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Making a living from writing books: what works, what doesn't

[17th July 2018: edited to update ALCS figures]

So the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society has done a survey, and found that the median average income for professional writers (i.e. those who spend the majority of their working time writing) has fallen by 42% since 2005, and 15% since 2013. The number of writers who get all their income from writing is down from 40% to 13.7%, and the median annual income of a professional writer now stands at £10,500, which equates to £5.73 per hour (the national minimum wage is currently £7.83). And I know anecdotally that advances are down by 30-60% compared to ten years ago: a typical £5-10,000 for a first novel from a big publisher in 2005 translates to more like £2-6,000 now, still paid in up to four instalments; publishers are increasingly demanding all rights, too, which means there's no chance of selling your work elsewhere in the future. Many small publishers these days pay no advance at all.

On This Itch of Writing I don't usually talk about the industry/money/earning side of writing books, because there are lots of blogs which do that. But I do live with one foot in the greenroom among writing names of all sizes, and the other in the writing workshop, and I know that aspiring writers often don't have a clear picture of the life that they're aspiring to.1 If you've genuinely no aspirations beyond writing a book and having a few hundred readers for the typescript or the e-book, then good for you, and enjoy it!

But I suspect that at some point it crossed most of our minds that maybe - just maybe - we could write for a living. Each point could be a blog post in itself, so this is only really a summary of how it looks to me from that doorway between the workshop and the greenroom. Nor is it an analysis of the industry, or a rant, or a lament: there never was a golden age, as anyone who's read Gissing's New Grub Street will attest. But the rise of self-publishing on the back of the digital tide has changed the charts by which we can even hope to navigate. So this, for what it's worth, is my sense of the models for the writing life which do work.

One, or rather four, more things before we start. When you're trying to understand how you might make a writing life work remember that:

  • Outliers tell you nothing. By definition, no one saw them coming and, once a book is visible way beyond the normal pattern of sales to regular readers, then everything else about the dynamics of why people buy it also changes.2 Things like Fifty Shades of Grey, Harry Potter or The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime become phenomena, not part of the patterns which reveal how the industry works. They cease to be something you can learn from in any useful way, any more than you can learn about how to cope with the weather in South East England this winter by studying the 1987 hurricane.
  • Authors who started decades ago tell you nothing. They found their readers when the world and the trade were a different shape. Besides, no one's done a study that I know of, but I'm fairly sure that in terms of pure numbers, the majority of the writers who had a first or second contract twenty or even ten years ago are no longer published. Harry Bingham's WAAYB Guide to Getting Published is the best explanation that I've come across of the industry causes for that high rate of vanishing, but what ensures or denies professional survival is very hard to unpick or predict.
  • The range of ££ for advances and incomes, and the median figures, tell you very little because the vast majority are clustered at the bottom of that range. Yes, six-figure advances happen, usually because the book publishers have a realistic hope that it'll sell lots of foreign rights and maybe a film or TV option. Or maybe the headline figure is actually for four books over four years, which means six years or more from first payment to last: not such riches. But both are very, very rare.
  • As a writer, your experience of books and the book industry is untypical of the population at large. Something like 70% of the population never sets foot in a bookshop (so thank goodness for the supermarkets and online sellers, problematic as they are in their effect on the industry). The industry defines a heavy reader as someone who reads more than five to six books a year. For most people, books are on a par with - and in competition with - television, films, computer games, music, art galleries, sport and shopping, as a way to spend their leisure time and money. Books do have privileged cultural status: people who never read books are nonetheless impressed that you've written one. But that doesn't mean that they'll buy one even if it's yours, let alone read it, let alone by the next one, which is what this model, long-term, utterly depends on.

