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$30,000 a Year
One week ago, I was pressed against a blond wood bar, talking shop with a publishing colleague. Somehow we had found ourselves in the nosiest restaurant in all of Richmond outside of the Fan—and yet still a safe distance from the droves of restless VCU students eager for their PBR and cut-offs at the height of winter dreariness. This conversation, despite the presence of hard cider and chocolate cake, was all business. But we had every distraction trope in our midst. A family and all its multiple generations crowded the belly of my neighborhood hang-out. It appeared to be Grandpa's birthday. Either that or everybody was too drunk to remember the lyrics to any other song but “Happy birthday.” '80s rock played overhead, the only tip-off being the sting of synths. Beyond that, it was impossible to tell what was playing. Behind the bar, the middle-age waitresses were all clones of each other: brunette, bleary-eyed, defeated.
At one point, my colleague asked me about my business goals. I elaborated upon my earlier summary of Quail Bell Magazine and Quail Bell Press & Productions. He chuckled because, in several ways, our goals overlapped.
“We both want to be nerd famous,” he said. “Making stuff full-time and making $30,000 a year doing it.”
We listed mutual acquaintances ten or twenty years older than us who had paid their dues and now earned their living writing, cartooning, and publishing titles that excite them. They do not wait tables. They do not teach grade school. Their names are known at comic book conventions and small press expos. They may or may not have health insurance and their spouses definitely have full-time jobs, too, and probably in a different industry. In some cases, they actually made better money working in high-end food service or at a well-funded public school system than they do running a small press. But that was before hundreds of people followed their doodles on Instagram and they could actually boast “fans.”
Anyone seriously aspiring to break into any media industry has heard or read the horror stories about long hours, low pay and cruddy benefits. Today I had a friend tell me that one of her former college classmates was now working a full-time editorial job at Rolling Stone's New York office for $22,000 a year. Statistics back up the anecdotes; just look to The 2013 Publishers Weekly salary survey. For those averages,, I would much prefer to DIY and work with fellow creatives and clients on my own terms. (For that reason, sometimes Quail Bell art director Kristen Rebelo and I like to joke and call our operation “The Christine and Kristen Show.”*)
Of course, most people do not enter the publishing industry with the illusion of becoming rich. They want to work in publishing because they love books, magazines, and, increasingly, websites. They want to write or edit or design or illustrate and, as the cliché goes, “tell stories.” But aren't they--we—allowed to seek a sliver of material comfort, too? Not a BMW and annual European vacation necessarily; more like eating out on a monthly basis and having enough to cover our behinds in case of an emergency. What great artists need, to quote Joe Fassler of The Atlantic, is “solitude,” not destitution.
Washington, D.C. is the 8th most expensive metropolitan area in the U.S., Quail Bell(e)s. Living on $30,000 a year, while possible, is difficult. Christian Garcia, the lowest-paid player on the Washington Nationals team, still makes an annual salary of $491,000. Compare that to the average staff writer at Washington City Paper, who makes $35,000. Not to knock baseball players, but is playing a sport really ten or fifteen times more important than telling stories?
Though someone running a successful small press usually makes about the same as a staff writer or designer at a bigger publishing house and certainly far less than a baseball player, their real reward is autonomy. That autonomy is priceless. Christian Garcia might make enough to buy a property in Hybla Valley every year, but The Nationals own him. When you run a small press, you make all the decisions: what you're going to publish, how you're going to publish it, and, even to some extent, where it will be distributed and, to an even lesser extent, who will read it. And on those candle-burning nights before press or client deadline, there is plenty of solitude...and smeared ink. Always smeared ink.
*Again, it's a joke. You can star in our show, too. Please submit your work for consideration.
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