Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Writing for a Living

On the Macmillan New Writers blog at the moment, Matt Curran has put up a post about the 10th anniversary of a “lost” book The Cost of Letters. This was a Waterstone’s publication, setting the record straight both for consumer and potential writer, around the finances of writing. For this they plundered the opinions of writers such as Will Self, Sebastian Faulks, Jane Rogers, Fay Weldon and Melvyn Bragg, and compared them to 1948 authors such as George Orwell, Dylan Thomas and Cyril Connolly – authors that were approached in 1946 to answer a post-war questionnaire on the big issue: “How much do you think a writer needs to live on?”Matt has challenged all of us MNW authors to answer Connolly’s questions and he has done so on his blog here.

The following is my attempt to answer the same qustions. I’m going to divide this up into two or three posts because it takes some thought and I’m v. busy on the wip at the moment.

Anyway, Connolly’s questions are in bold type, my answers (in case you hadn’t guessed, are what follows…)

How much do you think a writer needs to live on?
This, surely, is one of those ‘how long is a piece of string?’ questions. How much does anyone need to live on? it depends where you live, whether you own (or whether the bank/building society owns) your own house and how many, if any, dependents you have. Also, whether you are lucky enough to have somebody who is prepared to share, or even take on the bulk, of providing for the family.
The Other Half and I believe that two people working full time is a recipe for a stressed family/nervous breakdown/a lot of money expended in getting your house cleaned, your ironing done etc.
So, insofar as we have been able to afford it, one of us has always worked part time. For the last few years it has been me. Prior to MNW offering to publish Testament, I was working half-time as an independent Speech and Language Therapist in schools. This was both more lucrative and considerably less stressful than working for the NHS. When MNW made my day (week, month, year, life…) in January 2007 by saying that they would like to publish my book, we looked at my writing time and decided, as from September 2007, I would cut down my working time to one day’s consultancy a week and write the other four days. This keeps a certain amount of money coming in to save for holidays, the boys’ university fund, keeping two cars going (with three, about to be four, drivers in the house, two cars doesn’t seem too many) funding the boys’ musical and ultimate frisbee aspirations etc). But, essentially, I, the boys and my writing exist thanks to the full time work of the Other Half.
If I was on my own with the Ultimate Frisbee Freak and the Bassist I would have to work full time and writing would be next to impossible.
All this is a roundabout answer…
But there is no easy answer to this question. Every family needs to work out what its own needs are. We don’t go much for foreign holidays in our family but we do think it’s important that the boys don’t leave university with huge debts. We don’t spend much on clothes but we do think that driving is a life skill so we’re prepared to put our money into keeping a second car which the boys monopolise. Etc.
Suffice it to say that my writing would not – in any way - keep us in this lifestyle.

Do you think a serious writer can earn this sum by his writing and if so, how?
See previous answer.
However, Testament was only published in January of this year, so I’m not sure how much I’m going to make from it yet. It goes into paperback next January but, so far, royalties have amounted to just over eight quid as the March royalty cheque only covered sales made before Jan 1st. As the book came out on Jan 18th, you may imagine (and you’d be correct) that sales were not great before this date. In fact I’m surprised there were any.
However, the royalty cheque due in September will be a different kettle of fish, covering sales up to the end of June 08. As German and Spanish language rights have been sold, just the proceeds from this will (over time) compensate almost entirely for the one and a half days’ work I have given up to writing this year. Then there’s the money which will accrue from actual sales of the book. September should be reasonable. But then I’m expecting very little next March as, between June and the end of December, there will be very few sales given that the hardback is selling out and the paperback is only due to be published in January 09.
As this will indicate, quite apart from how much writers earn from their wriiting, there’s the whole sporadic nature of the earnings. I’m sure, over time, if one gets the books out quickly enough and they stay in print, these things will even out but, at the early stages when one is likely only to have an income from one – or at most two – books, things could be considerably more hand-to-mouth if one was trying to live on the proceeds.

More along the lines of the following, in a day or two. Those of you who are also writers might like to answer the questions on your own blog. The remainder follow below.

If not, what do you think is a suitable second occupation for him?

Do you think literature suffers from the diversion of a writer’s energy into other employments or is enriched by it?

Do you think the state or any other institution should do more for writers?

Are you satisfied with your own solution of the problem and have you any specific advice to give young people who wish to earn their living by writing?


Akasha Savage said...

Your blog made interesting reading Alis. When you think of how long (years!)it takes to write a book, the payment in return is just peanuts - unless you're the likes of J K Rowling. We must do it for love (or out of madness!).
Hope all's going well with your wip.

Alis said...

Hi Akasha! Yes, if any aspiring writer has aspirations to do more than see their book in print they're probably going to be disappointed. The hourly rate is WAY below the minimum wage!
The wip is coming along nicely, thanks for asking.