This Is My 30th Anniversary As A Writer!
An article in the London Times by James Marriot this morning gets the day off to a depressing start. It was inspired by the fact – long known to us authors – that the average writer earns less than minimum wage. Earnings for professional writers have fallen by a staggering 42% since 2005, just as publishers are growing (in 2006 alone UK book sales shot up 7%). Yes, we’re being exploited but it’s a buyers market.
There are too many of us in fiction. If you write ‘down’ – ie. make it simple and unoriginal, you’re more likely to attract a publisher than if you write something fresh. Or perhaps you’re simply a bad writer with a good line in opening chapters. In every article like this the usual multi-millionaire writers are trotted out from Rowling to Patterson to Archer. Even Paula Hawkins, whose ‘The Girl on the Train’, a novel which can brighten any bookshelf simply by being removed from it, gets in there with £15 million.
Sebastian Faulks suggests that rather than attempt a literary novel you should go into banking, soft furnishings or selling printer ink. A handful of fiction writers debut each year with a mega-contract. This is a loss leader from the publishing house to create excitement, and has little to do with quality of writing.
Marriot does have an excellent to-do list for writers; unfortunately I appear to have tried them all.
Auction yourself. My excited agent did that with my novel ‘Plastic’ and we didn’t get a single bidder.
Be marketable ie. halfway presentable, able to speak in public without drooling or mumbling. I do that, sometimes quite well.
Write the book you want to read. I always do that as I refuse to take on commissions. Whether the public wants to read it is another matter.
Go for the zeitgeist. Did that with at least four books.
Sell the film rights. Done that many times, nothing got made.
Write a memoir. Did two of those.
Start reviewing. Did that for donkey’s years.
While books are selling more, reading about them has all but died out, so writers can no longer make a living reviewing – it’s punishing work that pays £40-£60 a review. You get two a month, which you first whittle down from 20, and have to read the books (obviously), analyse them and then write about them. Magazines used to pay for short stories. That outlet vanished with the arrival of digital editions.
In fact, only 11% of writers can earn enough to make a living from their work. The literary life, argues Marriot with good reason, is effectively dead.
For nearly the whole of my career I had two jobs, but I’m now a full-time writer. Career novelists are people who’ve been around as long as I have – this year will be the 30th anniversary of my first book, but we’re the last of a generation. From now on writing novels will be a sideline for most.
People often say I’ve been unlucky (one woman told me ‘You must be disappointed that no-one has ever heard of you’) but I think the reverse is true. I’ve been privileged to make it into that final generation of career writers. It hopefully means I keep going. Writing ruins your sight, your social life and your posture, but it’s all worthwhile when a reader takes the trouble to write and say how much a book meant to them.
And that’s why we still write.