Falling Into Debt After a $200,000 Book Advance

by Mike Dang and Ester Bloom

At Medium, an excerpt from Emily Gould from the collection MFA VS NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction. Gould writes about the book that got her a $200,000 book advance and how she got mired in debt soon after. Her lead-in:

It’s hard to write about being broke because brokeness is so relative; “broke” people run the gamut from the trust-funded jerk whose drinks you buy because she’s “so broke right now” to the people who sleep outside the bar where she’s whining. But by summer 2012 I was broke, and in debt, and it was no one’s fault but mine. Besides a couple of freelance writing assignments, my only source of income for more than a year had come from teaching yoga, for which I got paid $40 a class. In 2011 I made $7,000.

Ester and I both read the piece and discussed it after.

Ester: Hi Mike! Let’s talk frankly about Emily Gould talking frankly about her money woes.

Mike: Yes, it’s certainly relevant to our interests! I enjoyed the piece a lot.

Ester: Me too. It was very honest about a difficult subject (a relatively privileged person making poor financial decisions). It’s a subject others have botched, like Amy Butcher on the Hairpin. That piece went over badly and it doesn’t seem like Butcher has written anything for the site since.

Mike: Oh, I think I had missed that one. Though I tend to take the position of trying to understand how a person gets into money trouble, rather than assess it after the fact with what a person should have done. People generally know what they should have done differently. Emily walks us through some of her bad decisions, and unpacks her insolvency to us bit by bit. And she does that thing most of do, which is to say, “If I could do it all over again…”

Ester: Right, and that disarms potential opponents, of which Emily has a few. Not every reader is as instinctively sympathetic as you though Mike, and I think she cannily brings people to her side by being so upfront about why and how she squandered opportunities.

Mike: Plus, in the first month that our site launched, Emily wrote this piece for us about spending part of her book advance on clothes she’ll never wear again. So I had a little context already.

Ester: She is nothing if not candid! And well-dressed. Right. Regardless, were you a little put off? You two do have very different values.

Mike: Hah, I wasn’t? I mean I think having a coeditor who sort of shares similar financial woes makes me more sympathetic and understanding. I guess I’m put off by stories of people who don’t learn any lessons at the end of it. And don’t try to fix anything.

Ester: That makes sense.

Mike: Which isn’t the case here.

Ester: On the other hand, we don’t learn a huge amount about what she now does differently. Except that she writes fiction instead of memoir.

Mike: Well, she got a regular job! Which demonstrates that six figure advances don’t mean you can just up and quit your day job. Even though it feels like you can. I mean, $170,000 pre-tax sounds like a lot!

Ester: Yes! That is very true. Especially because of how little writing pays. Maybe people don’t know just how little writing pays? It pays very little. $170,000 is the upper upper limit of what anyone makes. First-time writers do not get six-figure book deals, especially not anymore. There’s a great chart and some chilling figures here. “53.9% of traditionally-published authors, and 43.6% of hybrid authors” make $1000 a year. That’s more than half! Of published writers!

Mike: And I think it’s so great that Emily broke down all the numbers for us in that piece. The book advance, her living expenses, the medical bills for her cat — how easy these things can add up.

Ester: Should we talk about the cat?

Mike: Raffles, the cat, yes.

Ester: I think, when people adopt pets, they do not always think through the economics of it. Some animals turn out to be exceedingly high-maintenance. Emily is basically reduced to penury to keep her cat clinging to life. It’s very moving and sad, because, as she writes, what is she supposed to do, say “Never mind, I can’t afford that procedure, let Raffles die?” It’s an awful situation all around.

Mike: Exactly! I probably would have done the same thing in her position.

Ester: Me too! But pets should come with a warning label. Caution: More Expensive Than Anticipated.

Mike: I mean, all of us should come with warning labels. When Emily wrote about thinking about canceling her health insurance, I was like, “oh no. Look at what happened to your cat!” I’m glad her boyfriend Keith talked her out of it. How sad it is, that when in debt, health insurance is the thing we decide to shed due to the cost of it.

Ester: Yes, seriously. Health insurance isn’t something to give up. Again, she is very honest about how hard it is to break habits — coffee and bottled water, which you’d think you’d stop buying, remain financial drags until you literally do not have dollars left in your wallet, and it’s easier to think of ditching health insurance than your daily stop at Joe. (Also, the great movie “Enough Said” [2013] has an exchange about how people should come with warning labels.)

Mike: And it’s true, those habits are really hard to break — I mean I’ve talked about this before, but people don’t just see what they’re doing wrong and suddenly turn their lives around. It’s a gradual thing that occurs. It’s like quitting other bad habits like drinking and smoking: No one just ups and decides, “No more cigarettes!” I mean they do, but they just don’t stop smoking the next day.

Ester: Absolutely. It seems like, in a lot of ways, turning 30 was a milestone for her, and those milestones can be helpful in making the big changes you’re talking about.