WRITING LIVES THAT WORK - or at least sort of work

1) Making all your income from writing your books3 means producing books steadily and consistently. Generally a publisher will need a book every year or so, which is saleable to the same findable market of readers, because that's the way they can keep your product - the brand that is you-the-writer - visible. The advances will probably not be huge - some thousands, perhaps - and if you've other mouths or a drug habit to feed you might need to write two books a year. Earlier advances may even earn out eventually, so you get some royalties. All that, plus the repeated boost to your backlist titles when a new one comes out, can add up to a decent if rather variable living. Public Lending Right also becomes worth looking forward to, and ALCS payments. But to sell like this, your books will need to:

  • deliver the same reliable, predictable set of story-telling pleasures for the reader, every time, and
  • be easy to pitch in terms of what those pleasures are, so it needs to
  • be a known genre, and a sub-genre which makes sense (historical thriller/Tudors; non-specialist science/current hot topic; action adventure/SAS; travel-writing/fashionable or bizarre place, or redemptive memoir; Fantasy/growing-up story; Romance/thirty-something women). Literary fiction is a genre, in this sense, but the standard of writing is everything. Is yours good enough?
  • have something about them which is different and better than established authors of your kind of book, because those already sell and are therefore a safer bet for the publisher's and the reader's hard-earned cash
  • be something you can sign up to for a three-, four- or more-book contract, to reduce the times when you risk your publisher not buying your next book, and to encourage your publisher to go on supporting you, because they have more invested
  • be something you can usually sell on a synopsis and some sample chapters, because you can't afford to do much writing on spec.

If you're self-publishing in this mould, the parameters are exactly the same except for the contractual ones. Essentially, you are running a small business selling a product which you just happen to (mostly) design and manufacture yourself, and you are selling it into the same market as the publishers are: the section of the population who consistently read books. And it's even more important to keep up production, since most of your publicity and marketing will happen on social media, where it's even easier to slip back below the horizon of readers' awareness. Two books a year, maybe, and a novella in between? Some self-publisher-writers actually use ghosts, as they can't write enough themselves while still handling all the work that a publisher does: editing, production, marketing, publicity, selling rights, and selling books.

2) The freelance portfolio option: making some of your income from writing your books, with other work filling the gap between what your books earn and what you need to live on. Your books plus:

  • other creative writing under your name or a pseudonym: publisher-led fiction for a packager like Working Partners, category fiction perhaps for a digital-only imprint, ghost-writing for other writers or non-writers
  • other freelance writing: reviewing (very hard to get these days), journalism, copywriting, technical and business writing
  • other writing-related work: freelance teaching; mentoring or coaching; editing creative, academic or scientific/technical/medical writing
  • other arts funding: grants from Arts Council England and other arts bodies and charities, RLF Fellowships, and one-off awards and prizes. These tend to be small and time-limited but can make all the difference, although you have to enjoy writing sparkling grant proposals and fine-tuning CVs.
  • if you write non-fiction on a particular topic, it may be possible to develop a parallel career where you earn by talking/teaching etc. about that topic. The books then become a marketing tool, as well as the other way round. Self-publishing becomes very possible.
  • if you write for children or teenagers, the school and event circuit offers direct income (though schools will often be coy about the fact that they do have budgets for these things) and significant sales. The events circuit for adult fiction is most unlikely to offer enough and big enough fees, nor sell enough books, to do the same, unless yours has a strong non-fiction component. 
  • freelance work which is nothing to do with writing; this suits writers who'd rather not be drawing on the same well of energy for their own work, and work for others.

You will still need to work with the brute industry realities about delivering reliable pleasures to a known and findable market, if you want to sell books either via a publisher, or by self-publishing. But you may have a bit more freedom because you can cope financially with lower sales and smaller and less frequent advances. On the other hand, you'll be juggling the other job, and it can be hard to hold the boundaries against the job creep that afflicts all freelancers so easily. Just remember to start that pension plan and, rule number one of all self-employment: don't spend the tax money.

This, and (3) are usually the only model for literary writers, since by definition what and how they write resists genre-constraints and reliable pleasures. You didn't think that all those big literary names you see reviewing and teaching do it purely for the love of it, did you? True, one reason literary writers tend to publish fewer of their own books than more commercial writers is that they tend to craft the words more carefully. But the real reason is simply that they have to spend so much of their time on the other work. And only the biggest names get paid more than a token to attend festivals. Of course, there is the marrying or inheriting money option, to get your hands on Virginia Woolf's £500 a year, but that takes a bit of forethought.

Self-publishing literary fiction is very, very difficult indeed, because the market is very small in terms of numbers, and the USP of lit fic is, "It's not the same as you've read before": how do you sell that? Nor do you have the publishers' access to high-profile media coverage, festivals, literary prizes and so on, which are the main ways that new literary names get known. And it's a rare literary writer who can write fast enough for self-publishing to provide an income worth mentioning on your tax return; even if you can find enough time along with the other job, there's a certain snobbery about very productive literary writers. Yes, Unbound worked in terms of prize lists for Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, but that's an astonishing book. Is yours?

