Making a Living by Writing is as Rare as Being a Billionaire

Cultural billionaires vs. actual billionaires

Eric Hoel at The Intrinsic Perspective: Imagine that in every business school students were told, in all seriousness, that they were in training for being a billionaire. Imagine it was heavily implied that the natural conclusion of their careers—what “making it” in business meant—was legit billionaire-status. Judged from the outside, such a situation would appear the enactment of a collective pathological delusion.

And yet an equivalent, at least of a kind, occurs every year in the arts, in writing, and in music. Functionally, at least. For when it comes to certain creative fields, while there are other tangential options than simply becoming very famous (like working for a non-profit, or teaching creative writing at a university) there is an incredibly steep, punishingly steep, impossibly steep, beyond-Pareto-distribution-steep curve wherein only a vanishingly small fraction of people make a living via their artistic efforts alone.

Now, I wouldn’t want people to stop majoring in English Literature, Dance, or Fine Arts, just because of this—that’s not the point of an education. But youthful aspirants deserve to know that what makes the situation in many creative fields unusual is that only the very tippy top count as having “made it” in the most baseline practical sense of being able to do the thing for a living. This is different than almost any other field or career, where you can make a living without reaching the absolute peak of human accomplishment and accolade.

Occasionally, this asymmetry is thrown into stark relief, to great consternation and debate. A recent example of this was the viral article “No one buys books” by Substacker Elle Griffin (a previous guest on The Intrinsic Podcast) going through the unforgiving sales statistics of book publishing. Much of her post was a synthesis of a 700,000 word book, The Trial, which contains the court transcripts following the antitrust case that occurred when two of the biggest publishing companies tried to combine in 2022. Hidden in the transcripts are a lot of publishing industry secrets, said by the CEOs of the companies themselves, like:

It would be just a couple of books in every hundred are driving that degree of profit… twoish books account for the lion’s share of profitability.

— Madeline Mcintosh, CEO, Penguin Random House US

More here.