Mike: Definitely. And though we have different values when it comes to money, there were other things I think I identified with.

Ester: Such as!

Mike: The addiction to social media and how it affects the way you work, for example.

“Twitter and Tumblr and even email — anything that rewards constant vigilance and creates repetitive cycles of need based on intermittent reinforcement — were the bitterest foes of the sustained concentration that’s necessary to making worthwhile art! DUH! How had I been so blind?!”

I definitely nodded.

Ester: Oh yes, I nodded so hard my neck broke.

Mike: And some feelings of jealousy when looking at the success of others, for example, when she discussed Lena Dunham’s skyrocketing success in comparison to her own:

“That could have been me, I catch myself thinking, but of course it couldn’t have been, or at least it isn’t.”

I mean, I don’t often feel jealous of other people, but I do sometimes.

Ester: That was an interesting parallel, that Lena Dunham’s alter ego Hannah Horvath utters the same line, in the pilot for Girls, that Emily Gould herself said in that marketing meeting.

“I am the voice of my generation, or a voice of a generation.”

I’ve written about how I feel like Hannah Horvath is my alter ego too, or at least my dark side, and she is apparently Emily Gould’s dark side too. We all want to be Lena Dunham, and LD’s alter ego spits our egotism back at us. Jealousy is the hardest habit to break. The internet rubs our faces in what seems like everyone else’s success.

Mike: Hah, I mean, I don’t want to be Lena Dunham.

Ester: Well then you are the only one. 🙂

Mike: I think as I’ve aged out of my 20s, the jealousy thing is much more infrequent.

Ester: Do you mean, as you’ve gained more success and stability yourself?

Mike: That is probably partially why, but also, it reminds me of that line we’ve talked about on this site by James Altucher, who said that $10 million felt rich to him — until he looked over and saw someone with $100 million. If you constantly compare yourself to other people like that you’ll never be happy.

Ester: There is also an old Jewish proverb: “Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his portion.” I think about that a lot. If you’re content with what you have, you will do a lot better than someone who has more but lacks the peace of mind. That said, we live in an anti-peace-of-mind time and place. America does not place a premium on contentment. It’s not what we’re told to strive for. Emily talks a lot — again, very candidly — about the sense of entitlement that animated her and kind of led her astray. I thought that was brave.

Mike: And that context is important for us. I mean, there is the “brokeness” of not being able to afford to go out to dinner, and the brokeness of “I have to sleep on the street tonight.” And she points this out in the very first paragraph.

Ester: Absolutely. There is more to wealth than having money in your checking account. If you have family that you can lean on or move in with, or friends who can spot you a loan, you’re not poor the same way you are if you have no social network that can help you. And blowing $170,000 is a lot different from never coming within a football field of that amount of money.

Mike: True, Emily talked about some of those support structures in place for her — Keith, who made sure she kept her health insurance, her friend Bennett who accompanied her while she stayed upstate — you never have to worry about having to sleep on the street if you have that in place.

Ester: Were you reminded of that recent piece about people who are interning in creative fields throughout their twenties? People who are so wedded to the idea of a certain exciting career that they are forgetting that part of the point of a job is to get paid for your work. You can’t do that if you don’t have a really serious support system in place.

Mike: Yes, that’s definitely true. Unpaid internships weren’t really a thing for me because I couldn’t afford to do them. I didn’t have parents who had the money to fund that kind of life.

Ester: Right. And similarly our books are being written by the upper-middle-class. No one else can afford to put in the time and effort. Maybe books have always been written by the upper-middle-class, because for a long time no one else was even literate. But it feels like a shame. Emily is dismissive of the “cake girl books” being published, but the women who write those are the people that can, and the stories they have to tell are about cake or whatever.

Mike: Oh I think it was less about that genre existing, and more about that marketing team trying to box her into that category.

Ester: Maybe.

Mike: Though she was dismissive about “50 Shades of Grey.” And that’s fair. Or maybe not, I haven’t read it!

Ester: I too prefer “Game of Thrones” to “Fifty Shades of Grey,” although I skimmed rather than read the latter. But I still defend the right of whoever wants to enjoy their mommy porn! Sex and violence both have their place.

Mike: And they’ve both sold very well, so to each her own! Final thoughts? I do recommend everyone reading Emily’s piece if they haven’t already.

Ester: Oh, absolutely. And everyone should check out her fascinating venture Emily Books.

Mike: There’s much to glean from it in regard to debt, and jobs, and our relationships to other people.

Ester: I have a lot of admiration for how open she is about her faults and, as you say, how she has grown and learned. Not everyone can do that, let alone tell the story. I think it’s encouraging. Kind of an inspiration. I’m glad she shared it.

Photo: Jonny

Support The Billfold

The Billfold continues to exist thanks to support from our readers. Help us continue to do our work by making a monthly pledge on Patreon or a one-time-only contribution through PayPal.