The word “poor” has long ago ceased to have any real descriptive meaning in this world. What poverty means has become completely subjective, and also very personal and political. For example, a recent survey showed that almost everyone who makes below $70,000/year considers themselves to be poor (or struggling,) regardless of any official nomenclature of their income strata or objective consideration of what the word “poor” means historically. The word “poor” today has the subjective meaning of “the level of income over which I would feel ‘comfortable.'” And most of the people in America who live below the so-called “poverty line” are wealthier than 90% of the people who have ever lived on the earth. The words wealth and poverty no longer mean anything descriptively. And look why this is… right here in my first paragraph I have linked wealth/poverty to a certain amount of income. (And no this isn’t some feel-good post about how you can be monetarily poor and still rich in spirit and love.) For most of the history of the world, wealth had zero to do with income. Wealth had to do with the ability to produce the things needed to sustain life. If you had a self-sufficient sustenance farm and the ability to use the goods you produce to trade or barter to gain any materials you could not produce on your own, you were considered very wealthy. Living on an “income,” (other than by rents,) was considered a slavish condition of the middle to lower classes, where one was being forced to work and consume and produce for the benefit of another. Income meant that someone else above you was paying you and getting wealthier on your production.
So much for history. You gotta talk about this before you can talk about poor writers…
Writers, like musicians and many other artists, don’t make money. Some few do, but most don’t.
We have some great new friends, a couple who lives in our nearby town, and I remember when I told Ashley that writers (very generally) do not make enough money to support themselves with their writing. A tiny, minuscule percentage does, but most writers–even the ones whose books you find in your local bookstore–support themselves financially in other ways. They teach, work full-time jobs, or are married to someone who can support their writing habit. Our friend was shocked to hear this!
A few years ago, a mainstream traditionally published author revealed this shocking truth in a blog post that went viral, then almost immediately the article disappeared forever. She showed the data proving that a successful mid-list writer like herself, someone whose books were in bookstores, made something around $30k a year. And all her friends thought she was rich!
Her publisher reached out and made her delete the post. They didn’t need people looking behind that particular curtain. I remember that blog article making the rounds of all the writers I know, and how it wasn’t news to us, but it was news that someone with something to lose would actually say it. I remember after the article was taken down how I wished that I’d saved it. All of this is to say that writer’s don’t make much money, and most of them make virtually nothing at all, and the ones who do make a little money could probably do better with a really good lemonade stand or a focused small business at the Farmer’s Market.
I’ve been on both sides of the divide. By choice. I’ve had some moderate success and a handful of good-selling books. I’ve made enough to work writing full time, and I still pull down a royalty check every month (it’s much smaller since I have not published a major novel in a few years.) But we’ve always been in a category all our own. Since we live completely off-grid, and raise as much as we can of the food we need to survive, we have a much lower threshold of needs than most people. I can live way below the poverty level, like there are fish that evolve to be able to live so deep in the ocean that there is no light at all. I have food in the root cellar, a recent grain crop, and over 100 animals “on the hoof,” if we need meat. Altogether, our “income” is less than most people pay for their combined utilities in a month. I know people who pay more in their monthly electric bill than we live off of in a month. And we live this way because we choose to. So, again… the words wealth and poverty cease to have any real descriptive power. Based on the standard of our industrial system and economy, I live in abject poverty if we consider it by any modern definition. No electricity, no running water. We are the poster children for what The Great Society tried (and succeeded) to portray as poverty in the 1930s. We get our clothing at a thrift store. Most of my clothes are patched and torn. I have not bought a new pair of shoes in so many years I cannot recall when I did it last. We eat gourmet/artisanal bread, but we planted the wheat by hand, clean and winnow it by hand. Grind it by hand. Sometimes we bake the bread in a sun oven or over a fire. We eat a lot of eggs and meat and bread, because that is what we produce.
I would add here, parenthetically, that the stuff you can buy for fifty cents or a few dollars at a thrift store is nicer than what most comfortably wealthy people owned a hundred years ago.
Having to scrape together coins to go to the store to buy toilet paper (No, we don’t need it, but it is one luxury we really, really like,) could be a modern sign of poverty. That’s happened with us more than I can recall. In the last week! And, we’ve seen worse. So it is always illustrative and interesting when we meet some very wealthy (historically and in reality) person who cries and bemoans how poor they are. I could tell you stories but they might hit too close to home. People sitting on over a million dollars in assets, spending tens of thousands a month on nonsense and excesses, have complained to me about how poor they are. It can be frustrating, but it is all about perspective.
And how people see us is as wild and varied as trying to pin down what is wealth and what is poverty. Our friends and family are used to us not being able to do things because we don’t have money. When we run out of dollars, we just throttle down and live simply and don’t go anywhere and still eat good and hang out at the farm. We don’t panic or worry. We are cash poor. We are poor poor. We are wealthy. We are rich.
I thought you were rich!!
A new social media acquaintance was chatting with me and telling me something I should do with all my money. I said, “Man, I don’t have money. I couldn’t put together $20 right now if I had to. My phone is currently off because I couldn’t pay the bill.” He thought I was rich. “I thought you had a movie deal! I thought you were rolling around in movie money!” I laughed. “It takes a long time before you see any money, and even then, it isn’t as much as you’d think.”
