Polishing fractals
A Great Cathedral

Not just singing into the wind

In reply to a comment, on the Writer's Workshop blog Toasting Napoleon, Harry Bingham talks about how the financial insecurity of being a writer can make one seem obsessed with money. Having just had a particularly acute cashflow crisis myself, I know exactly what he means. And yet there are thousands of ways of earning a living that are more secure, and usually more lucrative. Clearly we don't do it for the money in the accepted sense, nor do we have the relative security of equally low-paid but enjoyable/interesting employment, so why do we persist? If the poets and UK short story writers want to, they can look away now while we novelists try to unpick what, exactly, is the relationship between what we do and how, if at all, we make our living doing it. Because, from the beginning, it's not straightforward.

On one hand, there's the undeniable fact that the average advance for a first novel, from a major publisher, is about £8,000, gross, for a book that might have taken two or three years to write. Bear in mind that the cheques will appear (minus agent's commission, and before tax) in up to four instalments, from signing the contract to the paperback being published, over perhaps two more years.

On the other hand, there's the famous/notorious six figure advance. Never mind that such a headline figure will divide up, similarly, to anything from the minimum wage to very serious money. (Guess which is more likely?) But people still read it and think that all they need to do is live off their redundancy money for six months while they sit down and scribble. Never mind that such deals are increasingly rare. Never mind that the publicity that a mega-deal generates in the trade may later be negated by the news that the book hasn't come near earning out the advance, an event which may strangle the author's career at birth.

Even once they're established and can reasonably hope (it's never a certainty) that they'll be able to sell the next book, it's only a handful of writers in the entire country who can earn a living purely by writing exactly what they chose to write, without teaching/ghosting/journalisming or having some other source of income (spouse? lodgers? smallholding?) which still leaves time to write (well, maybe not the smallholding). Virginia Woolf's £500 a year has inflated, but the need for it hasn't gone away. Poets and short story writers (okay, you might want to come back in, now) will never pay the rent from what they earn, and, actually, most novelists won't either. And still we write.

And after we've written we (or our agents) hustle and bargain for the money that most of us would swear we don't do it for. Are we being hypocritical? I don't think so. When I was offered the deal for The Mathematics of Love and what's turned out to be A Secret Alchemy, my first thought was that - Wow! - a major publisher believed they could sell enough of my book to justify such a deal. And though I was also able to crumple up the Situations Vacant page I was studying when the phone rang, the joy of a deal - of being paid for your writing - isn't really the money in the bank, though that may lift a huge cloud from your life, and be the key to other writing-related work. Fundamentally it's what the money says, not the cash itself: that tens of thousands of people - maybe one day hundreds of thousands of people - will soon hear what you're saying. No longer are you standing on a hill-top singing into the wind. The audience is out there.

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