COMPARED TO the vast majority of people who want to be writers, call themselves writers, or even are writers, Kevin Sampsell is a success. Harper published his memoir, A Common Pornography, in 2010; Tin House released This Is Between Us, his first novel, just last year. His byline has appeared in top-shelf publications including McSweeney's and Best American Essays, and he manages his own small publishing house, Future Tense Books.
Writing, though, isn't the most stable job, and Sampsell still puts in hours at Powell's, where he manages the small-press section. "Having a day job is a way to have insurance and routine security," he says.
Sampsell goes out of his way to emphasize that he's not in the writing business for the money. "I've never wanted to make my writing and my publishing my main source of income," he says. "That puts a lot of pressure on me." However, he was up for talking exact numbers and giving people a picture of what, precisely, writers make from their work.
That's how much Sampsell made when he first started self-publishing his poetry at age 23. "Even though I wasn't getting paid," he says, "it was still exciting."
Sampsell's first writing paycheck came from a Portland paper, Tonic, when he was 27. He says he was a bit surprised he got paid, and that he "was still writing a lot for free."
The approximate amount he got from The Believer for a one-page piece on Voodoo Doughnut in 2006.
Sampsell used to write culture articles for the Associated Press. "One was about what not to do at a bookstore reading," he says.
What Nerve.com paid Sampsell for an excerpt from A Common Pornography.
The range of payments Sampsell has received from short fiction anthologies.
Sampsell's largest per-word payday was from Relix, a music magazine for which he wrote about 2,500 words.
Sampsell's advance on A Common Pornography from Harper Perennial. ("An advance is when you get money up front—usually from a bigger publisher—and royalties are when you make money after your book has earned back its printing money for the publisher," he explains.) When he got it, Sampsell says that he "was really skating by, financially." After that, he was able to reduce his hours at work and finish the book, though he later returned to regular hours. "It was okay," he says of the book's sales. "It wasn't a bestseller or anything. I haven't gotten any royalties... maybe someday."
Sampsell's latest book came with a smaller advance. Citing his ongoing relationship with Tin House, his publisher, he declined to discuss specific numbers, but added, "I've already gotten a royalty check."