The first time an author sees a dime in the film biz is when the film/tv option is sold. And this is really a token payment. It might be $100 or it might be $5k. It could be more, but usually isn’t because both the author and the producer know it takes years for a film to move into production, and the higher the option payment, the more likely the producer will give up on it if things look dark for the project. So let’s just say the author agrees to a $1,000 or $5,000 option payment. That is usually for 1 year, and must be re-activated each year by the producer. And there is a limit in the contract to how many years the producer can re-up the option. If that number of years expires, either a new contract is drawn up, or the project dies and the rights return to the author. But if it takes years to make the film (most novels that sell options never make it to film,) that option amount is all the $$ you see. If you sold the option for $5k, that’s about $417/mo for a year, and no promise that the option will be repurchased the next year. $417 is not life-changing money for most people. For me it kinda is 😉
But when do you get paid for the movie? They don’t pay you to exercise the option until the first day of filming. That’s right. You may have Ridley Scott as the producer/director of your project. You might have Matt Damon in the starring role. You might be mentioned in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter. They might have a crew on site, might be building sets, doing pre-production… and you still don’t get paid until a frame of film is shot. That’s the way it works.
I read recently bout how “poor” J.K. Rowling was when she first got a pub deal for the first Harry Potter book. That story is all over the place, like George Washington cutting down the cherry tree. The story has grown into legend… meaning that a good part of it is now false, and all of it is subjective. She was down on her luck, her mom had died, she was on public assistance (that part is true,) then you read that she was literally squatting in a public housing project with no heat (that part is not true.) In any sort of historical context, she was doing alright. She had food. She had shelter. She even had money… and her atmospheric environment was being altered artificially by a machine to make her life more pleasurable. It wasn’t Oliver Twist. She wasn’t Bob Cratchit almost freezing to death on Christmas Eve because Scrooge didn’t want to let her take the night off. It makes a good story. I get it. But I assure you that if J.K. was invited to come live a month with us on what we have, the J.K. in her name would turn to Just Kidding. I’m sure that every rough patch is very traumatic and real to the person experiencing it, but J.K. wasn’t eating a coon she trapped because it was eating the expensive corn she was using to try and trap a wild hog to kill and feed to her family. I’m not picking on J.K. Rowling…
I’m just saying, let’s have some perspective.
Recently I posted on social media that our story one day might make a fascinating article — us going through this Hollywood experience while being beyond dead broke. If J.K. was Oliver Twist, we are the rats in Ratatouille. We’ve learned to be poor and not sweat it. We didn’t sweat it when my phone was turned off because we couldn’t afford it. It is a month-to-month pre-paid service, so if I can’t afford it, I don’t need it. But not having my phone active is a big part of the story…
This past spring (April 7th, it was,) it was another time when we’d let the phone service expire, and that day I got a message that a big time agency in Hollywood wanted to make an offer for the film/tv option rights for my novel Brother, Frank. This wasn’t the first inquiry I’d had about that book, but it was the first time I’d been contacted by someone from one of the “Big 4” agencies. It probably wasn’t some tiny client… some production assistant looking to capture the rights because he’d heard that Pennsylvania was getting made. Maybe it was Mel Gibson or Ron Howard?! I didn’t know what to do. I sent a message to the guy who made the inquiry (an agent) and told him that I, or someone representing me, would be in touch with him soon. It took four days for me to get it sorted out. I had just parted ways with my literary agent, so the producer for the Pennsylvania film gave me the phone number of an entertainment lawyer who I could call. Except I didn’t have a phone. Can you imagine? I needed to call an entertainment lawyer to negotiate for me on a possible movie deal, and I ended up borrowing $60 from my middle daughter so I could activate my phone and make the call. (I won’t get into the results of that deal. That’s a whole ‘nuther article. And we did eventually sell another film option, but that’s an announcement I haven’t been permitted to make yet.) I wanted to say to the lawyer who (very ably) was negotiating on my behalf, “Here’s my position. If a turkey walks by my office, I’m having turkey tonight.” I was being literal.
People who know have told me, ‘Once you make some money, people are going to come out of the woodwork.’ Well, it helps to have perspective. I look around today, and… well… today we borrowed money again (from the same middle daughter!) to buy propane to cook with. There are a handful of people who have helped us, and we’ll remember who they are… and there are people I owe. They’ll get my attention first.
Things are going great on the Pennsylvania film project, and I hope to be able to make some major announcements soon. One of the cool things is that we might get to go to Hollywood in September to meet some of the people working on the project! This will add good texture to our story… how we got to visit Hollywood while beyond broke. I’m sure a lot of people have gone to Hollywood broke. I heard that Rich Little (or maybe it was Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) got to H-town with $7 in his pocket. I aspire to have $7. If I had to go right now, I have $2. In the meantime, I’m scheming to scrape up some $ for the trip. Maybe I’ll do a GoFundMe or something. We’ll see, but whichever way things go, I’m going to be the guy who was eating raccoon out of a trap while his movie project made its way through Hollywood, and had to borrow money from his daughter to call a lawyer.
And It’s all good!
To be continued…
Hi there, This is Michael Bunker.
The off-grid guy
I write books, and some of them are being made into movies.
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