Make Money As An Author: Die Young
Seriously, they’ll be able to republish your first novel while people are feeling sorry for you. It’ll be a good career move.
It’s a long-standing maxim that while ‘no man except a blockhead ever wrote except for money’ (cf. Samuel Johnson), no-one can really make a living doing it.
The traditional answer to that statement is ‘Look at JK Rowling’, to which I’d answer ‘Look at all the better writers who are broke’, but that’s missing the point. Writing can pay if you’ve been asked to hack out a One Direction biography or write a Minecraft manual, but you still have to produce a lot of rubbish at high volume to make good money. I have a friend who can write four books a month, usually guides to TV shows or video games, and barely keeps his head above water.
What’s changed is that authors are now earning a third less than they did in 2005. In a survey of 2,500 professional writers (no-one asked me, disappointingly), the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society showed that our average salary last year was just £11,000, lower than the amount needed to live on. Speaking for myself, I usually work a six-day week, starting at around 5:00am or 6:00am, often until 10:00pm. Weekends don’t really exist. Discounts on Amazon have cut income, libraries and bookshops are closing, ebooks are sold cheap or given away, but the main drop in financial status is due to the browsing pad winning out over the longform novel.
There have been other developments; we write for free online and largely handle our own PR. If you’re rubbish at networking, as I am, you don’t get commissions. If you don’t chime exactly with current tastes, then as my saintly grandmother would have said, you’re fucked.
There’s a surprising amount of resentment from other people in this job. When a cabbie asked me what I did and I told him, he said, ‘Yeah, I’ve been meaning to write a book too, but I haven’t had the time.’ It’s not finger-painting or making raffia baskets, it’s a living like being an engineer or a chemist, but you find yourself forever defending it.
KENNETH WILLIAMS:’I suppose you’ve made your pile, haven’t you?’
TONY HANCOCK: (Wearily) ‘Oh yes, no need to work again for a fortnight.’
Generally speaking, when another author is successful I feel thrilled that one of us made it to the top. In my experience we’re rarely vindictive. Rather, I get angry on behalf of other people. At the moment I’m particularly annoyed about Anthony Horowitz, whose disappointing Sherlock Holmes novel ‘The House of Silk’ has encouraged him to hold a lavish secret launch for his follow-up ‘Moriarty’. Holmes expert Kim Newman already wrote a massive, superb novel called ‘Moriarty’ just four years ago – but he’s an ‘authors’ author’, a specialist whose books give great pleasure to the knowledgable, and Horowitz has his eye on the mainstream novice reader.
So, the argument runs, ‘Why don’t you write a bestseller? Just dumb down.’ Sadly it doesn’t work like that, and I generally find that good writers attract different audiences to bad ones. Sam Anderson’s hilarious article on ‘The Millions’ website here treats Dan Brown books to handwritten editing, turning them from jaw-dropping dross into witty artefacts. Being rude about Dan Brown’s prose isn’t like shooting fish in a barrel, more like hitting a starfish with a hammer. It’s simply too easy to really be fun.
The Rowlings and Browns of the world probably skew authors’ wage figures, which means most of us actually earn less. But to amend the Johnson tenet, ‘no man or woman except a blockhead ever considered giving up and doing something else’. We do, all the time. History is littered with authors who abandoned their careers because they needed to feed themselves.
Creative people are often reminded how lucky they are by those who work in offices. Actually, we work in offices too, and often in more than one at a time – for well over a quarter of a century I had a day job as well. The secret of survival as a writer is to mutate constantly.
Traditionally, conservative governments do three things; they favour business interests, try to destroy the NHS and underfund the arts. It’s a cycle. Nothing has really changed. Like anybody else, we can only work to improve matters in our limited fields of expertise. I’ve missed my chance to die young, so I’ll work on writing something you’ll like instead.