3) The keep-the-day-job option for basic income and economic security, and writing seriously in the evenings. If you want to sell your books, you'll still need to bear the industry realities in mind, but it does take the pressure off: you're nearer to being able to write what you want, and take a chance on if and how well it sells. If you can go down to four days a week at work, say, then so much the better. The day job might be:

  • whatever you were doing before you caught the virus called writing-really-seriously, and not just because you don't have to change track. Some writers find they'd rather run the pub or serve behind the bar in the accounts department, than spend their non-writing work time on other people's writing, whether that's helping weak writers struggle to get better, or publicising authors who are doing better than you are yourself.
  • relatively secure, writing-related employment: academic creative writing jobs if you're at the literary end of things; journalism is there, though shrinking, and handy for contacts when it comes to your own publicity; jobs in the book industry are increasingly insecure, but they do exist, and anyway, books and book people are nice stuff to work with.

It helps if you reduce what you need to live on. Only you know how much you can, and how much you want to cut back on the day job or freelance work, and on your ambitions for it, so that you can write more. Only you know how much you can and want to cut back on what you need to live on: both the poet living on vegetables in his van and the CEO writing well-crafted thrillers in her weekend cottage have made their choice. Only you know how much economic security - or indeed insecurity - you need to keep you writing.

The freelance portfolio option is more flexible, but may be more feast-or-famine: you have to take the work when it comes along, even if it means setting aside the novel at the worst moment. Not that employment doesn't do that to many employees, and publishers' deadlines aren't much more forgiving. What's more, it's not unheard of these days for a publisher to use a missed deadline as an excuse to cancel a contract, if they've lost faith in the book. For a real-life example of how this might work, this interview with novelist Mike Thomas, on Sheenagh Pugh's blog, gives a very clear picture.

It helps if you're realistic about your domestic circumstances. All of these get harder if at home (which may only be downstairs, or even at your elbow if your office is the kitchen table) you're wrangling children and parents and spouses and chickens and dotty in-laws and dogs until midnight most days. I do know people who manage it - often by getting up at five, and writing till the baby yells - but essentially you're doing three jobs. Which could give a bit? And what will you do if or when it doesn't?

Finally, just a quick thought on my impressions of writing for children (since it's a rather separate part of the industry which I don't know much about): advances are lower, and the opportunities for self-publishing trickier: children don't read e-books, and pictures - specially coloured ones - are another level of complication and expense altogether. On the other hand, as I said further up, the opportunities for earning fees for visiting schools and selling books while you're there are really rather good. Unless you get suckered into doing that kind of thing for free, of course, in the way that Nicola Morgan describes in that link.

So that's how it all seems to me, and for more insights into their Other Jobs from a whole range of writers, do try this podcast over at the Royal Literary Fund's Showcase. And The best book I know about all the choices you might make in trying to build a life round your writing or other creative work is Carol Lloyd's Creating A Life Worth Living. And good luck with your decision, and its outcome!

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notes:

1 "writers often don't have a clear picture of the life that they're aspiring to": A fairly usual case of the basic misapprehension about realities: an acquaintance signed a contract with a tiny publisher, and asked me how long it would be before her income as a writer would equal what she earned now. What was her job? A secondary school Head of Year. The answer is, almost certainly never, unless she writes books which can and do take her down path (1) and she's willing give up on the other kinds of book she might write, and take the risk that in ten years time that path, for her and her books, will turn out to be a dead end.

2 "Outliers tell you nothing": Talking of (mis)judging everyday realities by outliers, it's worth remembering that the sub-prime mortgage crisis - and the ensuing global financial meltdown - was caused by the financial industry ignoring the principle that most formulae cease to be safe, let alone useful, beyond certain parameters. And the global financial meltdown is one of the reasons for those ALCS figures I've just quoted. The other main reason is the e-book.

3 "Making all your income from writing your books": In talking about what you might write, I'm distinguishing between writing "your books", as in the kind of book that is pretty much what you are naturally driven to write, and "other kinds of writing you might do". Obviously the distinction isn't entirely clear-cut, but I think most writers recognise it when they see it, if only when they start wondering whether to use a pseudonym for this contract they've been offered by a book packager.

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