Saturday 21 January 2012

How Writers Earn Money

At what point should writers be paid? Do they qualify for the job like a doctor or a teacher does, after a lengthy apprentice and is part of what they are paid for all those years of training?

Parallels with other professions

I used to be a language teacher and it looked to many as if I worked 9.00 until 3.30 39 weeks a year.  Of course, that isn’t really true: teaching weeks tended to involve 52 hours’ work and some work carried on during the holidays. I had to keep my languages up also. This meant going abroad and reading books and watching films in other languages. Or were those leisure activities? Did it ever really stop?
It is similar for me now as a writer. Is reading work? Or thinking about my plot and characters as I drive, cook or iron? Or perhaps watching and critiquing TV dramas?
Or are we rather like those who work in the catering and beauty industries? The basic wage (the advance or the fee) is very small so we rely on tips to bolster our income (royalties, PLR and ALCS payments, and revenue from advertising)?

Content cannot be free

One of my books has been downloaded several thousand times from a site that is displaying it illegally. It’s getting good reviews, mind. My publisher has requested its removal twice. It has been removed but up it has popped again. I’d be at least £2000 better off if those people who had downloaded it had bought a copy of the book or borrowed it from the library. There is still the impression that if something is available electronically it should be free.
No guys, people who write, produce music and make films, need to eat, be clothed and be sheltered.  They also need some money in order to be able to carry on producing content.
But for goodness sake, IT people, shouldn’t it be the easiest thing in the world to be fair to everyone? Charge a low rate for the content – there are fewer overheads, no stock to carry or ship - yet pay enough so that the years of experience and hours of work are rewarded – including those of the IT experts?


Writers often do other things to keep the cash flowing. Here are a few examples:
  • Offer  readings. Again there is a strong parallel here with the music industry; the live performance is a type of value-added commodity
  • Edit others And why not? It’s hard, perhaps impossible, to edit yourself.
  • Teach creative writing - hopefully because they have something to offer and not because “those who can’t, teach”. In fact, most people who teach creative writing accelerate their own learning as they teach. There is, anyway, a sort of obligation for those who can to pass it on.
The point is, even those who are recognised as writers who produce something worth reading often have to supplement what they earn directly from their writing by earning something from extra activities.

Who should write?

Anyone who writes is a writer. Only the very best, so it seems, however, are allowed to earn purely from writing. And many who eventually do serve that long apprenticeship. Charles Dickens, Louisa May Alcott, and more recently David Almond and Philip Pullman, worked as jobbing writers before they found the big time. J K Rowling may seem to have struck gold at the first attempt but she had a long creative development and a few hard knocks first. 
The Dutch offering state benefits to any artist who has sold anything in the last five years and the Irish exempting writers from tax recognise this a little.
It is hard, but anyone who truly wants to get there can, if that person perseveres. But it’s a big if. It is certainly not easy. We have to pass the gatekeepers. It’s probably going to be a little easier if you have some talent and a heck of a lot of self-discipline.

Who are the gatekeepers?

If you are published traditionally, then agents and editors are quite significant. Then come the booksellers, the reviewers and the general public.
Anyone can self-publish directly to the Internet. Then the popularity of the writer can have an influence on what is read and what is liked. We all become gatekeepers as we select, recommend and comment. The writers themselves play a role as they ensure a fine balance between maintaining visibility and overloading others with information about their texts.    

Can it be done?

Get it all right and eventually you may be allowed to spend your time writing and doing activities related to it. Pass all of the gatekeepers and you may even eventually earn enough that you do the secondary activities out of a sense of moral obligation rather than because you need the money.
Above all else, you must, of course, write brilliantly.     


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