” Herman Melville wrote to his friend Nathaniel Hawthorne, just as he was finishing up his ambitious seafaring novel “Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale.” “What I feel most moved to write,” he noted, “will not pay . . . all my books are botches.” The whale book was a notorious commercial failure, like many of his works.
My friend Katherine Powers edited the letters of her father, the famous Catholic novelist and short story writer J.F. Powers. She titled one of the chapters, “No Money Is the Story of My Life.” The full quote comes from Powers’s journal: “No money even before I started writing for a living — no money is the story of my life.”
Like so many writers, Powers had the reverse Midas touch. In 1962, the powerful Los Angeles talent agency MCA offered him $1,000 for an option on a short story. The novelist held out for more control of the story and “a percentage of the profits,” which never materialize in Hollywood. MCA doubled its offer. Powers turned them down.
No money remained the story of his life.
“Growing up in this family is not something I would care to do again,” Katherine writes in her commentary. “There was so much uncertainty, so much desperation about money.”
On the final day of her life, the ailing mother of the legendary literary critic Edmund Wilson warned his daughter, in his presence, not to marry a writer because “you’ll never have any money.” According to biographer Lewis Dabney, Wilson died in debt — he feuded with the IRS — and his widow was still bedeviled by his tortured finances at the time of her own death, seven years later.
Of course there are exceptions to the rule of authorial penury. William Shakespeare died a wealthy man, as part owner of the successful King’s Players acting troupe and part owner of their prosperous theater, the Globe. Stephen King, Doris Goodwin & Co. — I salute you, green with envy.
President Obama has made a lot of money from his writing. In 2009, for instance, he earned over $5 million in royalties from sales of “Dreams from My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” That’s a sensational payday for a scribbler — and Obama has a day job!
Not so long ago I bumped into a talented writer I can’t stand (it’s OK, the feeling is mutual). Inevitably he bragged about the strong sales of his “step-by-step guide” aimed at helping fledgling writers achieve their dreams.
“Ah, yes — the secret sauce,” I remarked. “There’s money to be had in selling the secret sauce.”
But for most writers, the real secret sauce is discipline, hard work — and a comfortable relationship with penury. My father was right.
Globe contributor Alex Beam is the author of “American Crucifixion: The Murder of Joseph Smith and the Fate of the Mormon Church.”